When the mighty Trent turned into a tiny stream…

In a couple of previous articles, I have mentioned two different extremes of weather at Trent Bridge, namely freezing ice and snow and then, quite frequently straight afterwards, horrific floods, when a sudden melt of huge snowdrifts overfills the river. Such a sequence of events may raise the water level by twelve or fifteen feet above normal and increase the rate of flow to a situation when 45,000 cubic feet of floodwater go past the bridge every second, as opposed to the more normal figure of 3,000. What I have not mentioned so far though, is a complete lack of rainfall and the consequent drought.

Almost a thousand years ago, in 1101, Nottingham experienced a terrifying earthquake. Here are some people in 1100. Can you spot Robin Hood? (He is wearing a cunning, yet comfortable disguise in his traditional Lincoln Green.)


Bizarrely, once the earthquake had stopped, the River Trent dried up and then ceased to flow for several hours, presumably as it drained into, and then eventually filled up, a huge crack or cavern in the ground that the earthquake had created somewhere upstream from Nottingham. Once that was done, the waters returned to normal.  Another source gives the date of this amazing event as 1110 and says that the River Trent was dry at Nottingham for 24 hours. Strictly speaking, though, that is not a genuine bona fide drought.

Two hundred years or so later though, in 1354, the weather was extremely dry in the whole of England:

“This year, the country was affected with a great drought, in which Nottinghamshire, from its peculiar geographical position, suffered extremely; in both Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire no rain had fallen from the latter end of March until the close of July.”

It is difficult to believe that this prolonged lack of rain would not have affected the amount of water flowing under Hethbeth Bridge. Here are some people in 1354. It looks like the start of a football match to me:

participants in mediaeval costume on field at the Corsa all'anello in Narni Umbria

The four years of 1538-1541 produced extreme drought throughout the whole country, with three successive fine and hot summers from 1538-1540. In the latter year, cherries could be picked and eaten by the beginning of June. Grapes were ripe by early July. Both 1540 and 1541 were exceptionally dry years overall, and in both summers, the River Thames was so low that sea water backed up above London Bridge. It would be interesting to know what effect such amazingly hot and dry weather must have had on the River Trent. Here are some people of this period, waiting for a shower of rain, but looking a little worried that global warming has perhaps started five hundred years too early. I wouldn’t have liked the hat with the feather:


That dry summer of 1540 was the warmest until 2003, and countries in Western Europe christened it the ‘Big Sun Year’. Very high temperatures prevailed from Germany to the Netherlands and no rain fell in Rome for at least nine months. Many people died of heat stroke and heart failure. Reportedly the waters of the River Rhine were so low that the river could be crossed on horseback. People could walk across the River Seine in Paris without getting their feet wet. In England during these four years:

“rivers and streams were drying out in parts. A remarkable series of droughts, with a burning sun during the summer”.

In 1541:

“At Nottingham a remarkable drought; almost all the small rivers dried up, and the River Trent diminished to a straggling brook. Many cattle died for want of water, especially in the county of Nottinghamshire, and many thousands of persons died from grievous diarrhoea and dysentery.”

“Trent a straggling brook”

I could not find any pictures of the Trent as a “straggling brook”, but this is close. And no, the hot weather did not attract any elephants to Nottingham:


Forty years later, in 1581 the River Trent apparently “dried up completely” but further details of this event are not very much in evidence, beyond the rather strange date when it was supposed to have occurred, supposedly December 21st. Perhaps a build up of ice higher upstream brought the river’s flow to a stop.

Ten years later, in 1591,

“A severe drought destroyed practically all the crops and vegetation in the areas around Nottingham. The rivers Trent and Erewash, plus other rivers, were almost without water.”

People actually remarked how like Texas the landscape had become:


There was another “uncommon drought in Nottinghamshire” in the spring of 1592. In the summer there were strong westerly winds to dry the land even further, and hardly any rain fell.

“The Trent and other rivers were almost without water. In summer, the Thames was so shallow that horsemen could ride across near London Bridge & the River Trent was also said to be almost dry.”

