National Character Area 69

Trent Valley Washlands - Description

The Trent Valley Washlands today

The Trent Valley Washlands NCA is a riverine landscape dominated by the drainage of the middle reaches of the River Trent as it drains towards Nottingham. It is a landscape formed by the action of glaciers and meltwaters, which carved out the river valleys and led to the deposition of huge quantities of sand, gravel and alluvium deposits.

Geology, soils and landform play a big part in the settlement pattern of the Washlands. Early settlements were constrained by the flooding of the valley bottoms. Those that do occur in the flood plains are on the drier, slightly elevated sand and gravel river terraces and at river crossing points. The linear nature of the landscape is exacerbated by its narrowness, generally less than 4 km across. A typical section comprises the rivers flowing through alluvial flood plains between slightly higher terraces of sand and gravel. At the flood plain’s edges the underlying geology rises above the thick superficial deposits in a defining landform change marking the border of the NCA. This ranges from gradual transitions from the flood plain to abrupt changes where the past action of water and ice has created steep scarp slopes and even precipitous cliffs where underlying Triassic rocks are exposed. The height of this transition is in the order of 20 to 40 m and occasionally 50 m above the valley floor, providing views over the NCA.

The main rivers are the Trent and its major tributaries, notably the Tame and the Soar, which drain in from the south, and the lower reaches of the Dove and the Derwent. They are in their mature stages in the Washlands: broad and slow moving and generally following their natural courses, though subject to much modification with weirs and canalised sections. As the name implies, much of the Washlands is subject to flooding, although less so than in the past, as in many places the rivers have been deepened or are confined by flood banks and flood alleviation schemes which, along with fringing vegetation, often hide them from view; however, regular inundation within the flood plains is still a feature, temporarily transforming the landscape.

Freshwater is a common feature, emphasised by the river and canal network and the many worked-out, flooded gravel pits. The landscape has changed through the impact of mining of sand and gravel, from active excavations with their associated infrastructure and the lasting visual intrusion of the unsympathetic restoration of some pits, although some have been restored to a high standard to the benefit of people and the natural environment.

Woodland cover is low although the landscape often appears well furnished with trees. More tree cover on prominent bordering steep slopes, in and around settlements and within parklands as well as the considerable amount of waterside trees and scrub, particularly willow, result in a well-timbered character in places. Linear tree belts are also found planted on the wide verges and embankments of major trunk roads. Withy beds, pollarded willows, ash, alder and poplar, including the occasional black poplar, mark the locations of dykes, streams and rivers and attest to a rural resource that is no longer managed. Hedgerow trees, mostly oak and ash, are generally few in number. In the pastoral parts in the flood plains where hedgerows are fuller, hedgerow trees, mainly ash and willow, are more common.

Farming is mixed, with slightly more arable land than pasture but with local variation. Arable crops tend to be grown on the higher ground and the gravel terraces where fields are large and open with low, tightly trimmed hedgerows and few hedgerow trees. Past removal of hedgerows has increased the scale of this part of the landscape. In the lower-lying and wetter areas and around the villages pastoral farmland is more common and fields tend to be smaller and the hedgerows fuller and thicker with more hedgerow trees.

The field patterns are interrupted by urban, commercial and industrial development, sand and gravel extraction, and major roads and railways.

Tranquillity is hard to find in the Washlands as they sit between major conurbations with the valleys used as transport corridors. Around a quarter of the area is classified as urban. It is crossed by the M1 and M42 motorways and by air traffic from nearby East Midlands and Birmingham airports. The immense coal-fired power station at Ratcliffe-on-Soar and redundant cooling towers at Willington dominate the landscape locally as do the huge sheds of commercial and industrial estates, and the rows of giant electricity pylons.

Villages remain compact, but the larger towns expanded rapidly in the 19th and 20th centuries and have sprawled out across the valleys with a mix of housing, commerce and industry. The main urban areas are Tamworth, Burton-upon-Trent, Derby, Long Eaton and Loughborough. Where traditional architecture has been retained typical building materials are red brick and clay plain tile or Welsh slate. More significant buildings, structures and churches are commonly built from Triassic Sherwood Sandstone quarried from nearby sources – especially from the King’s Mills area. The type of stone varies with location with Blue Lias Limestone and the hard igneous rocks of Charnwood often used in the Soar Valley. Some timber-framed buildings of the 17th century and earlier survive in parts of the inner Trent Valley and in urban cores.

