Chapter Severn – The Mouth – Suicidal Intertidal – Jumping

♒︎     Suicidal Intertidal     ♒︎

Photo by me



I am standing on the old ferry slipway at Beachley, just around the headland from the mouth of the Wye. Above me is a monumental hulk of steel girder and wire spanning the Severn Estuary from Beachley to Aust. This is the old Severn Suspension Bridge, which also vaults the Wye (technically, another bridge). It was built to replace ye olde car ferry, and it’s just a little bit older than me. Our lives have spanned the deepest wounds ever inflicted upon the sum of all wild lives of the British Isles, and the span of time seeing the largest rise in global temperatures for fifty-five million years. I stand and glare as if I am arguing with myself—the troll under the bridge—carrying all the blame. My daughter, long hair pulled taught into a bunch, is flitting around me with her precision-made camera phone, looking up from her beautiful open face and following the lines all the way across to Aust. We are trying to absorb the scale of it all. We are both taking pictures by volume, not quite sure how to portray the colossus, and pouring out sentences in a mix of insult and awe.


“Would you listen to that!”

“It’s so eerie!”

My parents euphemistically called it the Holiday Bridge. Rarely, because my father worked long hours, the route took us to airports; 1970s plastic exotics like Gatwick and Luton, and to the package holidays he sold in their hundreds from his travel shop in Aberdare. Customers came to our plush shop decorated in dark greens and golds; a wave of new Valleys working class, the lull before the social ligament sprains and bone breaks of the coal miners’ strikes. They came wanting guaranteed sun and sangria instead of a chilly fortnight to Barry. I remember as a small child the smell and sheen of the Intasun brochures piled high in stock. I’d hide under my father’s mahogany desk, turning each page, smelling the print ink and mesmerised by the fake blues—hotel swimming pools and empty sandy bays – ah, the seduction of the Mediterranean Costas, themselves now rows of concrete walls, palms, marinas, shadows of their former spectacular flolocas.

Such a drop from those dizzy heights among the suspension wires, or even the strangeness of fixed aeroplane wings, to the murky brown swell of the Severn Estuary, the way that bridges and Capitalism lift us all from the ecological “mire” and the sublime, beauty that demands more knowledge and a micro and macro imagination. Turbidity of estuary water, rather than crystal transparency, is a beauty that is anti-aesthetic, that rushes through the human mind more like a violent storm. We aren’t supposed to be here, sucked down into the maelstrom or getting stuck in the mud. But the animals adapted to its ephemeral fronts down in the brown or around the sand and mud banks are a perfect fit. And so are the animals that use it to pass through from place to place. They know the storms that blow them in, and they know the storms that can carry them away.

Storms are exciting though, especially in places with big skies and big expanses where the changes can be measured from this moment to that, lined up one after another for comparison, and so is the potential of interconnectedness in and around this body of life. People have navigated the estuary for thousands of years, fishing and hunting using nets and boats, thinking that the risks are worth the reward. Think of the complexity of this storm as some kind of constantly moving three-dimensional loom of life and devotion, the shimmering patterns and lightning strikes of a symbiotic flow created in the mind, and where the mind becomes part of the pattern, transient before the next wave of movement leaves its wake.

Kathleen Dean Moore asks powerfully in her essay Field Notes for an Aesthetic of Storms;

“What reed in the human spirit vibrates with the violence of storms?”

“Beauty, as Edmund Burke pointed out, relaxes” [storms aren’t generally relaxing.] But the opposite of “beauty” is not “ugliness”. The opposite of “beauty” is “sublimity,” the blow-to-the-gut awareness of chaotic forces unleashed and uncontrolled, the terror and finally the awe.”

Kathleen asks us why do we crave it, this chaos of something so much bigger than ourselves; this danger, the desire to reach, at least, the boundary of what it is to be human? Aristotle’s “attraction of tragedy” won’t do. This is no tragedy. A living storm like a tumultuous estuary is no less of a tragedy, nor a monster, than the existence of the universe. Or even our own bodies and microbiomes, with our pulses, blood pressure, sweat and heat, and all our unique vulnerabilities hidden beneath the skin. The estuary is a wonder of LIFE, only in a highly dynamic and opaque form. Reserve “tragedy” for the brutal depression of inevitability, an unnecessary death like suicide, or just a plain morbid fascination with dead things and extinction. I do see this from time to time in so-called environmentalism and reject it. How can suffering be attractive? What bridge shall we all jump from now?

