Monksthorpe Chapel must be one of the loneliest National Trust sites, relative to other trust sites, in England, which tend to come in clusters. There are only two other sites in the whole of Lindsey and none at all just to the south in the district of Holland. It may seem that it would be difficult to find a more secluded place in lowland Britain. Far from any large built up area or busy road the chapel is hidden at the end of a narrow lane, which deteriorates into little more than a farm track as you approach the site. Yet this was once a through road and looming over the graveyard is a vast grey mid twentieth century hangar. This and a war memorial at the entrance to the national trust site hints that in times past things were very different. Yet it was partly because of its seclusion that the chapel was here in an attempt by its congregation to avoid persecution for being Baptists at the beginning of a still intolerant seventeenth century. At first the congregation met in the open among trees and only felt confident enough to build a chapel at the end of this century. Even then it was made to look like a thatched barn. As the Heritage Gateway website describes –
The chapel was built only a short period after the passing of the Toleration Act of 1689, which allowed the freedom of worship to non-conformists, although persecution of their congregations was still a regular occurrence for some time afterwards. The chapel was therefore deliberately designed to resemble a farmhouse or barn, and was set in an isolated location, away from any main roads.
Yet even this secluded corner of deepest rural Lincolnshire has seen two periods of major upheaval in the last two centuries and illustrates how in this small crowded island with its long turbulent past there can be nowhere that has not been affected by the turbulent tides of history from early invasions, feudal factions, industrial revolution, and more recent technological advances. Yet it is all of these that have contributed to making the modern nation with which we are familiar.
Not obviously apparent now but close by Monksthorpe Chapel were at different times a busy airfield and a main railway line. In just a few decades these have begun to blend back into the landscape making them almost invisible unless you have been tipped off to their location. In 1848 the Great Northern Railway Company built the East Lincolnshire line from near Peterborough through Boston and onto Grimsby. It was a sign that the world was about to change for the slumbering east coast. Just for the railway company to build this line through such an undeveloped part of the country was an audacious act. Beyond Boston the line bisected East Fen which had only recently been properly drained but was still virtually unpopulated. The first small town in this direction was Burgh le Marsh but this was avoided in favour of the straightest route north closer to the Wolds three kilometres west of the little town. Grimsby itself was no bigger back then but the confident railway company obviously saw its potential. Passing close by Alford and Louth here, like elsewhere, future development of these towns grew towards the all conquering railway.
Burgh Station, just a kilometre from Gunby Hall, happened to be the closest station to the coast. From here carriages and coaches would take people the last few miles to Skegness. Even before this a young Tennyson got the chance to stay at the resort in what was then just a little seaside village with the family of Reverend Thomas Hardwicke Rawnsley. Living at the time in Halton Holgate, just two miles west of Monksthorpe, they rented a cottage on the seafront. The time Tennyson spent there forged friendships with this family that would last through three generations and it was Drummond Rawnsley, Alfred’s life long friend, who married him to Emily Sellwood who was related to Drummond’s wife. It was because of these close ties that the couple were influential in re-uniting the pair after Alfred and Emily’s engagement was ended some years earlier. Her father had decided Alfred was not a desirable suitor, but the Rawnsleys acted as go betweens to get the pair back together when Tennyson’s prospects improved in 1850.
The Reverend’s eldest son, Willingham Franklin, was page boy at the wedding, which took place in Shiplake, Oxfordshire. A younger son Hardwicke, with Tennyson’s support, later became a defender of the natural beauty of the Lake District and ultimately in 1895 one of the founders of the National Trust. Tennyson kept in touch with both sons until his death in 1892.
When the railway finally reached Skegness in 1873 it still only had a population of less than a thousand but within a few years, on Summer bank holiday weekends, it would have to cope with day trippers numbering in the tens of thousands. By this time just two kilometres south of Monksthorpe at Firsby, there was not only a branch line east to Skegness but also another west to Spilsby. Meanwhile railway companies had poured investment into Grimsby by building a state of the art multi-modal port and had extended the railway a little way along the coast to the instantly popular resort of Cleethorpes. There confidence was well placed once connected to the national network Grimsby grew from almost nothing to be by far the busiest fishing port in Britain by Tennyson’s death. Passing just a kilometre from Monksthorpe chapel, the new fangled railway caused some upset among the local gentry with the heavy drinking habits of the navvies brought into build it. Now the line stops a couple of kilometres short of the chapel before doubling back to go to Skegness. A curious legacy of the mainline having closed but the branch line surviving.
Just one hundred years after the construction of the railway passed this way the peace of this remote corner of Lindsey was broken again when a Second World War aerodrome was built here. This time just adjacent to the chapel on a flat open piece of land ideally situated close to the coast for bombers to make daring if destructive raids over Germany just across the North Sea. The airfield covered a wide area surrounding the chapel on three sides and had a major impact on the area with the clearing of trees, the culverting of a beck and ditches, the laying of kilometres of tarmac and the erection of hangars not to mention the influx of the men to run the airfield and fly the bombers. Some of this infrastructure still remains, such as a large hangar close to the chapel, but most poignant are the later memorials to commemorate the many brave young men who flew from the airfield and did not return. The main memorial is set back from the quiet roadside south of the chapel but beside the NT site entrance is another memorial to the unlucky souls who died in an explosion of munitions on the base in 1944. It is a marker of how close the chapel was to the bomb dump that exploded.
The base was closed at the end of the war but the runway was kept operational right through the Cold War and was even extended to over two kilometres or similar in length to the current runway at Humberside Airport. This was to aid the USAF during the Korean War if long range escort fighters needed refuelling and later as a possible emergency landing strip for Vulcan bombers based at RAF Scampton. Neither air force needed to use it but the runways was only metres from the chapel so if things had been different and peaceful would have been the last word that would have been associated with this secluded National Trust site and probably would not have been considered as one. Ironically though this sense of isolation was actually exaggerated by the long runway being built and maintained until it was finally dug up to used as ballast for the Humber Bridge foundations. This is because before the Second World War the hamlet of Monksthorpe was the focus for a number of lanes connecting it to surrounding villages. These were all forfeited to make room for the airfield so that now the chapel can only be accessed at the end of a narrow, poorly maintained, no through road. With the closure and final dismantling of the airfield and Grimsby fish transferring to road transport in the 1960s followed by the railway closing in 1970 all was quiet again.