THE SEVERN THROUGH NEWTOWN
28th September 2012
The Severn has flowed eastwards from the Cambrian Mountains since the Ice Age. From the establishment of Newtown over seven hundred years ago its waters have been put to various uses for the benefit of the town’s inhabitants. Other changes to its flow have been made to prevent its occasional detrimental effects on the town when heavy rains have caused it to flood. The purpose of this article is to take a look at the various human interferences there have been in the majestic flow of our river.
The town boundary meets the river at different points on either side of the river at both the upstream and downstream ends. This article covers that length of the river which has the parish of Llanllwchaiarn on the north side and the parish of Newtown on the south side. That is, from the mouth of the Mochdre Brook downstream to just below Penarth Weir.
Some of the reaches of the river have historic names and others not. To aid the work of the newly formed River Severn Custodians, a voluntary body set up to study and improve the Severn through Newtown, names have been given to the unnamed reaches and those names are used throughout this article (see maps). The various features along the river will be described in the order they appear (or appeared) travelling downstream.
A weir was constructed in the early nineteenth century between the Milford Hall and Miney Hole reaches by William Tilsley to provide a head of water for his mill at Milford. The erection of the weir infuriated the owner of land on the south bank of the river, the Rev George Arthur Evors of Newtown Hall, as it caused some of his land to be flooded. Despite this objection the weir remained in use for about 100 years. As there were many salmon in the river at that time a salmon leap was provided at the south end of the weir. This was rebuilt in 1883 using massive stone blocks. Much of this feature remains although hidden in a grove of trees. When the river is low some of the remains of the wooden weir can also be seen.
THE MINEY HOLE
Just below Milford Weir the river meets a rocky outcrop and is driven to the left. At one time a fluorspar mine adit ran several hundred yards underground from this outcrop. In 1971, when a new sewage sump was being excavated beneath the Llanidloes Road just west of Nantoer Railway Bridge workmen unexpectedly broke into these old workings. Also, when the site for Trehafren II was being prepared a vertical shaft into the mine was uncovered. It was filled in to prevent risk to the new houses. It is not known when the Miney Hole was in operation as a mine but it had become a children’s hiding place by the beginning of the twentieth century.
Milford Weir provided a head of water for the mill race cut across a bend in the river to power the water wheel a William Tilsley’s Milford Mill. Some of the brickwork of the mill and the outfall of the race can still be seen on the north bank of the river. It was built as a fulling mill and at some time it was also used as a carding mill. It is sometimes suggested that spinning and weaving were done there as well but there is no record of this. It is probably a confusion caused by the last owner of the mill, Evan Watkins, also having a weaving factory in the town centre. The mill was destroyed by fire in 1912 and subsequently, as it was no longer needed, the weir was carried away in floods and not rebuilt.
This reach takes its name from the small sandy beach on the south side of the river. It is not a man made feature; more the opposite. It was once a favourite place for amorous encounters.
This is the only stretch of water left near the town that is suitable for boating. It is formed by a natural rock weir just upstream of the Rocks. The small stream that flows into it from near the Police Station is crossed near its mouth by a footbridge, the Queen’s Bridge, so named because it was first erected in the jubilee year 1977.
The Rocks mark the upstream end of the 1971 flood prevention scheme. As a part of this scheme the outcrop which forms the Rocks was cut back and the river bed lowered. Prior to this, the outfall of a brick culvert could be seen in the Rocks. It was the drain of the ditch (now filled in) on the west side of the defensive bank across the Park.
DOLERW PARK BRIDGE
The fields of Dolerw farm were bought by the Mid Wales New Town Development Corporation in 1969 to increase the area of public amenity space in the town and renamed Dolerw Park. The land was passed to the Town Council who already had the Park on the south of the river. To connect these two parks Dolerw Park Bridge was erected in 1973. It was designed by Mott, Hay and Anderson.
When the Oversevern Weir (see below) was still in place it held back water right up to the Rocks thus making a popular stretch of water used for recreational purposes such as bathing, boating and, in winter, skating. When the river froze over dozens of skaters would appear on the river. On occasions Newtown Silver Band would turn out to serenade them. Sir Pryce Pryce-Jones was said to be an enthusiastic skater upon Severn green.