I know too well that which brings tangible mortality right up to the nose. The flow of adrenaline does raise up like a water spout; that subconscious, quick-acting fear that is spent by movement. It makes us use our muscles, fight or take cover. Endorphins are released to dull the coming pain; the same endorphins that rush when we eat good food or enjoy good sex. As dangerous as this tempest of an estuary is, we cannot afford to avoid it. Instead, submerge ourselves deeply within it, only with the fullness of our fluministic imaginations. Publicly love it, for all its volatile expanse, revere and protect the symbiotic lives that make it what it is.

Mark Fisher in “The Weird and the Eerie” writes; “The eerie concerns the most fundamental metaphysical questions one can pose, questions to do with existence and non-existence: Why is there something here when there should be nothing. Why is there nothing here when there should be something?” Our experience under the bridge is eerie because the bridge shouldn’t be here – the sharp juxtaposition of cool, engineered steel lines over a wild and tumultuous body, yet now dwarfed in comparison to some of the s(t)uperstructures of control between States, rail or road, like the Hong Kong-Zhuhai crossing over the Pearl River Delta, China. Despite our being nature, these impositions are ultra-dominion—dominion on Speed—we’ve created our own weather systems, our own storms and forced them on all living organisms, conquests that affirm our own sense of power by their scale but with impacts we can no longer control. We can stand at the edge of them and exclaim (or jump), admiring the transformation of nature into capital, into something man-built that generates more capital, extra processing of resources by a creature like no other on Earth. We are, for the first time in human history, outside of the clade of the evolutionarily “natural,” jamming, jarring, manipulating the whole planet for our own ends only. Fisher answers his own questions: Capital is eerie at every level, “conjured out of nothing, capital nevertheless exerts more influence than any allegedly substantial entity.” Go further. The bridge is a manifestation of Capital promising to raise us out of the mire and danger, to grow the economy and make some people rich, with the promise of a holiday on an aeroplane at least twice a year. It’s created its own mire and danger, where there should be something perfectly sublime ~ a wide, impossible, racing, untouched body. Akin to more industrial and technical advances, it procures novelty in nature-divorcing experiences laid bare for the consumer. The turbulent wash of body that is the estuary is all but eerie. The bridge is that which deafens us from this point underneath, the objective imposition, the purpose of what the Queen said of it at its grand opening “a new economic era for South Wales” and an affirmation of Nationalist Union. Little else matters in the battle for cash.

I’ve since driven The Severn Bridge, or perhaps now Queen Elizabeth II, hundreds of times myself, a few of the billions of journeys—stories—that have proffered atmospheric roasting and ecological laceration. Queens, and ministers, and Pathé News were all there on the day of opening, along with ten thousand Royalists and families of the men who built it, six of whom died in the original construction. The Royal car made the journey from England to Wales, not the other way around; no doubt symbolic, some kind of affirmation of Anglo conquest of the old kingdoms of Wales. Today, we are under it, this Capitalist beauty that Pathé instructed sixties cinema audiences in commanding Received Pronunciation. There is a kind of odd serenity not having to negotiate the traffic, just standing here staring, yet the rhythmic tyres of cars and lorries bumping the joints of the box girders are relentless. I feel sickened by the low-grade thunder of the engines high above, and of being temporarily mesmerised by those constant vibrations that must surely be felt by all the bodies who live in the air and the water body beneath. And that I still own a car—the guilt of a little white paint-chipped Toyota parked over there—the one that carried us here today all the way down a windy Wye Valley, and on to Cardiff and Gracie’s father.

