Spotlight on the River Trent

by Frank E Earp

AT 185 miles (294K), the River Trent is one of Englandʼs major rivers. For around half of its length, from its source on the slopes of Biddulph Moor in Staffordshire, the Trent flows in a roughly easterly direction.

Around Radcliffe-on-Trent it begins to take a more northerly direction and from Newark-on- Trent is flowing almost due north. This part of the river forms a natural boundary between the counties of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. The Trent ends its journey at Trent Falls, where it joins the River Ouse to become the Humber, which finally empties into the North Sea near Grimsby. The Trent is a tidal river and in ancient times, using this flow, was navigable beyond Nottingham. 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 is that the Trent, like the River Seven, exhibits a ʻtidal boreʼ known as the Trent Aegir. When conditions are right the Aegir produces a 5ft
(1.5m) 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 is believed that the name is formed from two Celtic words – ʻtrosʼ (over) and ʻhyntʼ (way) producing ʻtroshyntʼ (over-way). Because of the riverʼs tendency to flood and alter its course, this has been interpreted as meaning ʻstrong floodingʼ or more directly ʻthe


Credit: Nottingham Hidden History Team

Another possible meaning is ʻa river that is easily fordedʼ. The name ʻTrisantona Fu (Trisantona River) for the Trent first appears in ʻThe Annalsʼ, the work of the Roman historian Tacitus. Researchers at the University of Wales suggest the name is derived from the Romano-British, (again Celtic) — ʻTrisantanoʼ – trisent (o)-on-ʻa – (through-path) — which has been given the enigmatic interpretation of ʻgreat feminine thoroughfareʼ. If this is correct, does it suggest that the river was regarded as a manifestation of a Celtic goddess?

Until comparatively recently, with the acceptance of the concept of the Midlands, the geographical location of the Trent was 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 under the Emperor Claudius invaded Britain in 43 AD. For political and other reasons, the Roman army did not cross the Trent into Brigante territory until 71 AD. In medieval times, the Royal Forest was subject to a separate ʻJustice in Eyreʼ on different sides of the river and the jurisdiction of the Council of the North started at the Trent.

As indicated by one of the interpretations of the name Trent – ʻa river that is easily fordedʼ – 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, element in their name — indicating the site of an ancient ford (example, Ridware).

The Anglo Saxon element ʻfordʼ in place names like Wilford, where in 1900 a Roman ford was discovered, demonstrates that these fords were in use for many generations. These fording places were not just a place where a track crossed a river.


Credit: The Paul Nix Collection

AT Wilford, the way across the water was paved and black oak piles on either side marked its root. 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. This does not mean that there were no bridges in earlier times.

There is evidence to show that there may have been a Roman stonebridge at Barton-Island near Attenborough. In 1985, the remains of a wooden bridge of distinctly Viking workmanship — dating from the early 11th century — were discovered in gravel workings around Castle Donnington.

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 bellow the hall. Another legend is similar to that of the River Dart in Devon, where an old rhyme says: ʻRiver Dart, River Dart. Every year thou claims a heartʼ.

The Trent, from Trent Bridge to Clifton, is said to be dangerous and must claim four lives a year to make it safe. Could it be that gruesome finds in the river near Clifton offer an explanation for this old belief? Click on the link to read more:

About nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam

Originally formed in 1965 to try to save or at least record before destruction the cave sites continually discovered during the major redevelopment of the City that took place in Nottingham in the 1960′s. Almost every day new sites were unearthed and destroyed before anyone was notified; last thing they wanted was someone telling them to stop what they were doing; TIME is MONEY. The word HIDDEN in the Team’s title is because a lot of what was being invisibly lost in the redevelopment was our early history in the caves, they are under most, if now all, of Nottingham. In the 80’s and 90’s the Team conducted with the help of Dr Robert Morrell and Syd Henley, research and work on Nottingham’s history, folklore and local archaeology. The Team published quarterly magazines on their findings. The Team lapsed for a few years after the death of Paul Nix who was the team leader for thirty plus years. The Team has reformed and is now back working on Nottingham local history. On this blog you will find a series of history, folklore and archaeological related articles and information. Most of the material published will be specifically related to Nottingham/shire local history.
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One Response to Spotlight on the River Trent

  1. fred says:

    My life was nearly taken by the trent at clifton when i was a teenager while swimming in it. It was like i was being pulled down below the surface. Sadly one of my mates lost his life a couple of years later

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