Mysterious River.


Detailing the myths and legends of the River Severn from ‘The Fair Lady Avona’ to the ‘Bristol Channel UFO’. The reader will experience a journey of topographic areas and tales from a time immemorial until the present day.

The Fair Lady Avona.

Celtic deities are known from a variety of sources such as written Celtic mythology, ancient places of worship, statues, engravings, religious objects, as well as place and personal names.

Celtic deities can belong to two categories: general deities and local deities. ‘General deities’ were known by the Celts throughout large regions and are the gods and goddesses called upon for protection, healing, luck and honour. The ‘local deities’ that embodied Celtic nature worship were the spirits of a particular feature of the landscape, such as mountains, trees, or rivers and thus were generally only known by the locals in the surrounding area.

In the folklore of the Bristol area, Avona asked Goram and Vincent / Ghyston to drain a lake that stretched from Rownham Hill to Bradford-on-Avon and whoever completed the task first she would offer herself in marriage. On completion of the task, Vincent took Avona’s hand and she gave her name to Vincent’s Avon Gorge and the River Avon which flows into the River Severn, while Goram, his heart broken, hurled himself into the Severn where his head and shoulder can still be seen poking out of the mud as Flat Holm and Steep Holm.

But who was Avona? We know that she appears in the above legend and in variants she is a beautiful giantess from Wiltshire or the goddess of tides and protectress of animals, the divine guardian of the people of Bristol, making her the female personification of the River Avon and possibly a distant memory of an ancient goddess or spirit. Preserved eternal in the gorge that forms the backbone of the city, like a beating heart, her love still surges daily through the land itself. While the ‘Gloucestershire Historical Pageant’ of 1908 contained the narrative chorus styled as the rivers of Gloucestershire – the Thames, Sabrina, Avona and Chelt.

There are many river deities in the British Isles and if Avona is the River Avon as Sabrina is the River Severn, then the word ‘abona’ is of interest because it represents knowledge of the Romano-British river-name deriving from post classical tradition and not from the spelling or the pronunciation in the 14th: century (or even the 6th:). It is thus a conventional latinization and not simply the then-current name written into Latin, which would result in the Avona seen in the Goram and Vincent legend. While the name ‘Avon’ is a cognate of the Welsh word ‘afon’ ‘river’, both being derived from the Common Brittonic ‘abona’, ‘river’.

Perhaps a line from ‘The Poetical Works Of William Somerville’ printed in 1793 still begs the question:

where thro’ the vales the fair Avona glides’

Sabrina, Goddess of the Severn.

The name Severn is thought to derive from a Celtic original name *sabrinnā, of uncertain meaning. That name then developed in different languages to become Sabrina to the Romans, Hafren in Welsh, The Saxons called it Sæfern and Severn in English.

Sabrina is the Celtic Goddess of the River Severn, which flows from its source in Wales through Worcestershire to Gloucestershire and empties into the Bristol Channel and then on into the Celtic Sea.

She appears in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’. The legend of how the Severn got its name begins with Brutus of Troy. He led a band of Trojan exiles to Britain and the land was named for him. On Brutus’s death, the land was divided into four parts and given to his three sons, Locrine, Camber, and Albanact and his good friend Corineus. To cement the alliance, Corineus’s daughter Guendolen was promised to Locrine in marriage. Before they were to be married, Britain was invaded by the Huns and Locrine led the fight against the invaders. A princess named Estrildis was one of those captured and Locrine fell in love with her. He asked Corineus to let him out of his engagement to Guendolen, but Corineus would not hear of it. Locrine married Guendolen, but he had secret rooms built under the castle where he hid Estrildis away. For the next seven years, Locrine continued to see his true love, using the excuse that he was making offerings to the Gods. After a time, Estrildis gave birth to Locrine’s daughter, Hafren.

When Corineus died, Locrine divorced Guendolen, sending her back to her father’s kingdom and acknowledged Estrildis and Hafren as his family. The jilted Guendolen raised an army of her father’s men against Locrine and he was killed in battle. Guendolen ordered that Estrildis and Hafren be thrown into the mighty river that ran through Locrine’s kingdom. She then declared that the river would be henceforth named after Hafren, so that Locrine’s infidelity would be forever remembered. When the Romans invaded, they changed the name to their own version, Sabrina, which means ‘from the boundary’.

Geoffrey of Monmouth also tells the story of three sisters, who were water spirits, meeting on the windswept slopes of Plynlimon – the highest point of the Cambrian Mountains in Wales – to discuss the problem of finding the best way to the sea. The first decided to take the most direct route and headed westward, becoming the River Ystwyth. The second loved the landscape and made her way through hills and valleys, becoming the River Wye. The third decided against shortcuts and took 180 miles to reach the sea passing through many cities and never being far from people. She became the River Severn.

Milton writes of Sabrina in ‘Comus’, in which the water-nymph is conjured and rescues the Lady from her plight because she is pure of heart. As an agent of freedom, Sabrina is seen as powerful, mystical and sympathetic to women who fall victim to a patriarchal system which undervalues and confines them.

The ‘Fountain of Sabrina’ stands on Narrow Quay, Bristol. The fountain depicts Sabrina and three naked boys at the moment of her rebirth from the depths of the river and her transformation into a goddess. She rides on a seashell in the manner of Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’.

Mermaids of the Severn.

