Heading north along the crest of the Wolds by way of the Bluestone Heath Road to the right or east are a series of deep combes of which the most southern is by far the most well known. This is Cadwell with its world renowned motorcycling circuit famous for its steep undulating course. This classic chalk downland country can be found close to chalk ridges in the south of England and East Yorkshire but the Lincolnshire Wolds are different as these combes are the heads of valleys that are linked further east by the deep valley of the River Lud. This chalk river curiously flows north cutting across the valleys by flowing against the normal trend of the landscape dipping from west to east. After receiving water from all their tributary streams it finally turns east to leave the Wolds flowing through the busy market town of Louth.
As the largest town in the area Alfred with his brothers would make the hilly journey from Somersby to Louth where they attended school for a few years. With the port of Grimsby yet to be built and Louth already having access to the sea via a new canal the town was a busy prosperous commercial centre at the time and must have at first made quite an impression on the country lads with its fine Georgian buildings, which still dominate the town centre today. Unfortunately these were not happy times for them and it is known that Alfred hated the strict disciple whilst there and eventually his father took them all out of school choosing to teach them at home.
When turning right off the Bluestone Heath Road to head for Louth, which is where most of these roads head for, to begin with they are generally straight and descend gradually down the dip slope of the escarpment with valleys either side and glimpses of Louth’s parish church of St. James impressively tall and handsome spire ahead. A traveller would expect this direct and uneventful journey to continue all the way to the outskirts of the town. This is the case driving east off the Yorkshire Wolds towards the impressive bulk of Beverely minster with its twin towers or from Chipping Campden towards the Oxford’s dreaming spires but it the case of Louth only the A 157 is direct and even this route has to negotiate more than the expected number of humps and hollows. The reason for this lies deep into the past. Partly due to the Lincolnshire Wolds more complex geology but mainly to events that occurred during the last glacial maximum 20,000 years ago.
Even before this time the site of Louth was different as during the previous interglacial it would have been on the coast with sea cliffs facing east either side of it but then the sea retreated and the ice advanced with a massive glacier called the North Sea Lobe ploughing south along a route which coincides with Lincolnshire’s present day coastline. The old sea cliffs where sufficiently high formed a barrier to stop the ice spreading west over the Wolds. Where the line of cliffs were broken by chalk streams however the ice was able to push some way up their valleys. The Louth area though at the time had two streams with only a relatively low and narrow hill separating them. This was a big enough break in the cliff barrier to allow the ice to make an incursion deep into the Wolds and we are still living with the consequences of this today.
Although the ice pushed up both valleys and over the narrow intervening hill and deep into the Wolds only one of these streams today remains blocked by glacial debris or till. This is on the southern edge of present day Louth and forced this stream to take a more northerly course to merge with the other stream on the town’s western outskirts. We would recognise this as the present day course of the River Lud, which passes through the steep sided ravine of Hubbard’s Hills. This popular beauty spot and many other physical features in the area are all a result of erosion or deposition of material during the last ice age, which diminished the height of hills, blocked valleys and even created new ones
Going back to the last glacial maximum when the ice at its greatest extent was blocking both valleys the whole catchment area of the River Lud flooded until it overflowed south and sculpted Orgarth Hill overlooking Tathwell. At its highest point it briefly overflowed just south of Tathwell Grange to create one of the highest glacial overflow channels or spillways on the Wolds. This however was only for a brief period and later it cut a much deeper channel a kilometre east south of Tathwell Lodge. This spillway was two kilometres long and created the deep valley that now passes just west of the isolated but evocative Haugham church, which from a distance looks like a smaller version of St. James Louth. The melt waters from here poured into the valley of Skirbeck and on south looking for a way around the ice. (See Walmsgate blog.)
The North Sea Lobe glacier did not remain this far south for long and was always unstable and when it broke up stagnant ice continued to disrupt drainage and probably accounts for why the River Lud remained flowing along its new more northerly route. Even today its original river valley remains ten metres higher than its present one. The steep deep valley through Hubbard’s Hills was not cut by the river alone but from the torrents of flood water finally escaping along a lower spillway than the one adjacent to Orgarth Hill. This was probably only for a brief period but had the tremendous erosive power to cut across the narrow hill that originally separated the two chalk streams before the last ice age.
There was also a another chalk stream rerouted during this time and this was Welton Beck, the most northerly of the River Lud’s tributaries, whose westerly route was blocked by a glacial moraine in the area of South Elkington forcing the beck, along with much melt water coming down from the north, to cut a deep ravine south to join the main valley a mile upstream from where it had done originally. This deep wooded ravine though less visited than Hubbard’s Hills is however just as impressive and is further enhanced by a number of tall stately Californian coastal redwoods growing beside the clear tranquil waters of the beck.
From Welton in the northwest to Tathwell in the southeast there are a number of other little villages huddled amongst the aftermath of the tumultuous events of the last Ice Age. Each has springs bubbling up from the ground to add crystal clear water to the many chalk streams that run along the valleys and as a result of the glacial modifications quickly join together to form the River Lud flowing through Louth. But fascinatingly these streams reveal abundant evidence of the transformation of the landscape which is otherwise hidden by the woods, hedges and pasture that cover the valleys today. This is because when you look into their clear waters these otherwise normal chalk streams are full of pebbles and sometimes even boulders of rocks that are not local. These are known as glacial erratics and have been transported by the North Sea Lobe glacier south from Scotland and also picked up rocks from Northumberland and Yorkshire on its way south. It is not just in streams where these are found because this glacial debris or till also covers the surrounding fields with farmers over the years throwing offending ones into hedgerows. These however are normally dirty and difficult to spot while those in the streams are already cleaned and in the pure waters are easy to spot. They can be quite varied and include bright quartz, dark grit stone and patterned volcanic rocks. The paths radiating out from the stream side village of Raithby is the best place to discover them. Much more exotic though is that between Welton and South Elkington in what is now a protected reserve bones, tusks and teeth as well as flint tools have been found during excavations in sand and gravel deposits dating back to 300,000 years ago.
It is clear that apart from his father’s extensive library Tennyson’s main classroom was the varied countryside he was fortunate to grow up in at a time when there was much more diversity of wildlife than there is now. May be home schooling allowed Alfred to explore his tendency towards the romantic and avoid the disciple the science requires. Although Alfred had great awareness of the natural world which comes through in his writing he was most influenced by other earlier romantic poets. At the same time there were however many other young men investigating the countryside and natural world and starting to ask questions that challenged the long held orthodoxy of the Biblical version of the age and formation of the world. One of these young men was his close contemporary Charles Darwin (1809-1882) who although always depicted as bald with a long beard had an inquisitive nature and natural scientific mind from a young age. He got the chance to sail on the Beagle when still only 23. This now famous epic round the world voyage only helped to reinforce questions forming in his young mind stimulated by exploring the countryside around his Shropshire home and while studying at Cambridge and he continued to systematically examine and catalogue wildlife for the rest of his life.