September 20th, 2018
All along the 800 miles of beautiful Welsh coastline are wide creeks, craggy nooks and open bays where some of Wales’ hundreds of lively rivers flow gracefully into the open sea. The estuaries of Wales are among some of the most stunning in the Britain, and range from huge and far reaching expanses of coastline like the mighty Severn estuary in south Wales, to the tiny pebbly estuary of the River Aeron in Aberaeron. Join us as we find out more about these fabulous watery landscapes that are rich in history and wildlife.
The River Dee is one of Wales’ most well known, and longest, rivers starting its watery journey in the hills of Snowdonia and running for 70 miles through the landscape of north-eastern Wales before spilling into the sea at Liverpool Bay between the Welsh coast and the Wirral Peninsula.
The Dee Estuary, which begins near Shotton in Flintshire, is one of the largest and most important wetland sites in the world. Thousands of migrating birds make it their winter home to take advantage of the rich mud plains and easy food foraging and the area attracts hundreds of different bird species at any one time. The area is so important that it is protected under several preservation schemes. It’s a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSR) as well as a Special Protection Area and is home to three different RSPB reserves.
But it wasn’t always this way. The entire estuary area was once a hive of industrial activity; as early as the 14th century the city of Chester had created trade links with Europe and so ships would travel up and down the Dee estuary importing and exporting goods as wide-ranging as cotton, food, spices, copper and steel. Tell-tale signs of industrial ghosts are visible all along the Welsh side of the estuary – like the mills at Greenfield near Holywell and the alkali chemical factory at Flint.
The Dee Estuary began to silt up sometime in the 18th century, and so heavy industry and the transporting ships moved over to the deeper Mersey estuary for easy access to the growing cities of Liverpool and Manchester. Today, most of the heavy industries have left the estuary and the entire area has become a peaceful haven for wildlife and birdlife.
Our next walk takes us to the beautiful Mawddach estuary on the mid west coast of Wales near the town of Barmouth. This is where the lively River Mawddach dances into Cardigan Bay. Today it is one of the most revered estuaries on the Welsh tourist maps, renowned for its rugged beauty and its stunning backdrop of the southern Snowdonia hills, but this estuary too was once a hive of activity. Ships would have lined the river banks as they brought in cotton and spices and took out slate, gold and woven cloths.
By the mid nineteenth century as the town of Barmouth grew into one of the most fashionable holiday locations in Wales thanks to the arrival of the railways, the heavy industry disappeared from the banks of the Mawddach leaving behind a peaceful and tranquil landscape.
The Mawddach estuary even tempted the English poet William Wordsworth away from his beloved Lake District as he holidayed in Barmouth. He described his surroundings with passion:
“I took a boat and rowed up its sublime Estuary, which many compare with the finest in Scotland. With a fine sea view in front, the mountains behind, the glorious Estuary running eight miles inland, and Cader Idris within compass of a day’s walk”.
Our final estuary fling takes us to South Wales and to one of the largest estuaries in the country, the mighty Severn. Here’s where the longest river in Great Britain flows out into the Bristol Channel, and the Rivers Wye, Usk and Avon all flow into this estuary too. As with the Dee in North Wales, the Severn Estuary forms a watery boundary between Wales and England.
Although industry does occupy some of the Severn estuary (industries like shipping, power stations and waste disposal), it is primarily now an urban estuary with some large towns and cities along the coastline, as well as some important tourist hot-spots like Barry and Swansea, and Weston-super-Mare on the English side. Of course, the estuary is well known for its bridges over the river; there are two motorway crossings opened in 1966 and 1996 that provide fast links between England and Wales.
Today, the estuary is at the forefront of discussions to implement renewable energy sources to harness the power of its enormous tidal range (one of the largest in the world), so it seems that this most historic of estuaries will continue to be important for many generations to come.