Sir Joseph Banks was born in London but at an early age he inherited the extensive family estate at Revesby on the southern edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds. This and a voyage with Captain Cook around the world set him up in society as a leading light in both botany and modern farming methods. Although based in London he was a regular visitor to his ancient family home and the 3,400 acre estate which surrounded it. Revesby Abbey was a rambling old house set in a wooded park in a slightly elevated position overlooking the Fens stretching away to the south. Although Tennyson’s and Banks’s lives overlapped it is highly unlikely that they ever met, despite their houses only being about 10 km apart, as they were not only from widely different social backgrounds but Tennyson’s success and fame only came after Banks’s death. This said when young men they were familiar with the same landscape, which by inclination they were both want to explore.
At the time of Sir Joseph’s youth beyond the bounds of the estate were an interesting mix of habitats for him to discover. Immediately to the south West Fen stretched away to a distant flat horizon providing rich grazing in summer but often flooded in winter, which would attract large flocks of water birds. To the northeast the land rose up to a long ridge of Spilsby sandstone whose flanks were fretted by numerous streams issuing from beneath this narrow band of rock into damp clay valleys, which even today remain unploughed and are sites of nature reserves and SSSIs (See Snipe Dales post.).
To the west of the estate the land all the way to the River Witham was deemed infertile as it is mostly made up of sands and gravels laid down during past glaciations. The sands are found on higher ground from Wood Enderby westward but beyond the River Bain they are more extensive. The Bain Valley is filled with gravels which fan out towards Tattershall. Today much of the gravel has been extracted leaving numerous ponds and lakes and the sandy areas have been planted with ranks of conifers and in between are golf courses, nature reserves and the new town of Woodhall Spa. Two hundred years ago however this was largely empty and uncultivated heath of heather, gorse and silver birch ideal for a young naturalist like Sir Joseph to explore on horseback.
Another draw for a young Sir Joseph was to explore East Fen a little further to the east. (See Halton Holegate & East Fen post.) This enigmatic watery place was a relic of the old fens which used to stretch all the way south to Cambridge. Within was a maze of pools and waterways called the Deeps.
Sir Joseph’s estate lay on land once occupied by a large Cistercian Abbey (See Greetham post.) of which there were only scant remains but the rambling house he lived in dated back to 1660 and just to the east of the estate was Old Bolingbroke with John of Gaunt’s ruined castle once fought over by Roundheads and Cavaliers (See Old Bolingbroke post.). If these monuments and events were not enough to install a sense of history within him then the neighbouring estate of Scrivelsby just to the north had been owned by the Dymoke dynasty for countless generations and they had been for an equally long time champions of the reigning monarch. A ceremonial role which would take place during the coronations from medieval times through into the early nineteenth century.
An exact contemporary of Sir Joseph was Arthur Young, a prolific writer on politics and agriculture. Young’s “View of the Agriculture of Lincolnshire” published in 1799 must have been partly inspired by Sir Joseph as Lincolnshire was the first of several counties to be covered in this way by him. Also Young and Banks seemed to be as one mind regarding enclosures and agricultural improvements of the time, with the references to Sir Joseph in Young’s book being more numerous than of any other landowner. Arthur Young thought him to be a liberal minded gentleman who was keen to improve the Fens to his own design while others saw him as bullish and controlling. This was not surprising though as Banks, who had travelled the world and was in correspondence with many of the leading minds of the day, would inevitably clash with those who only had a parochial perspective.
Keeping this in mind, the book is however a remarkably detailed and comprehensive window into farming and landscape of late 18th century Lincolnshire. It deals mainly with what at the time were conceived as good as well as some bad farming practices. The latter was mainly included mainly in a chapter simply called “Wastes”. This damning title refers to land that is either not enclosed or not farmed efficiently and mainly concentrates on the remaining undrained fens, stretches of sandy heathland and warrens or open grazing on the Wolds and the Lincoln Heath. Although all these areas were already in the process of being “improved” there were nevertheless still large tracts of untamed land in the county at this time in comparison to the little that remains now. There were still large parts of the Wolds covered in gorse (furze) but this was an improvement from earlier in the century as Young describes – “40 years ago it (The Wolds) was all warren for 30 miles from Spilsby to beyond Caistor. He then added disparagingly “Gorse is a beautiful plant only to the foxhunter.”
