By Andrew Plaster

Published in B&AFHS Journal 138 December 2009

"A Lost Parish"

Northwick was a chapelry and tithing in the parish of Henbury, in south Gloucestershire. It is situated by the river Severn in the west and bounded by the parishes of Aust, Olveston, Almondsbury and Henbury.  Prior to the 19th century, the once sparsely inhabited and isolated hamlets of Redwick and Northwick have been overtaken by the growth of both Pilning and Severn Beach.  In 1894, Redwick & Northwick Parish Council was formed, and in 1965, it was renamed Pilning & Severn Beach.  It now comprises two large villages of Pilning and Severn Beach, two small villages of Redwick and Northwick, and a hamlet of New Passage.

The area may have been settled since the Bronze Age, and there is firm evidence of Iron Age and Romano-British settlement in the Northwick area. Essentially marshy, and often inundated, habitation was necessarily sparse. The Romans began the sea wall as a defence against tides, whilst the Saxons strengthened it and commenced drainage of the marshes. The Romans constructed causeways over the marsh.  A Roman camp was excavated in the vicinity of Pilning School in the 1950s, and scattered coins have been found on the river shore.

The Cartularium Saxonicum of 955 A.D. lists Northwick as Norowican. The Saxon meaning ‘wic’ is a place or dairy farm. In the Cartularium, Redwick is listed as Hreodwican; in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Redeuuiche; and in the Close Rolls of 1230 as Radewic - literally a place of redes (reeds).

northwick church1

St Thomas's Church Northwick

Tradition tells of a Church dedicated to St George, built at Northwick at the end of the 11th century. In 1370 it is recorded that the Northwick church was in ruins. Re-dedicated to St Thomas in the 15th century, tithes were paid to the Lord of the Manor of Henbury in the 16th century. It was rebuilt upon former marshland in 1840. Northwick had all the ingredients of small village, the White Horse Inn, the church, and the Sandford’s Charity School, established in 1842. The pub thrives, though it is now overlooked by the M4 motorway, the church suffered the same fate as several earlier church buildings on this site when the east wall was declared unsafe in 1962. The church was then declared redundant and demolished with the exception of the one-bell low-square tower. The school also thrives. It once served the whole of the area from Aust to Severn Beach, and become known as Redwick & Northwick Church of England School. Farming is still the major activity. Some local farmhouses have a long history, and the Kings Arms in Redwick, a former coach house, dates from around 1641.

A survey dated 1650 of church livings suggested that Aust and Northwick were fit to be joined together as a separate ecclesiastical parish from Henbury.  In 1924 a dispute occurred at Aust and Northwick churches, the churchwardens, choir, church officials and congregation, went on strike, to oppose the appointment of lay readers instead of curates.  Letters were sent to the Bishop, who responded by stating that because they were not separate parishes and under the control of Henbury, he was unable to intervene.  Northwick parish registers dating from 1667 are kept at Bristol Record Office.

In 1536, an Act of Parliament was passed that stated “No boat shall cross the River Severn between sunset and sunrise” This was to stop the many murders, thefts and burning of houses carried out by Welsh raid across the river.  By the early 17th century improvements to drainage and sea defence systems finally created the landscape for building and working that exists today. New Passage came into existence when the ferry service was started in 1630 from Portskewett and named New Passage Ferry Company. It was all part of Redwick. During the English Civil War (1642-49), pursuit of King Charles I from Raglan Castle and over the New Passage Ferry, the chasing Cromwellian soldiers forced the ferrymen to carry them over but the tide was out and on the turn. When the boats reached the English Stones the soldiers were assured of a safe walk to land but the rush of the incoming tide all 60 soldiers weighed down by their armour were drowned. Cromwell on hearing the event closed down the ferry in 1645. It did not reopen until 1718, when the St. Pierre family revived the ferry in spite of a lawsuit brought by Beaufort interests.

By the end of the 18th century, ferry crossings from New Passage rivalled Aust, where 'regular' crossings had been made since Roman times and earlier. Aust passage became known as Old Passage to distinguish it from New Passage. Mail and passenger coaches travelled from Bristol. Records show Charles Wesley (1707-1788) a leader of the Methodist movement, the younger brother of John Wesley. Charles Wesley is chiefly remembered for the many hymns he wrote, had a lucky escape in 1743, when his ship almost foundered in stormy weather. In 1825 the New Passage Association formed, using the 30-ton steamboat "St Pierre". The commercial competition was short lived. By 1830, with faster boats and a pier, mail coaches were diverted to Old Passage.  Bristol and South Wales Union Railway purchased New Passage and Aust Ferries in 1846 at £50,000.  Following several ferry tragedies by the Aust Ferry, the Railway Company closed it down in 1855.

