River Trent reflections, photograph by Paul Fillingham
Turgid Trent: Canals
Originally published in 2012 as part of theSpace arts project funded by Arts Council England and the BBC
The fourth featured location on the trail is the “turgid Trent” and the canals where the novel’s anti-hero Arthur Seaton would take in a bit of fishing to escape the noise of the factory and the gossiping neighbours. In his second of four essays, project editor James Walker explores the history behind the spots where Arthur Seaton tried to gain a little solitude.
A canal ran from Langley Mill through Nottingham to the River Trent for more than one hundred and fifty years, stretching over fourteen miles. Now all that remains of the former canal within Nottingham is a two-and-a-quarter mile stretch from Lenton to the River Trent.
The overflow weirs, which carried the water around the locks, would have been a favourite hotspot for catching fish, although in the novel Arthur Seaton enjoys a bit of fishing on the Nottingham to Erewash Canal, in particular the stretch between Wollaton and Trowell known as Balloon Woods.
Most of the canal is gone now, although the canal towpath is still there, though not enough of it survives to justify Julia Bradbury to one of her televised walks. This stretch also runs adjacent to Cossall Fields where Arthur liked to take a ‘stroll’ with female acquaintances in the very same place D H Lawrence wrote about in The Rainbow. If we ever decide to do a literary tour of sexual hotspots in Nottingham once this project is finished, the canal towpath might be the first stop on our map.
In the 1960 film adaptation we see Arthur and Bert head off for a bit of fishing where Clayton’s Bridge crosses the Nottingham canal on Lenton Lane but if you’re thinking of popping up to Nottingham to relive this moment, forget it. It’s no longer possible to cycle down to the canal at this point, and besides, you would be in the wrong place. The fishing scenes were shot on the Grand Union Canal in Greenford.
So, what happened to the canal and how did it end up going the same way as the previous two locations on our trail, the White Horse pub and the Raleigh factory?
The Erewash canal was completed in 1779 to provide a connection between Erewash and Langley Mill with the purpose of serving local collieries, but as this created a monopoly, a new outlet was proposed. William Jessop, one of Britain’s greatest civil engineers, was commissioned to do the survey and had to ensure his proposed route satisfied the needs of prominent landowners. He submitted an estimate of £49,920, which included four embankments, twenty locks and forty-two Occupational Bridges, and after a little tweaking to suit the mining interests of Lord Middleton, received Royal Assent for his proposal in 1792.
The canal would run from a junction with the Cromford Canal to a junction with the Trent below Trent Bridge, passing through Eastwood, Greasley, Nuthall, Cossall, Trowell and Wollaton. When it was eventually completed in 1802, the overall cost had nearly doubled to £80,000, though this was due to inflation following yet another war with France rather than any miscalculation by William Jessop.
The canal bed was lined with clay puddle trampled in by men and horses. The workers, known as Navvies, were low-paid and employed like piece workers, only receiving money for the amounts of earth moved each day. They would move from area to area, wherever the work was, and quickly developed a reputation as hard drinkers. Arthur Seaton may have been able to out-drink a sailor in the opening pages of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning but if he had stepped back a century he would almost certainly have met his match.
The finished canals acted as artificial water channels that linked to navigable rivers to enable the transportation of goods. The main cargo was coal, followed by iron, lime, limestone and manure, but the industry quickly declined with the birth of the railways. In 1841, receipts for the Nottingham Canal Co were £12,536. A decade later, they had dropped by half to £5,981.
By 1855, the Nottingham Canal Co was bought out by the Ambergate, Nottingham, Boston and Eastern Junction Railway Company. This was hardly a lucrative deal for the Railway owners and the resulting lack of investment in maintenance meant many areas suffered from water shortages. The last traffic through the canal above Lenton passed through in 1928, the year that Sillitoe was born. It was eventually abandoned in 1937, on grounds that it cost £3,500 a year to maintain.
The filling in of the canal between Lenton Chain and above Wollaton started in 1955 when its waters were drained and piped from the Lenton end of Derby Road to Radford Bridge Road. So even if Arthur Seaton had fancied a bit of fishing he would have had to come further into the town. Although Sillitoe himself would not have been aware of these changes as he sat penning the novel under an orange tree in Mallorca, it would be, oddly enough, Seaton’s employer, Raleigh, who purchased the portion of canal between Derby Road and Wollaton. The bridge is now a pedestrian underpass that links Western Boulevard with Middleton Boulevard.
By 1962, lock chambers 6 to 12 along the route had been removed, taking half of the Wollaton flight with them. In their place, you will now find the likes of a community centre and Seaford Avenue Playground.
By 1966, all remaining locks up to 19 shared a similar fate. Now it is virtually impossible to trace the route of the canal without reference to old maps, due to most of the land it once passed through having been filled in and flattened to make way for roads, business parks and housing estates. The very symbols of modernity and domesticity that Arthur Seaton feared being trapped by have erased the course of the canal he used to fish beside.
Turgid Trent: Caught I
Read James Walker’s third essay in which he explores the fishing metaphor of being caught and applies it to Sillitoe’s career as an emerging writer in 1958.
The Sillitoe Trail
Take your own interactive tour of the author’s city and follow in Arthur Seaton’s footsteps around Nottingham, exploring the real locations of key scenes from the novel. You can go back to the Old Market Square or visit The White Horse pub, the Raleigh factory, the River Trent and Goose Fair. For updated content, visit Sillitoe Trail Xtra
Follow: Arthur Seaton @Thespacelathe on Twitter
Download: Sillitoe Trail Factory Handbook (17MB PDF)
Fillingham and Walker 2012 - 2023