Last September, me and my boyfriend walked from one end of the River Trent to the other. As you do. It’s 185 miles long, in case you’re wondering.
I know it’s pretty unimpressive in world terms. The Nile is over 4,000 miles long. The Amazon and the Yangtse not much shorter. But the Trent is the third longest river in Britain. This is only a little island, you can’t go far without hitting the sea.
In fact, the Trent goes to a lot of trouble to get as long as it does in the small span available. It starts in Staffordshire, and then goes down a bit, along a bit, then up again, in a great big ‘U’ shape, before joining the Humber Estuary north of Scunthorpe.
All I can say is, much as I’d like to do the Nile one day, it took us three weeks to walk the Trent. It seemed long enough to us.
We got blisters, and sore feet. We had adventures. We had arguments on towpaths. I burst into tears on more than one occasion. We learned a lot about working together. We got stung by nettles. We had so much fun I’m now 7½ months pregnant…
(I like to think Tales from the River was a good training ground for parenthood. You’ve got to give yourself little obstacle courses in life, haven’t you, to make sure you’ll be able to cope when the big stuff comes along?)
We did all this because… well, because it seemed like a romantic idea and we wanted to be modern-day troubadours. We put on shows along the way – storytelling and playing music everywhere from the back rooms of pubs to a university conference centre. It was partly a mythical adventure, and partly a great big experiment in new ways of doing public engagement. Our shows were all about the Trent – its history, its geology and our journey along it.
We learned loads about rivers, and the River Trent particularly. My personal prime directive is that real public engagement is a two-way process, where you have to be willing to change too.
This journey changed our view of rivers and the Trent in all sorts of ways. Not least because the Trent now feels a bit like someone we know – we followed it from being a tiny trickle, to being a half-mile-wide river. You get attached. But I’ll leave the emotional journey for future posts…
I started writing, trying to answer the question, what do two people who knew almost nothing about rivers and about the Trent learn from making a journey like this? And the post started getting too long. So I’m chopping it up into bits and will post them one by one.
Think of them as rivulets. So here is rivulet the first:-
“Towns have turned their backs on the river”
I can’t remember who said this to us now. But walking North out of Newark, along the river, past crumbling warehouse that would once have been a bustling waterfront, I knew what they meant. It was similar all along the Trent. There’s the odd strip of regenerated bars and cafes. But most of the time when you’re walking through towns along the river it’s all cracked concrete, broken windows and buddleias growing out of guttering.
A canal-side warehouse in Stoke on Trent
Parts of towns and cities which used to be central hives of activity are now unimportant, forgotten, somewhere you wouldn’t walk on your own. The thoroughfares of commerce have moved elsewhere. The river’s still there, the town’s still there, but… the town has turned its back on the river.
Towns like Newark and Gainsborough used to be significant inland ports. I’d never even heard the term ‘inland port’ before we walked down the Trent. Raw materials like tobacco, cotton, food stuffs would come from overseas, often from the empire, down the Humber, down the Trent, to Gainsborough or Newark. There they could be transferred into smaller vessels and sent – via river and canal – on to industrial centres like Nottingham, where they’d be processed or manufactured into finished goods – cigarettes, clothing, etc.
There was a whole way of life based around the freight on the river, which has now almost disappeared. Since WW1, river and canal freight has been in decline, as roads and rail became cheaper and more convenient.
In Newark, we met a man called Les Reid. He’s been fascinated by the river since childhood. He used to bunk off school as a boy, and get lifts on barges going up the river. His Mum would come looking for him at Newark wharf and be told he was probably in Scunthorpe, but not to worry, ‘cos one of the captains would bring him back later.
Les Reid, on the deck of his barge
He spent his working life on freight barges on the Trent. He can identify any barge that worked the Trent, just by hearing its whistle. He knows all the stories and the families. He’s spending his retirement re-fitting one of the old barges and creating Newark Heritage Barge, to celebrate and record this disappearing history.
Les is bitter that the local council don’t support the work he’s doing, but would rather put their heritage money into a Civil War Visitors Centre,
“The Civil War was – what? – three years of the town’s history. But they don’t care about something that was part of the real life of the town for a hundred years or more!”
Les really deserves his own feature article. If you ever want to know anything about shipping on the Trent, he’s your man.
Newark wasn’t the only place you caught glimpses of a disappearing way of life. It was just the only place we came across someone trying to preserve it. As our journey went on we became a magnet for people’s stories about this disappearing world.
We’d be having a cup of tea in a pub, someone would point at our backpacks and ask where we were headed, and when they heard, some old guy would come over and tell us about his Granddad the boatman. I feel kind of responsible now for carrying those stories along with me and making some sense of them. That was something we never expected when we set off on our adventure.