In British folklore, mermaids were associated with water, love, marriage, procreation, danger and also wisdom. They probably started out as ‘water spirits’ and had the mermaid label attached later, with Celtic mythology roots. Water being the portal between this world and the other world. They often had long blonde hair. The sea living mermaids had a range of supernatural powers, some could shape shift, if they married a human they became a human. If the mermaid was treated well you would have good luck and they would bring gifts, for example, water for the crops. But if treated badly you would be cursed and they would bring deadly storms and waves which caused destruction and loss of life. Human husbands would live with them for all eternity. Some mermaids lived in the sea and also had farms on land. According to Ruth Tongue, (Folklorist, born 7 February 1898 – died 19 September 1981), the name ‘sea-morgan’ was the Severn Estuary term for green-haired water maidens who lured people out to drown with their songs. Sea-morgan is a direct translation of the Breton ‘mari-morgan’ and as such, the origin of Morgan le Fay may be connected to these Breton myths.

There are many folktales to be found throughout Great Britain and Ireland of mermaids and the often uglier and rougher mermen, who could assume normal human shape. The Norman chapel in Durham Castle, built around 1078, has what is probably the earliest surviving artistic depiction of a mermaid in England. While a ‘wildman’ was described by Ralph of Coggeshall (died 1227) as being caught in a fishnet and was entirely man-like though he liked to eat raw fish and eventually returned to the sea. ‘The Mabinogion’ are the earliest British prose stories. The stories were compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th: – 13th: centuries from earlier oral traditions, although a plausible range of between 1060 to 1200 seems to be the current scholarly consensus. In the Fourth Branch – Math fab Mathonwy’ – it tells of Arianrhod’s son, Dylan ail Don. As soon as Dylan comes in contact with his baptismal waters, he plunges into the sea and takes on characteristics of a sea creature, moving through the seawater as perfectly as any fish. Dylan is a Welsh sea-god and was killed by his uncle and the clamour of the waves dashing upon the beach is the expression of their longing to avenge their son. Perhaps the most popular tale of these isles is ‘The Mermaid of Zennor’, where according to legend, a mermaid came to the Cornish village of Zennor and used to listen to the singing of a chorister, Matthew Trewhella. The two fell in love and Matthew went with the mermaid to her home at Pendour Cove. On summer nights, the lovers can be heard singing together. But, our tales do not concern all the legends of the British Isles, only those of Gloucestershire, Somerset and South Wales within the Severn Estuary / Bristol Channel area.


Many churches in the area depict mermaids from the 14th: century until the 17th: century. St: Mary Magdalene, Baunton in the Cotswolds has a 14th: century wall painting of St: Christopher with a mermaid depicted in it and said to represent ‘Pride’, one of the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’. The monumental brass of Thomas de Berkeley, 5th: Baron Berkeley (died 1417) in the Church of St: Mary the Virgin, Wotton-under-Edge shows the detail of his mermaid livery collar. St: Mary’s Church, Tenby, dating from the 15th: century there is a craving of a mermaid holding a comb and mirror. In Bristol Cathedral, among the fanciful misericord carvings there is a mermaid, carved in 1520. The Church of the Holy Ghost, Crowcombe, in Somerset, has a twin-tailed mermaid (or merman?) carved on a bench-end dated circa 1534 similar to that in Zennor. To further muddle the myths, the Church includes another carving combining the pagan myth of the Green Man with the symbol of two mermen from around the same date. At St: Stephen’s Church, Bristol there is a mermaid and faun on the Martin Pringe / Pring Monument. Pringe died in 1627.

Mermaids and Mermen are rare in Welsh folklore, although Gwenhidw / Gwenhudwy was the Mermaid Queen of Wales, her name means ‘White Enchantment’. In modern stories she owns a herd of white horses that run along the crests of the waves. In older versions of the tale, the foaming waves were her ewes and every ninth wave was the ram of the flock. This conception of the incoming tide is preserved in a 16th: century poem by Rhys Llywd ap Rhys ap Rhicert in which he described a boat trip to the monastic island of Bardsey (Ynys Enlli) from the Lleyn Peninsula. The passage is notoriously choppy and he described the sea as. –

haid o ddefaid Gwenhudwy

a naw hwrdd yn un a hwy’.

(a flock of ewes of Gwenhidwy

and nine rams with them).

While the fairies known as Plant Rhys Ddwfn sometimes appear as mermaids in Pembrokeshire folklore. Some Welsh mermaids befriended and even married humans.

A local story from the early 1800’s tells of a farmer who came across a sea spirit curled up on the rocks at Aberbach Rocks in Pembrokeshire. He managed to get close enough to touch her, carrying her off to Treseissylit Farm where he imprisoned her. That night he awoke to her mournful singing, calling to her fellow people to rescue her. She escaped as a shadow of grey resembling the local seals and pronounced that no child would be born in the farmhouse – a prophecy which held true until the middle of the 20th: century.

* ‘The Sea Morgan’s Baby’. – An oral tale from Somerset, circa 1916. – A fisherman and his wife found a baby sea-morgan under a waterfall at St: Audries Bay, which had been accidentally left behind by her people who had gone from the rocks and into the tide when they heard them coming. His heart was sore for the little daughter he had just left in Watchet churchyard and his wife’s heart was broken. So he picked the baby morgan up and carried it home. His wife could never get the little creature’s hair dry, not even in the sun and hill wind and it always smelt of the sea. They raise the child as their own between them and the baby grows and likes nothing more than to be paddling and dabbling in the spring-pond and the trout stream. But she was marked by her love for water and her constantly wet hair. When the villagers from Doniford and Staple turn on her once they learn what she is, she hears a voice calling her from the ocean and cheerfully returns there. A wave carries her away and she is never seen again.

From Brockweir in the Forest of Dean on the eastern bank of the River Wye comes an early 20th: century folktale where Dick Hulin and his friend Isaac would tell the tale of how they caught a mermaid in their nets while fishing in the River Wye and who had cursed Dick and his descendants when she escaped.

