It’s a pity the Oliver Cromwell will sail no more, for she’s one of the few paddle-wheelers on British waters. She wasn’t originally built as a paddle-boat, but converted from a Dutch barge in 1990, for multi-day river cruises up the Severn from Gloucester.
Now, England isn’t exactly the first country that comes to mind when taking about river cruising The Severn is only about 220 miles long, and only navigable by larger vessels as far as Stourport, in Worcestershire. It can’t really be claimed as the longest river in England, as much of it is in Wales. But, it can safely be claimed as the longest river in Britain.
Sadly, some years ago, it was found that the cost of the inspections required to renew the Oliver Cromwell’s passenger licenses made the cruising business unprofitable so she remains moored at Alexandra Quay in Gloucester Docks as a floating hotel and restaurant.
Her owners, English Holiday Cruises, replaced her in 2000 with the Edward Elgar, an 80-tonne vessel with a length of 88 feet, which was purpose-built for cruising on the Severn. She can accommodate 22 passengers, and is the largest inland cruise boat which can provide overnight accommodation in the United Kingdom.
I recently took a short cruise on her along the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal. Since the Severn Estuary is tidal, and therefore not always available to larger shipping, it was by-passed by the canal. Ships would sail into it through the Sharpness Lock, to be man-hauled up to Gloucester.
They did, eventually, use draught horses for this task, but only after considerable opposition from the haulage gangs who had to seek work elsewhere.
Since the Gloucester and Sharpness was a ship canal, it’s much wider than the usual English narrow-boat canal, and therefore presents no obstacle to the 18-foot-wide Edward Elgar. Neither are there any locks, except at either end of the canal. There are swing bridges, but these are operated by professional bridge-keepers. Indeed, each bridge has a notice threatening dire penalties for unauthorised people attempting to operate it.
Close to the canal is the world-famous Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s reserve at Slimbridge, founded by the well-known naturalist Sir Peter Scott, the son of the polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott. Here, a vast variety of waterbirds can be seen. Some of them are permanent residents of the reserve; others are migrants, free to come and go as they please.
But, however far they travel, they usually come back to the Severn Estuary and Slimbridge, for they realise that, to preserve the birds, they must also preserve the wetland habitat in which they thrive.
We spent the evening moored at Purton, a short distance from the canal’s terminus at Sharpness. The Severn runs really close to the canal at this point, and erosion of the river bank threatened the integrity of the canal. So, as a preventative measure, the authorities built a sea-wall … but not from traditional building materials. They beached several redundant ships and barges which, gradually, got encroached upon by the bank itself. But, the ships aren’t forgotten; they’re still recognisable as boats, and a plaque records the name of each of them. Several individuals and businesses in the area sponsor some of them, too.
Early in the morning, I got off the boat to photograph it at its moorings. But, I forgot to take my key, and no-one else was awake yet, to let me back on board. So, to fill in the time, I took a short walk around the hulks. I’m glad I did, for nothing encapsulates the history of the canal more than the boats which sailed on it.
Disclosure: I cruised on the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal as the guest of English Holiday Cruises (www.englishholidaycruises.co.uk). However, any opinions expressed are mine.