Street Tales: Spotlight on the River Trent

Words: Joe Earp
Monday 05 June 2017
reading time: min, words

The history lessons you'd never have got at school...


At 185 miles (294K) long, the River Trent is one of England’s major rivers. It’s also tidal, and in ancient times was navigable beyond Nottingham using this flow. Later, human and natural constraints on the river, including the building of Trent Bridge, limited navigation and reduced the tidal flow.

In 867 AD, the Danish Vikings came up the Trent to Nottingham and Repton in their long ships. A little-known fact: the Trent, like the River Severn, exhibits a “tidal bore” known as the Trent Aegir. When conditions are right, the Aegir produces a five foot wave which travels inland as far as Gainsborough. Without modern constraints, the Aegirʼs effect would have been felt as far as Nottingham.

The River Trent, like most rivers and other natural features, derives its name from the earliest recorded language in Britain. It’s believed that the name is formed from two Celtic words – “tros” (over) and “hynt” (way) producing “troshynt” (over-way). Because of the riverʼs tendency to flood and alter its course, this has been interpreted as meaning “strong flooding” or, more directly, “the trespasser”.

Another possible meaning is “a river that is easily forded”. The name “Trisantona Fu” (Trisantona River) for the Trent first appears in The Annals, the work of Roman historian Tacitus. Researchers at the University of Wales suggest the name is derived from the Romano-British “Trisantano” (through-path) which has been given the enigmatic interpretation of the “great feminine thoroughfare”, perhaps suggesting a manifestation of a Celtic goddess.

Recently, the geographical location of the Trent has been accepted as the boundary between northern and southern England. The course of the Trent and Humber separated the tribal territories of the Coritani, to the south, and the Brigantes, to the north. The Romans invaded Britain in 43 AD, but for political and other reasons, their army didn’t cross the Trent into Brigante territory until 71 AD.

As indicated by one interpretation of the name Trent – “a river that is easily forded” – the idea of a north/south boundary was not regarded as a physical barrier. Along the course of the river there are a surprising number of places with the Celtic rid (rhyd) – a ford – in their name, indicating the site of an ancient ford (Ridware, for example). The Anglo-Saxon “ford” in place names like Wilford, where in 1900 a Roman ford was discovered, demonstrates that these fords were in use for many generations, and not just a place where a track crossed a river.

At Wilford, the way across the water was paved and black oak piles on either side marked its route. This was probably typical of such sites. That these ancient fords were later replaced by a bridge is demonstrated by places like East and West Bridgford. There is evidence to show that there may have been a Roman stone bridge at Barton Island near Attenborough. In 1985, the remains of a wooden bridge of distinctly Viking workmanship dating from the early eleventh century were discovered in gravel workings around Castle Donington.

There are many legends about the Trent. An omen of a coming death in the Clifton family was said to be the sight of a royal sturgeon swimming up the Trent and turning around in circles in the waters below the hall. Another legend is similar to that of the River Dart in Devon, where an old rhyme says: “River Dart, River Dart. Every year thou claims a heart”. According to folklore, the River Trent is said to be dangerous and must claim four lives a year to make it safe. Could it be that something fishy in the water near Clifton offers an explanation for this old belief?

For more on Nottingham History check out the Nottingham Hidden History website.

Nottingham Hidden Histories website


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