Newark on Trent mooring post

Newark on Trent mooring post, photograph by Paul Fillingham

Turgid Trent: Introduction

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 first of four essays, project editor James Walker explores the personality of a river as defiant and unpredictable as the lead character of the novel.

The Trent may be thirty odd miles shorter than the Thames but due to the size of its major tributaries, it can claim to be the core of the greatest river system in England.

It rises 30 miles from the salt waters of the Mersey Estuary and then for the next 170 miles somewhat illogically works its way eastwards before spilling out into the North Sea.

Or rather, it sets its course south, then east and then heads due north, spreading wildly while stubbornly refusing the natural route offered by the geological configuration of the land.

This meandering has created shallows and an uncertain temper, which means it has to be indulged at various points; as quickly as it is able to flood an entire area it can wither to such an extent that it is rendered unnavigable.

Needless to say, this defiant, unpredictable and rebellious river shares its character with the people of Nottingham. Particular resonance is seen in the fact that it refuses to head southwards, like others in the UK, and instead turns a crooked smile through the heart of England that has acted at more than one point in history as the dividing line between the north and south.

Although the personality of the Trent fits neatly into the cherished identity of the East Midlands as a region, it is equally plausible that its route could be described as indecisive. Or perhaps a fitting metaphor could be conjured from the 450 tons of waste matter carried to sea on its currents each day. No wonder Sillitoe referred to it as the “turgid Trent”.

The Trent begins its journey, more or less, in Biddulph Moor, where it is immediately sullied as it passes by the Hanley sewage works near the aptly named Fowlea Brook, and picks up more impurities via industrial pollution at Stoke. But this is nothing compared to when it is joined by the misleadingly named River Tame at Rowley Regis. Here it bloats to double its former size, gaining 90 million gallons of sewage effluent, which strip it of almost all life for the next eight miles. If the Trent is a film, then these are the opening rounds of the first ‘Rocky’.

Fortunately, by the time it reaches the aptly named River Dove, it’s in for a right treat. Rejuvenation comes courtesy of the Dove’s crystal-clear waters and over the next eight miles of its journey to Gainsborough, this much needed purification transforms the Trent into the most popular coarse fishing river in England. This energy boost is exactly what it needs as it gears up for a head on collision with the River Derwent, swiftly followed by flirtations with the Trent and Mersey canals. As the M1 sticks its long grey tongue out in disapproval at all of this aquatic philandering, the rivers part company in an amicable split. This is where we find Sawley Marina, set against the backdrop of the eight concrete cooling towers built in the 1960s that Alan Sillitoe was so mesmerised by, describing them as “symbols of civilisation, producing light for the delectation of everyone”.

The misleadingly named Radcliffe-on-Soar actually draws its water supplies from the Trent rather than the Soar, but it is prepared to let this pass as it has now started its 45 mile journey through Hood County, with Attenborough nature reserve marking its midpoint juncture.

Clifton Grove occupies half of the only stretch of the Trent’s southern bank to be included in Nottingham City’s official boundary, and the Grove itself was celebrated in a famous poem written by the 17 year old Henry Kirke-White in 1815 a poem whose lines about pallid factory workers and industrially tainted skies led to at least one critic demanding the young poet be horsewhipped for his slander: the spirit of Arthur Seaton obviously had plenty of forerunners.

The nearby Clifton estate developed in 1951, signalled a remarkable turnaround from the notorious city slums of the previous century. So impressive was the utilisation of space at Clifton that planners from around the world came to admire it.

The long loop that runs from Wilford to Trent Bridge is arguably the Trent’s most iconic stretch with the steps of the Victoria Embankment leading straight down into the water. These recreation grounds were the start of the last great ambitious Victorian project for the city to celebrate the opening of Nottingham Station in 1899. The other side of the embankment had to wait until 1923 for a similar vanity makeover when protests about a proposed £20,000 memorial cenotaph in the city centre convinced the Corporation to instead invest in a memorial gateway to the recreation ground.

There has been a bridge over the Trent for well over One-Thousand years, but previous wooden incarnations have been swept away or damaged at various points. If you had been passing over the Trent in 1303, the bridge, like many of the period, would have included a chaplain performing daily services for tradesmen and travellers, as medieval bridges were charitable institutions. Now the only public service to be found is a hotdog stand on match days to keep those heading for the Forest and County grounds properly fed.

After the disastrous floods of 1795, toll charges were suggested to help maintain the bridge, but rebellious locals declared any attempt at enforcing tolls an act of war and made them impossible to collect.

The medieval bridge was replaced in 1871. William Cubitt’s design was 700 feet long and 40 feet wide with three main spans and four flood arches. This was widened in 1925 to accommodate four lanes of traffic.

Despite having two football grounds and a cricket stadium within a mile of each other, and industry growing along its banks, Nottingham would never be labelled, like Stoke, Newark and many other centres, with the ‘On-Trent’ suffix. The city remained on the sandstone hill and outcrop a mile North, wisely avoiding the flooding that had plagued local rivals in Derby.

The marshlands of its flanks were left to recreation and beauty, earning Nottingham an enviable reputation as a garden city. But the blue crocuses that were the symbols of the Meadows would soon be built over with houses and industry that would see Nottingham become one of the unhealthiest and overcrowded towns in the country, with an average lifespan of twenty-two, seven years below the national average. It was reported in Emrys Bryson’s Portrait of Nottingham (1974) that in one “teeming rookery” in the 19th century 4,283 people were found occupying 883 houses crammed into an area of less than nine acres.

The Meadows was a big problem with up to thirty people sharing one privy. When enough sewage was accumulated in the alley it was sold to ‘muck majors’ who would dump it on the street ready to be collected by barges. To make matters worse, the inadequately drained lavatories were so far below flood level that proper drainage was impossible and so any flooding sent sewage sweeping into houses, bringing devastating diseases with it as late as 1947, when flooding covered an incredible twenty-eight miles of streets in excrement.

Given the devastating effects of the “turgid Trent” it is understandable to see why, at the end of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Arthur Seaton looks down on the newly developed estates with a sense of resignation and acceptance that perhaps being ‘caught’ with a new home and marriage isn’t such a bad thing:

“Without knowing what you were doing you had chewed off more than you could bite and had to stick with the same piece of bait for the rest of your life. It meant death for a fish, but for a man it might not be so bad. Maybe it was only the beginning of something better in life…if you went through life refusing all the bait dangled before you, that would be no life at all. No changes would be made and you would have nothing to fight against.” – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.


Turgid Trent: Canals
Read James Walker’s second essay in which he explores the history behind the spots where Arthur Seaton tried to gain a little solitude.



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)


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