Nottinghamshire is a surprisingly large county. It’s difficult to imagine, strolling in the East Midlands countryside that surrounds the city of Nottingham in the south, that the north-eastern corner is fenland, and feels like Lincolnshire.
The eastern boundary with Lincolnshire is the River Trent, always an important transport artery and notoriously unreliable in drought and flood.
Up to the late eighteenth century the hinterland of western Nottinghamshire, south Yorkshire and Derbyshire was badly served by roads and waterways. Sheffield’s cutlery had to be carted by road as far as the River Don at Rotherham from 1740 and at Tinsley from 1751. Chesterfield’s trade, including coal, iron and Derbyshire lead, had to be taken by road to Bawtry to join the nominally navigable River Idle, which joins the Trent at West Stockwith.
When a canal was proposed from Chesterfield to the Trent in the late 1760s, there were alternative proposed routes – to the Idle at Bawtry, to the Trent at Gainsborough or via Retford entering the Trent downstream of Gainsborough at West Stockwith.
The cheapest alternative – a 46-mile canal from Chesterfield to West Stockwith, recommended by James Brindley, was built.
Bawtry was cut out of the waterway traffic, but continued to prosper as a staging post on the Great North Road. The River Idle practically ceased to be a commercial waterway, though navigation remained technically possible.
Retford gained greater importance because it was situated on both the Chesterfield Canal and the Great North Road.
West Stockwith is a quiet little place, out of the way for road-travellers, but still significant if you travel by boat. It’s possible to walk in less than ten minutes between the canal and the River Idle, which has long been unnavigable, its tendency to flood moderated by a huge floodgate.
The canal wharf is now a marina and the original tollhouse of 1789 still overlooks the lock that leads down to the tidal Trent.
Of the eleven pubs that served this once thriving little port only two now operate. One, the warm and welcoming White Hart [http://www.whiws.co.uk], has its own brewery: http://www.theidlebrewery.co.uk.
The 60-page, A4 handbook for the 2018 ‘Waterways and Railways of the East Midlands’ tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list contains a section on the Chesterfield Canal and is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.