new passage2

New Passage in the 1860's

When the first train pulled-in in 1863, passengers were greeted by a new large hotel, promenade, tea rooms and a 594 yard railway pier. This set New Passage up for prosperity. Charles Richardson one of Brunel’s chief engineers, who had planned-out the railway line to New Passage, had the vision to tunnel beneath the river and submitted the tunnel plans in 1871. With the backing of Great Western Railway a bill was finally deposited in parliament in 1872. In 1886 the Severn Tunnel opened, the New Passage ferry became redundant. The hotel and the tea rooms survived, but two years later in 1888, the pier (piles 50 feet high, with a further 10 feet driven into the river bed, waiting rooms, offices, pontoons, 14 mooring anchors, 9510 feet of chain and 100,000 cubic feet of timber) had gone.  Despite closure of the ferry, the beach there had become popular and was frequently visited by day-trippers and Sunday school outings. Construction of the Severn Tunnel brought jobs for hundreds of itinerant workers - the railways brought work and tourism for local people, and a real alternative to farming and fishing.  A stone railway abutment pier still remains as a reminder to the original line extending into the river. There are two plaques mounted on the pier. One commemorates the railway service, and the other notes the river crossings of the Wesley brothers.

Pilning is possibly a diminutive of the Welsh pyl (a pool or creek), and ‘ing’ a common ending of plural nouns derived from Old English, referring to a river or the sons/descendants/people of the river area. A long country road called ‘Pilning Street’ (formerly called Pilend Road) stretched from Plough Inn, near to Pilning Railway Station to Awkley (in Olveston parish). The railway station was named after the road; hence the area became known as Pilning from 1863.  Pilning village is made up of two sections - Redwick and Cross Hands, named after an inn.  It was always on the route of people crossing the Severn. Mainly agricultural in early years it grew with the increase of ferry traffic, especially when the railways came, having brought many construction workers, and later railway operating staff, to the village. The influx of railway workers expanded the village to the size it remained until the 1960s when other developments took place. St Peter’s Church, built in 1855 in Cross Hands Road, is now ecumenical run jointly with local Methodists - in fact Pilning was the first village in England to do this.  Pilning suffers from its association with crossing the river as Redwick was sliced in two by the A403 coastal road serving the Severn Bridge, and is now within constant earshot of the M4 motorway and Second Severn Crossing.


Deckchairs at Severn Beach

The name Severn Beach was given when Ordnance Survey mapped the area in 1850, after the nearby Beach Farm. It is recorded that Napoleonic war prisoners worked on the sea defences in the area. Prior to the beginning of the twentieth century, the area was a very quiet rural location on the Severn estuary with a sandy and pebbly beach, and was just the lonely haunt of fishermen, or of boatman plying up and down the river. The only habitations were several farms and a few cottages. The land was at below sea level, and frequently flooded at spring and autumn tides. The railway came to the area in 1900, part of a circular route from Bristol via Avonmouth and Pilning. A new railway station was built in 1922 and from then on Severn Beach expanded into a riverside resort. Robert STRIDE, a local entrepreneur started building wooden bungalows, and then houses in the area. By 1928, an iron church dedicated to St Nicholas was provided, and later a Methodist chapel. Then a paddling pool appeared on the beach and the attractions began to flourish, centred around the Blue Lagoon swimming pool. By the 1930s there were shops and a large number of amusements available to the crowds that came by train at weekends, or for an evening stroll, or even to take a week’s holiday in one of the many chalets that sprang up in the fields. There was a large hotel and a boating lake, and many cafes catered for the visitors. Severn Beach became known as ‘The Blackpool of the West’.

blue lagoon

The Blue Lagoon

By the 1960s the heyday of Severn Beach as a resort had waned. The motorcar meant people could go further afield, and the amusement area became dilapidated. Because the village now contained many more houses the danger of flooding had to be addressed and the Blue Lagoon was demolished, along with boating lake, to allow sea defences to be greatly improved. With new housing, there is very little left of the ‘old’ Severn Beach. Even the huge public house The Severn Salmon, built in 1936, and run for so many years by the well-known SELLICK family, has gone.

At the beginning of the 21st century Severn Beach is a thriving place with more new houses being built and has become a dormitory village. St Nicholas Church finally closed in 2001 when declared its iron building unsafe.  Motorways and the Second Severn Crossing now dominate the area. However, one can still take the train to Severn Beach from Bristol and enjoy bracing walks along the banks of the River Severn.


  1. o       ‘Around Severn Beach’ by Pilning & Severn Beach Local History Group
  2. o       Various newspaper articles from Bristol Evening Post
  3. o (the website of the parish council).

My thanks goes to Eric Garrett for providing some additional information.

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