The Purton ship graveyard, location and access
On the south bank of the river Severn about 15 miles above the road bridge at the village of Purton is the largest wooden ship graveyard in Great Britain, an area of spectacular disappearing maritime archaeology. From 1909 to the 1960s 81 vessels were beached there to combat erosion threatening the Gloucester and Sharpness canal which runs parallel to the river. So successful was this initiative in turning a zone of erosion into one of deposition that many of the hulks are now entirely buried. Others are indicated by their stem and stern posts or deck ironmongery sticking up in the grass.
The hulks lie to the west of the Berkeley arms, marked as PH on the Ordnance Survey map. They begin at OS map reference SO687046 (Landranger 1:50,000 sheet 162 Gloucester and Forest of Dean area). The road tends to lead one down to the pub but cars are best left further up in the village and the hulks approached from the tow path on the north side of the canal. Parking is very limited, mostly taken up by local cars.
Websites – further access information, accommodation and history
The Friends of Purton have a very well researched, detail packed website including access information, accommodation and vessel history. They have placed attractive, cast iron interpretation plates by each vessel, most helpful as identification would otherwise be difficult if not impossible.
The Friends of Purton website provides links to accommodation and camping, however I camped at Hogsdown Farm Caravan and Camping Park which is not listed. It is a little further away but I would recommend it and Kerry will make you most welcome. It is just off the A38, conveniently between M5 junctions 13 and 14 for Purton. A useful security feature of this site for those away exploring all day is that access is controlled by an electronic gate with a key pad for the entry code.
There are numerous other Purton hulks websites of which the Nautical Archaeology Society is particularly worth a look for the efforts being made to record these vessels before they disappear completely and how you might get involved in this activity.
The accompanying photographs were taken in March 2013. The hulks are in falling apart condition but are all the more interesting for that as it helps to see how they were put together. The two remaining wall like sides of the topsail schooner Dispatch are an example. Besides iron fastenings, oak treenails attach the double skin planking, the oak frames peppered with holes to take them. The Dispatch has particularly elaborate iron shelves for the deck beams (Fell's patent knees). This vessel provides a link with the East Coast of Scotland having been built on the Geddie slips at Kingston, Speymouth. The Friends website provides a wealth of further information. Jim Skelton’s book Speybuilt (1) gives a wonderful picture of the industry and records “A brigantine of 197 tons, the Dispatch although built by Geddie in 1887 was not launched until 1888, for owners in Avoch”. Her dimensions were 90’ 1’’ X 21’ 5’’ X 10’ 3’’. He illustrates the augers used to drill by hand the holes for treenails.
The strength of build of some of the barges is most striking, massive iron hanging knees, lodging knees, deck beams and frames reinforcing the wooden structure. Long abandoned craft and skeletons of iron frames on this open coastline give the area a haunting appearance, especially during winter visits with overcast sky and icy north east wind.
The wooden canal barges, Severn trows and other traders are the main attraction but there is also a number of wartime vintage ferrocement barges and these are naturally in much better condition than the older wooden vessels.
Timing ones visit and other attractions
Apart from the cold and the site’s openness to the north and east, a winter or early spring visit has advantages. The vegetation has died back, there are masses of over wintering waterfowl to be seen, fewer people about and parking is easier. It is also a good time to combine a visit with one to The Wild fowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge just three miles away as the hungry goose flies and it is worth remembering that one is not far from Brunel's ss Great Britain at Bristol.
The foreshore is fine clay like soft alluvial mud so is best visited in dry weather wearing wellies, avoiding spring tides unless one has particular reason for wanting LWS. At low water the wreck of the tanker barge Arkendale H can be seen well out in the river on the Waveridge Sand. This vessel and the tanker barge Wastdale H were lost in collision with the Severn and Wye railway bridge in fog on 25 October 1960 with loss of life from the Wastdale’s burning petrol cargo. The railway bridge was a swing bridge very similar to the one on the Forth at Alloa. It was not repaired and was subsequently demolished. The Friends have placed memorials to the tragedy on both sides of the river, at Lydney and Purton.
