I am a freelance writer, living in Bath with my wife and son.
I love my city, and love to live here. I write about Bath a lot, and sometimes about travels in Ireland and France.
Published August 20th 2021
Ships, scenery and a lot of greenery
Exactly one hour and one minute's drive from Bath (45 minutes from Bristol), lies an unusual and very interesting place. It lies at a junction of England and Wales and so is very accessible from anywhere in and around the Costwolds area. Part museum and part river erosion scheme, it offers a peaceful two-mile walk, some quirky scenery and fascination for anybody who has even a passing interest in boats or British history. There is a free carpark directly next to this place, at postcode GL13 9UL.
If you head down to the Severn and Gloucester canal at Purton, you can see something very unusual, and a little strange. It is a ships' graveyard, where the remains of 81 huge river ships have been towed to rest, and these wrecks surface out of the riverbank along the river Severn. At low tide, you can even see the shattered remains of an oil tanker that exploded in 1960 and destroyed a bridge that once spanned the river.
Only the metal, concrete and wooden skeletons of the ships remain, but there is something very atmospheric about discovering the 'hulks', as locals call them, peeping out of the reeds and riverbank. Most of the wrecks are now below the surface of the path, but the top layer is still visible, and there are all manner of industrial remnants to explore and look at. I say look at, because the hulks are visibly decaying, and it could be dangerous to climb them. Furthermore, the river Severn has some of the most dangerous and unpredictable currents and mudflats in the UK, so it is very important to stick to the path as you walk.
This is a very unusual place to visit and offers visitors a weird mix of the industrial and the rural. Photographers will be in their element, with all manner of compositions available, be they bleached struts or wooden spars sticking out of the banks.
Remnants of a ship rudder, driven in to the riverbank
The ships were all dragged to this spot between 1925 and the 1960s, to form a barrier against the river Severn, which eas eroding the canal and putting this essential waterway at risk. All of the boats here had come to the end of their maritime careers when they arrived, and something that surprised me was the number of concrete hulls here. I had no idea that concrete could float!
There are some information boards, and this formidable iron list of boat names, as you walk along the path towards Sharpness docks. Among the many names here is the notorious Kathleen Ellen, which was impounded and scuttled (destroyed), after being captured for allegedly running armaments to the IRA at the beginning of the 20th century.
Some of the ships began their lives during the Second World War, and so are made of wood. At the time, all metals were used to aid the war effort. Although a little bleak to look at, I think the wooden hulks are my favourite to look at, as they make interesting shapes on the horizon.
All that remains of the bridge that once spanned the Severn
An impressive part of the walk, reached as you near Sharpness, is the remnants of a bridge once use as a crossing to the coalfields of Wales. This was a major Industrial transport link until 1960, when two tanker ships carrying oil and petrol ran aground and caught alight. When they severed gas and electricity poles on the bridge, there was a colossal explosion, and the bridge has never been replaced since.
One of several swing bridges at Pulton. This one is just along from the Purton carpark, opposite the church
Visitors will know that they have reached Purton, because they will see a swing bridge (next to a carpark opposite the circular church), with a noticeboard about the hulks. The carpark is free and has space for approximately 20 vehicles.
Although a little isolated to get to, this spot is a very unusual and interesting historical sight to visit and is very serene and peaceful once you get there. It is also relatively easy to find if you follow satnav directions straight to the Purton carpark. In a way, this is an undiscovered gem of a place, which has gone under the radar. Well worth a visit, in my opinion.