Here are some examples of these habitats and below Young’s attitude towards them. Just beyond the bounds of Sir Joseph’s well managed estate were the Fens with rights to common grazing there going back a thousand years. (See Calceby & the Domesday Book post.) In 1799 the parishes allowed grazing on the common land of East Fen (12,400 acres) and West Fen (17,000 acres) included most of the many villages in the Soke (Wapentake) of Old Bolingbroke. While the extensive Soke or Wapentake of Horncastle, as far north as West Ashby, had access to the common grazing on Wildmore Fen. Pinioned geese appear to have been the most commercially viable stock in undrained parts of the Fens and were reared in their thousands for the market but in hot dry summers great flocks of sheep were driven down from the parched uplands to the rich grazing of the fen pasture. Stock rearing in the county back then was a lot more prevalent than now and without access to large areas of common land small communities, especially those based on poor soils, would not be viable. On the sparsely populated chalk wolds much of the unenclosed land in the 18th century was given over to extensive warrens with rabbits being bred for both meat and fur.
East Fen in winter though was much more watery world as Young describes in detail “There are 300 acres of land in East Fen where cranberries grow in such abundance as to furnish supply for several adjacent counties, The land is chiefly common belonging to Wainfleet and Friskney, Empetrum and several other mountain plants being found upon the cranberry ground and in no other part of the Fens. They are so plentiful that one man has got 9 score pecks in a season… Sir Joseph Banks had the goodness to hire a boat and to accompany me into this part of the fen, which in this wet season had the appearance of a chain of lakes, bordered by great crops of reeds, Arundo Phragmites. (Plus 44 other listed species.) It is in general from 3 to 4 feet deep in water, and in one place, a channel between two lakes, 5 to 6 feet, the bottom a blue clay under a loose black mud 2 feet thick… In both East and Wildmore fens the poor horses called “Wildmore titts” get on the ice and are “screeved” that is their legs spreading outwards – the wretched animals are split!”
The following extract from Whites Gazetteer of 1892 shows that the drainage of East Fen at least was not completed successfully in Sir Joseph’s lifetime and that it was not until some years later involving many improvements over a wide area at great expense that the flooding problems were completely eradicated. “In the winter of 1866, a long continued heavy downfall of rain showed that the system of drainage was quite inadequate to the discharge of the water. A very large tract of East Fen was for several weeks completely underwater. A general scheme for the outfall of the river, so that the water level at Hobhole Sluice should be so reduced as to afford a more perfect drainage.”
Sir Joseph Banks meanwhile was such an commanding figure during the early years of the 19th century as head advisor to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, President of the Royal Society and on the Privy Council that his influence and legacy lingered on right through the remainder of the century especially in LIncolnshire as these extracts from Whites 1892 Gazetteer illustrate. “There are some in this parish that still recall, at least by direct tradition, the time of Sir Joseph. He is most remembered by the drainage of the Fens, which was largely affected by his influence and which has proved of so much value to the county. Living a good deal at Revesby until the later years of his life, he took close interest in all that concerned it. His annual attendance at the Revesby feast, the jingling and other matches held in the park on that occasion, and the orgies that followed it and his kangaroos are still in the recollection of some.”
Sir Joseph would have preferred for all the fen to be drained and enclosed so that if could be farmed more efficiently using modern methods of crop rotation and it was clear that Young would have agreed with him. There was also a political imperative for this with Britain in a long and debilitating war with France there was a drive to make the country more self sufficient. These changes were eventually completed during the 19th century and in the twentieth century the expanses of heath across the county were also lost to coniferous plantations and farming and during the second half of the century many hedges dating back to the enclosures and beyond were subsequently removed for greater efficiency leaving the county as a model of intensive farming.
What would Banks make of all this if he could see his native county now? His first impression as a landowner would be to marvel at the efficiency of modern farming methods but he was however a naturalist at heart and would have quickly become aware of how silent and empty the 21st century countryside is. He would have immediately been aware of there being far less people on the land with huge machines now doing all the work but then he would become aware of how the sky was also empty of birds with few skylarks, hardly any lapwings and no distant flocks of ducks and waders.
If he entered a modern large well stocked garden he would be impressed by the variety of flowers, shrubs and vegetables it contains, many having been introduced from around the world in the century after his death but something he had encouraged during his life. He would also welcome the sight of there being more insects and birds in the garden than the bare arable fields while also noticing some key absences missing like the subdued background murmur of many insects and the songs of some missing birds. What would he make of the general absence of wildlife in a need to feed the country’s population which had increased nearly tenfold since he was born?
Sir Joseph because of his privileged position was one of the first people to have a global perspective thanks to his extensive travels when young and the pivotal positions he held in London; the epicentre of a fast growing empire. Having visited both Australia and Canada we could tell him that now these ex colonies had developed economies equal to Britain’s despite his idea of sending convicts to the former. But then we should also add how much deforestation and general habitat loss there has been across the globe over time together with the rise of mega cities. London was the largest city in the world during Sir Joseph’s lifetime but despite growing many times larger it is still just one megapolis among many and by no means the largest.
