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A Journey Around the British Isles … Part 101

To many people, throughout the ages, the River Trent has marked the true boundary between the North and the South of England. It’s one of the major rivers of the country and is the only one that flows northwards (if only for the second half of its journey to the sea). A river whose simple name has given rise to a dozen different theories as to how it came about. No-one is prepared to give a complete seal of approval to any of them. Tros was the Celtic word for over and hynt was the word for way or road. The combination of the two gives us Trent or a river that floods over the roads. Another theory says the name derives from the fact that the river is principally crossed by means of fords. In the old days, all rivers were crossed principally by means of fords so this isn’t helpful.

The most folklorish states that the name is a corruption of Trisantona, meaning the great feminine throughway. We have a delightfully mongrel language but, for this theory to hold fast, we need to combine Latin,Romano-British, and later Celtic tongues. Not impossible but decidedly not proven. My favourite comes from The Compleat Angler. In this theory Izaac Walton says that the name is a simple Midlands way of pronouncing the French word for thirty; trente. He points out, that the main stream is fed by thirty significant tributaries on its way from the source on Biddulph Moor to the Sea at The Humber. This is quite accurate if you are selective in your use of the word significant. There are actually twice that number as the river drains the West Midlands, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Staffordshire and Derbyshire as well as a good chunk of Yorkshire. Moreover he states that you can catch no less than thirty different fish from its waters. I’ll take his word for that.

When I cross the Trent I feel as though I have crossed the border between the part of the country where I live and the rest of the world. When returning, crossing the Trent means I am nearly home. It may be shorter than the Severn and less illustrious than The Thames but it takes first place as a boundary marker.

I cross the river in the town of Stone. It’s a pretty and prosperous town if you measure prosperity by the number of outwardly affluent people who are able to shop in the lively town centre on a weekday morning. It’s an ancient town with little argument as to how it got its name (it has a simple geological derivation) and is the perfect link between rural England away to the west and one of the great industrial conurbations just to the north. Stone is a little bit of both and nothing links the two better than the river and its industrial twin, the Trent and Mersey Canal.

The Trent is a navigable river from near Derby to the sea. Further upstream it was possible to sail small craft when there was plenty of water in the river but it was of no reliable use to the potteries that were being built in the Five Towns that became Stoke on Trent. The only way of getting the pots to market was via the very dodgy roads of the time. Wagons were slow and unreliable on the potholed thoroughfares and packhorses couldn’t carry the enormous loads that needed to make their way to the towns and cities of England and it’s burgeoning empire.

All the new industries needed transport but pots needed a transport that was rather more gentle than most. Canals provided the possibility. Huge loads of pots could be transported and all of them would arrive in an unbroken state. James Brindley was employed to build a canal to link the potteries first with the lower navigable reaches of the Trent at Shardlow in Derbyshire and later with the Mersey via the Bridgewater Canal.

The canal system is now one of the great recreational glories of Britain. A means of spending a week or two (or even a lifetime if you have your own narrowboat) at a slower pace and make your way alternately past the remaining wharves and warehouses of industrial towns and the long lowing meadows of the green and pleasant land. England is a land of canals. Birmingham famously has more miles of canals than Venice and almost as many people take advantage of the fact. Today it is a means of re-charging the batteries and getting away from the modern world. When these same canals were dug they were the modern world.

Pottery magnate and local hero Josiah Wedgewood put a good sum of money into the scheme in order to get his ware to London. He had established his pottery in an area of Stoke so lovely that it reminded him of the sylvan tales of the Etruscan Civilisation on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea. He called the area Etruria. The name developed a certain irony over the centuries. The firm moved its works to Barlaston in the 1930s, within a plate throw of Stone.

The canal proved a major artery in industrial England. Pots made their way slowly and sedately and pot banks grew fiery and fierce in the Five Towns and the owners of these kilns and banks, like Wedgewood, Minton and Spode grew very rich. As the potteries grew the area became one of the most polluted in the country. The newly rich owners started to build their homes a little further out and Stone prospered from this.

Staffordshire has it’s own way of speaking. You can buy a book that helps you master the tongue. Arfur Tow Crate in Staffy Cher is available in rather specialist bookshops though you can get it from Amazon. For those who haven’t got it, the title means “How to pronounce things correctly in the county of Staffordshire”. If you don’t wish to purchase the volume, just tune in to Radio 5 Live and try to untangle the syntax of Stan Colleymore  as he summarises on football commentaries. Colleymore is a perceptive reader of the game and a good player in his time. He is not the most conventional user of the English language though. Colleymore was born in Stone.

One word that Staffordshire has taken from the language and made its own is the word bank. In the rest of the English speaking world bank has a range of meanings from a place to make withdrawals and deposit your money, to the riparian shores of rivers. In Staffordshire they also refer to the potteries that produced the plates and dishes that adorned the tables of former times. The great industrial works were (and still are in the cases of the few that survive) called pot banks by owners and workers alike. The other Staffordshire meaning of bank is one that the cyclist should beware. If a hill in the region is called a bank then the chances are that you will be getting off to push. It is one of those harmless sounding words that underplays its meaning. You can tell once you are out of Shropshire and into Staffordshire. It isn’t just the bigger towns and the remnants of a proud industrial past. It is hills. The vast plains of the western county are left behind. There is nothing flat between Stone and home and the toughest hills are the Staffordshire banks.