Caught by the River

River Witham: Scenes from the Waterside

Neil Sentance | 26th September 2012

Illustration by Jonathan Gibbs.

by Neil Sentance
1957: The Wharf

The Witham is navigable only in its lower reaches, from Brayford Pool at Lincoln to the Haven at Boston, where it flows into the Wash. The Romans used the river to transport goods in bulk and built the Foss Dyke Navigation to link the Witham to the Trent. The upper Witham, however, has never been an industrial conduit and its banks are lined by woodlands, allotments, horse paddocks, scrublands, old orchards and cattle pastures. But during the first tumults of the Industrial Revolution the river’s lack of commercial utility led to the construction of the Canal, built in the 1790s to carry coal from Nottingham to the new roaring furnaces of our town. It remained operational until the 1920s. Sections of the canal have been restored in recent decades by dedicated volunteer groups and the inland water authorities. On one stretch, at Woolsthorpe wharf, stands the former boatman’s pub, the Rutland Arms, aka the Dirty Duck. As teenagers in the 1980s, a bunch of schoolmates and I would pitch tents here, by an old boat repair yard and the vestigial ribs of an upturned ice breaker, and unsteadily learn to drink Batemans amber pale ale and shoot pool in a dim backroom. Walking along the towpath in springtime we drifted through clouds of wild flowers and thickets of long grasses, catching burrs on our jeans and stopping to watch grass snakes glide sinuously from bank to bank. Whorls of pondweed and water plantain greened the surface – on a twilight walk, I remember it dappled with velvet shadows, the air thrumming with overflying odonates, gauze-winged dragonflies and damselflies, and the buzzing chatter of my mates. Canoes and narrowboats swept along to the winding holes, broad pools constructed as turning circles for watercraft, steering clear of tangled sunken forests of reeds colonised by chubb. Anglers cast for the pike that lurked among the duckweed, ‘killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin . . .’

But a search today for the canal’s urban starting point gives up only a relic, a fenced scrapyard long sited on the filled-in canal basin. The basin is marked on old OS maps, occupying the same place as the town’s first railway station. In the early 19th century this would have been the hub of the borough’s burgeoning industries, especially brewery maltings, but the canal trade gradually declined after the advent of the railways. Enterprising locals then hired out rowing boats at the wharf and the basin became a venue for community gatherings and jamborees. Even the Skegness lifeboat was unveiled here before the boat’s fifty-mile onward journey overland to the coast. My grandmother remembered her father attaching ice blades to his hobnail boots and skating along the canal during the hard winter freezes before the First World War, thirty miles and more to the Trent at West Bridgford, ‘under the magical presidency of Jack Frost’ in Roger Deakin’s memorable phrase. The winter was my great-grandfather’s time for a holiday, for the thrill of whizzing on the ice, stopping by at the Rutland Arms or the Peacock at Redmile or the Anchor at Plungar: come the spring he’d be hitching up his pony and trap and touring the Fens for the potato crops that he’d sell on to army camps, prisons and the newfangled Smiths Crisps factory down in Cricklewood. But following the closure of the canal in 1929, the wharf’s tall Italianate granaries were torn down and the basin plugged and covered over, rendering the site lost industrial archaeology, another municipal ghost in a town of many.

Old Wharf Road, the route to the old basin, still runs under the railway arch, half-forgotten on the edge of the town centre. It’s a dingy lane beside the main Nottingham road, all flat-faced industrial sheds and gimcrack builders’ merchant compounds, achromatic except for the vivid yellow ragwort and dandelions extruding from cracked pavings, and graffiti tags daubed on corrugated garage doors. I worked in a hemp sack factory here during student holidays and remember bleak fag-breaks, longed-for and fleeting, huddled under the archway. Just beyond here still stand the old auction rooms, ironstone fronted, midland redbrick backed, modest single-storey warehouse survivors of the canal’s golden age. In December 1956, Dad, a few weeks shy of fifteen, started work here as a market porter and booking clerk. Forestalled in his ambition to become a motor mechanic by the fuel shortages triggered by the Suez crisis, he took this unpromising job as a means of escaping a return to school the following January. Soon though, he grew to like the work, mingling with on-the-make antique dealers and scrap merchants, hayseed market gardeners and farmers.

Aside from farm valuations and sales, his employers held monthly furniture sales and the Saturday market. Dad would get to the Old Wharf Road saleyard early and use a large pair of wheels to move a vast and cumbrous cheffonier cupboard, ready for the Nottingham cheeseman, who’d sell ripe wedges of Stilton and Red Cheddar arrayed on its stained rosewood top. The rest of the morning Dad would book items for the sales that would begin when his boss rang an old brass bell at midday – first, the pigs, ushered down Wide Westgate in a cascade of squeals. After that came the tool auction – sheds, homemade ironing boards, rusting garden implements, mowers and pre-war cars. Across the road, the potato sale started, great sacks of spuds heaped against a wall like rubble. Later were the house clearances, the best stuff cherry-picked for the grander monthly midweek sales, and thus often on Saturdays left only with the dregs, the ‘rammel’ in Lincs parlance – broken cutlery, mouldy curtains, moth-eaten rugs, sagging old chairs and de-sprung sofas that would be bought, re-covered, repaired and resold at the next market. Also bicycles, of all types. A Mr Curtis of Billingborough would buy job lots and cart them back to his workshop, stacked precariously on the roof rack of his car. Ever trying to supplement his low wage, Dad would sometimes buy a bike too, and recondition it at home ready for resale (if the boss made a bid for an item at market he’d write it down in the ledger to the cipher ‘Johnson of Fulbeck’; Dad aped this using the moniker ‘Briggs of Bottesford’). Occasionally he’d buy a row of old bedroom washstands and convert them into drawing tables: a schoolteacher would pay 4s for their marble tops for kids to make clay models on and the wooden legs and frames might then be hatcheted for tinder sticks. Market days were a swirl of people and animals, transacting and transacted, a theatre of trade, of news exchanged over pints in the busy marketplace pubs.

The future of the Canal is promising thanks to the efforts of bands of volunteers. The site of the old wharf and basin, though, remains lost in the edgelands. The town Local Plan discourages building on the site in the hope that it will one day be restored, perhaps as a marina. For now, it is another exemplar of civic planning blight in a town, like so many, buffeted by the winds of industrial growth and decline, war and globalization, the supercharged groundswells of the last 150 years. The Saturday market still lives on though: Dad still goes, odd times – Briggs of Bottesford searching for new bikes for his grandchildren at the Old Wharf sale rooms.

Click here to read previous Scenes from the Waterside