The large floodbank on the south bank from the Rocks to the Long Bridge is one of the most important elements of Newtown’s flood defences as it was here that, in 1960 and 1964, the Severn left its normal course and tore through the town centre.
THE LONG BRIDGE
When the cycle path was being constructed beneath the Long Bridge in 1996 old timbers were found that suggested there was a wooden bridge over the river here at least since the fourteenth century. In the ensuing centuries there were frequent reports of it being too narrow and in poor condition. The present stone bridge, designed by Thomas Penson, was opened in 1826. It was built at the instigation of William Pugh of Brynllywarch, Kerry with the purpose of improving communication between the Canal Basin and the town centre for goods traffic. Pugh original intention was for the bridge to cross the river at the Gravel but, as it was to be a “county bridge” and thus free of tolls, the parishes on either side of the river objected. The wooden bridge was their responsibility and a free bridge so near would rob them of their tolls. The problem was solved by having the new bridge replace the old wooden one, thus relieving the parishes of their responsibilities altogether. As traffic increased on the stone bridge once again there were complaints that it was too narrow, so in 1857 cast iron arches carrying footpaths were added to either side of the bridge. It is, of course, still too narrow.
In 1879 a sewer pipe was laid on the bed of the river from Penygloddfa to near the Elephant and Castle. As it was in the deep slow-moving water behind the Oversevern Weir it had little effect on the flow of the river. However when the Overseven Weir was removed in 1931 the sewer pipe itself became a weir, holding back about three feet of water. As it was not constructed for this purpose damage frequently occurred and much concrete had to be poured to keep it in place. Nevertheless this unplanned weir did have the advantage keeping the water at Severn Green deep enough for the leisure activities to continue.
Before the high flood wall was built in 1971 the Old Church, St Mary’s, was frequently flooded. At the same time as the wall was built the bed of the river was cleared and deepened.
The Oversevern, or Beander, Mill stood between what is now Edwards Field and the present course of the river. Water for its huge waterwheels was provided by a large wooden weir across the river, from below Golwgydre house to what was then Weir Street on the town side. (Weir Street continued the line of Turners Lane from Broad Street to the river.) Water from the river behind the weir was taken through a tunnel cut through the rock beneath Golwgyre to the millrace.
From at least the early nineteenth century a wooden footbridge crossed the river from Severn Square to the Oversevern Mill. It was a privately owned bridge belonging to the Newtown Hall Estate and a toll was charged to cross it. For many years the tolls were collected by a man known as Tommy King. The bridge eventually took his name, but as the charge was a halfpenny the bridge was also known as the Halfpenny Bridge. The wooden structure was carried away in a flood in 1852, rebuilt, and then demolished by another flood in 1929. This time it was replaced with a concrete bridge. Local sages predicted that this bridge would not withstand the Severn in speight. They were wrong. It took all the river could throw at it and was finally demolished as a part of the flood prevention scheme. The sages had also claimed that the bridge was too narrow and that two fat men could not pass on it. They were probably right about that.
A second sewer pipe was laid on the river bed a few yards downstream of the King’s Bridge. This again formed a small weir with the beneficial effect of reducing scour beneath the central pier of the King’s Bridge. It was replaced but a pipe laid beneath the bed of the river some yards downstream as a part of the flood prevention scheme.
A corn mill is said to have existed on this site since mediaeval times. With the rise of the woollen industry in Newtown in the nineteenth century part of the mill was converted for processes connected with woollen manufacture. It continued in production until after the Great War and was then used as a wool and timber warehouse. Its final use was as a store for the Royal Navy’s rum during World War II. That activity came to a sudden end in 1944 when the mill and its contents caught fire. The heat from the burning rum was so intense that the Fire Brigade could not get across the King’s Bridge to tackle the blaze. The remains of the mill were removed in 1965 by the Royal Engineers and the Royal Pioneers to clear the mill race as a relief channel during floods. The race ran alongside the road in Cambrian Gardens and rejoined to river opposite the Laundry (now McDonald’s).
