With studying and exploring the southern Lincolnshire Wolds in detail for tennysoncountry.com and researching many events through time, both geological and historical that created this intimate environment, this blog is as much about the landscape with which Tennyson was so familiar as it is about the great poet himself. These events not only moulded the landscape in which Tennyson spent most of his first twenty eight years but also the man himself who was keenly aware of his surroundings, both human and natural where he grew up, in the small Wold village of Somersby with his large family.
Critically Tennyson, although he had access to his father’s knowledge (who gained a doctorate at Cambridge) and his extensive library, was born just too early to grow up learning about the many discoveries made through the Victorian era on geology, glaciation, weather systems and not least evolution and launched into the modern age. Influenced greatly by the romantic poets during his childhood he saw the world through their eyes. To find out more why this was it is necessary to discover in greater detail the environment and influences that Tennyson experienced during his formative years by taking a journey through Lymndale and beyond. It will also show how this area has changed over the last two centuries and not always for the better.
Although 200 years later we have the benefit of satellite imagery and being able to see down to the atomic level and have a much deeper understanding of our world we have also lost much. As a boy the industrial revolution had yet to reach Tennyson’s little world and life was still dominated by the natural rhythms of nature so that the fine balance between man and nature was yet to be upset. This meant that the great natural diversity of the classic British patchwork countryside had only changed very slowly and crucially at a pace that the natural world could cope with.
This balance through most of lowland Britain has long gone and there are only vestiges of it remaining but often too small to be of much impact to encouraging greater natural diversity. Lymndale or Tennyson country is an area where the impact of the modern world is still relatively modest and would still be familiar to Tennyson. However, it will be seen when reading through Tennysoncountry.com how kind history has been in generally leaving this area relatively unscathed by major developments down through the ages but even here things are not right as we know that many species once familiar to Tennyson are now missing.
After an introduction tennysoncountry.com starts (April 2018) on the edge of the Fens at Halton Holgate, which is where the Rawnsley family lived and were lifelong friends of Alfred. From trips to the seaside when young, officiating at his wedding and discussing Lincolnshire dialect poems in later life they were always there for him. From Halton the holgate (sunken road) dips down to the River Lymn, which at the beginning of the nineteenth century was diverted a short way downstream to become the River Steeping with the old Lymn, running through Croft, reduced to a wayside ditch.
After a visit to Gunby Hall the route makes a steady climb along the Bluestone Heath Road onto the Ulceby Chalk Plateau. This area of big skies and immense views is now mainly large arable fields but there also lies tantalising traces of an ancient landscape of some significance. The route then dips down passing through the large and ancient South Ormsby estate containing lost villages like Driby and Calceby before entering Upper Lymndale. This wide valley was much altered during the peak of the last ice age when the great North Sea lobe glacier gave the area a brief glancing blow, which was sufficient to disrupt the drainage of the dale considerably. A further climb up onto the dome of Tetford Hill, the highest point of the route at 142 metres, is followed by a steep descent into the large village of Tetford.
The route then climbs Nab Hill onto Roach Ridge and either side of Fulletby offers wide views of both the upper and lower dales of the River Lymn as well as west to Lincoln cathedral. The Roach series is a band of rocks, confined mainly to Lymndale, found between the chalk and sandstone strata. Within the series is a hard band of ochre coloured ironstone, which caps many of the named hills that overlook the dale and helps give it its character.
After visiting Greetham the narrow winding route of Snake Lane takes the route into the heart of Tennyson country, where Alfred was born in 1809 in Somersby. This is also the centre of an area of jurisdiction that lasted over a thousand years called Hill wapentake. Tennyson country, which is mainly Lymndale, and Hill wapentake overlap to a considerable degree. The advantage with the wapentake though is that it has clearly defined boundaries and covers much of the area that tennysoncountry.com covers.
The area around the villages of Somersby and Bag Enderby, where Alfred’s father was the local rector, is an intimate landscape of hills and hollows, woods and winding lanes that Tennyson would probably still find familiar. The mixed geology of dry hills, damp dales and wooded slopes has helped contain the worst excesses of modern intensive agriculture and there are many pockets of habitat where wildlife can still flourish. The main location for this is the New England Ravine between Tetford and Somersby, where begins an unspoilt section of the River Lymn that passes close by the Somersby rectory, the Tennyson family home, and meanders through a secluded valley all the way to Stockwith Mill. It is also fed by many tributaries that contain long narrow stretches of carr or wet woodland, which together and if managed sympathetically could become a matrix of wildlife corridors. Tennyson’s boyhood world and his father’s ministry of Somersby and Bag Enderby is in fact bracketed between the secluded wet woodlands of the New England Ravine and Harrington Carr.
There is little other than information boards to evoke the memory of Tennyson around the dale that formed his outlook on life and the inspiration for many of his poems. What is apparent from reading his works is the importance of the natural world to him and how he was a keen observer of wildlife. Therefore the best memorial to England’s longest serving poet laureate would be to reinstate the area around his family home as he knew it so it would encourage back many of the lost species with which he was so familiar as a young man.
Passing Harrington Hall, which has strong Tennyson associations, the route passes through the hidden village of Langton. After climbing over Langton Edge and descending to Partney the route finishes at the nearby market town of Spilsby, which is where the arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, a relation of Tennyson through his wife, was born. Yet as well as a journey through the southern Wolds as mentioned above tennysoncountry.com also journeys through time describing life and times during the Roman period, at the time of the Domesday Book and also during the nineteenth century, which Tennyson’s life (1809-1892) almost spanned.
Even in the twenty first century we must continue to be aware of the way we manage the landscape and this was illustrated emphatically in June 2019 when there was extensive flooding just outside the area tennysoncountry.com covers in Wainfleet and Thorpe St. Peter. The significance is that almost all the flood waters came from Lymndale, which is the chief catchment area of the River Steeping and broke its banks so dramatically and catastrophically. Although the intensity of the rain was unprecedented better land management of this area upstream would have softened the blow. Many features like long carr corridors, the re-instating of water meadows and allowing rivers and streams to meander naturally would aid water retention on the land and would have slowed the rush of rain water out onto the Fens with such devastating consequences.
As Tennyson defines this area and it also happens to be some of the county’s most attractive countryside, managing it more sympathetically would have many benefits not just to wildlife but also as an amenity to learn about life in Tennyson’s time. It could be an island of diversity in a sea of intensive agriculture, which the rest of Lincolnshire and the Fens has become since the end of the Second World War. Most of the county’s large wildlife reserves are coastal or estuarine with very few reserves on the Wolds, which also tend to be small. Snipe Dales reserve, immediately south of Lymndale, is an exception and an example of how the land might have looked in Tennyson’s time but to encourage many of the species with which Tennyson was familiar, but are now lost to Lincolnshire, we need to be much more ambitious and create an area farmed on holistic principles, which would result in benefits for both human and animal communities.