The River Teme – was it ever navigable?

We are fortunate in this corner of Worcestershire to be living in one of the most beautiful areas of Britain, with the picturesque river Teme meandering through, from its source and small beginnings in a disused slate quarry on Cilfaesty Hill just south of Newtown in Wales, some sixty miles in length, to its confluence with the river Severn just a mile or so below Worcester.

Anyone viewing the Teme nowadays would be excused in thinking that this waterway could have never been used as a highway for commercial river trade, given it’s present physical and geographical conditions, also with it being a typical border stream with many mill weirs, rapids, unpredictable flows, rock shelves & gravel shoals all awaiting the unsuspecting traveller. And this together with a risk of sudden flash flooding, due to our unpredictable weather conditions, or times of drought with very low water levels. [Even the mighty river Severn, during it’s commercial trading years, like other navigable inland waterways, suffered this self same problem, river craft could lie idle for weeks at a time, waiting for a change in conditions.] Whatever the given conditions, any navigation on the Teme would have been fraught with difficulties and danger at the best of times, and to imagine it being used as a commercial highway in the past, would have been unthinkable.

However, the regime of the Teme apparently has changed dramatically over the centuries, and to say if it was or was not navigable in the past, given the evidence available is shrouded in mystery. There is some evidence in existence to suggest that it has been used for trade. In the 17th century it is believed that “watergates” or flash locks were built into weirs to facilitate navigation beyond Ludlow. Also some records suggest that it was capable of bearing small boats or barges some 40 miles upstream from the Severn. There is also pictorial evidence to support this theory with a number of paintings and engravings depicting square rigged vessels operating on the river above the weirs at Ludlow. There are also 18th and 19th century newspaper advertisements for the sale of small vessels of 10 ton burden at Eastham & Stanford Bridge. It also believed that the bells for Shelsley Beauchamp church were shipped by water from a foundry at Gloucester. One can only imagine the Teme was used for trade in the distant past on stretches between weirs and other obstacles, with cargoes being transhipped from vessel to vessel en route. Even so, it must have been a very tedious exercise, especially when moving upstream against the flow.

Having walked the Teme valley from its confluence to its source, there are very few rights of way that actually access the river bank, which suggest there were never any tow-paths. I can honestly say I didn’t see any tangible evidence to suggest that it ever did bear commercial transport at least in the more recent past. There are no sign of locks or derelict wharfings etc.

Unlike other navigable rivers, the movement of goods and people had a large effect on the social life on riverside towns and communities. Whatever transport the Teme may have been used for in more recent years would have been more localised, e.g. for ferries, boating for pleasure, canoeing and coracle regattas etc.

What is for certain is that the Teme was navigable for the first mile or so from the Severn up to the mills at Powick, were there was once a coal wharf.

So given the evidence, where does the truth lie? At this stage, the jury is still out, but being a fascinating subject, it deserves further research, and maybe someday hopefully may turn up an answer.

Compiled by Derek Marks, April 2008

Postscript (February 2015)

The common public right of navigation on all rivers capable of supporting it has never been repealed, and the Teme is a contentious river in this regard. For those interested in more information on this topic, the following links might prove a useful starting point.