* ‘The Sea-Morgan and the Conger Eels’. – This tale was told to Ruth Tongue in the 1960’s, but there is also another version as we shall see later. In the estuary of the River Severn, the local merfolk – known as sea-morgans – used to entice men out to the quicksands with their bewitching songs, so that the conger eels could have human flesh to eat. In this eternal struggle, the sea would sometimes claim its victims from the land and the land would sometimes claim its victims from the sea: conger eels were, after all, a local delicacy. The morgans of the Severn were eventually defeated by a deaf fisherman who had been born on a Sunday and was the son of a witch. He used his mud sledge and slid his way safely across the quicksands with no distraction from the songs. When the conger eels came, summoned by the singing, he speared so many of them that all the people of Stolford and Steart / Stert, two villages in West Somerset, had conger eel pie to eat for days. The morgans left in sorrow, and were never seen again. – A circular Medieval and / or Post-Medieval conger eel trap which lay east-north-east of Minehead Harbour, visible as a structure, was mapped from aerial photographs taken in 1999 and was found to have been made from beach stones up to 300mm high and 19m: in diameter with a break to the southern side and the remains of a stone heap in the centre.

The same story is told of a deaf man from Churchdown in Gloucestershire which also involves Sabrina the Sea-Morgan and attributed to Wellhouse Rock off Sharpness and now some say that Sabrina returns to the river as the ‘Severn Bore’. She can be seen tickling a fish and dolphin in one of the misericords of Gloucester Cathedral from the 14th: century. While the north porch of St: Bartholomew’s church in Churchdown, which dates back to the 12th: century, has a mermaid, with her square mirror and double-sided comb in the doorway. She is a crude figure and was first mentioned by GG. Coulton who noted two letters, ‘I’ and ‘B’, on either side of the figure. He stated at the ‘Proceedings of the Cambridgeshire Antiquarian Society, (26 October 1914 – 24 May 1915)’.

The mermaid, if the letters belong to it, must be post-medieval’.

The figure was also mentioned by Doris Jones-Baker in her article ‘The Graffiti of Folk Motifs in Cotswold Churches’.

Modern critics have voiced doubts about the unique creatures and distinctive style found only in Tongue’s works and have raised the possibility that she fabricated stories and borrowed material from other books and so, the Wellhouse Rock mermaid could be the older of the two versions.

But, Sabrina is no mere mermaid, she is the tutelary goddess of the River Severn. While Nodens, a Celtic god associated with healing, the sea, hunting and dogs, is also said to ride a seahorse on the crest of the ‘Severn Bore’.

The two worlds are out of kilter now, we dredge and trawl the land beneath the waves and over-fish the waters and we no longer hear the mermaids sing.

Lundy Giants.

Lundy, which is off the coast of Devon, is about three miles long and 0.6 of a mile wide and has had a long and turbulent history, frequently changing hands between the British crown and various usurpers. The name ‘Lund-ey’ is Norse for ‘Puffin Island’ and gets a mention in the famous 12th: century ‘Orkneyinga Saga’. While being associated with a race of giants, the Island is also said to be an entry point to the Celtic underworld and connections with various saints including the Welsh St: Elen, St: Patrick and St: Nectan of Hartland. It also forms part of a Lunation Triangle which includes Preseli – the location of the bluestone site – and Stonehenge, the exact north-south and east-west lines complete a right angled triangle via Lundy and Caldey Island. In Old Welsh, Lundy is called Ynys Elen, the ‘island of the elbow, or right-angle’.

During harvest time in 1851 islanders on Lundy digging foundations for the wall of the rickyard, came upon a pair of granite coffins, 2 feet underground, each covered with a large slab, one of them was said to have been ten feet long and the other eight. When these sarcophagi were opened, the excavators found the skeletons of two eight feet tall humans, seven other skeletons of normal stature and other assorted human bones. Either in the coffins themselves or beside them were found some pale blue glass and copper beads and some fragments of pottery. The larger grave was provided with a lump or pillow of granite, hollowed out for the reception of the head of the gigantic skeleton which lay within. The feet rested on another block and measured 8ft: 5in: and male. The smaller cist, which also contained a skeleton, was 8ft: long and that of a woman, differed from the other in having no head or foot rest. Both were covered with a pile of limpet shells. Close by seven other skeletons were discovered, but these were of ordinary stature and buried without stone coverings, with their heads to the West. At the end of the line lay a great quantity of the bones of men, women and children, which were buried in one common grave – precluding the idea of being the slain in battle, but rather the indiscriminate slaughter of an entire population. The remains were buried again, but damaged by the workmen in doing so.

The date attributed to the beads and also the graves, is anywhere from Roman times to the 14th: century. The beads were apparently sent to Bristol Museum but there seems to be no record of what happened to the human remains. The glass beads (variously attributed to Early Iron Age, Roman or Viking period by the British Museum in 1925, and to ninth-century Danish origin by Bristol Museum in 1960). While the red pottery, now also lost, may have been Samian ware – normally used only to refer to the sub-class of terra sigillata made in ancient Gaul. But what of the two larger skeletons? Are they from the Celtic period and did the Celts produce such giants as the pair interred in the stone coffins? Or are they the bones of Hubba the Dane? – (Ubba), probably died 878 was a ninth-century Viking and one of the commanders of the Great Army that invaded Anglo-Saxon England in the 860’s. – The proportions are certainly rather Scandinavian than Celtic and undoubtedly, it was the custom of the Danes to remove their more honoured dead, with Lundy being the nearest point to which the defeated army and ships could retreat after their bloody battle near Appledore.

