We had heard of Purton Hulks, the ship’s graveyard on the bank of the River Severn, and had even seen photographs, but it was not until last Sunday, when we found ourselves without plans, and craving adventure, that we decided to go and explore for ourselves. With the baby asleep in the sling, we meandered along the canal path in the morning sunshine, idly watching the cygnets and the canal barges moored alongside.
Stepping out into a green space, we stopped to study the sign which demarcated the beginning of the hulks. The eldest boy, bored, sat down on a concrete ridge to look out at the river: ‘I can’t see ANY shipwrecks’, he sighed. Suddenly, my husband exclaimed ‘But you’re sitting on one!’ Partially sunk into the riverbank was the remains of an enormous concrete barge, its metal rudder dipping down into the mudflats. The boy jumped to his feet and we all began to look more closely at the landscape around us. Camouflaged against the mud, we now saw the outlines of more concrete barges emerge before us, their immense bulk edged by a feathery fringe of swishing grasses. As we walked along the path through the salt marsh, boat after boat appeared in the landscape. Huge concrete hulls loomed above us, rusty metal tugs were sunk into the ground, the rotting ribs of wooden boats formed stark decaying skeletons, one with a ghostly porthole still intact.
Although my camera did not leave my hand for our entire visit, photographs can capture neither the the scale and atmosphere of this remarkable place. It is infused with a compelling, melancholy beauty. A century ago, a storm caused a landslip, which threatened to breach the narrow bank between the canal and the river, which runs parallel. In order to plug the breach, old boats were towed into the river, just prior to high tide, and then released so that they sped directly into the bank. At low tide, holes were then drilled into their sides, anchoring them with mud, sand and water. Over 80 disused vessels met their end at Purton between 1909 and 1963. The plan worked, shoring up the bank into a wide strip of grassland which is littered with maritime remains, in varying degrees of decay, some entirely buried.
It is a beautiful spot for a walk, endlessly fascinating and irresistibly poignant. The boys were delighted by it, exclaiming over every new boat carcass and examining the small plaques giving the names and details of each. I too was captivated by the strangeness of the place, and later, editing my photos, I felt an involuntary shiver. Purton Hulks’ history is infused with a curious magic: they are not easily forgotten.