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Research: The River Erewash

I have lived around the river Erewash for the past 25 years, I’ve crossed it hundreds of times, I’ve run up and down it, biked along it and I’ve canoed down it. It has become a silent but familiar part of my life that I (and I suspect most people) just take for granted. I’m keen to better appreciate it’s scale, geography and impact on local people over history.

History & route

The name Erewash comes from the old English irre (wandering) and wisce (wet meadow), hence we have a wandering, marshy river. Other suggestions are that the name means ‘one that floods and drains very quickly’, which is certainly the case near where I live in Sandiacre. The river rises just south-west of Kirkby-in-Ashfield, flows west under the M1 then roughly south through Langley Mill, Ilkeston and Sandiacre to drain into the River Trent at Attenborough. As the crow flies the river is 25 miles long but the sinuous nature of it extends that a fair bit. Much of its route forms the border between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

Route of the River Erewash

The river is never particularly wide or deep and flows quietly between noisy industrial parks and across wet meadows. But there are places along its course where the curves have been left untouched and here the river slows right down, the water dances and swirls around and the wildlife proliferates. Sadly these areas are under constant threat of being destroyed.

In literature

Eastwood born writer DH Lawrence was inspired by the river and must have crisscrossed it hundreds of times as he walked, thought and wrote his stories of sexuality, emotional health and instinct. His writing expressed concerns about the dehumanising effects of industrialisation and modernity and we can imagine his increasing distress as his pristine Erewash Valley was cut through by the canal and then the railway. The Rainbow opens with the line below and the story develops into one that describes how the rural Brangwen family are increasingly separated from the industrial town of Ilkeston.

The Brangwens had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm, in the meadows where the Erewash twisted sluggishly through alder trees, separating Derbyshire from Nottinghamshire.

D.H. Lawrence

Industrialisation & re-routing

The Erewash has had a difficult past as it has had the full pressure of industrialisation thrown at it – pollution, sewerage, litter and the obligatory shopping trolley. It’s wandering nature has ironically been its downfall as humans have tamed it into straight lines and culverts when it has interfered with our plans for development.

Below are images of the Stanton Gate area, close to my home, where the M1 crosses the Erewash. The Erewash was straightened in the 1950s to allow the M1 to enjoy an easier passage over it. Many of the twists that gave it its name were removed and it was culverted in places. It’s like the river has become a stretched piece of elastic and lost all of its character and quiet corners and it flows faster through the landscape, more ignorant of what lies on its banks.

The river Erewash at Stanton Gate in 1888 and today

The construction of the M1 and the straightening of the river are shown below, which must have been a mammoth engineering task at the time. The destruction is unimaginable but when the river was let into its new straight channel it must have been a strangely satisfying sight. But all those wonderful curves have been lost forever.

In recent years the Erewash has once again caused headaches, this time for the HS2 engineers who have proposed moving it once again to make way for yet another transport route, but we’ll come back to this later.

Finding the source & experiencing the flood plain

I had a trip upstream in January 2021 to find the source of the river, or as close as I could get to it. I found a fascinating route along fast culverted channels, through marshy land, into deep natural springs and eventually into a deep cut in the strangely light brown earth that led up to a spring and the source itself. I was never far from industrial or residential areas but at times it felt like an untamed natural wilderness that was hiding in plain sight, a kind of ancient underworld. The source itself reminded me of a pristine mountain stream and the deep gash in the landscape made it clear that a huge amount of water had washed down, along with an equal amount of substrate.

Then in February 2021 I caught the river in flood, just north of Sandiacre and it was a powerful sight. The river had vanished under a sea of water, a frightening but beautiful sight. The river had reclaimed its former ground, it found its fastest course, regardless of what restrictions man had imposed on it. Many people were out looking at the river, as if they had rediscovered it, the huge volume of water had washed away pollution and litter and maybe for once it had fought back. A colonic irrigation of the highest order.

The river Erewash in flood in Sandiacre

There are many aspects of the river that intrigue me; how its nature changes along its course, the historic literary associations and the apparent constant human desire to ‘straighten the river out’. Several experiments have already sprung to mind.

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