In 1928 and 1933 two separate attempts were made to re-discover the Giants’ Graves. These were unsuccessful in that no cist structure was found, though more individual burials were revealed and these appeared to be dated by coins and pottery to the 15th: century. In the 1960’s, two sites of relevance were discovered, a rock-cut ditch associated with occupation material of the mid 12th: century and possibly the site referred to in the ‘Orkneyinga Saga’ as a ‘stronghold ‘ to which Sweyn Asleifsson (c. 1115 – 1171) pursued Hold of Bretland unsuccessfully. This was sea led by a massive 6ft: 5in: thick wall, ostensibly part of the 13th: century stronghold of the documented Marisco family.

Here Be Dragons.

Beowulf’ is the oldest extant heroic poem in English and the first to present a dragon slayer. The legend of the dragon-slayer already existed in Norse sagas such as the tale of ‘Sigurd and Fafnir’ and the ‘Beowulf’ poet incorporates motifs and themes common to dragon-lore in the poem.

A slave steals a golden cup from the lair of a dragon at Earnanæs (a location in Southern Sweden). When the dragon sees that the cup has been stolen, it leaves its cave in a rage, burning everything in sight. Beowulf and his warriors come to fight the dragon, but Beowulf tells his men that he will fight the dragon alone and that they should wait on the barrow. Beowulf descends to do battle with the dragon, but finds himself outmatched. His men, upon seeing this and fearing for their lives, retreat into the woods. One of his men, Wiglaf, however, in great distress at Beowulf’s plight, comes to his aid. The two slay the dragon, but Beowulf is mortally wounded. After Beowulf dies, Wiglaf remains by his side, grief-stricken. When the rest of the men finally return, Wiglaf bitterly admonishes them, blaming their cowardice for Beowulf’s death. Beowulf is ritually burned on a great pyre in Geatland (Götaland) while his people wail and mourn him, fearing that without him, the Geats are defenceless against attacks from surrounding tribes’. – ‘Beowulf’, lines 2712 – 3182.

JRR. Tolkien also used the dragon story of Beowulf’ as a template for Smaug in ‘The Hobbit’.

The oldest account of the legend of the Deerhurst Dragon is contained within the pages of ‘The Ancient and Present State of Gloucestershire’ by Sir Robert Atkyns. The account was written towards the end of the 1600’s but unfortunately Sir Robert gives no idea of how old the legend was at that time:

There lived in the vicinity of Deerhurst a serpent of prodigious bigness. It poisoned the people and the cattle and ravaged the land. The King issued a decree to the effect that whoever could rid the land of this menace would receive a grant of land, the estate of Walton Hill. The task was undertaken by one John Smith, a labouring man. He went to the serpent’s favourite place where he found the beast asleep in the sun. With a mighty blow of his axe he cleaved the head of the serpent from its body. So ridding the land of the beast forever’.

At the time Atkyns was writing he tells us that descendants of John Smith were still living on land at Walton Hill and indeed that the axe itself was in the possession of the widower of one of those descendants. However, no further evidence exists to support the legend. We cannot date it, no record of the grant of land is forthcoming and there is no sign of the axe.

The serpent first slithered out of the nearby River Severn. Was this a parable about Viking raiders, coming up the Severn on dragon-prowed longships? Perhaps defeated by Saxon warriors wielding their two handed axes? The priory was raided by the Vikings and just a little distance away is Odda’s Chapel, once part of a royal palace complex which Earl Odda a Saxon nobleman had built for the benefit of the soul of his brother Ælfric, who died on 22 December 1053. Ealdred, Bishop of Worcester consecrated it on 12 April 1056: could the dragon story have originated around the fire in the great hall there, told by a bard in return for his supper? Perhaps it stretches the imagination further, but another local link can be suggested: Edmund Ironside and Canute signed their treaty in 1016 at Deerhurst. This settled the wars in England for a time, dividing the country between them (Edmund dying mysteriously young and suddenly only shortly afterwards). Could the dragon tale be a parable of the settlement, the Norse dragon lulled into lethargy by the Saxon king?

St: Mary’s Priory Church is one of the most intriguing and architecturally fascinating Saxon churches still in existence and has many dragon carvings along with snarling wolves. Wolves were both revered and reviled during the Anglo Saxon era, a curious paradox where the animal was held up symbolically as a noble and wise beast but practically as a bringer of death and a constant threat to livestock.

A similar tale, ‘The Coombe Hill Drake’, comes from around the 15th: century, in the hamlet of Coombe Hill, Gloucestershire, where there was talk of a large sea serpent. A long time ago a large sea serpent – possibly a Knucker Dragon, which was a type of water dragon that lived in damp, wet environments – came up the River Severn and settled on the riverbank at Coombe Hill. At first it only hunted sheep and chickens, but soon tired of this diet started preying on children and milkmaids. Before long, the villagers were all in fear of their lives and many left. A local lad called Tom Smith started leaving food out for the serpent and by doing so the monster gradually came to trust him, to the point where Smith was able to feed it by hand. One day, whilst feeding the beast a large marrowbone, he took his axe and smashed it on the head killing it instantly.

Are the Deerhurst Dragon and the Coombe Hill Drake one of the same? Deerhurst and Coombe Hill are approximately 2.8 miles away from each other and both slayers have the same surname of Smith and use an axe to kill their prey. The story of a hero slaying a giant serpent occurs in nearly every Indo-European mythology. In most stories, the hero is some kind of thunder-god – In folklore, axes were sometimes believed to be thunderbolts and were used to guard buildings against lightning. In Celtic mythology, Taranis is depicted with a wheel and thunderbolt. – In nearly every iteration of the story, the serpent is either multi-headed or ‘multiple’ in some other way. Furthermore, in nearly every story, the serpent is always somehow associated with water. Or, perhaps the storyteller was relating a long forgotten battle between Saxon and Viking.

