It’s probably been there since the Ice Age, but it still divides the Village. All those years the Congresbury Yeo has been both friend and villain. Those who have lived in the Village a long time will never forget the 11th July 1968. Known to everyone as the ‘Great Flood’ when 5” of rain fell in as many hours and the Yeo burst its banks and a large part of the old village was flooded. There is a plaque in the bar of the ‘Ship and Castle’ pub showing the height of the flood water which was 6’2”. In the next article I will recall the devastation the flooding caused and also the goodwill it generated.
The name ‘Yeo’ is Saxon and means River or Stream and there are a number of other rivers in the West Country that bear the same name. It starts at Compton Martin on the edge of the Mendips and flows through Blagdon lake which was constructed in the 1890’s. From the reservoir it winds its way through Wrington and then Congresbury finally discharging into the Severn Estuary at Phipps Bridge west of Kingston Seymore. Until the sluice was built the river was tidal as far as the Ship and Castle and before the railway was constructed in the 1850’s it would have been used to transport heavy goods. The total length of the river is some 20 miles and one of my ambitions is to canoe along its entire length, including going under the M5 motorway.
Most of us only see the section of the Yeo between the A370 bridge and the Weir behind Weir Road. Although this section is very accessible with the Millennium Green to the north there is a public footpath that takes you along the bank towards Wrington and if you are really energetic as far as Bath. Once past the Weir wildlife abounds including the elusive Otters.
I will explain a little about the river in more detail in subsequent articles, but there is no better place to start the series than at the Millennium Green. When I came to live in the Village 50 years ago I was struck by the fact that the shape is similar to a figure of 8. North of the Village towards Bristol is separated from the south being joined by the bridge on the A370. Until the Millennium Bridge was built in 2000 this was the only way across unless you walked along the banks as far as the Weir. We will always be in debt for the energy, vision and determination of the late Sue Grant who was the Parish Council Clerk. Without her we would have never received the grant or undertaken the work to create the Millennium Green and foot bridge. The five standing stones at the entrance to the green are a lasting memorial to her legacy and all she did for the village.
There has been a bridge in Congresbury for generations nearby to the Ship and Castle. The present concrete arch bridge was constructed in 1924 when the river was diverted and replaced the original bridge with a metal balustrade. Originally the river flowed behind the Ship and Castle with a jetty for mooring boats. Both the A370 bridge and the Millennium bridge are vital for moving around the village and enjoying the spectacular views. Although there are some 8000 traffic movements across the A370 bridge every day few people have a chance to stop and enjoy what is flowing beneath the road.
As long as the river stays within its banks it is a good friend to Congresbury. The village is like a saucer tilting from the Mendips and King Wood. It collects millions of gallons of water which is conveyed to the mouth of the Yeo at Phipps Bridge. As we experienced in January and February the amount of rainfall was the highest ever recorded and at times the water levels rose precariously close to over topping the banks. When the river rises it floods the Millennium Green flood plane until the level drops and the water drains away. In the worse case scenario it could over flow into the Village as it did in 1968. We now have Flood Wardens who check the levels and alert those most at risk. Thankfully, they have not had to sound the alarm over the wet winter.
Rivers are the quintessence image of any village. What better feature could you have and something that conjures up the romance of living in Congresbury. It adds a certain quality that few of our neighbours enjoy. Yatton doesn’t have a river, the Yeo by passes Wrington and our nearest neighbour with its own river is Banwell. So what happens on the Yeo? Well – apart from being a drain to convey water its home to thousands of fish. In the Plough is a stuffed Trout that was caught in 1926 and is said to be a record weight. It most probably came from Blagdon as Trout need a gravel bed so they can lay their eggs. Regretfully, we have a clay bed but there are plenty of other fish that like these conditions such as Pike, Roach, Perch, Tench, Rudd and Eels plus hundreds of thousands of stickle backs, much loved by children with fishing nets.
Some years ago the late Derrick Sutton who owned the Garden Nursery in Wrington Lane started a syndicate to stock the river above the Weir with Rainbow and Brown Trout. They were a wonderful sight in the mornings and evenings jumping out of the water to catch flies. Sadly, when Derrick died there was a spate of poaching and the syndicate gave up the fishing rights. When you walk along the river in the Millennium Green spend some time and admire the seat set into the bank. It was placed there in memory of Derrick and is a most beautiful piece of artwork depicting the river and a person fishing.
The river also provides drinking water for the cattle and sheep in the fields. Cattle drinks are provided so the animals can reach the water rather than trying to scrabble down the steep banks. Until a few years ago the Bowling Green used to have a pump to water their green and there was even a water turbine in the Walters Cattle feed mill which generated electricity to run their machinery. The old mill has long since gone, but the turbine was still there until a few months ago when Elliott’s temporary building factory was demolished and the site cleared for new houses.
With all the water that passes down the river every day it could be used to generate enough electricity to power at least 200 houses. That’s another subject that perhaps is worth considering on another occasion.
Spring time on the river is all about new life. The resident ducks start to pair up and look for nesting places to lay their eggs and rear a new family. They are usually the first to hatch and remind us that winter is over when the little puff balls chase their parents across the water. Along the banks and on the Millennium Green the trees are in flower and the Willows are busting with buds and long catkins. In the grass celandines and violets make a lovely splash of colour and clumps of primroses add a welcome to the new season. This year the daffodils have been better than ever thanks to the lack of hard frosts. The great swathes of charlock that have colonised the river bank on the Millennium Green are in flower and will continue for months. Because of the rain the grass has never stopped growing during the winter but is now a glowing green carpet.
To finish this first article it has to be about Willow Trees and the magnificent Oak tree that sits on the bank guarding the Millennium Bridge. The one crop that never fails and is almost the trade mark of these parts are the Willow trees that grow along the river. They love the damp and suck up enough water to fill the average size car every day in the height of summer. Plenty of water means lots of growth and they can grow 3 feet in a year. The Romans harvested the Willows by pollarding the tops every 7 years and used the wood to fuel their pottery kilns. Some the Willow trees are bound to be descendants of the Roman trees. But the knurled Oak tree sitting on the river bank next to the Millennium Bridge must be several hundred years old. What it must have seen in its long life would fill a book and I hope it continues to thrive for another couple of hundred years.
Spring on the Yeo is a wonderful time of the year and a special place to spend an hour or two. The next article will be about the early summer and all it brings.