Despite all his knowledge he did not make the leap in imaging that the earth was far older than described in the bible. In a way Sir Joseph was the last Renaissance man who was interested in many things. For example when the River Witham was dredged and straightened he asked for any artefacts found during the work to be brought to him with some prehistoric ones, which would otherwise have been lost, still residing in the British Museum. But it would take a new generation of specialists who dedicated their lives to a single discipline, like Darwin, Hutton and Humboldt, who would take man’s understanding of the evolution of the planet to the next level.
It is easy for us to be judgemental of events in the past but without the efforts of so many who came before us we too would have a very local view of the world, barely able to comprehend distant lands and people. Even if we did receive some very belated news of some distant event it would only be key individual characters which we would be able to relate to. Even now with all the information we have at our fingertips there are many people who are still like this. To put it in perspective think of the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, which only took place on the edge of Europe off the coast of Spain. News of the battle took a good two weeks to reach London and reported that the Royal Navy had prevailed but that Lord Nelson had been killed. Although news of a victory brought relief the death of the fleet’s charismatic and much loved leader sent the whole country into mourning.
Today we have the ability to see the world from satellite images sharp enough to be able to zoom in close enough to see individual cars. It we were to show Sir Joseph a satellite view of Lincolnshire and to zoom in on his estate he would be pleased to see how the deer park and woods (See featured image above.) surrounding a more recent version of his hall (Rebuilt in 1844) were still largely intact. Even the deer park at nearby Scrivelsby remained though the house had not but he would be surprised to see that the deer were actually sika deer introduced from Asia. But by panning out to a much wider view he would quickly see that these days how much more land is given over to arable farming and how towns like Lincoln and Boston had grown with the addition of new towns like Scunthorpe, Cleethorpes and Skegness and how the major ports of Grimsby and Immingham are connected to even bigger cities by a network of broad and busy main roads called motorways. In fact he would see clearly how man dominated the land and was stretching his mark out to sea with ranks of wind turbines. If he asked if there were any wild places left we would have to zoom in closely to show him small pockets of land that were nature reserves or SSSIs.
Today the Fens from above are difficult to make out apart from their fields being more regular in shape and with a notable absence of hedges, trees and wildlife. East Fen is now divided by the railway line to Skegness (formerly to Grimsby). To the south of the line was the area where cranberries grew and was also the site for several decoys for trapping ducks. References to both are still clearly marked on OS maps. To the north of the railway line is the maze of pools and lakes known in Sir Joseph’s time as the Deeps now replaced by a series of straight narrow drains.
Unlike other low lying areas, for example the Ancholme Valley, which had rivers at their centre and therefore relatively easy to drain, Eat Fen was a classic dome of peat which forced waterways to run around it. It took many drains to be cut across the fen together with the installation of steam pumps to finally drain it successfully so that now the peat, the pools and all its diversity of wildlife is long gone. Yet reversing the process, especially of the empty northern half of the fen overlooked by the last hills of the Wolds would by a relatively easy process and would bring life back to this part of the fens once more. Currently the northern end of Hobhole Drain has not been dredged recently and shows how quickly it reverts back to a more wild state as it it is completely choked with reeds and the road running beside it is very uneven, almost hummocky in places, due to the shrinkage of peat over time, which is by no means a unique feature in the Fens. This drying out and break up of the peat has caused large parts of East Fen to drop below mean sea level. A barrier of silt protects it from the sea but without drains and pumps the area would soon become flooded reverting back to how it looked 200 years ago.
Even Sir Joseph having seen just how far the reforms he had advocated had gone might regret the wholesale draining and enclosing of the Fens and might ask “Is there nothing left?”, remembering the time he and Arthur Young had explored the waterways together in a boat. I think today he would even be in the forefront of reinstating some parts of the Fens to how they were. Apart from a nostalgic view point there are other practical advantages for the wetlands being reinstated such as being able to divert flood water into East Fen when the River Lymn/Steeping is in danger of overflowing and that a peat bog can lock in a much greater amount of carbon than a forest of similar size. More emotionally though the view from Mardon Hill over a flooded winter landscape alive with huge flocks of many different types of wildfowl would just be very exhilarating and a view that both Banks and Tennyson would have been familiar with.
The inset map above from circa 1800 records a time when changes were taking place to the rivers of the Fens. The River Witham had been recently straightened and does not correspond with the boundary between Lindsey and Holland, which was its old meandering course. The River Lymn (Limb) meanwhile still flows east once leaving the Wolds. Within a few years of this map being published the Steeping Cut (River Steeping) redirected its waters southeast in a straight line to Wainfleet. The original course of the River Lymn through Croft, once a busy port, can still be traced on the local OS map but it is now merely a roadside ditch.