According to historians we now know that in 877AD, Vikings camped in Gloucester for the winter under Guthrum. While in 894AD a band of Vikings sailed up the River Severn and fought a bloody battle at Minchinhampton (this may be the product of an over fertile antiquarian imagination) against King Alfred the Great and the Saxons. There has always been a story that there was a battle in Cambridge in 894AD which the Saxons won, where three Viking princes were killed and the fighting could have ranged over a wide area of the Berkeley Vale and also there is a strong case for stating that the Vikings made camp, possibly on the River Cam, when they made a big assault up the River Severn to the Midlands. The name Heslinbruge has appeared as an early name for Slimbridge and was commonly used by the Vikings when they built a stone pass, usually not much more that 300 metres from where their boats were moored, to their campsite.

She Shows No Mercy!

Over the years the River Severn has claimed many lives. But has also provided for the people with food, energy, recreation, transportation routes and water for irrigation and for drinking. She is one of ‘The Three Sisters Of Plynlimon’ – Ystwyth, Hafren and Gwy, rising from a peat bog in the Cambrian Mountains. In Celtic Mythology they were the Niskai, who desired to visit the ocean and to explore the mysterious region of the Celtic Sea and the wonders that lay beyond. Hafren was also a legendary British princess who was drowned in the River Severn.

But both her selfe, and eke her daughter deare,

Begotten by her kingly Paramoure,

The faire Sabrina almost dead with feare,

She there attached, farre from all succoure;

The one she slew in that impatient stoure,

But the sad virgin innocent of all,

Adowne the rolling riuer she did poure,

Which of her name now Seuerne men do call:

Such was the end, that to disloyall loue did fall’.

From ‘The Faerie Queene. Book II. Cant. X’. By Edmund Spencer, first published in 1590.

Of the other two sisters / rivers, Vaga is the Celtic goddess of the River Wye, the ‘Awakener of Truth’, while the River Ystwyth gave her name to the town of Aberystwyth in Ceredigion.

From the ancient Welsh book, ‘The Mabinogion’, comes the tale of a Cornish relative of King Arthur who tried to kill a wild boar which escaped across the Bristol Channel to Wales. Apparently, the story reflects the booming trade across the Severn Estuary when Gwent was famous for exporting wheat and honey, with a major iron-age trading port in the Sudbrook area. Archaeologists highlight the similarity of the remains of forts and stone circles from this period on both sides of the estuary. Immigrant Celts had crossed the river and installed their culture on the South Wales levels, trading and associating with their neighbours on the English side more than with the inland Welsh, as river travel was much easier that overland travel.

* ‘The Romans and The Noose’. – The Noose is a notoriously perilous stretch of the River Severn and is where the Severn Bore starts and can reach a height of 25 feet and surge 14 miles upriver at a speed of 15 knots.

Around 46AD, the Roman army, reputedly the 2nd: Augustan legion under the command of Aulus Plautius, first Governor of Britain, attempted to cross the Severn in their campaign to capture Caractacus, a British chieftain of the Trinovantes tribe. The ‘guerilla’ leader had escaped into the west and was leading the warlike Silures, a powerful and tribal confederation of ancient Britain, occupying what is now South-east Wales and some adjoining areas under the control of the Druids who were being forced to flee the Roman genocide against their caste. The legend says that the Druids were assembled with a vast band of ancient Britons on the west bank of the river, directly offshore from Awre near a large sandbank known as The Noose. Here the river is over a mile wide surrounded by two shifting narrow channels. It was low tide and the Roman army was goaded by the wild dancing of the British to engage in battle. The army comprised armoured foot soldiers and cavalry, who quickly crossed the small channel of the eastern bank.

When the army reached the far side of the Noose and as the Druids chanted to the river goddess Sabrina, the Romans were horrified to see the river sweeping up the western channel in the flood tide. Unable to cross they retreated back across the sands, but on reaching the eastern side their retreat was now cut off by the tide flowing back down and around The Noose to meet the flood tide still moving up the eastern channel.

As the army struggled to get to the east bank the soldiers and horses became trapped on the sand, as the bore tide swept across The Noose. Legend says that, in their panic, the army was totally drowned in front of the eyes of the Roman general and his standard bearers on the eastern bank.

The Druids had triumphed over the might of Rome and most importantly, the warrior goddess, Sabrina, was embued with a power beyond all things. The River Severn became viewed as a mighty natural obstacle by the Romans and marked the western frontier of their empire for fifty years.

Caratacus resisted the Romans for almost a decade, mixing guerrilla warfare with set-piece battles, but was unsuccessful in the latter. After his final defeat he fled North to the territory of Queen Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes, a Celtic people living in what is now Northern England, who captured him and handed him over to the Romans. He was sentenced to death as a military prisoner, but made a speech before his execution that persuaded the Emperor Claudius to spare him.

* ‘The English Stones’. – The English Stones are a rocky outcrop in the Severn Estuary between Caldicot and Severn Beach. The river itself, at 220 miles long, is the longest river in Great Britain and has the second largest tidal range in the world – 48 feet and flows into the English Channel. At its estuary it is 5 miles wide. Until Tudor times the Bristol Channel was known as the Severn Sea, and it is still known as this in both Welsh and Cornish (Môr Hafren and Mor Havren respectively, with môr meaning sea). During the highest tides, the rising water is funnelled up the Severn Estuary into a wave that travels rapidly upstream against the river current. The largest bores occur in spring, but smaller ones can be seen throughout the year. The bore is accompanied by a rapid rise in water level which continues for about one and a half hours after the bore has passed. The name Severn is thought to derive from a British sabrinā, possibly from an older form samarosina, meaning ‘land of summertime fallow’.