And now there is this second bridge crossing, “The Prince of Wales” because the first one could not cope with the sheer volume— of traffic and noise. Will there be a third crossing to shoulder the EV boom, or perhaps an egregious and ecocidal tidal barrage to snag the enormous potential of tidal energy to feed the addiction, because the consortiums are still poised should any Government wave a wand of consent. Meanwhile, this bridge will be formally preserved, for now, by our Planners—the main Severn Bridge is a Grade One Listed relic to biospheric loss and rising seas pushing at its concrete feet. And when my Toyota dies, so will my driving habit, and the irony is it will be harder though not impossible to get to these places and bear witness.

Who will walk this bridge during the next fifty years, when perhaps thousands of people and animals file across the gentle curve of its 990ms to move north away from the heat, and storms, and wars; when those high wires begin to buckle under the weight of it all, morning, noon, the full moon of the night. How many R.I.Bs in their rescue-orange-reds will patrol this now turbid-less “sea” pushing all tides and mudflats higher and deeper inland, looking for all the survivors left behind from the great emptying, or jumpers Broken Necks Paralysed Shattered Spines Drown Killed? With each wave of Earth Crisis and the rising tide, the myths of the Capitalist ideal and the “jumpers” float away in the strong ebb, pushed in by the flow, and out again, and in, and out until eventually it is carried away into a new era, almost completely unknown to us now, and buried deep in the sea.

A pair of goosanders float on brown soup like tiny bobbing corks just offshore, accepting this anthropogenic monstrosity around them as run of the mill. I stare at an emerging bridge shadow laying flat on the surface of the estuary, even penetrating the silt, and wonder whether fish take solace in its added shade, as they would under a giant tree on a huge riverbank somewhere. Its seemingly indelible marks come and go with the clouds, and then I imagine the road salt dissolved in rain or hail-melt, falling on their little heads like bullets in winter. That sound from beneath the surface, all the way along the underside of the span, blown this way and that by the winds that funnel through and over and under. I try to fathom the scale of that first concrete stanchion and imagine its slow decay by wave and sand action and eventual collapse. It’s about an hour after low tide and the water levels are creeping back up its pocked surface, nearly four stories up, to the high tide mark. I am imagining what life may cling to it, and down below, in the turmoil.


A few wasplike figures in yellow and black dry suits appear like an apparition, reversing an R.I.B hooked up to a four-wheel drive down the ramp ready for launch. This is the Severn Area Rescue Association based here under the bridge, along with HM Coastguard Chepstow, the hull and their life jackets in signature rescue-orange-red. This is their HQ, based at this key point along the estuary for access to the rivers, like the Wye and its cliffs too, here to help those in distress, human and beyond, to investigate drifting objects and even old World War ordnance found in the mud. They’re also here to retrieve the occasional body of a “jumper” from either of the two Severn bridges, at least the ones where witnesses are able to report. As we walked past, I asked them about seals, even Arctic walruses like the one making his way down from the Arctic, possible Svalbard, via Tenby to Bilbao. A woman with greying hair and kind eyes was pulling on the top of her drysuit and life jacket. She told me they never see any cetaceans, not even grey seals. Today was just a training launch, a test of a new vessel, and we walked back towards the car to get out of their way.


♒︎      Jumping      ♒︎

Photo by me

On those most beautiful days, the contrast seems almost impossible to reconcile, like July 18th – the hottest of days, so exquisite a summer’s day when, after the ambulances arrived to relieve me from the responsibility of my mother’s body, I stumbled into the field to lay among the wildflowers and the insects trying and failing to make sense of an unfolding emotional nuclear explosion. Today was a beautiful day, and the nuclear all but decommissioned. But the clouds were now gathering into a storm over Aust and I felt troubled by what we saw next.

We gazed at the white “Wall of Remembrance” where black, slender empty vases awaited cut flowers. Next, there was a sign zip-tied to an upright girder. The black silhouette of a person jumping from some kind of construction through a bright yellow sky.

In red, “Don’t jump into the unknown.”

In crazy writing designed so that it becomes blue sea below, “Broken Neck Paralysed Shattered Spine Drown Killed”

Emergency Call 999 Coastguard, HM Coastguard.

If you were down here in the water just offshore after jumping, here near the memorial wall some fifty metres below the tarmac at low tide, I think it would already be too late. Just like by the time they call in the infantry it’s already too late. Like Capitalism itself.