River Trent Stoke-on-Trent: SUNRISE Project Creates an Urban Oasis

River Trent: Stoke-on-Trent Staffordshire University Campus

As well as the (deserved) media attention placed on the River Trent: Stoke-on-Trent on the site of the old Victoria Ground, there is a LOT more going on within the SUNRISE project

While I’ll pick up on the miraculous changes at the Victoria Ground site later in this article, I also want to flag up another part of the project where – with exceptional support and buy-in from Staffordshire University – we had much greater LATERAL room to wiggle the river. As a result, a section of extremely straight, sandy-bottomed uniform channel has now been transformed into one with backwaters, gravel and cobble riffles – and even braided sections with mid-channel islands:

New Braided channel and installed riffles at Staffordshire University
Newly-completed section of braided channel with gravel riffles

As I write this, the works are still very raw”. Even so the wild trout within the river managed to home in on the new spawning riffles within only a couple of weeks following the heavy plant/​diggers leaving site! Below you can see an image of one of the first redds” (gravel trout nests) spotted on the installed gravel beds on my site visit of 1st December 2020 (see below).

Trout Redd at Staffordshire University River Trent
A fresh trout redd (nest) on a newly-installed gravel riffle in the River Trent

River Trent SUNRISE project

Working across 16 areas in Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle-under-Lyme, this European Regional Development Fund-supported project is transforming urban settings into havens for wildlife – and often benefiting flood risk into the bargain. The original concept came out of a scoping exercise run by Staffordshire Wildlife Trust with ideas being developed within the Trent Valley Catchment Partnership. You can see a 2014 WTT report by Tim Jacklin and myself which contributed to that process on this link.

The SUNRISE project is a complex, multi-partner undertaking – with vital operational and organisational roles fulfilled by Stoke City Council, Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council, The Environment Agency, Groundwork West Midlands, AquaUoS — as well as The Wild Trout Trust.

From a WTT and Trout in the Town” perspective, then, it is fantastic to realise where we started with a series of our bread and butter” Advisory Visit reports. In these we were able to suggest what might, potentially, be done on several of the SUNRISE sites…

River Trent Reprofiling Suggestion Crop
Early indicative sketch from Advisory Visit to the Staffordshire University Site

Because funding was not secured (and there was no estimate of an amount that might be put into a project), our suggestions spanned a really wide range of ambition. Everything from very simple, small-scale improvements that might provide at least some ecological gains – right through to full on reprofiling and the creation of a new channel (e.g. above).

Fortunately, through prolonged efforts of the project partners – notably including those of Mel Westlake (then catchment partnership host within Staffs. Wildlife Trust), Matt Lawrence (Environment Agency), Madeleine Gardner (Environment Agency) and – actually – the whole team in the Trent Valley Catchment Partnership; a serious bid was cooked up.

The other piece of good news? Staffordshire University was actively supportive of the let’s be ambitious” approach…

Staffordshire University Leek Road Campus: River Trent Stoke-on-Trent

In the 1800’s the section of the River Trent running through what is now the Leek Road campus of Staffordshire University was a naturally-meandering watercourse.

19th Century Channel

By the 1930s it has been completely straightened and accommodated the Hanley Sewage Treatment Works and adjacent garden allotments. At the beginning of the project, this straightened channel with a sandy bed and stone-wall banks ran along the edges of the campus sports grounds.

The simplified channel had very little variation in riverbed material composition (mainly sand, with some thin patches of small, un-sorted gravel and very few, isolated brick-sized chunks of stone). It also had little variation in current speed or cross-sectional depth profile. This created significant limits on the variety and abundance of species that could thrive.

River Trent Straightened Channel
Straightened, sandy channel with walled bank-toes on Staffordshire University Campus (BEFORE works…)

Going through several iterations – and coping with many challenges thrown up by extreme weather and the disruptions associated with COVID-19; the partnership was able to undertake significant and ambitious project work. This was made possible by the continuing support of the University.

Staffs Uni EPR Appendix3 Site Plan
Early site plan — As the project progressed, this needed to be adapted

In order to be assured that the desired cobble/​gravel riffles, meanders, backwaters and channel-braids would be resilient to spate conditions; specialist modelling and design by AquaUoS has been a vital component of this project. Detailed geomorphological understanding of how these features would perform under bank-full (as well as normal-flow) conditions was necessary – given the site’s location within the built environment. It is also important from the perspective of retaining ecologically-functioning features throughout a range of conditions.

