Although the Lincolnshire Wolds AONB stretches some 50 kilometres from north to south (Caistor to Gunby) the distance across it south of Louth is as little as 11 kilometres. North of Claxby St. Andrew the eastern boundary follows close to the line of the 50 metres contour, which overlooks the marsh up to Little Cawthorpe. This coincides with the old coastline of low chalk cliffs that existed before the last ice age. So technically it represents the edge of the Wolds but this then omits many features associated with a chalkland landscape most notably the many springs and streams that emerge from the base of this long ridge. Elsewhere the Lincolnshire Wolds AONB in several places relies on main roads to mark its boundary. This is convenient but not ideal because these roads are most prone to different types of development often not in keeping with the remit of the AONB. A disused rail line on the other hand offers the opportunity for a much more suitable natural boundary and at the foot of the eastern edge of the Wolds is the old abandoned main line to Grimsby.
The isolated Ulceby chalk plateau (100 metres asl) is the most southerly extension of the AONB and offers epic views out to sea and across to Norfolk and also harbours a significant number of Neolithic long barrows but the area is not especially conducive to wildlife as it mainly open arable farmland. Over time though it had been more normally pasture or even heathland, which explains why the long barrows managed to survive into modern times before some were lost through excavation or by indiscriminate ploughing. The plateau however has always acted as an aquifer for storing water in the porous chalk to be released at its base feeding many streams which then flow out across the marsh and fen.
The eastern slope of the plateau however is mostly covered in a thick layer of boulder clay, strewn with glacial erratics brought down from the hills of northern Britain by glaciers. Where there are gaps in the clay water is able to well up producing a series of chalk streams along its length. The biggest of these is at Belleau and increases the size of Calceby Beck sufficiently to become the Withern or Great Eau. This is the major chalk stream/river in the area and is eventually joined by the Long Eau or Carlton Beck out on the marsh. This tributary also starts life as a copious spring at the foot of the Wolds in Little Cawthorpe.
It is possible to add Welton Beck, Hogs Beck, Well Beck and Burlands Beck to the list of chalk streams emerging from the foot of the Wolds between the A158 near Gunby and the A157 near Legbourne. This eastern edge of the Wolds also includes a number of old woods like Legbourne Wood, Muckton Wood, Rigsby Wood and Hoplands Wood, which are all either SSSI’s, nature reserves or both and home to an abundance of wildflowers and important habitats for birds and invertebrates. Some woods and chalk streams are in close association with each other like Hoplands Wood and Burlands Beck while Well Beck flows through the Well Estate, which is a species rich environment of wood pasture with two lakes. Not only does the intimate mosaic of woods, pasture and streams of the kilometre wide strip at the foot of the Wolds provide much wider biodiversity than the top of the plateau but it is also precariously close to the ever expanding leisure industries which surround Skegness and Ingoldmells and needs protection from any inappropriate develop which could spoil the area. By just extending the width of the Wolds AONB to the line of the abandoned railway south of Louth effectively widening it from eleven to twelve or thirteen kilometres would provide some protection for this unspoilt and diverse eastern flank of the Wolds.
The abandoned rail line itself provides useful refuges for wildlife because for the majority of it length from Willoughby to Legbourne it provides welcome shelter having been left unattended from many years. The Willoughby Branch Line Nature Reserve, which veers east from the main line close to Willoughby for a couple of kilometres, is a good example of what such a habitat can achieve when encouraged to support wildlife.
The East Lincolnshire Railway as it was originally called can offer much more all be it intermittently. Starting from Legbourne Wood there is a two kilometre stretch which happens to keep close company with a meandering green lane on its west side. The land between the two is sometimes so narrow it is not practical for cultivation and so is left uncultivated or as pasture or alternatively a broad wildlife corridor. There is a break between Authorpe and Claythorpe but here the green lane becomes a tarmac lane still staying close to where the line once went. If the railway had not been built the green lane would have likely been a proper road along its whole length. From Claythorpe the abandoned line continues almost unbroken to just short of Willoughby. North of Alford it passes close by Tothby Lane where the landowner allows access through an attractive wooded section of the line. Altogether the abandoned line offers a corridor of over ten kilometres of thickly hedged habitat between Legbourne and Gunby. This is an important link and refuge between the many woods and streams in the area. From Willoughby to Welton this is already almost the case by using Hanby Lane the AONB’s eastern most boundary is just 300 metres short of the rail line.
