After a spell at Louth George Tennyson took his sons out of the school there, that they hated, and set them up in a converted medieval bathhouse just outside their home village of Somersby. This old building was set in an old wood across a field from the rambling rectory where Alfred lived with his many siblings. Even today Holywell Wood is carpeted in flowers each Spring – snowdrops in February followed by bluebells in April. The area can never have been cleared for agriculture as it contains sandstone bluffs that overlook a small stream that plunges down into a boggy valley to join a young River Lymn. The river at this point passes through a defile called the New England Ravine. This was formed during the peak of the last Ice Age when the river, boosted by meltwater from a glacier blocking the main valley, was forced to cut a new course south through a ridge of sandstone. The ice soon melted but the River Lymn has continued to flow along its new more southerly route past Somersby to this day. The legacy of the surge in meltwater during the last glacial maximum (LGM) continues downstream past Somersby to Stockwith Mill.
A young Alfred Tennyson, who from early on was the storyteller in the family, throughout his life drew great inspiration from the countryside but the time spent being taught at the restored medieval bathhouse set in an ancient wood was when he was at a very impressionable age. In his youth he was also want to walk over breezy rolling hills grazed by sheep and on down to the watermill in the damp dale surrounded by meadows and cattle. In Spring all would be carpeted with wildflowers and the air would be alive with birdsong. Even in his old age with his eyesight failing Tennyson still had a good ear for birdsong and could quickly identify their different calls. He was a keen walker all his life and it helped his mental wellbeing which had been an issue with several members of his family. (See Tealby and the Tennyson d’Eyncourts post.)
Two hundred years later Somersby has changed little in appearance although the bathhouse/schoolhouse has gone along with some of the footpaths that the young Alfred was able to walk. Gone too unfortunately are several bird species like the corncrake and turtle dove while others such as the cuckoo and snipe are now rare whereas they would have been well familiar to him. The flowery meadows are no more and consequently, the number of insects is less, which impacts bird numbers.
Salmonby Beck & Dale near the stile.
The wet woodlands like Holywell Wood remain, known in these parts as carrs, as they are no use to the farmer and so are left wild and along the damp valley bottoms a number of small lakes have been dug out over the last fifty years fed by small streams running down from the wild wet woods or carrs. The neighbouring village of Salmonby, roughly a mile to the west of Somersby, is a good example of how local villages have changed in the last couple of generations and fortunately, there is a description in 1965 Shell Guide to Lincolnshire of this.
Salmonby is in the Tennyson valley where the outcrop of sandstone is evident. In the middle of the village there is a little cliff of it and there are small caves. On top of this is the churchyard surrounded by trees, including a cedar or two. The church was practically rebuilt in 1871. Traceried windows, little wooden spire. No interest inside.
This description of the village gives the impression that the writer was in a hurry to move on and did not venture far from the road. Today the church has gone along with the cedars and caves. Although it is unlikely the latter ever existed and were no more than a thick overhang of ivy supported by a tangle of tree roots. The cliff remains however and beside it a climb up brick steps under the shade of a broad beech to the churchyard. These steps are most interesting in that they take you from the wet clay valley onto the dry sandstone plateau. The loss of the church and the building of a few large new houses has changed the character of the village since the 1960s.
It is a pity that the writer (Jack Yates or Henry Thorold) did not have more time to walk down to the little bridge. The stream here combined with the waters of Hol Beck, which join close to the road, flow east to Somersby and flow into the River Lymn as its first significant tributary. From here a footpath crosses Hol Beck and passes through two gates and leads to a lake. From old maps it is clear that the lake did not exist when the Shell Guide was written but the attractive semi-wild dale upstream from it will not have changed significantly judging by the age of the trees in it.
The footpath continues past the lake, crosses the stream and then climbs up to a stile from where it heads west above the valley on the dry sandstone plateau. From the vantage point of the stile there are good views to be had in all directions. To the north across the broad open field there is a clear view to Tetford Hill, part of the bold line of the chalk escarpment. To the west the land rises to Nab Hill, a ridge of equal height to the chalk but detached from it and capped by Roach Stone. East looks back across the lake and beyond Salmonby to where the land rises to wooded Warden Hill. This is capped with rare red chalk.
Yet despite these features, which punctuate the skyline, for me the most interesting thing is the stark contrast on either side of the hedge which the stile crosses. The open arable field to the north is repeated in a mosaic of large arable squares across the sandstone plateau and continues far to the north over the chalklands. With the one exception of the deep dale of Ketsby Beck this continues largely uninterrupted between the valleys of the Bain and Lud to the Dry Dales of the north. These little dales stretch from The Valley south of Wold Newton, immediately west of the Barton Street (A 18), as far north as Riby and include Ravendale, Irby Dales and Swallow Vale (Dale?). These dry valleys or overflow channels were mostly cut by glacial meltwaters also around the time of the LGM. (See above.) The exception is the deep valley of the Waithe Beck. Its waters originate near the highest part of the Wolds where a series of narrow valleys have cut through the chalk to allow copious springs to erupt and come together flow between the otherwise dry, arable chalk ridges.
