Waterways of the Humber

Waterways of the Humber

Sunday, 13 May 2012

A Gateway and a Barrier

Being only 40 miles long the Humber has the advantage over larger estuaries of being comprehensible.  At its mouth, in most weather, it’s possible to see the other bank and get an idea of scale, whereas an observer of the estuaries of the South American rivers Plate and Amazon would find the opposite bank hidden by the curvature of the earth.

The Humber’s observable size means the large tidal range can swiftly be appreciated as the incoming tides rush towards the Trent and the Ouse, if the conditions are suitable the narrowing channel results in tidal bores known locally as aegres.  When the tides have ebbed the fresh water coming down from the rivers is that drained from almost a fifth of England’s area.  The Trent is the main river of the Midlands, whereas the Ouse drains most of Yorkshire.  Coincidentally the waters of both rivers contain that used by large brewing industries  -  at Burton-on-Trent, and a major Ouse tributary the Wharf at Tadcaster.

Humber Bridge from the south bank
Throughout the centuries the size of the Humber and its navigable tributaries have always been a gateway for ships, deep into England’s heart  -  but to those on land they have always been a formidable barrier.  Their waters were too wide to bridge at a navigable height with the technology of previous centuries, and it would take us until 1981 to create a Humber crossing by creating the world’s longest suspension bridge (at that time).

Small ferryboats crossed at various points where the geography allowed, mostly on the tributaries and the upper Humber where the channel width is less.  The term “ferry” meant a small row-boat, or at the most a flat raft capable of taking farm animals, and horses and wagons.  It was a time-consuming operation, and the ferries couldn’t operate at all when fast tides were rushing in, or when high levels of fresh water were rushing out.  Nor was it a clean process  -  forget modern quay headings, straight and level, instead think of slopes down to the water covered in the mud of a receding tide, and the deposits left by various animals.  In the early 20th century Edwardian ladies in their finery, going to the horse-racing in Doncaster, were a memorable spectacle tottering down to ferries across local rivers.

So, in the ages of no bridges and sparse, small, slow, and intermittent ferries it was very common for fording points to be used  -  wait until the water levels and flows are low and then wade across a river.  For a period the Humber waterways were the northern limit of the Romans’ occupation of England while they figured out where the soldiers of an army could cross.  They also had to bear in mind the terrain beyond the far bank where numerous rivers would have to be forded  -  but in their short tunics and sandals they had “go-anywhere” gear, like my resolute childhood heroes the Famous Five who always coped wearing jumpers, shorts and “rubber-soled” shoes.

There are differing opinions on where the Romans crossed, and in 1953, and again in 2005, intrepid fellows walked across the Humber (one did use a boat for a stretch!) to prove a point.  But that’s for a future post.

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