Hints for visitors
From the signs on the foreshore footpath (private land, keep to the path, dogs off the lead are liable to be shot etc.), as with other West Country beauty spots, landowners have enough litter dropping, fire lighting, vandalising campers and picnickers leaving gates open to contend with so special care is necessary to keep them on side and continuing to permit access. The hulks themselves have signs of vandalism by fire.
For the cyclist or back packer discrete wild camping is possible at the hulks, a no-man’s-land of comfortable long grass but avoid spring tides and I would suggest pitching late and striking camp early. If travelling by car the commercial camp sites are preferable. One then has facilities and can park near the tent.
Shopping and cycling
There are filling stations on the A38 between M5 junctions 13 and 14 but for shopping one will probably go into Dursley. If visiting Sharpness docks and marina there is a Co-op and Post Office. For cyclists the canal tow path Sharpness – Gloucester is a level scenic wildlife rich route that takes one over parts of the Vale of Berkeley and Vale of Gloucester where there are few roads.
Bringing the hulks alive the book of the Severn trow, is The Last of the Sailing Coasters by Edmund Eglinton (2) who was at sea in them for 15 years. Sailing Craft of the British Isles by Roger Finch (3) has a couple of pages of description of the trow. Schoonerman by Captain Richard England (4) covers the sailing of West Country double topsail schooners in the home trade. East Coast spritsail barges being so much more numerous, more has been written about them and life aboard. Harvey Benham’s Down Tops’l The Story of the East Coast Sailing Barges (5) provides a history. A wider selection of craft is covered in his Last Stronghold of Sail (6). Bob Roberts’ Stories of life aboard Thames sailing barges are very entertaining (7,8&9). Tide Time by A.S. Bennett recounts much of his own spritsail barge experience and includes a short biography of John Waterhouse who spent a lifetime barging (10). Marion Carr’s Call of the Running Tide Girl aloft in the days of trade gives the female barge crew’s perspective (11).
The Purton hulks, a free open air maritime museum, await your visit and the metasearch engine ADDALL can find accompanying reading. This searches around 25 new and second-hand book websites. To support preservation of the hulks, donations can be made to the Friends via their website. Their volunteer efforts optimise use of resources.
1. Speybuilt The story of a forgotten industry, Jim Skelton, published by Mrs W. Skelton, Moray, Innes Road, Garmouth, Morayshire, IV32 7NL, 1994, ISBN 0 9523243 0 X.
2. The Last of the Sailing Coasters, Edmund Eglinton, HMSO London, 1982, ISBN 0 11 290336 3.
3. Sailing Craft of the British Isles, Roger Finch, Collins, 1976, ISBN 0 00 219710 3.
4. Schoonerman, Captain Richard England, Hollis and Carter, 1981, ISBN 0 370 30377 6.
5. Down Tops’l The Story of the East Coast Sailing Barges, Harvey Benham, second edition, revised, 1971, George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd, ISBN 0245 50661 6.
6. Last Stronghold of Sail, The story of the Essex sailing smacks, coasters and barges, Harvey Benham, George G Harrap & Co. Ltd., 1948.
7. Coasting Bargemaster, Bob Roberts, first published 1949 Edward Arnold, published 1984 Mallard reprints, ISBN 0 904623 95 5.
8. Last of the Sailormen, Bob Roberts, Routledge and Keegan Paul, 1960, reprinted 1973, ISBN 0 7100 2042 2.
9. Breeze for a Bargeman, Bob Roberts, Terence Dalton Ltd., first edition 1981, second edition 1990, ISBN 0 86138 007 X.
10. Tide Time, A.S. Bennett, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1949.
11. Call of the Running Tide, Girl aloft in the days of trade, Marion Carr, Sailtrust Ltd., 1983, ISBN 0 946547 01 7.
17 March 2013.