Notable heritage assets include the causeway at Swarkestone, the ancient cave church near Ingleby, the Saxon crypt at Repton, the castle at Tamworth, the canals and associated Georgian architecture, the many fine churches and halls, and the highly innovative and influential 20th-century buildings of the Boots company at Beeston.

The rivers, their riparian zones and the semi-natural parts of the flood plain form the main habitats, providing migratory corridors and homes for many species including water vole, otter, redshank, kingfisher and grey heron. Flood plain grazing marsh covers 11 per cent of the NCA, mainly concentrated beside the upper reaches of the rivers where soils tend to be naturally wet with low-to-moderate fertility.

Key wildlife sites include Attenborough Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) which has an exceptional assemblage of breeding birds associated with open waters and their margins while numbers of wintering shoveler and bittern are nationally important. Lockington Marshes SSSI supports important invertebrate fauna including nationally scarce beetles and flies. The River Mease’s international designation as a Special Area of Conservation is primarily for the presence of spined loach and bullhead fish. It is a relatively unspoilt, meandering lowland river and approximately 3 km of its 25 km total length flows within the Washlands before it joins the Trent. Boulton Moor SSSI is a key site of conserved Quaternary geodiversity.

There is very little open access land; however, the rivers, canals and network of flooded gravel pits provide some access and recreational opportunities on and off the water. The towpath of the Trent and Mersey Canal provides an unbroken linear route through most of the NCA while the Trent Valley Way is a long-distance footpath starting from near the river’s source, passing through the Washlands, and on all the way to the Humber Estuary.

The landscape through time

Geological processes have had a fundamental impact on the character of the Washlands today. Most of the bedrock is undifferentiated Triassic mudstones, siltstones and sandstones known as the Mercia Mudstone Formation, formed 248 to 206 million years ago in a hot desert environment. Other than at the edges where the landform rises, this bedrock is buried under deep deposits of alluvium (silt and clay) and sand and gravel, mainly deposited during the Late Quaternary (the last 500,000 years or so). During warm, interglacial phases of this period, the Trent would have flowed as a meandering channel through its flood plain, while during cold phases meltwater from glaciers and a lack of vegetation meant that it would have flowed in multiple braided channels, moving over a wide area and changing course frequently owing to floods and blockage by ice or debris, similar to the outwash plains seen in Alaska today (Stone Age Nottinghamshire, D Budge and C Robinson, 2011). Eroded rocks, sand and gravel were washed down from melting glaciers and ice sheets forming terraces flanking the rivers, while overbank flooding events formed flood plain alluvium deposits of fine silt and clay. In places, glacial till, also known as diamicton or boulder clay, a mix of material ranging from fine silts to large stones, was formed under, and deposited by, ancient ice sheets that periodically covered the landscape. Within these deposits, fossil evidence of past landscapes and climates as well as archaeological evidence of early humans are often preserved, such as the woolly rhinoceros skeleton found among other ice-age fauna in a sand and gravel quarry near Alrewas in 2002 and hippopotamus remains found at Boulton Moor SSSI.

Humans have been active in the Trent Valley from the earliest times, the river being a major source of food and water as well as a boundary and a conduit for transportation and trade. The free-draining gravel terraces attracted settlement from Neolithic (4,000 bc to 2,500 bc) times and have retained cropmark and earthwork remains such as the elongated ceremonial ‘cursuses’ and associated burial mounds found at Willington and Aston-on-Trent. A bronze-age barrow cemetery lies near Swarkestone while two log boats dating from 1500 bc were found in a gravel pit at Shardlow, one now being housed in Derby Museum. At Catholme are a cluster of settlement remains dating from the Neolithic through to the Anglo-Saxon period.

The Romans were active in the area, building settlements at Derby and near the confluence of the Trent and Soar, and a fort at Sawley. They also built roads: Ryknild Street, which the current A38 follows, and Watling Street, crossing the Washlands at Tamworth.