There is a tale, often repeated in 19th: century and later guidebooks, that during the English Civil War King Charles was chased across the river from Portskewett: the pursuing Roundheads were drowned after being landed at low tide on the English Stones by the boatmen, after which Cromwell ordered the ferries to cease operation. This story originated in a deposition given by Giles Gilbert of Shirenewton during the course of a 1720’s legal case regarding rights to operate the ferry and which was later printed by William Coxe in his 1801 ‘Historical Tour of Monmouthshire’. While Gilbert claimed to be ‘credibly informed’ that a group of Parliamentarian soldiers had perished while pursuing the King, another witness in the same legal case gave evidence that the incident had in fact involved a group of twelve Royalists who ‘in haste to pass’ in November 1644 had forced the boatmen to take them across at low tide. The antiquary Octavius Morgan, on investigating these stories, found that the ‘Iter Carolinum’ and ‘The Diary of Richard Symonds’ proved that Charles had intended to use the Black Rock crossing to reach Bristol on 24 July 1645, but had been dissuaded. Morgan however noted a contemporary report that Charles had a ‘narrow escape of being taken near the Black Rock’ in July 1645 and suggested that some of Charles’s party had crossed the Passage on the evening of 24 July ‘probably sent purposely to mislead the enemy and the result was death by drowning of the pursuers’. – Black Rock, Portskewett was an important crossing point of the River Severn for many centuries and was in constant use throughout the Roman period, on the route between Aquae Sulis (Bath) and Venta Silurum (Caerwent).

The Bristol Channel floods of 30 January 1607 drowned many people and destroyed a large amount of farmland and livestock, wrecking the local economy along the coasts of the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary. The known tide heights, probable weather, extent and depth of flooding and coastal flooding elsewhere in the UK on the same day all point to the cause being a storm surge rather than a tsunami. Pamphlets of the 17th: Century depicted the great flood as a destructive and violent event.

Worlebury Hill dominates the landscape with its Iron Age Hillfort and here there is also a fisherman’s cairn named ‘Peak Wina’, also called ‘Picwinnard’, as the fishermen walked by to tend their nets, they would throw stones onto the cairn and wish for a good catch saying, ‘Ina pic winna / Send me a good dinner’. Ina was the King of Wessex (689 – 726) in Saxon times and at the suggestion of Bishop Aldhelm in 705, had a church built at Wells which later became Wells Cathedral and the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ records he had a minster built at Glastonbury, which may refer to an additional building or rebuilding to the monastery already there.

Out spake the captain brave and bold

A merry wight was he

Though London Tower were Michael’s hold

We’ll set Trelawny free

We’ll cross the Tamar, land to land

The Severn is no stay

Then one and all and hand in hand

And who shall bid us nay’.

A verse from ‘The Song of the Western Men’, also known as ‘Trelawny’, a Cornish patriotic song, composed by Louisa T. Clare for lyrics by Robert Stephen Hawker. The poem was first published anonymously in ‘The Royal Devonport Telegraph’ and ‘Plymouth Chronicle’ in September 1826, over 100 years after the events.

The Severn Serpent.

The Severn Serpent or the ‘Sharpness Devil’ is a mythic creature reportedly sighted in the Severn Estuary. The River Severn is the largest river in the UK and has an extreme tidal range. Sightings of the Serpent are recorded at least as far back as 1866.

Writing from Overton, Gower in Wales dated 12 July 1877, Silvanus Beven, FRS, asked his brother if he believed in the sea serpent seen in the Bristol Channel?

For over a century there have been sightings of sea serpents slithering their way through the waters along the Cornish Coast between Rosemullion Head and Toll Point. One was spotted by two fishermen at Gerrans Bay in 1876. Also in that year, a ‘half-mermaid half-whale’ washed up on Porthleven Beach. The ‘Sea Monster’ was found by two boys before villagers came to see the spectacle for themselves.- ‘Plymouth Herald, et al.’ While the last was in 2002 by two seamen near The Manacles off of The Lizard. Dan Matthew and George Vinnicombe say they saw it while in different locations on the same day. – CornwallLive’. The two 1876 Cornish sightings pre-date Bevan’s letter by a year, but are not the earliest. It was reported in the ‘West Briton’ dated 20 October 1837, One of those great serpents . . . . was brought into Mevagissey last week, by a fisherman named John Hicks, which weighed 95 lbs: It is supposed to be the largest ever caught there. Many reports from the 1800’s and earlier may seem rather fanciful describing sea serpents. But, Cornwall may have played a larger part in unravelling the early history of the sea serpent, as it was the first location in the United Kingdom where an oarfish was found at Mounts Bay in February 1791. Even today, ‘Morgawr’ meaning ‘sea giant’ in the Cornish language is still talked about.

A book written by Anthonie Cornelius Oudemans was published in 1892 titled ‘The Great Sea-Serpent. An Historical And Critical Treatise’ which contained 187 appearances and 82 illustrations and was a work of suppositions and suggestions of scientific and non-scientific persons and the author’s conclusions, including the sighting of 1883 which appeared in ‘The Graphic’ on 20 October, where it was seen going down the Bristol Channel towards the Atlantic Ocean.