This is the old London Bridge of this period:

london bridge zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

After this, there is then a hiatus of some three or four hundred years until the twentieth century. I have been unable to trace any other noticeably dry periods during this intervening time. The next striking piece of dry weather comes in the mid-1970s, with an absolutely scorching summer in 1975. This initial heat and drought was followed by a very dry winter, and then the unforgettable drought conditions of the summer of 1976. These periods of extreme weather saw the River Trent during the end of the month of August 1976 at its very lowest level in modern times. Indeed, this summer produced what was called the Great European Drought with the lowest soil moisture readings in London since 1698.

Unfortunately nobody in Nottingham seems to have thought of preserving this amazing weather with their camera. Instead, I will just show you one or two typical scenes. Here is an unknown reservoir which should have been a vast lake. Flap those flares:


Here is a reservoir at Huddersfield in Yorkshire:

hudd ressser

Here is a lock on what should have been a brim full canal:

foxton lock

This is the River Thames at Kew near London. The River Trent at Nottingham would presumably have been comparable:

r thames kew

And finally, here is Walton Reservoir in Surrey, being monitored by the least appropriately dressed man in 1976:

reser at walton thsame ssurrey




Filed under History, Humour, Nottingham, Wildlife and Nature

11 responses to “When the mighty Trent turned into a tiny stream…

  1. I remember 1975 because it snowed in Derbyshire in June and then there was a long hot summer. I was working in a portacabin at Rugby Borough Council and it was so hot that at lunch time I would walk into town and go to Boots for half an hour because it was the only store in town that had air conditioning.
    I know 1976 was hotter but do I remember correctly that it came to an early soggy end at the August Bank Holiday followed by a very wet September? I seem to remember going to Dorset camping and getting rather soggy.

    • I don’t remember the end of 1976 too well, although the Loire was flowing as a trickle through just one of seven arches of the bridge at Amboise when we visited it. How I wish I had walked across the river when I had the chance! In Glencoe in 1975, rivers were equally low and we did walk in places where it was impossible five years later.

  2. 1988 was a drought year here. The builders broke ground on our house in mid-May and we moved in on August 1. Not a drop of rain hit the house during the entire construction. However it rained all day on August 1 as we moved our stuff in.

    • I don’t know if it affected the construction of your house, but here in England some houses built on clay soil got cracks in the walls because the base under the house had never been so dry. Our sports field at school turned completely brown, and the groundskeeper found pipes and underground taps lost for decades as traces of them appeared in the almost bare surface.

  3. Thanks for this post on weather. Few things affect us more than weather conditions, but so often this is ignored by historians. I wonder how the dates you list correspond to military, political and economic events of the time.

    • You are absolutely right. If bad weather produces bad harvests, it is not unreasonable to expect discontent on the part of the ordinary common people and then perhaps uprisings or even revolutions. A good military example would be either Napoleon or Hitler, both of whom were defeated in Russia by winters that even by Russian standards, were exceptional. Apparently, Napoleon had checked weather reports of the previous thirty years, only to be faced by the coldest winter in the last three or four decades.

  4. Tony Wilkins

    The 1354 picture looks like it has Jeremy Corbyn in it finally proving he thinks he is Jesus. Interesting piece of history. Shows that it is not just our generation that had to deal with extreme weather

    • Absolutely! I am not expert enough to discuss global warming, but there have certainly been repeated examples throughout our history of extreme cold, endless rain and so on. As for Jeremy, well, I can’t get over a man who wears a raincoat to inspect a reservoir in that kind of weather. The eternal naïve optimist!

  5. Extreme weather has been around for a long time. We just think it as modern as it’s in living memory or in official records. If you think of British weather over the last few years – it’s been one amazing series of seasons! A really interesting post.

    • Yes, I fully agree with you. You might enjoy the Google book about weather entitled, very grandly, “A General Chronological History of the Air, Weather, Seasons, Meteors, &c. in Sundry Places and Different Times”. It has some amazing details in it. And, as always, thank you for your interest.

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