River Ouse – An Overview

The River Ouse is a tidal river (up to Naburn Locks) which flows through the city of York and the towns of Selby and Goole. The traditional source of the Ouse in the VIllage of Great Ouseburn, marked by a stone collum reading ‘OUSE RIVER HEAD OUSEGILL SPRING F. YORK 13 MILES BOROUGHBRIDGE 4 MILES’, though today the start of the Ouse is considered to be the point at which the Ouse Gill Beck joins the River Ure 2.5km south-east of Great Ouseburn.

Ouse’ is a common name for rivers in England. The river is first recorded in 780 as the Usa, this name is thought to have been of Brythonic Celtic (indigenous to Britain) origin from ‘udso’ meaning water. Although a Proto-Celtic (continental) origin has also been proposed. It has also been suggested the river was once called the Ure, but there is little evidence to support this. The Viking settlement in York has also been proposed to influence the name, in Danish and Norwegian languages Os means the mouth of the river, the old Norse working Oss could be a possible graduation form Ouso. Whatever the origin of its name, the river has been consistently referred to as the Ouse since the eight century.

The river is 84km long, and when combined with the River Ure (where the Ouse forms near Linton-on-Ouse) it is about 208km making it the sixth-longest river in the UK. The River has been used for commercial navigation from as early as the Roman settlement in York, as such, there are two weirs with locks along the river at Linton-on-Ouse and Naburn so that larger boats could reach York to trade. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the river saw considerable commercial traffic, especially from Selby’s custom house. After the opening of the Aire and Calder Navigation in 1826, most traffic became concentrated on the port of Goole which continues to today. However, since the coal trade, the ‘backbone of the river trade ceased’ we see much less commercial traffic making use of the Ouse.

The streams which feed into the Ouse (tributaries) which include the Derwent, Aire, Wharfe, ROther, Nidd, Swale, Ure and Foss, drain a large area of northern England including the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors. Along the Ouse there are four sites of special scientific interest around York; Clifton Ings and Rawcliffe Meadows, Fulford Ings, Naburn Marsh and Acaster South Ings. The river is situated within the Ouse valley is flat plain; rainfall in the river’s catchment often leads to flooding in nearby settlements. Recently it has been the villages between York and Selby have been badly hit by this flooding.


Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust [accessed 21/11/2019]

Great Ouseburn Parish Website [accessed 21/11/2019]

Smith, A.H. The Place-names of the West Riding of Yorkshire, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 1962). pp. 133–13.

“Ouse”. The Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names, ed. by Watts, Victor (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 2010) p. 456.

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