We boarded the ‘Edward Elgar’ at Gloucester Docks, landlubbers almost childishly happy to be on the water in fine autumnal weather — and the crew seemed happy to greet us.
We were the first people to board the boat since the dreaded virus confined us to barracks, so there was a sense of liberation all round.
Up to Stourport we sailed, past the Malvern hills, where the young Elgar strode, hoping to spirit music out of the air. Past Bredon Hill, on the other side of the river, where A.E. Housman’s lovers heard ‘the larks so high, about us in the sky’.
English Holiday Cruises’ Edward Elgar riverboat has 11 twin cabins, all of which have an en-suite bathroom
The Edward Elgar meanders amid bucolic countryside
There were 14 of us on the four-star Edward Elgar inland riverboat, with 11 twin cabins, all en-suite.
There were one-way arrows around the boat, supervised by the crew, who looked after us admirably between visits to Worcester Cathedral, Upton upon Severn and the great Abbey of Tewkesbury.
The Stourport mooring is a delightful spot. Beyond the towpath is the Angel Inn, a proper boatman’s inn which serves Banks’s excellent mild. A house of illrepute it was, once upon a time. Today, it stands as witness to one of the loveliest stretches of the river, as the Severn approaches the Black Country, where so much of our history is forged. Ironbridge, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, is just over 20 miles upstream.
Returning to Gloucester is a victory parade. Worcester first, with its cathedral standing sentinel over the river.
Famous for its porcelain, Worcester is the place where, on September 3, 1651, Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army routed the Royalists trying to reclaim the crown for Charles II, two years after his father was sent to the scaffold.
The Malvern Hills, which span three counties, form a magnificent backdrop to the cruise
Upton upon Severn was one of the many eye-catching sights Michael saw along the way
It was the final battle of the English Civil War, and most of the Royalists were Scots, rounded up to make a rag, tag and bobtail outfit. Hardly a match for the soldiery fighting on behalf of ‘God’s Own Englishman’.
You can’t escape military history on the Severn. After Worcester comes Tewkesbury, just across the county boundary in Gloucestershire, where the variety of heraldic banners that adorn the buildings can’t fail to make visitors smile.
It was on the floodplains of the Severn on May 4, 1471, that Edward IV led the House of York to another of those battles which shape, and scar, our national story. The Lancastrians ran to seek sanctuary in the nearby Abbey, where they were slaughtered so mercilessly the Abbey had to be closed for purification.
Worcester Cathedral, which was completed in 1584, sits on the banks of the River Severn
The Battle of Tewkesbury, one of the decisive conflicts of the Wars of the Roses, remains a bone of contention. Each July combatants assemble to don traditional garments, pick up broadswords and re-enact the events of that bloody day. Next year, fingers crossed, they will be marking the 550th anniversary of the battle, with the usual mock trials and executions.
Tewkesbury, where the Severn greets the Avon, has a double celebration next year, because the Abbey of St Mary the Virgin will be marking 900 years of divine office. Originally a 10th-century Benedictine priory, it flourished after the Norman conquest of 1066, and is incontestably one of the great buildings of England.
Like all great places of worship, the craftsmen and stonemasons have not been idle. In the 14th century they added stained glass. In the 19th century, architect Sir George Gilbert Scott supervised some Victorian embellishment.
Tewkesbury Abbey – ‘is incontestably one of the great buildings of England’ declares Michael
English Holiday Cruises (englishholidaycruises.co.uk) has two, three, five and six-night cruises on the River Severn from £315pp.
But it is the tower which gives the Abbey its unique quality. It was considered by Pevsner, the celebrated historian of architecture, to be the most authentic Romanesque tower in all Europe.
There are great cathedrals at Worcester and Gloucester, where in 1910 music-lovers heard the first performance of Fantasia On A Theme Of Thomas Tallis, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, who is to Gloucestershire what Elgar is to Worcestershire.
There is an Abbey at Pershore, and a Priory in Malvern, yet Tewkesbury shines even in this company.
Over the course of three days, our boat meandered gently through one of the most evocative parts of the kingdom, where it takes no great leap of the imagination to inhabit the past.
Wearing that cloak of melancholy on Bredon Hill, as he surveyed this timeless landscape, Housman spoke for many: Oh, noisy bells, be dumb; I hear you, I will come.