Paul Barnett: Discovering Ghostly History

PUBLISHED: 14:10 31 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:20 20 February 2013

Purton Hulks

Purton Hulks

Paul Barnett has spent many years discovering the history of the ghostly remains of vessels embedded into the banks of the river Severn, known as the Purton hulks.

As a young lad, Paul Barnett stumbled across a strange and eerie sight when walking with his father along the banks of the River Severn at Purton. There, rising from the silt, were the majestic hulks of beached vessels, their bleached timbers and concrete frames poking out like the skeletons of great whales: a ship's graveyard.

"As a boy, I climbed on these things and, in my own mind, I was sailing the Seven Seas," Paul says. As he grew up, he began to uncover the story of why these vessels were there. It all began in 1909, when a fierce storm raged in Purton, swirling the waters of the River Severn up and over the nearby canal bank, causing massive destruction. Local traders, who relied on the canal for transport, were desperate to ensure such a disaster never happened again. It was AJ Cullis, chief engineer of the day, who came up with a brilliant plan. He asked the lightermen and barge owners to donate unwanted vessels, which were then beached along the edge of the river. These massive frames acted as barriers between the Severn and the canal.

Between 1909 and 1965, when Ferris Concrete Barge 65 was the last to be wrecked, a total of 81 vessels were beached. "This bank contains 168 years of maritime history," Paul says. "We can say that because we know the earliest, the Mary Ann, was built in Droitwich in 1840."

A former sailor himself, Paul has dedicated his life to discovering the history of the vessels known as the Purton Hulks, and to campaigning for Scheduled Monument status to give them official protection - something he's yet to achieve. His dream is to open a heritage centre devoted to the area's maritime history.

Where do you live and why?

I live in Gloucester, partly because I now work in Cheltenham as a local government officer; but mainly because it's close to the River Severn.

How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?

Since I was six. My family moved to Gloucestershire from inner-city Newcastle as economic migrants in 1974. My father was a merchant man who had the River Tyne running through his blood. After coming ashore, he worked in Swan Hunter, the shipyard; when the downturn hit the North East, he had no alternative but to seek work elsewhere, which he found at Lister's in Dursley. I can remember travelling on a charabanc-type bus to the crossroads at Slimbridge and all of a sudden seeing a cow for the first time in my life. I turned to my mother and asked, "Whatever is that?"

What's your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?

It was last weekend! I was here at Purton with members of the Nautical Archaeology Society, based in Portsmouth, surveying the remains of these vessels. It's so congested that it's difficult to know where each one begins and ends but, of the 81 that are here, we've managed to track down 76 names and potted histories so far. One - the Katherine Ellen - was impounded in 1921 for running guns for the IRA in Southern Ireland, and then went on to become the subject of an insurance fraud. Another is alleged to be haunted. Sadly, a chap took his own life on board in 1937, and there is a record of him being seen walking the decks. I was once walking alongside the same vessel at dusk when out of the mist came a large white head, floating approximately six feet off the ground. I got up to the bridge pretty quickly! That was when I realised the large white head was, in fact, a barn owl. It's a wonderful place for flora and fauna.

If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?

Without a shadow of a doubt, I'd live here at Purton. Otherwise, I'd live at Gatcombe, the village on the opposite side of the river in the Forest of Dean. What I'd really like, though, is money to spend on creating a heritage centre here. All of our trades and ways of life that were based around the river have gone: I'd like to take this maritime culture back to the people.

What we do currently have is interpretation plaques in place, sponsored by people with some Purton connection. One, for example, is dedicated to the memory of a wonderful chap, Adrian Gordon, a direct descendant of Captain James Herbert who used to own the vessel, Ada - a Fretherne-built Dandy - where the plaque now stands.

Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?

Anywhere that's too far from the hulks. The tragedy is that vandalism and theft take place regularly. There have been four incidents of major destruction in the last two years, including the time I caught people feeding timber from the Rockby, a Stroudwater barge, into their barbecue. It's not the locals - they know better.

Where's the best pub in the area?

The Lammastide Inn in Halmore, three quarters of a mile from Purton. You get a warm Gloucestershire welcome and a fine pint of real ale. Several people who used to sail these vessels sit there of an evening, having a gill, and recalling old times, such as the legendary Severn Railway Bridge disaster on 25 October, 1960, when five men lost their lives. Ask to speak to Bob Perkins: he was a lighterman working in Sharpness Docks for many years.

And the best place to eat?

You'll get hearty well-cooked food at the Dockers' Social Club in Sharpness Docks, and there's an excellent view straight down the river.

Have you a favourite tearoom?

I would recommend the parish church of St Mary the Virgin at Purton, which serves a cream tea from 2- 5pm on a Saturday and Sunday; all profits go to the church fund.

What would you do for a special occasion?

There's no better place to celebrate than the Berkeley Arms in Berkeley, where you might bump into to John Berkeley of Berkeley Castle. Mr Berkeley is a wonderful guy, who originally used to own the riverbank here at Purton. I've had 150 percent support from all the Berkeleys, as well as their estate manager Roland Brown, and I thank them.

Which shop could you not live without?

The post office in Sharpness has, sadly, had to close. However, the shop alongside it needs our support more than ever. Without our shops and our services, we simply don't have a rural community.

