My first solo swim outdoors – when I was about 10 – was across the River Wye. I had just read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and thought that the swim would be good preparation before I built a raft and escaped to another adventure. The slow, muscular water picked me up and carried me downstream, brushing through patches of water-crowfoot, with its sinuous underwater fronds and flowers that protrude, miraculously, from the riffles and rapids. The first tickles made me gasp in fright, but I got used to it. I had no idea at the time that this plant was an important signifier of river health. When I reached the other bank there were some cows staring down at me. I turned and fled back into the water.
The Wye has been synonymous with beautiful countryside since the 1770s, when William Gilpin bestowed on it the title “picturesque”. By about 1800 there were 20 guidebooks to the area, and the crowning achievement of many an education was a watercolour sketchbook of river views. Little did the Reverend Gilpin suspect, however, that the same industrial society that fast-tracked his romantic appreciation of natural beauty would also threaten to gobble up his favourite topographical feature. In the past decade, the Wye has started to deteriorate. Instead of insects, the air is filled with clouds of bluster, thicker than a sewage soup, blanker than the walls of a chicken megafarm. The anglers catch no salmon. Swimmers get sick. Birders are birdless.
I have been left wondering about the River Severn. Never as celebrated as the Wye, and never adopted by visitors in the same way, the Severn is longer and even more crucial to our natural world. It rises at Plynlimon in the Cambrian Mountains, where the Wye also begins, but then traces a bigger, more expansive curve, cutting through the Welsh hills and out into Shropshire before finally turning south past Shrewsbury, Gloucester and Worcester. If the Wye is in trouble, we should fear for its twin.
I meet Kieran and Danni of Hire-a-Canoe at Montford Bridge, a small village 12 miles upriver from Shrewsbury and the site of the first bridge designed by Thomas Telford, a three-arch red sandstone beauty that still stands, the first of more than 1,000 bridges he worked on. Also with us is Jake Evans, a local storyteller, who adds a bit of colour. “The outlaw Humphrey Kynaston supposedly escaped his pursuers by spurring his horse to jump a gap in the previous bridge – a gap put there by the sheriff.” This is Kynaston country: a local pub, the Old Three Pigeons at Nesscliffe, has his rock-hewn seat, plus his ghost, and the chimney he supposedly climbed to escape capture on another occasion.
We push off and are soon rolling comfortably downstream without much effort. Swans and goosanders with chicks scuttle up the margins to avoid us, the air is thick with demoiselle dragonflies, more than I have ever seen, and soon with thick beds of water-crowfoot. This part of the Severn is, it appears, in good shape. I breathe a sigh of relief.
We descend a section of faster water where the crowfoot flowers are, improbably, in fine bloom. “Some people find this section a challenge,” says Kieran, “but it’s really not hard.” He’s right: we are soon paddling gently down a meandering slow river, not a single house in sight, although there is a farmer waving at us from the bank. We pull in to chat. Edward Tate, owner of the Isle Estate, adopted regenerative agriculture a decade ago (after reading a story in the Guardian) and has worked hard ever since to improve the environment while still running a profitable farm. “We’ve massively cut down on sprays and fertilisers,” he shouts over the reed bed between us. “Plus we’ve restored 170 acres of water meadows to help the insects, wildlife and water quality.”
He’s very pleased to hear that we have been paddling through clouds of demoiselle dragonflies. Edward is that rarity: a farmer who likes insects. “Lacewings and beetles are doing well, too,” he tells us. “But it starts with soil. If we get that right, the insects and birds follow.”
Soon after leaving Tate, we pass the most northerly point of the Severn – marked appropriately with a polar bear – then start the long meander south. The next loop is the Great Berwick Estate, where I’m going to camp (a privilege reserved for those doing this trip). There’s a pre-erected bell tent, a campfire, beers from Stonehouse Brewery in Oswestry and a slab of steak from a longhorn cow. As I eat I can hear curlews, and then, after sunset, a tawny owl.
I awake to more birds. One bird, actually. It’s tapping at the canvas near my head, and when I look out of the tent door it jumps back and stares at me. A female blackbird has got me up at 5.30am. The first dashes of sunlight are touching the tree tops, while a thick, low mist crouches in the meadow. A hare jumps up and sprints away, ears aloft. I stumble outside and look at the small patch of flattened grass where the animal spent the night. One of the few animals which do not make a home, hares simply rely on speed.
I head down to the river and sit, watching the mist roll and an early fisher casting out. In recent years a project called Unlocking the Severn has worked hard to improve the river for fish, removing or circumventing blockages such as weirs and culverts, to assist migration. It aims to restore the population of twaite shad, a once common migratory type of herring that would come up the Severn in vast numbers to spawn, even reaching the Welsh hills. Victorian engineering stopped that for 180 years. (The Diglis Island and fish pass at Worcester features an observation window for the public.) The angler on the bank does not catch anything except water-crowfoot, but he seems happy.
I head back to camp for breakfast and meet farmer Sam Barker, who offers to take me on a tour of his herd of 300 longhorn cows, including favourites Claudia and Stan. He is starting safari visits to the herd and I’m the guinea pig. These cattle have as good a life as any: living outside in deep organic meadows beside a river where they can cool down in summer. The horns look menacing, but we stroll past calves, bulls and mothers without raising any alarms. Like the Isle estate, Great Berwick is also inside a loop of river, and there’s a distinct feeling of being a little remote and cut off from the world.
Back at the river I meet Danni again and we paddle the last six miles to Shrewsbury, spotting kingfishers and sand martins speeding across thick beds of water-crowfoot. In 15 miles I have seen two houses and a handful of people. The river seems in good shape, the farmers along the route doing their best to keep it that way. My inner Huckleberry Finn, dormant for a long time, has been revived.
• This article was amended on 22 July 2022. Due to an error in a caption supplied by an agency, an image of Shrewsbury’s Welsh bridge was incorrectly described as showing the English bridge.
Kevin’s trip was supported by Visit Shropshire. Two-day canoe trips with camping by Hire-a-Canoe from £98pp. The Isle Estate has B&B at £110 per double. Great Berwick is soon to launch a new shepherd’s hut, and its new 1.5-hour safaris cost £15pp, families £50.