THE HALFPENNY BRIDGE
The Halfpenny Bridge was built to replace the King’s Bridge as a part of the flood prevention scheme. (Although the King’s Bridge was also known as the Halfpenny Bridge the new bridge was officially given that name when it opened so it is preferable now to refer to the old bridge just as the King’s Bridge, particularly as the new bridge is some yards downstream of the old one.)
A requirement of the new bridge was that it crossed the river in a single span to avoid impeding floodwaters. This was achieved by using a precast post-tensioned concrete design. Precast concrete sections were placed on a temporary steel structure across the river. Steel cables were run through holes in the bottom of the concrete sections from one bank of the river to the other. The cables were then pulled tight using hydraulic rams, so holding the concrete sections together like beads on a string. The bridge was opened in late 1972. Shortly before it was opened it was visited by the Prince of Wales whilst on a tour of inspection of the new flood defences. This gave rise to a suggestion that it should be called the Prince’s Bridge. However in January 1973 the Town Council decreed that it should be the Hlafpenny Bridge, and that was that.
The most dramatic element of the 1971 flood prevention scheme took place here. The course of the river was moved north-east. The old course of the river is now the Gravel Car Park. A new flume was excavated across what had been the Oversevern Mill’s rack field from the King’s Bridge, meeting the original course opposite the Laundry. This allowed the floodwaters to drain more quickly from the vicinity of the town. As the river forms the parish boundary between Newtown and Llanllwchaiarn that moved too. As a consequence the fine black poplar tree by the Gravel Car Park, now in Newtown was once in Llanllwchaiarn.
Before the river was moved the Green Brook ran into the river here. As the brook was once also an open sewer there were frequent complaints by those crossing the Short Bridge by (over the Green Brook) of the stench from the “Skin Pool” at the confluence with the river. The name Skin Pool might be connected with the tannery that once stood on the Post Office site.
TIBBOTT’S MILL and THE LAUNDRY
Tibbott’s Mill stood for many years on the site now occupied by McDonald’s, It was driven by water provide by Green’s Weir across the river.
In 1898 the mill was bought by Pryce Jones’s Ltd and demolished to make way for their steam laundry and power station (Many of the machines in the Royal Welsh Warehouse and the Royal Welsh Factory were driven by direct current electricity.) Although the new establishment used water from the river Green’s weir was no longer needed and it was removed.
Although the Mid Wales New Town Development Corporation’s plan included a new bridge at this point the Cambrian Bridge was not built until after the end of the development period. Work on its construction began in 1992 and it was opened on 8th April 1993. It is of similar construction to the Halfpenny Bridge except that the precast concrete sections, being much larger were cast in-situ. It is not immediately obvious that most of its weight rest on what looks like an abutment on the north bank. However it is not an abutment but a pier; the deck of the bridge extending some way north where its end is anchored down to a huge block of mass concrete set in the ground near Cambrian Gardens. The deck of the bridge is thus an uneven see-saw resting on the pier as a pivot.
A competition was held among the junior schools of the town to find a name for the bridge. This was won by Penygloddfa School who took into account that the bridge runs from the site of the Cambrian Foundry on the south bank to the site of the Cambrian Mills on the north. (However, at the time of writing it is frequently referred to as the New Bridge and this appellation might stick.)
The Craigfryn Mill stood near where Arthur’s Car Sales now stands. The site of the mill was some way back from the present bank of the river as a certain amount of encroachment into the river took placed after its closure. Earth was tipped over the steep drop into the river driving its course some yards north. The Craigfryn had its own weir and was the furthest downstream of Newtown’s watermills.
Much could be written about John Herbert Kirkham and his field but they form no part of the river’s story. However the Kirkhamsfield reach marks the downstream extremity of the 1971 flood prevention scheme.
When the Montgomeryshire Canal was extended to Newtown, or more accurately Llanllwchaiarn, in1819 it was proposed to provide it with a supply of water from above the Oversevern Mill by way of a culvert to the Canal Basin. The owners of the Oversevern Mill, and the two others downstream, objected strongly. The river was low enough in summer to limit the operation of their mills as it was. Consequently the proprietors of the Canal had to make do with such water as could be provided by the Pyllaubudron Brook. The limited to operation of the Canal as each time the Rock, or First, Lock was filled some 60,000 gallons of water were needed. To overcome this problem a pumphouse was built at the mouth of the Pyllaubudron Brook. A weir across the river was constructed, well downstream of the others, and water taken to drive a large waterwheel which was used pump water from the river into the canal.