What is a person from the Cotswolds called?

A Severnsider.

What would be a three course Cotswold meal?

I'd have Double Gloucester cheese, vegetables from Over Farm, and Old Spot from Uley Brewery, which is always top of my list. The one thing that wouldn't be on the menu is fish. Ironically, as a sailor, I don't like it. But I also believe we've been over-fishing since the '70s - it's to do with the size of the nets and the throwback. We're sitting alongside a river that, once upon a time, was teeming with salmon and elvers. The elvers are still dwindling, and the ones that are caught are now mainly exported; but I'm glad to say the salmon are increasing on the River Severn, which is down to the management of the stocks.

What's your favourite view in the Cotswolds?

From Purton across to Gatcombe and Purton West. You've got that great expanse of water continually shifting in the foreground, the red marl of the Severn basin, and the rolling hillsides in the background. I've been to the South China Sea in the Land of the Rising Sun and I haven't seen sunsets like I've seen here, coming down across the hill from the Forest of Dean.

What's your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?

Arlingham. It's like Sheepscombe, but with a maritime feel; a lot of the vessels would sail out of there up to Gloucester, where they'd pick up salt before crossing to Ireland for the hams. The village calls itself the Arlingham Island and, if you see it via satellite pictures, you'll know why. It's based around a loop in the river; when the canal went through, it cut the village off completely: you had physically to get across water to reach it. They pride themselves on that.

Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds

The river; mariners; oolitic limestone.

What's your favourite Cotswolds building and why?

St Peter's Church, Frocester, where only the spire and the door remain. It's poetic - a remnant of a past that no longer exists.

Starter homes or executive properties?

Let's put it this way: in the good old days, the owner of a ship would take his firstborn offshore and teach him the ropes during a 10-year apprenticeship. And during those 10 years, that man would not earn a dime from his father. However, once the son had worked his apprenticeship through, he would be given a boat - the Ada in the graveyard is an example of that, bought by James for Joseph, his second eldest: "There you are, my boy; now you've learned your trade, you can go out and earn a living." So I would say, let's teach these people a trade first before they're given the opportunity to move into local villages.

What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?

Purton east, west, south, north. No bias there!

If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?

Memories and photographs of this site; that's all I'd ever take from here.

What would you change about the Cotswolds or banish from the area?

Hooligans, yobbos and vandals.

What's the first piece of advice you'd give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?

Look and listen. If you're an incomer here, that's the best way to get Cotswold people to accept you.

And which book should they read?

Anything by Hugh Conway-Jones, who is an ambassador for Gloucestershire and its maritime history; and The Flower of Gloster by E Temple Thurston - one of the last pieces of writing about the Thames & Severn Canal before it became unnavigable.

Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?

It goes without saying: from Sharpness to the Purton lower bridge, which is approximately a mile and a half. You'll see the hulks, the entire river basin, and the fantastic wildlife. One of my favourite times is during the first two weeks of October when there are thousands of starlings roosting beside the ponds around here. Come down, be quiet and patient, and be prepared to be amazed. The sky turns black as they fly in from all 360 degrees.

Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?

The cheese rolling; it's madness. Where else but Gloucestershire could they make a form of entertainment out of a gradient?

If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?

I don't know about being invisible but, if I could, I'd travel back to 1909. I'd love to have been the man on the foredeck when they beached that first vessel - his job was vital. I've often spoken to Eric Aldridge who's 89 years old and lives in Arlingham. He's the most shipwrecked man on the River Severn because he beached eight of these things! He told me they also used to put the youngest and most inexperienced guy on the foredeck and watch them stand there, waving proudly to family and friends who were watching. But when the vessel came to an abrupt stop, this lad would inevitably end up going over the front and into the mud! The final job was to put a hole in the beached vessel to let the water in. As they already had someone who was dirty and muddy, he was the natural choice to wield the hammer!

To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?

The Purton Hulks are an epitaph. What you have here is all that's left of a Cotswold way of life.

The Cotswolds - aspic or asphalt?

I can answer that in relation to the hulks; and certainly, as far as Purton is concerned, preservation is a word I don't use. Timber will rot; concrete will fall to bits. No matter what you or I want, the force of nature will continue to act here, and that's a destructive force. The only thing we can have is preservation through documentation, photographs and the memories we've recorded.

Having said that, the one destructive force we don't want is the hand of man. This is an SSSI, which means the flora and fauna have protection. It's the same with the geology: if you took a hammer to the rock round here, it would be an offence. But if I were to come with that same hammer and take a chunk off a concrete lighter, that would be acceptable. In my view, English Heritage should designate it a Scheduled Monument.

With whom would you most like to have a cider?

Nelson springs to mind, but he'd have been too busy. So in his place, I'd like to meet Captain Beattie, second in command at Trafalgar. Beattie was about to go out and give the French and Spanish a good hiding when he was told to get back in line. If I'd been him, I wouldn't have listened - as English Heritage are finding out to their cost. This is my Trafalgar, here.

You'll find the Purton Hulks along the river bank between Purton and Sharpness. Paul Barnett takes guided tours by arrangement; he can be contacted on 07833 143231 or via email at

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