Back Eddy
Backwater River Trent

Additionally, the project manager, Richard Guy, has devoted countless challenging hours to making sure all aspects of this work have been steered back on track – despite also managing other highly complex negotiations and work on the SUNRISE project (especially including the Victoria Ground site).

Richard Guy
Richard Guy, Staffordshire Wildlife Trust — Project Manager for SUNRISE

Again, it is impressive to note the co-ordination between multiple people and organisations within this project – not least to meet the strict financial/​monitoring requirements; which is a formidable task. Joanne Buckley at City of Stoke-on-Trent Council calmly took care of even the most challenging aspects of marrying unpredictable, changeable (and highly seasonal) ecological habitat works with financial and operational systems essentially designed for use with civil engineering projects. 

It is essential to recognise that all the ecological knowhow in the world (and even the greatest desire to improve or protect habitats) cannot take place at this kind of scale without proper financial and operational management. 

What has been achieved so far on the Staffordshire University SUNRISE site?

With the heavy plant departing site only a few days ahead of my re-visit on 1st December 2020; the big and obvious news is that we immediately found evidence of trout breeding activities. However, it is important to recognise that the site is, as yet, still very​“raw” – and a great deal of important re-vegetation is still in store. 

Raw River Works
Raw River Works 2

That being said, the total transformation from the straight, stone-banked sandy channel is easy to appreciate. Furthermore, there will be some shaving/​trimming and re-shaping of the installed features by successive high water events yet to come. This is entirely in-keeping with the​“dynamically-stable” channel design, and is another important re-introduction of ecological and geomorphological processes. In other words, instead of a walled channel, locked in place; the river will now be able to vary over time (as well as​“just” having more structural/​spatial variation).

Gravel Riffle Installed in River Trent

There is now far more variation in the substrate material-sizes as well as the​“macro-features” installed. Those macro-features include back-waters, meanders, cross-sectional variation in depth and velocity, braided channels (mid-channel islands) and areas with much shallower bank profiles (with greater lateral connectivity to the flood plain ‑see image below) 

Shallow Connectivity

I am looking forward to my ongoing visits to chart the development and​“bedding in” of this site. This will, undoubtedly, come with challenges such as re-infestation of invasive/non-native plant species such as the Himalayan balsam that previously dominated this section of riverbank.


However, there will also be an extensive re-development of beneficial flora (and fauna) over time. I’ll continue to document those processes in pictures and video content as a way of sharing possible outcomes from similarly ambitious projects.

River Trent: Stoke-on-Trent Victoria Ground Site

As well as the Staffordshire University/​Leek Road Campus site; I was also treated to an early tour of the completely new channel at the Victoria Ground site in early December 2020. This, again, had been the subject of an old WTT Advisory Visit many years ago (actually one of the first reports I completed in my post for Trout in the Town). This is a river-restoration site that many people have wanted to work on for many decades (with plans being hatched even while the football ground was still in operation!).

Victoria Ground Stoke-on-Trent Building Site

However, it has taken something with the scale and ambition of the SUNRISE project to deliver this on the ground. Again, the mediation skills of Richard Guy, legal/​financial know-how of Joanne Buckley and the supporting expertise of Madeleine Gardner and Matt Lawrence (and many more significant protagonists) were vital. Creating a project that involved the support of the housing development company St. Modwen – and achieving all the appropriate permissions – was another huge achievement. 

Quite apart from completely re-routing the river to the opposite side of this site, the design incorporates many significant physical habitat features (including secure woody material as well as gravel/​cobble riffle installation in a completely new channel). Being able to create this type of habitat from scratch within the tight constraints of urban developments and infrastructure is another big win for this project.

Victoria Ground Channel Rehab 1

It also sets a significant precedent for the inclusion of root plates plus large/​stable woody trunk and crown material in an urban river habitat creation and enhancement scheme. Having those case studies to point to is incredibly important in making gains for our urban watercourses.

Victoria Ground Channel Rehab 2

All told, the Trout in the Town movement will certainly benefit from what has already been achieved in the River Trent Stoke-on-Trent (and its tributaries). As well as continuing to chart the progress of the sites where work has taken place so far – I also eagerly look forward to future phases of this work.

All we need now is another suitable acronym…

Paul Gaskell (Trout in the Town).