The ‘Purton Hulks’: a ship graveyard on the Severn Estuary, Gloucestershire

It’s been quite a while since I last posted anything here, not for lack of stories or things to say, but rather one of the mental space to do so. In fact, I’m writing a lot at the moment, finishing up a big project at work – a Viking-Age hoard of coins and silver objects (and, yes, it is pretty cool work) – and also a short book about early-medieval coins. So, lots of writing, lots of thinking, just not so much here apart from a weekly Wordless Wednesday photo.

A few weekends ago, though, on a cold and sunny Sunday morning I took a trip with a friend, Matt, to visit somewhere I’ve wanted to go for ages, the ‘Purton Hulks’. Lying on a spit of land between the Severn Estuary and the Gloucester–Sharpness canal, it’s a place where dozens of ships and barges were beached from the turn of the 20th century until the mid 1960s to protect the canal from the ravages of the river.

A frost-covered concrete barge on the bank of the Severn Estuary

We’d chosen an almost perfect winter’s day to visit, the sun had not long come up, the soft-frozen ground still covered in frost, and there was no-one else around. The estuary was covered with patches of mist blowing this way and that, shifting what could and couldn’t be seen. It was nearing low tide too with the short, urgent calls of the wading birds drifting over to us from the sandbanks and mudflats. The river channels between were a rush of water being sucked towards the sea as the tide receded. Another wreck out in the river was exposed, left there after it hit a railway bridge crossing the water in the 1960s. The bridge is long gone but the wooden hull sits there as a reminder.

Misty morning on the estuary and the remains of the barge on a sandbank

Purton’s far from main roads and the estuary is around a mile wide so the whole of my focus was on the river, the water and its movement, with no intrusions from traffic or other noise to divert your attention. We watched the scene for a while, drawing cold breaths and drinking much-needed coffee.

Alongside all of this, just off the canal towpath, are the wrecks of 96 vessels, the biggest boat graveyard in Britain. Taken out into the river at high tide, they were beached against the bank where they still sit today along this thin stretch of land between river and canal. They’re mostly barges and trows from the days when the canal was still important commercially, and stopping the erosion of the land between it and the river was paramount. In varying states of decay, some almost entirely buried, others embedded but jutting out into the river mud, their hulls visible. I know little of ship design in the early 20th century but I was surprised to see a large number of concrete-hulled vessels, sitting alongside their wood and metal counterparts. It seemed an incongruous material to use but these concrete boats look to be in a better state of repair than the others and I wondered if these would have been sought out deliberately to re-enforce the bank.

Concrete-hulled barges looking west across the Severn Estuary

Walking along here in the early morning light the place felt like much more than an exercise in pragmatism and cheap engineering. And, these days, I suppose it is. The hulks are looked after by Friends of Purton, they have been investigated by the Nautical Archaeology Society and one barge, the Harriet, is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument as the last remaining example of its type.

The ways of life they represent, the commercial use of the rivers and canals and the large-scale movement of goods around the Severn, canals and the Bristol Channel by water are long gone. These were the main transport routes for coal, stone and other bulk produce in the region. The hulks are one of the most human reminders of that time. The ships were daily life for many people, and there are quite a few little harbours along this stretch of the river where they would have called into. So the histories of the ships are also the history of the river, and each one has its stories to tell before it was run aground. The location of the hulks, in a liminal zone between land and water, next to the otherness of the estuary sparks its own sense of introspection and you can’t help but wonder what these boats meant to people, what their histories can tell us about this part of the region’s past. Scraping the frost from one of the plaques revealed the name of the Severn trow, ‘Edith’.

The bare bones of an old hull

Looking up the details of Edith – although I could find nothing to explain her name – it seems she worked from the Severn down into the Bristol Channel from when she was built in 1901 until her beaching at Purton in 1962. She primarily transported coal but was also involved in a rescue of the crew of a sinking ship and had her fair share of accidents, including crashing into a landing stage at Brean Down in the Bristol Channel during a storm. In a sad post-script to her story she was badly damaged by arsonists in the 1980s. Another ship, the Katherine Ellen, was impounded and eventually beached at Purton after being caught gun-running for the IRA in the 1920s.

I was glad I’d finally gone to see the Purton Hulks and to walk this stretch of the estuary and the canal. I was surprised by quite how poignant I found all of these old wrecks submerged in the bank keeping the canal safe and memories of a now vanished way of life a little brighter. I’ll go again.

Looking north towards Frampton Sand and The Noose

How to get there: Purton is a few miles from the M5 motorway in Gloucestershire, leaving at junction 13 and heading south of the A38 until you see signs to the village. There’s a small car park by the canal in Purton and space on the road here too.