Posted on 16/04/2019
Growing up in Bristol, the Avon was the river of rivers to me. It gave my city its iconic image, flowing through the rocky gorge beneath the Clifton Suspension Bridge, past the industrial smokestacks of Avonmouth and into the Severn Estuary, connecting my home with the sea and the wider world beyond. In the other direction it was a link to the Regency grandeur of Bath Spa, with its graceful streets of Cotswold stone, and to summer swimming spots beside dandelion-sprinkled meadows. An artery of trade, exploration, slavery and colonialism – the river that launched John Cabot to North America in 1497, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain in 1843 – it gave me an early understanding of Bristol’s rich and checkered past.
As I grew older I cycled the length of the Kennet & Avon Canal, a traffic-free 87 miles that took me past the Dundas Aqueduct and the famous flight of 29 locks at Caen Hill, near Devizes. Completed in 1810 to create a navigable waterway between the west and the east of England, from the Avon to the Thames, it fell into disrepair with the coming of the Great Western Railway, was restored in the late twentieth century, and now forms one of the prettiest stretches of the Canal & River Trust network. Everything went wrong on that trip – I started out badly prepared and hungover on a morning of torrential rain, and ended up with not one but two flat tyres on the outskirts of Slough – but still I finished the ride triumphant, exhausted but empowered. A few years later I returned the same way by narrowboat, inching back into the west at four miles per hour. When the canal met the Avon, I felt I had come home.
Before I actually studied a map I assumed, naturally enough, that ‘my’ Avon was the same river that glides through Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, the hometown of Shakespeare, with its swans and weeping willows. And when I discovered that there was an Avon flowing across Salisbury Plain, a short distance from Stonehenge, I assumed it was my old friend, though how it had meandered so far east I wasn’t entirely sure. But then I found myself in the Cairngorms in the north-east of Scotland, on the banks of the Avon again (or the A’an in the Gaelic) – a mountain beck bubbling over stones, flowing down from its eponymous loch – and realised that there was no way these waters could all be connected.
A bit of research revealed that there are no fewer than six Avons in England: the ‘Bristol Avon’ I think of as mine, which starts in Gloucestershire and ends in the Severn; ‘Shakespeare’s Avon’, which also ends in the Severn, but starts in Northamptonshire; the ‘Salisbury Avon’, which flows south from Wiltshire into the English Channel; the Little Avon in Gloucestershire, less than 10 miles long; Avon Water in the New Forest, which empties into the Solent; and the Avon that drains from Dartmoor, also called the Aune. There are three more Avons in Scotland – flowing into the Firth of Forth, the River Spey and the Clyde – and one (spelled Afan) in Wales. It doesn’t stop there: there are two in Canada, two in New Zealand and five in Australia, as if the name itself flowed out on the tide of colonialism.
Why so many rivers with the same name? The answer is a simple one, and takes us back thousands of years to the time when Celtic languages were spoken throughout Britain. Avon, A’an, Aune and Afan all derive from abona, the Common Brittonic word for ‘river’, which has survived in modern Welsh as the word afon. ‘River Avon’ is a tautology; it just means ‘River River’.
My early inkling was right: the Avon is the River of Rivers. Unlike in Wales or Scotland, where the Celts never went away, the languages of the ancient Britons have left remarkably little trace on the English landscape. Most English place-names are Anglo-Saxon, Old French or Old Norse, the legacy of waves of invasion that swept the original names away. But our Avons, in their various forms, flow clearly from that Celtic past. Through hills and mountains, woods and fields, valleys and meadows, cities and towns, they connect us to a time when every river was the Avon.