The first stop was Nottingham, where our goal was to walk underground through the 19th-century Beck Valley Storm Water Culvert, a drainage tunnel that follows the old course of a stream called the Beck or the Beck Burn. It was the smallest of the watercourses we would visit, but I was still excited to see a stream from which Robin Hood himself might have drunk. If the locals knew we were walking through their city’s drains, I wondered, stealing from Nottingham’s rich past to share with the present, would they consider us heroes or thieves?
In Robin Hood’s time—around the 13th century AD—and for centuries after, the Beck had been a clear and sparkling brook that ran through Sneinton, an area of pastures and fields just east of Nottingham’s gates. Unlike the eponymous watercourses we would later visit in Sheffield and Bradford (the River Sheaf and the Bradford Beck), the Beck Burn was never central to Nottingham and probably was not used to drive waterwheels for power. Up until about the 17th century, it was literally peripheral, running just outside of Nottingham’s eastern edge and flowing south into the River Leen, which was effectively the town’s southern border.
Rather, its importance as an incubator of urban development lay in its value as one of several watercourses that richly supplied the region with irrigation, washing water, and drinking water for people and livestock. The springs that supplied it were on the north side of town, and with the Leen on the south this gave the town freshwater sources on three sides. Charles Deering, an historian of the town who lived and wrote in the 18th century, pointed out that the Beck Burn was invaluable as a source of water for the luxuriant corn and hay fields to the north, as well as the cattle pastured both north and east of the town. After enumerating the other advantages of the site—the navigable Trent River less than a mile to the south, and the closeness of the famous Sherwood forest—Deering asks rhetorically: “Thus were a Naturalist in Quest of an exquisite Spot to built a Town or City upon, could he meet with one that would better Answer his Wishes?”
The Beck’s primary source was St. Ann’s Well, a spring that was located north of town at the end of what is now St. Ann’s Well Road. Another unnamed spring fed into the stream between St. Ann’s Well and the town. The stream originally flowed into the Leen River, which in turn flowed into the larger Trent River. The Trent River, as well as the Nottingham Canal of the late 18th century, provided transport routes that helped Nottingham develop into the central market town of the region. The Trent is not much changed from its old course, but the Leen disappeared when its water was redirected into the canal. The Beck Valley Culvert now flows directly into the Trent, well south of the town’s boundaries in the middle ages.