Uses of the Severn

Uses of the Severn


Tourism is a vital component of the UK economy. In 2017, international visitors to the UK generated £28.2 billion and domestic tourism generated £119.4 billion1. Coastal tourism is continuing to increase and makes up one of the largest service industries around the Estuary. 

Energy Generation

From coal to tidal power, the energy-producing possibilities of the Severn Estuary area have long been a focus of interest. The Estuary has a range of physical characteristics for many methods of energy generation. History has seen the transport of coal up and down the Estuary by boat, linking ports such as Cardiff Bay to the wider world. Proposed tidal schemes, the plans for which have since been dropped, examined the huge tidal range of the Estuary for the potential of tidal energy generation. More recently, Hinkley Point C is well underway in its construction, and will supply an estimated 6 million homes with low cardon energy2.


With such a vast tidal range, high turbidity, strong tidal currents and extensive mud banks, fishing for one’s livelihood on the Severn Estuary has always been demanding. The Estuary’s many fisheries evolved to meet these demands, by adopting a variety of fishing methods; some of which are unique to the Estuary. Historically, fishing on the Severn Estuary has been recorded as far back as 1247. Documents detail the placing of fish traps and weirs to catch, salmon, lamprey and shad. The shad was a highly priced fish for the British monarchy, with King Henry III, Queen Elizabeth I, and King Charles II. In fact, Queen Elizabeth I started the conservation of the shad in the Estuary, ordering the removal of fishing weirs below Gloucester to prevent removal of any lamprey or shad3.    

Maintenance Dredging

Maintenance dredging or navigational dredging is the ongoing removal of sediments which accumulate in Britain’s waterways. This prevents muds and gravels building up and becoming too shallow for ships to pass through. Most ports have a statutory duty to regularly dredge their approach channels, dock basins and locks. The frequency of dredging can vary considerably between dredge sites, as may the type of material and the removal techniques employed. The removed material is then deposited within a designated site out to sea4. This type of regular dredging ensures that key ports, such as the ports of Bristol and Cardiff, remain accessible to large vessels.

Marine Aggregates

Marine aggregate is sand or gravel, used principally as a raw material by the construction industry. In the UK, most aggregate (including crushed rock) comes from land-based sources but since the 1960s, developers have been increasingly reliant on marine sources to supplement demand and meet construction needs. Aggregates are dredged from the Bristol Channel and transported in ships which can hold up to 8000 tonnes of material, which is often supplied directly to the ports of Bristol and Cardiff within the Estuary5.


The Severn Estuary has been an important transport network throughout its geographical area, shaped by the landscape and history of the region. The network of roads, railways and ports was initially developed to serve the industrial needs of the South Wales Valleys in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today Wales’ main national road and rail network runs parallel to the south coast, joining Welsh cities such as Cardiff, Swansea, and Newport to the rest of the UK6. In England, the main transport networks follow tourism, industry, and the combined districts of Weston-super-Mare, Avonmouth and Bristol7

Ports & Shipping

Almost all the major towns and cities around the Severn Estuary developed largely as a result of sea trade which brought prosperity and employment to the region. In the 19th and 20th centuries, many established in-river and coastal wharves were replaced with floating/impounded docks (docks in which the water level stays the same independent of sea level) more suited to deal with the expansion of trade, larger vessels, and the high tidal range. At some, such as Lydney, Gloucester, Bristol City, Portishead and Penarth Docks, trade has long ceased, and they now operate for recreation purposes, such as boat and fishing trips. Other ports, however, continue to have an important role in local, and national economy and are responsible for handling a large proportion of UK trade. The major commercial ports are Bristol8, (Royal Portbury and Avonmouth Docks), Cardiff9, and Newport with smaller operations at Sharpness, Barry, and Bridgwater (Dumball Wharf). 

  1. UK Tourism Satellite Account: 2017 (Office for national statistics, 2019)
  2. EDF: What is Hinkley Point C?
  3. Canal & Rivers trust: Unlocking the Severn, the forgotten story of shad webpage
  4. GOV.UK: Dredging guidance webpage (Marine Management Organisation, 2019)
  5. Marine Aggregates Resources (Hanson Aggregates)
  6. Welsh Government: Transport homepage
  7. GOV.UK: Department for Transport homepage
  8. The Bristol Port Company website 
  9. The Port of Cardiff webpage


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