Whereas Green Hill is made up of free draining chalk, as are the hills that surround it, just five miles away Damp Dale is a valley of impervious clay surrounded by ridges of drier sandstone. Along the boundary between the two types of strata many small streams issue from the ground and coalesce in the valley bottom to form a stream which quickly grows in volume and flows east down to the River Lymn.
This difference in geology created two contrasting soils and flora which resulted in quite different traditional land usage. Green Hill as with much of the chalk Wolds up to Tennyson’s time was mainly dry chalk grassland growing on thin soils and grazed by sheep. The deep often waterlogged clay soils of Damp Dale however would have more likely been hay meadows or permanent pasture browsed by cattle. The steeper valley sides and narrow tributary valleys remained throughout as carr – a wet woodland mostly of alder and willow. The sandstone plateau is where the villages lie surrounded by fields tilled for crops. This mix of land use remained little changed down through the centuries, even back to Roman times, and has made the area until modern times relatively well populated with villages spaced out at regular intervals.
Ashby Puerorum, overlooking Damp Dale, for a tiny village has quite a large church for these parts and it stands in splendid isolation overlooking an empty Damp Dale and is clearly visible from the coast road (A 158) on the ridge to the south. It is certainly larger than the church at Hagworthingham, a growing village strung out along the A158. Although it might have been Ashby’s association with Lincoln cathedral that determined its church’s size. This is because the origin for puerorum being added to its name (A common occurrence because of the many Ashby villages in the area.) is that the parish provided a living for the cathedral’s choirboys. In the DB both were sizeable settlements with Hagworthingham for a time having quite a large church before it collapsed with today’s church much reduced in size from its medieval predecessor. Yet the two villages were never connected by a direct road.
As with neighbouring Stainsby, Ashby is also set back from Snake Lane and both stand isolated on the edge of the plateau with no roads crossing the beck to the south to link up with the busy present day coast road passing through Hagworthingham. Although there are several rights of way to be able to discover this dale, its beck is not crossed by a road along its whole length from Greetham to Stockwith Mill where it joins the River Lymn. This is because the dale it flows through was so damp and difficult to cross. Now the beck and its many tributaries could provide a useful network of carr corridors for wildlife passing from one small wood to another. In fact it is possible for a creature to travel all the way from Greetham to South Ormsby and only pass over one narrow road near Bag Enderby. Even Snake Lane winding from Ashby to Somersby is in such bad repair and seldom used that it is barely a threat to wildlife. Protecting or even enhancing this still unspoilt landscape would allow greater connectivity for wildlife in the heart of Hill Wapentake. Using another wet valley floor from Salmonby along its beck and then along the River Lymn all the way to Stockwith Mill as well as using the many long narrow carrs would expand this system of corridors.
There is a track which runs down to the beck from close to Ashby church and where it crosses the stream, although improved, the land is still water logged and there are remnants of the natural flora such as buttercups, ladies smock and tussock grass beside both the track and stream. This would once have covered a wide area and probably included many more wild flowers such as common spotted orchid and ragged robin. The track then leads up to the coast road on the ridge (A158) which marks the southern edge of the Wolds AONB but beyond is Snipe Dales nature reserve, lying just within Hill Wapentake. This occupies a similar if narrower damp dale where the natural habitat has been preserved more like it was in Tennyson’s time. This is a good place to hear some of the birds familiar to the bard who benefit from the richer insect life resulting from a more mixed habitat of woodland and permanent pasture. Unfortunately it has not been enough to reverse the general decline of wildlife despite the best efforts of the wildlife trust to extend this small network of carr corridors as far as Hagworthingham. This linking of habitats should also be encouraged within the AONB using the natural connectivity of carr corridors, together with re-instating traditional meadows, as a framework to allow wildlife to spread from core areas where they hang on in isolation. Since Tennyson’s time the corncrake and turtle dove have disappeared, cuckoos and snipe are becoming scarce and skylarks, yellow hammers and other song birds are also less numerous.
The main reason for this loss is the intensification of agriculture causing widespread loss of habitat. The amount of woodland in Lincolnshire has remained relatively stable over the last two hundred years although there was a big switch from native deciduous woods to conifer plantations during the twentieth century. By far the biggest loss of habitat though is permanent pasture and meadows in particular. It is thought that today there is just 142 hectares of meadow left in the whole of Lincolnshire (Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust 2000). We know at the time of the DB that Lymndale alone had roughly this much meadow and just the parish of Ashby had 12 hectares. These would have been in the valleys, mostly on clay and close to the river or its tributaries. In effect it filled the gaps between the strips of carr and therefore if reinstated would reconnect these wildlife corridors. A good place to start would be the area immediately west of Somersby where little needs to be done other than protect much of the landscape as it is and enhance patches in between. (See After the Rains Blog.)
Apart from the benefit to wildlife the extension of carr corridors and the re-establishing of valley meadows with streams and the River Lymn allowed to meander naturally through them would lessen the chances of a re-occurrence of the flooding of the River Steeping near Wainfleet (June 2019). Lymndale is the main catchment area for the River Steeping and a move away from modern farming methods and a naturalising of the dale landscape would help the land retain water instead of it pouring out onto the flat fenlands and breaching dykes.