Trent Vale has a varied and intense past with successive communities of people settling in the area since the end of the last Ice Age.
Settlements have occured all along the River Trent in the low gravel terraces along the edges and on the 'islands' within the floodplain. People have come to the area, attracted by transport, food, defence and the resources the River Trent and surrounding area has to offer.
After the ice
As the ice retreated at the end of the last ice age, and the climate began to warm, the Trent Vale area was particularly attractive to the hunter-gatherer communities who were slowly beginning to venture north into the area that had been arctic tundra.
The Trent was a braided river, consisting of many channels with a main channel that often would change course. The river provided resources and fertility as well as being a dangerous and unpredictable entity. As the climate warmed and sea levels rose the river gradually changed into the essentially single channel, meandering Trent that we know today. The valley of this early river was well-wooded with oak, elm, pine, willow and hazel. Around 5000 BC lime became a major component of the woods, while alder swamps developed in parts of the Trent flood plain. The river and woodland environment offered rich resources for early hunter-gatherer groups of people, but the only evidence is the occasional find of stone tools. Their impact on the environment was light, involving seasonal occupation of limited areas by small groups from a very thin and scattered population.
The earliest evidence of human impact on the area appears after 5000 BC, when the first farmers made significant clearances in the woodland for cultivation and pasture, by grazing domestic animals and the use of fire. Cereal pollen from this date has been found in an organic sample taken in Collingham.
By 2000 BC there were extensive areas of clearance in the area and an increased population. There were also ritual landscapes with funerary and religious monuments, particularly in the areas of North and South Muskham. The ritual importance of the river during the Neolithic and the Bronze Age is also shown in finds of human skulls and prestigious metal objects. Early settlement remains are rare, however, consisting of the occasional pit found during excavations, and stone tools and rare pieces of pottery found in fields, gravel workings or building sites. A 'burnt mound' discovered at Girton may represent cooking in the early Bronze Age. During the middle and late Bronze Ages there were a number of floods which were caused by the increasing opening-up of the landscape over a large area. By the Iron Age the population of the area had increased considerably, and by the time of the Roman period the area was occupied by farms and fields with negligible woodland, which is very similar to the present day.
Roman settlements are widespread in the Trent Vale area and tend to be on the raised gravel terraces. These have been discovered in recent times from cropmarks appearing on aerial photos and from excavations at places like gravel quarries. Some of the Roman settlements were large enough to be described as hamlets or even villages, while there are several high status villas. There are a number of small towns: at Littleborough the town of Segelocum lay at the point where the Roman road from Lincoln to Doncaster crossed the river. The main Roman routeway, the Fosse Way, was also dotted with towns and settlements close to the Trent Vale area, some of which we know the names of such as Ad Pontem, Margidunum, and Crococolana. There were many settlements whose names have become lost over time, including a large one at Newark.
Most of the people living and working in the Trent Vale in Roman times were native Britons, and many were involved in farming and producing surplus to be sold on to the army. Excavations have shown that people living in the area had access to luxury goods from across the Empire, which hints at how well-connected they were with the trade routes, and also shows that people had enough wealth to purchase things they wanted.
Dark Age Trent Vale
At the end of the Roman period there was a considerable change as the Roman towns and villas were gradually abandoned. But there is evidence that the Trent Vale's natural resources gave its economy an enduring strength, as it later emerged as the most populous and extensively farmed area in the region. The relative prosperity appears to have made it attractive to incoming Anglo-Saxons, as the cemetery at Millgate near Newark shows. The objects found in cemeteries such as this show that the new sweep of settlement in the area began some time in the early 6th century, and that it came from the south-east, from East Anglia.
Although the occasional domestic object has been found, few structural remains of Anglo-Saxon settlement have been defined. It appears that the early and middle Saxon landscape consisted of dispersed farms and some larger settlements (much like in late prehistory and in the Roman period).
By the 9th and 10th centuries this pattern was changing as nucleated villages developed, with people grouping together around the farm or local lord. This was probably accompanied by reorganisation of land holdings to create early forms of open fields, farmed in common. Most villages in this area were nucleated by 1086 when the Domesday Book was drawn up, and this book shows that the Trent valley was the most densely settled and highly cultivated parts of the region, and had prosperous mills and fisheries.
