The Brook

The Brook is one of Tennyson’s best known poems and most assume it is about the little River Lymn, which flows close by his boyhood home. Tennyson himself says it is not a specific brook and when the poem is read in its entirety, including the deliberately contrasting sections about different characters and their lives, you can understand why he wants to take attention away from the description of a fast flowing beck especially when this is only a small part of the whole poem. It is included to show in sharp contrast the purposeful and constant flow of the stream compared with the vagaries and uncertainties of people’s journeys through life.

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Had he written this poem in his youth Tennyson might have called it “The Beck” but he wrote it at the peak of his career in the 1850s  when had lived for nearly twenty years away from Somersby but even so there would not have been many fast flowing streams that he was familiar with, which are hard to find where he lived in the London area and the Isle of Wight, so it is likely that when writing it he still had a Lindsey beck in mind rather than a southern brook. Those that he knew well can immediately be reduced to two. These are the River Lymn near his family home and the River Bain, which flows a few miles west of it through Horncastle, where he would have visited often. My previous blog, the Tennyson Trail, illustrates how he would have also crossed it on his journeys north to Tealby. There is a third contender, the River Waring which is closer to Somersby and flows into the River Bain but this is too small and too short with only a couple of roads that cross it, not the “half a hundred bridges” of the poem. This number of bridges however is quite excessive and not even the River Witham has that many.

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The Bain & Lymn (Limb) rivers before their courses were straightened.

There are also problems with choosing the River Lymn as the most likely candidate, because its course and profile is so uncharacteristic. (See blogs on Upper and Lower Lymndale for more detail.) This is because it was fundamentally altered at the time of the last glacial maximum. The North Sea Lobe Glacier for a time blocked the river’s natural course flowing northeast to one that still today flows southeast. To do this it was forced to cut through two sandstone ridges.

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An infant River Lymn flowing through Tetford.

I come from haunts of coot and hern,

I make a sudden sally

And sparkle out among the fern,

To bicker down a valley.

The River Lymn’s headwaters gather upstream of Tetford and when passing through the village epitomise the characteristics of Tennyson’s brook as it babbles over rocks and tree routes. Downstream of the village though it passes through the first ridge. This ravine was cut by a much larger body of water and now the little river meanders sluggishly through this wooded defile unseen. See below.

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It emerges from the ravine close to Tennyson’s boyhood home where it regains some of its energy but the glacial waters that cut the ravine also eroded a trench along this main valley of the Lymn, which the river meanders through for some miles. All villages and the Spilsby, the only town, stand well back from the river on the drier sandstone plateau. This helps preserve the river’s natural course and keeps it unspoiled with a series of tree lined looping meanders but it does not flow past the many thorpes that Tennyson mentions.

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A Flooded River Bain seen from Colley Hill.

With many a curve my banks I fret

By many a field and fallow,

And many a fairy foreland set

With willow-weed and mallow.

 Beyond Spilsby, where again the barrier of a glacial moraine deflects it south through the constraints of another lower sandstone ridge, the river flows stronger again but beyond this it flows out onto the wide flat expanse of the Fens. Again the river’s course has been fundamentally altered but this time by man. During the draining of the Fens at the start of the nineteenth century the Steeping Cut or River was dug in a straight line between Little Steeping and Wainfleet. The natural course of the Lymn flowed along a more meandering course further east, which was abandoned and now is merely a small roadside ditch.

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The River Lymn cuts through a final low ridge before entering the Fens.

The Brook in the poem flows into the brimming river, which could by the Steeping River but this was very new when Alfred was a boy and would not have looked natural and would probably have been called the Steeping Cut. A more likely place for Philp’s Farm “where last I flow to join the brimming river” would have been the River Witham, which always appears to be brimming as it makes its long journey across the low slung Fens between Lincoln and Boston. The River Bain is also a better candidate for the brook that runs into it. This river starts its life high in the chalk hills of the Wolds well to the north. Many chalk streams flow swiftly out of these hills to come together at Biscathorpe to form a clear and rare chalk river. To get there these streams pass through numerous tiny villages, some of them now abandoned but are typical of the thorpes described in the poem. The eastern source of the Bain which starts in the remote village of Kelstern (See featured image above.) passes through Calcethorpe, Grimblethorpe and Biscathorpe.

4 S CADEBY VALLEY 2
The River Bain between South Cadeby and Grimblethorpe.

By thirty hills I hurry down

Or slip between the ridges,

By twenty thorps, a little town,

And half a hundred bridges.

Beyond Biscathorpe the river passes by Donington on Bain but like the River Lymn then flows through a damp clay valley with villages set back on a drier sandstone ledge until reaching Horncastle the little town in the poem. The Horncastle Navigation after the building of many locks opened in 1802. This and straightening its natural course changed the character of the River Bain. There are however stretches where the natural course of the river still flows such as near Dalderby and attracts sand martins to nest in the sandy banks that overlook the river.

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Sand Martins over the Old River Bain Near Dalderby.

I slip, I slide, I gloom, I glance,

Among my skimming swallows;

I make the netted sunbeam dance

Against my sandy shallows.

The River Bain enters the River Witham just downstream from Tattershall Castle. If Tennyson had mentioned this medieval landmark which has dominated the surrounding flat lands for centuries then there would be no doubt that he had the River Bain in mind when writing The Brook but it is still possible that farmer Philip gazed across his flat fields to the high turrets of Tattershall Castle.

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Till last by Philip’s farm I flow

To join the brimming river,

For men may come and men may go,

But I go on for ever.

Finally the line “But I go on forever” referring to the brook is repeated four times. This was written at a time when scientists were realising that the earth was millions rather than thousands of years old and that there had been a series of Ice Ages. Tennyson was never aware that the course of the River Lymn had been radically altered during the last glacial maximum about 20,000 years ago as had some other rivers on the east side of the Wolds but to the west the River Bain had not been affected greatly and therefore its course can claim to be much older. So the line “But I go on forever” is also more appropriate to the Bain than the Lymn. 

   The Brook

I come from haunts of coot and hern,

I make a sudden sally

And sparkle out among the fern,

To bicker down a valley.

 

By thirty hills I hurry down,

Or slip between the ridges,

By twenty thorpes, a little town,

And half a hundred bridges.

 

Till last by Philip’s farm I flow

To join the brimming river,

For men may come and men may go,

But I go on for ever.

 

I chatter over stony ways,

In little sharps and trebles,

I bubble into eddying bays,

I babble on the pebbles.

 

With many a curve my banks I fret

By many a field and fallow,

And many a fairy foreland set

With willow-weed and mallow.

 

I chatter, chatter, as I flow

To join the brimming river,

For men may come and men may go,

But I go on for ever.

 

I wind about, and in and out,

With here a blossom sailing,

And here and there a lusty trout,

And here and there a grayling,

 

And here and there a foamy flake

Upon me, as I travel

With many a silvery waterbreak

Above the golden gravel,

 

And draw them all along, and flow

To join the brimming river

For men may come and men may go,

But I go on for ever.

 

I steal by lawns and grassy plots,

I slide by hazel covers;

I move the sweet forget-me-nots

That grow for happy lovers.

 

I slip, I slide, I gloom, I glance,

Among my skimming swallows;

I make the netted sunbeam dance

Against my sandy shallows.

 

I murmur under moon and stars

In brambly wildernesses;

I linger by my shingly bars;

I loiter round my cresses;

 

And out again I curve and flow

To join the brimming river,

For men may come and men may go,

But I go on for ever.

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