Ships Log. 9 August 1888’. Captain EB. Hathelford aboard the Kennet writes. – Approaching the Scilly Isles from North-North-West when First Mate Rodgers pointed out what looked to be a long serpentine neck projecting 6 to 7 feet above the water twice with a greasy trail behind it. – A greasy trail is a trait sometimes exhibited by seals and sea-lions.

In 1907, Captain Arthur Rostron – who would later captain the ocean liner RMS Carpathia when it rescued hundreds of survivors from the RMS Titanic after the latter ship sank – aboard the cargo ship Brescia, which served the Mediterranean region wrote that they were heading south of Ireland to the Bristol Channel when a serpent was seen with its neck 8 to 9 feet out of the water, the neck being 12 inches thick.

In the 1930’s there were a number of supposed sightings and a postcard appeared of the creature photographed near Anchor Head, Weston-super-Mare. The photograph was dismissed as a hoax as this was not long after the famous Loch Ness Monster photograph taken by Robert Kenneth Wilson, a London gynaecologist which was first published in the ‘Daily Mail’ on 21 April 1934.. Wilson’s refusal to have his name associated with it, led to it being known as the ‘surgeon’s photograph’. Since 1994, most agree that the ‘surgeon’s photograph’ was an elaborate hoax.


The Severn Serpent off Anchor Head, Weston-super-Mare

In the 1950’s, Mrs: Belmont who resided in an hotel in Weston-super-Mare and prone to sleepwalking mentioned she saw a sea serpent on a misty night.

During July 2010, Gill Pearce took a photograph of what appears to be a long-necked sea creature stalking a shoal of fish 30 yards off Saltern Cove south of Goodrington Sands in Devon. The neck was greenish-brown with a reptile-like head. Reported to the Marine Conservation Society, a spokesperson stated that it looked like a plesiosaur. – ‘Interesting’, (my italics). But at the moment it remains unidentified. Graham Oakley from Paignton also saw the creature in the sea. – ‘We Are South Devon, et al’. In the ‘Codex Boernerianus’ which has been dated to the 9th: century and is currently housed at the University of Dresden in Germany. An Irish scribe describes a pilgrimage to Rome:-

Prepared to be sent to Rome from the seaside by Torbay. May Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, give it safe conduct and not let the false man bear it away. In the fogs of the bay, amid the waves of the sea. Sea walls and sea whirlwinds, sea monsters and mermaids’.

Sylvia who lives in Worle stated that she has seen it on numerous occasions at night which leaves a silvery-grey trail. She also called the sea serpent ‘Morrigan’. In Celtic mythology, sea-serpents were a terrifying creature that reminded people of their mortality and often impending death. The Irish Morrigan (the death aspect of the triple lunar goddess) would often take on the form of a sea-serpent when confronting heroes.

David Barker who swims in the River Severn off of Weston-super-Mare, one day felt something brush against his leg and also mentions seeing a greasy trail.

The most recent widely reported sighting was in April 2019 from Clevedon by Jacky Sheppard and her husband who were outside the Little Harp public house when they saw something looking like the Loch Ness Monster going south in the Bristol Channel from Clevedon Pier to the Marine Lake. Ali Robertson also spotted the monster through her binoculars and stated that it was a large piece of wood in the Bristol Post’. There is a constant supply of debris, trees, et cetera, which comes down river from Gloucester and down the River Wye. The River Severn discharges into the Bristol Channel, which opens into the Celtic Sea and from there into the Atlantic Ocean. Its tidal range of 50 feet – one of the largest in the world – and high winds blowing in the opposite direction to the tides can create lethal conditions causing strange and violent motions, currents.

During February 2021, ‘BBC Radio 4’ broadcast the 45 minute programme ‘In Search Of The Severn Serpent’ by Annamaria Murphy investigating recent sightings of the Sea Serpent in the River Severn.

On 25 February 2021 the decomposed body of a Basking Shark was washed up on Broad Haven South Beach in Pembrokeshire which was confirmed by the Natural History Museum. – ‘WalesOnline’. While back in January 1885 another leviathan of the deep, a common Fin Whale, became stranded near the brick and tile works at Littleton-upon-Severn and the wharf is still known as ‘Whale Wharf’. But this was not the first whale to venture into the River Severn, as in 1849 a Bottlenose Whale was caught at Haw Bridge, near Tirley in Gloucestershire.

As for the Severn Serpent, all evidence of its existence is anecdotal. Why would people believe they have seen a plesiosaur when the most recent bones are 60 million years old? Or is there really something in the water?

The Green Meadows of Enchantment.

Throughout Britain, the Celtic Otherworld has been conceived as a separate country, with its own landscape, rivers, agriculture, buildings and climate. This belief was especially strong in England and Wales during the Middle Ages. Steadily, the fairies’ realm tended to shrink, until they were squeezed into the corners of our world. In some parts of Wales, the idea persisted in a slightly altered form, where the Fairies moved off-shore, to isles scattered around Britain and beneath the waves, so that they remained credible and occasionally visible, but rarely accessible. These lands were called ‘Green Spots of the Floods’ (the abode of the Tylwyth Teg, For more information, see below), ‘Green Meadows of the Sea’ (the Green Fairy islands of Wales), ‘Green Land of Enchantment’ (the name in a fragmentary folksong collected by RL Tongue which sounds similar to ‘The Green Spots Of The Flood’ mentioned by Southey) or ‘Gwerddonau Lion’ (‘Welsh Triads’, a group of related texts in medieval manuscripts). In Celtic mythology, green became a symbol of harmony, growth, abundance, vitality, healing and nature, radiating a feeling of fullness. The Green Man was the God of fertility. A sacred colour. Later, Early Christians banned green because it had been used in pagan ceremonies.