The amount of meadow recorded in Domesday in the Trent Vale is notable. This reflects the low-lying nature of the floodplain. Annual flooding deposited nutrients and protected the ground from frost, so promoting early sweet grass growth. The quality of the river meadow grasslands is likely to have been a factor in the region's economy from very early on.
The Black Death of 1349 led to social and economic change across the country. There is little evidence that any community in this area disappeared as a direct consequence of the plague, but there was a change in focus from arable to pasture land, resulting in the fossilisation of ridge-and-furrow earthworks in many fields.
The River Trent became increasingly important as a resource for food and power during the Medieval period. There were mills at Averham, Bole, Collingham, Fledborough, Grassthorpe and Hawton. Fisheries were to be found at Lea, Norwell, Rampton, Sutton-on-Trent, Torksey and West Burton. Some places, such as Cromwell, Dunham, Laneham and Langford had both.
The river itself was a principal route for trade and travel, as it had been since pre-Roman times. The bridge at Newark was a major crossing point, but these were supplemented by ferries all along the river in the Trent Vale, and in the summer by numerous and regular fording points. The winter floods could sweep away structures, erode banks, and scour out new channels, modifying the river course. In 1315 one such flood destroyed all the bridges from Newark to Gainsborough.
Industrial revolutions to the present day
Development of the Trent as a transportation route was gradual, and there were always conflicting interests in waterways, from using the water for mills, to transport. The near circular meanders at West Burton and Bole, which frustrated boatmen in the hours of work required for little linear progress, were cut through in 1793 and 1797. Upstream, particularly from Newark, the river was improved piecemeal during the late 18th and 19th centuries to take even larger ships. It became integrated with the canal network, starting with the Chesterfield Canal in 1776, which linked the river to West Stockwith. Gainsborough also expanded as an inland port. From 1772 a weir and lock at Newark enabled shipping to use the Newark arm of the Trent, triggering rapid industrial development of the town. In 1930 modification to the river finally came under the unified control of the River Trent Catchment Board.
The present landscape now derives largely from 18th century enclosure. In a number of places new farms were built at a distance from the old village centre, surrounded by newly enclosed blocks of land. By the end of the 18th century the agricultural economy here was described as being a mixture of arable and grass, 'though more of the latter, especially continuous to the river'. Most of the grazing was used for fattening cattle, with the island just outside of Newark being noted as 'remarkably fine feeding land'.
By the mid 19th century, waterways were rapidly being overtaken by railways. The Nottingham to Lincoln line was opened in 1846, leading to commuting and the creation of suburbs. These developments were concentrated on the area from Nottingham to Newark, taking focus away from the Trent Vale area, and this left much of the area north of Newark as a relatively undeveloped agricultural area. The Trent Vale has retained much of the pre-industrial character that other areas along the River Trent have lost. In the Trent Vale area the most tangible signs of the Industrial Revolution are various rural warehouses, boat building and repair yards, the warehouse waterfront of Gainsborough and the passing of boats.
In the towns and villages there was a gradual, but nearly wholesale, rebuilding of farm buildings and cottages in brick. At first it was only prestigious or wealthy families who could afford to build in brick, but by the 18th century brick and pantiles were the building materials of all classes. Before long most of the old timber framed, or mud and stud houses, had been replaced or reclad. Many of these bricks and tiles were made locally from sands and clays available in the river valley. Brick pits were a notable feature on the island between Kelham and Newark in the late 18th century.
Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries agriculture was the major influence on the Trent Vale being noted for its feeding grounds for livestock at the end of the 19th century. Post-war farming policies placed more emphasis on arable and have resulted in many ancient hedgerows and boundaries being removed. 20th century development has transformed some villages, and vastly increased the population and built-up areas. Mineral extraction, and the construction of power stations have all left their mark on the landscape, but all are there because of the river. Much of the Trent Vale, however, has retained the pre-industrial, predominately agricultural environment, and a sense of isolated tranquillity.