Meanwhile back at the stile the field on the south side of the hedge could not be more of a contrast to its arable neighbour as it is rough pasture dotted with patches of gorse and streamside trees which further upstream merge into a wet and wild woodland. This is Salmonby Carr and stretches a kilometre upstream and is flanked by the footpath we have been following. In contrast to the bare arable fields this wildwood together with the lake and the rough pasture is beneficial to a diversity of wildlife offering a variety of different habitats. Better still at the far end of Salmonby Carr the land rises steeply up to Hoe Hill. An outlier of Roach Ridge, this distinctive hill covered in a shaggy coat of semi-improved pasture is the source of Hol Beck and the stream that flows through Salmonby Carr. Flowing down opposite sides of the hill they join in the village of Salmonby, where we started. Their combined courses mark out a diverse area of habitat containing Hoe Hill and its flanks, mixed woodland, three lakes (two along Hol Beck) and some areas of semi-natural grassland.
The Hoe Hill Triangle. 6.25 km.
The footpath from Salmonby can be made into a triangular walk by following it up to Fulletby, then briefly south along the Roach Ridge Road for 500 m. Then turn left to follow a bridle path towards Hoe Hill. It then deflects at its base SSE for a kilometre until meeting a road that heads northeast straight back to Salmonby. Although not busy cars can drive fast along its straight sections but you are rewarded with some fine views to the north as you start to descend into Salmonby on completing the triangle. The link below is a video of this walk.
The contrast between the lifeless large arable fields to the north and the mixed habitat just described is not merely confined to land around Salmonby but marks the boundary between two contrasting regions within the Wolds, which can even be seen with satellite images on Google Earth. By panning back from this little village it becomes apparent that the fields to the north are large and regular with few breaks for natural features whereas to the south and east the fields are mostly smaller and more irregular. This is because their boundaries are often determined by small woods (often carrs) and streams. Even the fields themselves are more varied with a mix of arable and pasture.
This irregular pattern has been imposed by the broken nature of the geology. The predominant rock type is still sandstone but it is only tens of feet thick and has been repeatedly cut through by streams to form a very dissected plateau of dry arable fields interspersed by damp clay valleys only good for pasture and in between on some of the steeper slopes grow strips of woodland. This landscape offers a diversity of habitats that have not fundamentally changed for over a thousand years from when the Danes were attracted to it, setting up their farmsteads still marked today with place names ending in by or thorpe. This is in contrast to the chalk wolds which through the ages have been exploited by man in a variety of different ways depending on the needs of the time.
To the east the landscape of fretted sandstone stretches as far as Spilsby and to the south as far as East Fen. The famously flat Fens has seen a radical change from having largely remained untouched for thousands of years, making it once an unparalleled haven for vast flocks of waterfowl. Then in the last few hundred years when it was gradually converted into the most intensively farmed land in the country with little or no evidence remaining of the abundance of wildlife that once called it home.
The fretted landscape of the southern wolds, however, remains one of the few places in Lincolnshire that has not been completely sacrificed to this country’s need to feed itself, which is a largely futile ambition especially when it was allowed for the even more vast resources of the seas around the coast to be squandered. Only recently have we become aware of the error of our ways and have finally left the EU allowing us to make better informed decisions about how to manage our land and seas.
In many ways Lincolnshire has been the main victim of these past policies, most dramatically with the demise of Grimsby as the nation’s busiest fishing port with its large fish docks being reduced to becoming merely a yachting marina. The loss of marine life was so great it had repercussions on land as well impacting on bird and seal numbers. This was brought about by the European Common Fisheries’ total mismanagement but was not visible or well reported. The change it brought to the environment of the North Sea in the second half of the twentieth century, however, was equivalent to the loss of habitat for birds and aquatic species with the drainage of the Fens. Although the latter took much longer it was done to make the region more productive to man by turning it into farms just as presently we are now turning sections of the North Sea into vast wind farms. (See Sir Joseph Banks post.)
Now almost forgotten but equally catastrophic was the tragic loss of thousands of acres of heathland across the whole of Lincolnshire over the last century. This was mainly to convert more land to arable regardless of its suitability resulting in an overdependence of chemicals to grow crops and also the planting of large blocks of mono-culture coniferous forests. Only pockets of land in Lincolnshire have managed to avoid this wholesale exploitation and it would take a huge effort to turn the clock back and reclaim these lost ecosystems. The best place to start though would be the South Wolds where, because of the fragmented nature of the land, changes to the landscape have not been so drastic. This is particularly true of the many Carr Dales that stretch from Salmonby Carr down to Keal Carr (See Keal Carr post.) and form a potential habitat framework across Tennyson’s Country, which with a more enlightened approach to land management could easily be restored to how it was in Tennyson’s youth when its rich diversity inspired his early writings.
This linking of habitats should be encouraged by using the natural connectivity of the wild wet Carr Dales as corridors, together with reinstating traditional meadows, as a framework to allow wildlife to spread from core areas where they hang on in isolation. Helping the corncrake and turtle dove to return, cuckoos and snipe to recover and skylarks, yellowhammers and other songbirds to become as numerous as they were in Tennyson’s time. A plan needs to be put into place to reverse this steady decline of species. The next post will examine this in more detail and put forward suggestions on how this might be achieved.