Another such island, ‘The Green Meadows of Enchantment’, is believed to lie in the Bristol Channel, somewhere between Somerset and Pembrokeshire. In the 19th: century, many a sailor returned to port boasting that he had weighed anchor on the Green Meadows which lay out to sea west of Grassholm Island and made merry with the elfin women, or had seen the island suddenly vanish. While some of the people of Milford Haven used to declare that they could sometimes see the ‘Green Islands of the Fairies’ quite distinctly. Strangely, no one could ever find it on a map.

From the ‘Pembroke County Guardian’ of 1 November 1896 comes this report from Captain John Evans. – Once when trending up the Bristol Channel and passing Grassholm Island, in what he had always known as deep water, he was surprised to see to windward of him a large tract of land covered with a beautiful green meadow. It was not, however, above water, but just a few feet below, say two or three, so that the grass waved and swam as the ripple flowed over it, in a way quite delightful to the eye, so that as one watched it made one feel quite drowsy. ‘You know, I have heard old people say there is a floating island off there that some-times rises to the surface, or nearly and then sinks down again fathoms deep, so that no one sees it for years and when nobody expects it comes up again for a while. How it may be, I do not know, but that is what they say’.

A more recent report comes from ‘The Glamorgan Gem’ dated Monday 31 July 2017 under the heading – A mystery ‘island’ off the coast of Porthcawl! – Local photographer Keith E Morgan explained: ‘At about 13.45, a ‘mysterious island’ appeared to rise out of the waters of the Bristol Channel and loom very clear on the horizon to any observer on the seafront of Porthcawl. This materialization did not last long, but the island was also noticed by the coast watchers on duty in the Old Watch Tower and they identified it for me as being the Selworthy Beacon on Bossington Down near Minehead on the Somerset coast. Due to a natural phenomenon, the background of the Somerset coast was lost in the mist and the headland appeared to be isolated and cut off from the mainland, as well as being enlarged by some form of light refraction’.

Is it light refraction that caused a mirage to those ancient mariners and townsfolk?

The Bristol Channel UFO. – A Cover-up?

A more modern mythology concerning the river is that of sightings of UFOs.

On Saturday night, 24. September 2016 at 21.30, Police in Bristol were left baffled after the force’s heat seeking helicopter camera captured what is believed to be a UFO. The round object was spotted while officers were flying 1,000ft: over the Bristol Channel. Confused police said the mystery craft was flying against the wind and was undetected by air traffic control at around 21.30 on the evening in question. – At this point, it must be added that the Police admitted that the clock was wrong by one hour and the correct time was 20.30. – The object, which could not be seen with the normal eye, was captured by thermal cameras and was filmed for just over seven minutes.


Still from the Police helicopter caught on thermal camera over the Bristol Channel

But now, comes a cover up of the whole episode.

A former detective, Gary Haseltine, is calling for a scientific inquiry into what footage caught by the police helicopter actually shows. He has submitted Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to find out more, but says responses so far have not been forthcoming and believes this case is a major UFO event. Journalists have also sent requests to the police to find out all the details of the incident, but have also not received any replies. – This was back in January 2017. It is also believed that the police have not published all the videos and have hid from the public the full record of the meeting of the helicopter with a UFO in the sky over the Bristol Channel.

Nothing was revealed as to what the mysterious craft was and I am surprised by the lack of journalistic investigation regarding this. We know about the smoke, so now it would be nice to be told that the truth is out there.

The following is from the Freedom of Information which Haseltine received sometime later:-

FOI 4096/16

Re: NPAS St Athan ‘UFO’ sighting.

The response states that the audio track to the recording has been withheld. The audio is stated to have consisted of material that could compromise a police operation and which could lead to the identification of named individuals (thus breaching their privacy). These are uncontroversial exemptions and are discussed below.

Appendix to response letter, setting out FOI exemptions applied (two pages).

Section 30 (1) – Sections of footage have been withheld from the responsive material. This is because the video was recorded during the investigation of a crime and to release the whole recording could compromise police operations.

Section 40 (2) – Sections of footage conflict with the provisions of the Data Protection Act (1998). The withheld material contains sufficient information to enable the requester to identify a private individual (either directly or by inference). There is no reason to doubt that these exemptions have been applied in an appropriate way. The responsive material was recorded unexpectedly during an unrelated police operation. Therefore the video and / or audio recording might breach the security of that operation. It might further breach the privacy rights of a suspect or suspects, people who are not relevant to the investigation, or the helicopter crew themselves (since a voice is as much part of a person’s identity as their face or home address).

Since then and following on from Heseltine’s attempts to obtain more information, the Police released the full video footage in June 2021, which lasts around eight minutes and the footage shows the camera changing settings as the Police appear to try to identify the strange phenomena. Heseltine passed the video to retired Police Officer and former helicopter crew member Simon Conquest who provided expert analysis of the video for magazine ‘UFO Truth’. He estimated the object was travelling at around 106 mph and said he believed the object was not a lantern, a bird, a meteor, or a known aircraft. Conquest went on to add that he believes the craft appears to be moving under its own power – leading him to conclude it was either an advanced military test craft or potentially a vehicle of alien origin. At the time, It was reported the object appeared to be flying close to the Hinkley Point B Power Station.

There had also been a report of a silver cigar-shaped UFO hovering over the Bristol Channel during May 2020, but this is clearly distortion from the atmosphere, as six ships were anchored in the Channel as oil traders were being forced to store a record amount of oil offshore in container ships due to the market turbulence at the time.

So, now we know. Or perhaps. We will never know.



© Stewart Guy. 2023.

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