Because of these many important wildlife sites and the general unspoilt nature of the landscape it would make a lot of sense to extend the present boundary of the Wolds AONB just a kilometre or so further east up to the old abandoned Legbourne to Gunby railway line and maybe a further couple of kilometres north along the haphazardly meandering course of the Great Eau to Toot Hill motte and bailey where there is a length of old meadows by the river. This would then give some protection from over enthusiastic farmers and developers to these important wildlife corridors of green lanes, thick hedges, clear streams and old woods of the Lincolnshire Wolds eastern flank.
A few miles to the west is the Wolds AONB southern boundary which follows the line of the A158 coast road for some kilometres. Beyond it is a main tributary of the River Lymn with a deeply fretted sandstone ridge rising behind it. The feeder streams of this beck are partly contained within the Snipe Dales Country Park and Reserve and further downstream when passing by the parish of Mavis Enderby more streams join the beck from a deeply fretted side valley which contains important habitats some of which are SSSIs. This interesting dale though is outside the AONB but it is not a straight forward task to just enlarge the area southwards as it is to extend it eastwards because along the AONBs A158 boundary lies the large village of Hagworthingham. It is a popular village and growing, well placed for a commute to Horncastle or the coast with a bonus of nice views prompting new houses to be built either side of the road. The busy coast road and the village strung out along it has produced a hard human barrier to wildlife and is an obvious border for the AONB but development on the north side of the road within its boundaries needs to be restricted especially as this overlooks the heart of Tennyson Country.
Not only do we know from his poems that Tennyson had a close connection with the natural world and enjoyed long country walks but that he was also a member of the Lake District Defence Society (later to become The Friends of the Lake District). Although this was late in his life he had long been a friend of the Canon Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley, an ardent campaigner for the cause, and other members of his family (See Halton Holgate blog). The fears then were similar to those now of unrestrained development of precious rural landscapes. “Rawnsley began to discuss the need for a national body which could hold land and thus put it beyond risk of development – something which other conservation bodies could not do” (NT website). This ultimately led to the founding of the National Trust which has since managed to protect large areas of land, especially in the Lake District but very little in Lincolnshire and nothing in the Wolds.
Today the National Trust’s statement is not accurate because fortunately there are bodies like the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust that does important work protecting wildlife and sensitive habitats at a local level. It has to be said however that its presence in the Wolds is limited partly because it does not have the reach and resources having had to prioritise the county’s exceptionally long coastline. This is why it is necessary for governments to designate particularly vulnerable or interesting landscapes for protection against over exploitation. The southern half of the Lincolnshire Wolds in particular fits into this category but at present only the core is within the AONB while the fringes remain exposed. The ideal would be to create in the Tennyson Valley an island of biodiversity in a sea of intensive agriculture, which is the rest of Lincolnshire.
Today if he were still around Tennyson would be relieved to find the parish of Somersby, where he grew up, not greatly altered in appearance but on closer inspection he would soon become away of the loss of key habitats, species of both wild flowers and birds and a number of footpaths, which would be troubling to him. This is where the conflict now lies. Modern farming methods have the ability to produce bumper crops annually but potentially at the cost of all other forms of life within an essentially sterile open arable landscape. The chalk wolds is such a landscape and in places is a chequer board of rape and barley to the horizon. I dread to think what Tennyson would think of Skegness where he spent summers with the Rawnsleys as a child. I know though that he would have been an advocate for protecting the landscapes that were part of his childhood memories and would support any initiative to encourage the protection of habitats and wildlife of the Lincolnshire Wolds and coast.