The two villages of Somersby and Bag Enderby tucked away in the middle of Hill Wapentake essentially form a single unit and two hundred years ago were ministered as one by Tennyson’s father Dr. George Clayton Tennyson. They are separated from the rest of the Wolds by distinct physical boundaries with the steep red chalk ridge of Warden and Cloven hills to the north and the secluded trench like valley of the River Lymn to the south. This leaves access to the villages only by a winding east and west road. Yet even here there are the barriers of the wet wooded valleys of Harrington Carr to the east and New England Ravine to the west, which the road has to dip and swerve to avoid. There is also an almost forgotten narrow lane to the north between Somersby and Tetford that squeezes between the steep sides of the ravine and the wooded slopes of Warden Hill. This means that by which ever route you arrive it feels like you have discovered a forgotten corner of the Wolds lost to time or Lincolnshire’s Brigadoon and half expect to spot a member of the Tennyson clan wandering by.
It is certainly fortunate that the twin Tennyson parishes of Somersby and Bag Enderby and the surrounding Hill Wapentake have not succumbed to the wholesale changes that have taken place in most parts, slowly covering the country in pylons, brick, concrete, tarmac and garish signage and was even overlooked down through the ages by builders and engineers.
The River Lymn from leaving the secluded New England Ravine flows through a trough like valley, created by the same glacial melt waters that cut the ravine. The erosive effect of these copious amounts of melt water means that even today beyond the ravine the river continues to be contained within a deepened valley but now broader as it wends its way down its dank clay bottom. This has the effect that between Tetford and Partney all the dale’s villages stand back and above the river on the dry sandstone plateau and apart from a couple of picturesque old mills is largely ignored by man and is a sinuous haven for wildlife. This is effectively a linear nature reserve stretching 10 kilometres and all the while being joined by other clear water streams flowing down from the surrounding hills. This hidden valley floor, crossed only by the occasional ford or footbridge, is quite a different habitat to the surrounding hills just 80 metres above it. Here the valley is a sheltered damp world often harbouring mists while the ridges are dry and exposed often buffeted by cutting winds.
Such is the hidden and unspoilt nature of Hill Wapentake, and especially the twin parishes at its heart, it is as if they were protected by some benign natural force through time that one can not help but liken the area to Tolkien’s Shire. A circle of hills as a boundary and the clean waters of the Lymn flowing passed a patchwork of fields and woods and tiny villages with curious names like Bag Enderby and Ashby Puerorum. This together with such a strong legacy of Tennyson and his evocative poetry pervading the place it is not difficult to imagine him still striding along the shady lanes dressed in his familiar cape and broad brimmed hat cutting a Gandalfian figure that at sometime Tolkien himself either read about or visited the area, as many fans of the great bard did back then, and found inspiration for the hobbits homeland.
Tennyson was well known as an inveterate walker right into his old age and even when young it was a way of escaping the crowded and sometimes fractious rectory full of siblings, servants and a father with violent mood swings. These would range from bouts of depression to periods of creativity as in 1819 when he designed the large gothic dining room. Despite his failings Alfred’s father provided his son with a stimulating environment, encouragement and the freedom to pursue his dream of becoming a poet.
The HG website states This is the birthplace of Alfred Lord Tennyson.
The rambling old rectory is an attractive Georgian building, painted white with a small balcony, an oriel window and a pantiled roof. The large gothic dining room, with its tall gables, was added in 1819, designed by the poet’s father, and built by his coachman, Hollins. The rectory was opposite the church and quite a bit larger that it, which was a common theme in the Wolds. Despite the improvements to the rectory little St Margaret’s was only restored after the Tennyson’s moved away and so a young Alfred would have known only an ancient, slightly dilapidated and thatched version of today’s still modest edifice. Little wonder in these parts, both before and after Alfred was born, a large proportion of parishioners were defecting to the Methodist way championed by fellow Lincolnshire man John Wesley whose father had for a few years been the rector at nearby South Ormsby.
