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The River Severn (named "Sabrina" by the Romans) rises on Plynlimon in Wales, and passes through the counties of Powys, Shropshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire before it reaches the sea. The longest river in Great Britain, over 200 miles in length, only a relatively short stretch of about 45 miles actually passes through Worcestershire. In order to relate this stretch to the whole, it is important to have an overall picture of the entire river from its source to the sea. In Worcestershire the course of the Severn runs with little deviation from North to South, giving Worcestershire, as David Lloyd wrote: "... a cohesion which is rare among English counties. Except for the far north-east, which now belongs to Birmingham and which ultimately drains into the North Sea, every part of the county is in the Severn basin". The main tributaries of the Severn are the Stour, Teme and Avon.
On its long journey, the Severn encounters a variety of landscapes, mostly picturesque and very green, at times flowing past cliffs scoured out of sandstone. In its upper reaches the river has cut a winding passage of exaggerated twists and turns, at times bending back on itself almost completely, making it impossible to navigate. Although Daniel Defoe claimed that in past years barges did navigate the upper reaches, this has been proved to have been impossible.) The Severn is now navigable only between Stourport and Gloucester. Due to the contortions of the River Severn, navigation has always been difficult.
The construction in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire , and Worcester and Birmingham Canals, amongst others, had a profound effect on the riverside population, the former being largely responsible for the establishment and growth of Stourport in the transportation of goods. In the past, before the construction of locks, laden boats could be delayed for weeks at a time, in some cases months. However, in a parliamentary act passed in 1842, locks were authorised on the River Severn. Those at Bevere, Diglis, Holt and others were swiftly constructed to speed up the passage of goods. It was at the Tontine Inn in Stourport in fact that protection against river hazards began in the form of the Mutual Insurance Club On either bank there is lush meadowland where farming has been carried on for hundreds of years. The forests lining its banks have provided timber not only for the building of the Severn trows, the flat-bottomed, two-masted, open-sided boats, weighing upwards of 100 tons, but frigates, barges and wherries, as well as the narrowboats worked and lived on by whole families who endured hard and cramped lives aboard as they tried to make ends meet shifting merchandise up and down the rivers and canals.
The trows, built mainly in Ironbridge and operated from Bewdley , were built for transporting coal, china clay, timber, charcoal, salt and many other basic raw materials as well as finished goods such as ironstone, pottery, bricks and machinery the length of the Severn and further. Vast amounts of cargo were sent abroad and much of this was loaded onto seagoing vessels at Bristol . Although capable of travelling under sail, the Severn trows were mostly hauled by gangs of men. The trowmen had to be tough, and were said to be hard-drinking, hence the number of riverside pubs. Handling the trows could be dangerous. Although sturdily built (the "William" was 130 years old when she sank in the 1930s), the low sides could easily ship water causing many boats to sink,and it was not unknown for a cargo of quicklime to be ignited when rough water washed over it.
Stone used in the construction of Worcester Cathedral was said to have been transported from Highley by river, and much later, in 1850, stone was carried by trow as far as Bristol for use in the construction of the Clifton Bridge. Chepstow Bridge, designed by Brunel, was manufactured and its sections transported by trow from Bridgnorth.