The Canal was formally closed in 1944 and the weir was allowed to collapse. Most of it was carried away but some fragments of its woodwork can be seen in the river bed.
Overlooking the dark depths of the Gro Pool stands the Gro Tump, a Norman fortification which predates the establishment of Newtown in 1279. For many years the river, in this part of the upper Severn Valley, formed the boundary between the Norman lands on the south bank and the Welsh on the north. The Tump formed a useful vantage point for keeping an eye on the Gro Ford a few hundred yards downstream. The Gro Pool has the macabre reputation of being where the bodies of those drowned in the river upstream were washed up and recovered.
Whilst almost all the parish of Llanllwchaiarn lay on the north side of the river a small area extended onto the south side opposite the old parish church. On this land stood Llanllwchairn Vicarage, now the Gro Guesthouse. This meant that the vicar had to cross the river to get to his church. When the river was low it was easily crossed on horseback at the Gro Ford, otherwise he had to cross by boat. A rope was fixed over the river for him to haul himself across. In 1886 the then vicar Canon Richard Evan Jones had had enough of these daily aquatic adventures and had a wooden footbridge built at his own expense. The bridge quickly became part a favourite Sunday afternoon walk for the people of Newtown who strolled down one side of the river and back up the other. After Canon Evan Jones’ death his widow offered his bridge to the Town Council. They declined the offer, not wishing to take on the expense of maintaining it. There were frequent complaints about its poor state of repair until the matter was settled when it was washed away in a flood in 1929.
Following the loss of the Parson’s Bridge the Town Council was petitioned to replace it with a public bridge. Again they declined to have anything to do with it, so the owner of the Bear Hotel, Ivo Smith, formed a committee to raise money for a new bridge. They were successful and in 1933 the Gro Bridge was opened. It was a lightweight steel bowstring truss crossing the river in a single span, the first bridge within the town’s boundary to do so. The following year the Town Council at last agreed to take it over. Sadly it did not last long. It was destroyed in a flood in 1946. Although the Town Council received insurance money for it they never got round to replacing it.
The concrete pier to which the south end of the Gro Bridge was bolted remains in place, hidden among the trees. There has been considerable erosion of the north bank since 1946 and the remains of the north pier now lie like a large piece of rock more or less midstream.
The Gro Ford possibly pre-dates Newtown as a main crossing point of the river in this part of its valley. On the south side there are the remains of substantial roads leading to it, but the erosion of the north bank has rendered it no longer usable a river crossing point.
THE SEWAGE FARM
The contents of the sewers that twice passed beneath the river in the town had to end up somewhere, and this is where it came. In 1879 Newtown Local Board bought 40 acres of land upon which to create their municipal sewage works. The works consisted of settlement lagoons and drainage channels from which the water was discharged, more or less cleansed, into the river. There was still a considerable amount of agricultural land left over so the Board let it as a farm, the tenant being responsible for keeping the waterway clear and generally managing the works. This arrangement remained in place until Newtown became a New Town. The old sewage farm was replaced in 1974 by a modern water treatment plant with sufficient capacity to serve the enlarged town. Although of greater capacity it took up less area, allowing the land to the north east to be used to form Pwll Penarth nature reserve. The new works also had the added advantage of not surrounding itself with less than fragrant odours.
Although the Montgomeryshire Canal connected industrial Newtown with the rest of Britain it remained essentially an agricultural operation, bringing in limestone to be burned at the many kilns along its length and taking timber out. Thus the demand for water increased as it approached its lowest point at Pool Quay. To meet this demand a weir was built at Penarth and water carried from it along a leat to enter the Canal just below Freestone Lock. The weir was rebuilt in the second half of the nineteenth century. Like Milford, Penarth Weir is high enough to need a salmon leap. The weir still supplies water to the Canal below Freestone Lock.
From Penarth Weir the Severn follows it natural course to beyond the town’s boundaries.