The River Lymn would have been an obvious draw to a young Alfred. Just a field away beyond the bottom of the rectory garden it curved round Somersby being joined by its first main tributary, flowing down from the hills around Salmonby, making the stream swell to a small river or rivulet as Tennyson was want to say. The lane heading west out of Somersby is called Bridge Lane and crosses the River Lymn where it leaves the confines of the ravine. The bridge itself is a pleasant secluded spot enveloped by a surprisingly diverse mix of tree species enhancing the visitor experience especially in autumn. The bridge however was only built during Tennyson’s childhood and before this must have been a ford and an irresistible place for a young boy to play and catch small fish and invertebrates.
As he grew older Alfred would have become familiar with the lane that went north to Tetford overlooking the New England Valley. This large sprawling village was the place to visit for stores, craftsmen or even a drink at the White Hart. Another lane that he would often have reason to walk along was the sandy tree lined way to his father’s other parish of Bag Enderby just half a mile east. The church here has a tall tower and an interesting interior with pieces of late medieval stone, woodwork and stained glass. The quiet village surrounding it has a number of attractive white cottages along narrow lanes that start grey but turn to green and brown as you follow them. (See Trails through the Dales Blog.)
While in his twenties Alfred’s inclination would have been to carry on further to the neighbouring village of Harrington with its long hall. He would pass through the dell of Woodman’s cottage and on to the grand house set in parkland where for a couple of years he was mainly attracted by the charms of the sophisticated Rosemary Baring before she was packed off to London to make a more suitable marriage. It is interesting to compare this with lines from the Miller’s Daughter – She wished me happy, but she thought I might have look’d a little higher; – which hints at the strict social hierarchy of early nineteenth century rural Lincolnshire. In the poem it is made clear that the miller is quite wealthy but lacks social status, we know that the Tennyson’s have some status but not much money and that Rosemary Baring has both. All of this puts the young poet in a difficult position although tall, handsome and well educated he has no clear prospects or training in one of the professions.
He was very much caught between the work a day world of Tetford, for it is quite clear from the Miller’s Daughter poem which describes the surrounding village and chalk quarry close by, that this is where the mill is located upstream from Somersby and the high society world of Rosemary Baring of balls in grand houses found further downstream towards Spilsby.
The twin parishes during Tennyson’s time were much more connected than now but unfortunately two footpaths running both east and west out of Somersby and another footpath from the village following the river passed Paradise Holt all the way to the ford south of Bag Enderby have been lost. It is here in the quiet seclusion of this unspoilt valley, where bird song, of which Tennyson was so fond, is still the dominant sound harmonising with the running water and rustling leaves. Here it is possible to be transported back to the bard’s time without the harsh interruption of modern noises. Sadly such places are becoming increasingly rare in lowland Britain.
Although the river crossing at Paradise Holt is evocative it is the more remote ford south of Bag Enderby, which remains the least changed by modern agriculture. Here the flow of the river slows creating a series of looping meanders either side of the ford. Further downstream the river course is less natural with a series of watermills with the drainage of the flood plain and some straightening of the river effecting its natural flow. By the ford though for five hundred metres the river’s erratic meandering has left patches of land untouched by the plough. The largest of these is south of the ford where from the impressively wide profile of the great split ash tree there is a strip of land between the lane and the river scattered with mature oaks offering a protective canopy for a wide variety of flora on the damp ground below although along the river’s edge the attractive but invasive Himalayan Balsam has taken over. North of the ford the field to the west of the track on the slope that dips down to the meanders is also protected grassland.
The village of Bag Enderby was also connected by an even longer footpath running east to Harrington Woodside. This would have made it possible, before the Second World War, to walk from Harrington all the way to Tetford with barely touching any tarmac except when passing through the centre of Somersby. Unfortunately the advent of more mechanised farming and the need to feed the nation saw many of these footpaths swept away in the name of progress after the war. It would make a great difference to visitors appreciation of the area, where Tennyson wandered in his formative years, if some of these paths could be re-instated through the Lincolnshire Countryside Access scheme introducing similar permissive footpaths as those around the striking landscapes of Hoe Hill and Langton Hill at either end of Lower Lymndale. (See Roach Ridge & Langton Old Road Blogs.) Despite this Bag Enderby remains a hub for lanes and paths, some lined with mature oak trees, which are more prevalent in this area than most of the rest of the Wolds.