Today’s pattern of settlement and enclosure became established in Anglo-Saxon times, as place names indicate. Flood risk confined settlement to the gravel river terraces and to the rising ground at flood plain edges. Key sites developed near river crossing points, mainly fords before bridges were built. Tamworth was the principal royal and administrative centre of the Mercian kings (Tamworth Castle website, accessed 12 April 2013) and by 913 had become a key fortified border town from which Aethelflaed fought the Danes, while its castle was built following the Norman conquest. Christianity was first preached in the Midlands in 653 at Repton where the Mercian royal family were baptised and founded an abbey. A community of Christian hermits lived around the Anchorite cave church near Ingleby. The Vikings were active in the 9th and 10th centuries, using the Trent for transport, and destroyed Tamworth and sacked Repton in 874.

The area was substantially cleared of woodland by the 11th century. Its villages were also established by then, operating within a landscape of open-field agriculture and extensive pastures dictated by the seasonal flooding of the rivers. Burton-upon-Trent and Swarkestone were main crossing points of the Trent for hundreds of years. The present causeway at Swarkestone dates from the late 13th century. Hemington was also a key crossing point, where the remains of several medieval timber bridges have been found. After marching from Scotland in his attempt to reclaim the British throne, Bonnie Prince Charlie and his Jacobite army arrived at Swarkestone bridge in 1745, the southernmost place that they reached and from where they turned back.

Although enclosure had taken place before 1750 many open fields farmed from village-based farmsteads remained. Holdings were generally small and mixed, with stock fattening and dairying forming a significant part of farming income. Cheese making was particularly important. This mixed economy maintained numerous small village farms, as did a pattern of piecemeal enclosure which left little room for the wholesale enclosure seen elsewhere in the east Midlands. Later enclosure prompted the amalgamation of farms and the development of some large-scale courtyard-plan red brick farmsteads. In some instances, especially to the north along the Derwent Valley, these enclosures retain the outline of furlongs of earlier common arable fields, and medieval ridge-and-furrow earthworks.

Water-powered mills such as at King’s Mills were constructed for corn, paper and grinding of gypsum which was present in the Mercia Mudstones and mined at Aston-on-Trent. As coal power took over in the 18th and 19th centuries, the close proximity to the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire coalfields together with the development of the canal, rail and road network led to the rapid growth of textile and engineering industries. The Trent and Mersey Canal was completed in 1777. Shardlow, at its start, developed into a busy port transferring freight between canal, river and road. Early settlement pattern became subsumed in the expansion of Derby, Nottingham, Tamworth and Burton-upon-Trent. Villages set on restricted gravel terraces in the flood plain tended to avoid expansion.

Stock fattening and dairying activities grew in relation to the demands of the developing urban centres in the 19th century and earlier farmsteads were rebuilt and new ones established to a variety of courtyard plans.

Attempts to restrain the natural dynamics of the River Trent and its tributaries to ease navigation and reduce flooding developed from the 18th century through the construction of flood banks and walls, weirs, channel deepening and canalisation. The River Soar became plaited together with sections of canal to form the Soar Navigation, part of the Grand Union Canal.

The availability of suitable water from the gypsum-rich bedrock led to the rapid growth of the Burton-upon-Trent brewing industry. At its height in the 19th century, 31 breweries were located in the town. Production of Marmite using brewing by-products started in 1902 while making of a new pickle commenced at nearby Branston in 1922.

As post-Second World War agricultural productivity soared, the better-drained terraces of the Washlands were developed for modern arable farming with a consequent amalgamation of fields and loss of hedgerows, semi-natural habitats and remnant ridge and furrow. Wetland habitats were lost through the deepening of the rivers by dredging, draining adjacent land.

Nearby coalfields and the availability of large quantities of water for cooling made the Trent a prime location for electricity generation with several coalfired power stations being constructed. With greater use of gas for energy generation, stations at Castle Donington, Hams Hall and Drakelow were demolished while at Willington the cooling towers remain as of 2013.

Sand and gravel deposits were extensively exploited in the 20th century to provide construction materials. The second half of the century saw the massive development and upgrading of the road network with the dualling of the A38 and the A52 and the building of the M1. Road building has continued in recent years with the opening of the A50 in 1998, and the widening of the A453 commenced in 2013. Pressure to accommodate further industry, transport and urban development continues.