People have always used water to find their way, by boat, on horseback or by foot. The Big Track follows some forgotten routes along the Trent Valley that trace much of Nottingham’s history.
Started in 1796, the canal was built to link Nottingham to the coal mines of the Erewash valley to the north and the markets of Grantham to the south. The warehouse of carriers Fellows, Morton and Clayton, now a pub (see Waterfront bars), still has a crane for lifting goods from the boats.
Heading south along London Road, the former lace factory, Hicking Ltd, is now an apartment block. Turneys Quay, just before Trent Bridge, has been turned into apartments, too. It was a huge leather dressing works that you could get to by canal, river and road, although only the roadside building still survives. You can see the oldest bridge on the canal next to Iremonger Road.
The word Trent is an old English word for trespasser, here meaning a river that often flooded its banks and changed course. Hethbeth Bridge was the medieval causeway. From the remnant that survives you can see how low and near the powerful currents it must have been. It had a history of collapsing, too – which can’t have been reassuring for the kings, queens and their followers who edged across it on horseback or in carriages. Today’s bridge was built in 1877 by the Nottingham Corporation. Between 1924 and 1926 its width was doubled to cope with the growth in traffic.
Nottingham has a long history of enjoying itself. And the riverbank has long been an area for fun and games. In the Middle Ages it was reputed to be one of the best open spaces in England. In the eighteenth century locals played football, early morning cricket and raced each other on Shrove Tuesday. By the end of the 19th century sport had become regularised. Nottingham’s biggest sports clubs – Forest, County and Nottinghamshire County Cricket Club, as well as the rowing clubs, are still nearby, which means that Nottingham people continue to come down to the river for their recreation.
In 1901 the Victoria Embankment provided a setting for more amusement. The boat clubs, tree-lined roads, war memorial, gardens and suspension bridge are all ideal for promenading – seeing and being seen. The park west of Wilford Grove was bought by the Nottingham Corporation with money raised from the sale of land for the new Midland Station.
The bridge was built by the Clifton family in 1870 to pay off their debts. Before that a chain ferry was hauled across the river, carrying goods, animals and people to the meadows, as the seventeenth century Ferry Inn reminds us. Queen’s Walk in the Meadows, which goes from the Toll Bridge to Nottingham, is a Victorian promenade designed as a recreation walkway for the working class.
There is a statue of Sir Robert Clifton, a popular Liberal MP during the nineteenth century when Nottingham was famous throughout England for its riotous and radical politics, in the days before the private ballot.
Beneath the shadow of the medieval church of St Wilfrid’s are magnificent carved slate headstones and an 18th century gazebo. This curious structure was built to enjoy views of the Trent. Its ground floor was also used as a mortuary for bodies washed up by the river. Wilford’s tall grass, pools of water and flat, marshy landscape remind us of how the Meadows would have looked before the land was enclosed in the 1840s. Before the industrial revolution Wilford was a successful agricultural community. You can tell this from the number of old farm buildings, Queen Anne-style rectory and ornate slate headstones.
The river runs in almost a straight line, directed by the cliff on the southern bank. The ancient part of Clifton got its name from the cliffs where the medieval church of St Mary stands today. Next to the church is one of the county’s finest 18th century houses, Clifton Hall. There is a small wharf below it designed to take coal to markets in the south of the county.
The landscape becomes flat here, at the centre of the Trent Valley, often a region of arable farming. Beeston means long grass farm, while the Rylands Long once housed narrow furlong fields for growing rye.
From the canal you can see the Boots complex, housing a company that began life in the late 19th century on Nottingham’s Goose Gate. By the 20th century the company had become international, and the style of architecture here reflects its transformation. The Boots D90 offices were designed by the American team of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. The surrounding area showcases other 20th century industries, including the Players Horizon factory.
The River Leen was diverted into the Trent in the 11th century. William the Conqueror built a castle high on the sandstone rock to control the region. The new watercourse was an extra defence, a route for supplies – and it powered the Castle’s mills.
The Castle became the Duke ofNewcastle’s property in 1663. He created a mansion reminiscent of stately designs in Italy or Prague, following the fashion created by Grand Tours of Europe after a young nobleman’s formal education had ended. The stone is distinctly less glamorous, being largely local sandstone from Trowell and Mansfield.
In 1831 during the Goose Fair, riots broke out and the people of Nottingham set fire to the Duke’s mansion. The Duke, a member of the House of Lords, was influential in defeating the Reform Bill which would have given the vote to poorer people. After the castle’s restoration it became England’s first municipal museum of art. Castle Boulevard, running alongside the canal, was built after the Extension Act of 1877. This allowed Nottingham to build on land called the King’s Meadows, creating tree-lined boulevards – Lenton, Radford and Gregory – encircling the old town.