Tag Archives: Lincolnshire

The Story of an Aussie in The English Fens (Part Four)

The Fens Map

From the village of Donington and the birthplace of Matthew Flinders we travelled east towards the coast and the North Sea.

This area was once marsh and fen but has been successfully reclaimed from the water to turn it into a highly productive arable farming industry.  Driving on the roads takes great care and undivided attention because it isn’t so difficult to slip off the tarmac and into one of the roadside drainage ditches.  People who move to the area to live are only ever really accepted into the community after they have paid a visit to the bottom of a ditch and become a member of The Fens ‘Dyke Club’.

South Holland Dyke

This was an area of wetland for two reasons, first it is barely at sea level and high tides would swamp the land and secondly because four major rivers flow into The Wash, The Witham, The Welland, The Nene and the Great Ouse, all of which drain the English Midlands into the sea.  At times when there was too much water there was inevitable flooding.  The East Coast Fens are simply former marshland.  This was a place where you almost always needed to wear wellington boots.

The Romans came to The Fens and built the first sea defence wall about ten miles inland and which stretched for thirty miles or so.  It is still called the Roman Bank.  Beyond the Bank they maintained salt pans.

For several hundred years a battle was fought to reclaim land from the sea and the prize was access to very valuable fertile farming land.  Several walls and enclosures were built in the late nineteenth century and many thousands of acres reclaimed for farming.  During the Second World-War Britain was short of food so more farming land was required so at about this time the final and present sea wall was built to provide even more arable farming land to feed the nation.  It is doubtful that they will ever build another one because with modern methods of farming there is enough land now for the time being.

After leaving the A17 and driving north there are miles and miles of absolutely bugger all.  A couple of small villages, some isolated farm workers cottages and modern industrial scale farms where there is rarely any sign of life.  It is a ‘Slaughtered Lamb’ sort of place where local people look at strangers with suspicion and wonder if they are not driving a mud caked Land Rover or a Massey Ferguson Tractor pulling a plough just what they are doing there.

This is a remote place without visitors.  There are no tourist signposts and I wasn’t sure after ten years away  if I could confidently remember exactly how to reach the place that I was trying to get to.  With the help of the SatNav (working again now) a huge slice of luck and a fading memory I found the road/track that leads to the sea wall and we made it to our destination.  A narrow pot-holed track and not the sort of lane that you want to meet mud caked Land Rover or a Massey Ferguson Tractor pulling a plough coming in the opposite direction!

The orange arrow indicates approximately where we were…

Lincolnshire Sea Wall

… just farm fields at the edge of the World before the marshes and as close to the sea as you can get without wellington boots.

This part of Lincolnshire can be inhospitable and bleak but on a blue sky day like today it is absolutely magnificent.  We parked the car and climbed to the top of the wall, not a brick or concrete structure but a stout earth wall decorated with concrete Second-World-War defence bunkers.  To the north-east we looked out over the marshes and the North Sea and behind us we stared out over acres and acres of patchwork farm land just waiting to leap into Spring.

John and I walked along the wall and swapped tales and stories from our lives separated by fifteen thousand miles or so geographically but what seemed to me now only as thin as a cigarette paper.

It occurred to me that John lives so far away in Australia and a thousand years or so ago someone may have stood in this exact place (in his wellington boots of course) and thought that it must surely be the edge of the World. Travel and friendship is so important in personal development and exploration and education.

On the way back we drove through the village of Moulton which has the tallest windmill in England (this part of Lincolnshire is full of surprises) and then to Cowbit, John thought it was a strange name and I told him that it is not pronounced how it looks on the sign but as ‘Cubit’.  Friendly sparring now, John told me that Melbourne is not pronounced in the same plummy way as Lord Melbourne but as ‘Melbun’.

It had been a very enjoyable and satisfying day.

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

Almost forgot to mention that this is where I lived in The Fens for ten years, 2000-2010…

Pipwell Gate

Kim joined us and we spent a convivial time in the bar, drank more than we planned to and had an enjoyable evening meal.  I saw John again in the morning as he prepared to return home to Melbun in Australia…

South Holland Sea Wall

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The Story of an Aussie in the English Fens (Part Three)

Matthew Flinders 01 (2)

The really big thing about visiting the obscure village of Donington is that this is the birthplace of Matthew Flinders and Matthew Flinders is a really big thing for Australian visitors.

This is what I find fascinating about travel, every now and again I come across an amazing story.  Flinders is one of the most important explorers in history and his home town was the tiny village of Donington in the south of Lincolnshire.

Matthew Flinders was a Royal Navy officer and an English navigator and cartographer of very special talent who led the second circumnavigation of what was then called in equal parts New Holland (named by Abel Tasman, the Dutch explorer) and New South Wales.  The name Australia derives from Latin australis meaning southern, and dates back to 2nd century legends of an “unknown southern land” . The explorer Matthew Flinders renamed the land Terra Australis, which was later abbreviated to the current form.  The name Australia stuck, there is still a part of Australia called New South Wales but there is no New Holland.  There is a Tasmania of course.

Although he was modest enough to never name for any feature in all his discoveries, Flinders’ name is now associated with over one hundred geographical features and places in Australia and after Queen Victoria there are more statues of Flinders in Australia than anyone else.

001

In my Dad’s book that he gave to me before he died – “The Boys’ Book of Heroes”, there is Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake and James Cook but no mention of Matthew Flinders. Neither did he get a nomination in the BBC poll of the Hundred Greatest Britons.  Cook made twelfth place, Drake came in at forty-ninth and Raleigh at ninety-third.

In English history he is a forgotten hero.  In web site lists of famous people he never gets a mention, he doesn’t even make it on to lists of famous explorers.

He couldn’t really be included in the poll of Greatest Australians of course because he came from Donington in Lincolnshire in England, but wait just a minute because he was included at number fifty as an honorary Australian along with James Cook from Yorkshire.

I could write a complete blog post about Matthew Flinders but John has promised to do that sometime soon and he knows a lot more about Flinders than I do so I will leave that to him.

We visited the village market square where he was born.  The house is sadly now gone, demolished a hundred years ago or so and then on to the Parish Church with a soaring tower and steeple which is a sort of museum about his life and achievements.  Again, I will leave this to John to explain when he writes his post.

One thing that I will mention is about finding his coffin.  England is currently building an unnecessary and very expensive new high speed rail service from London to the north and during excavations near Euston Station in London the coffin of Matthew Flinders was discovered in a graveyard that had been built over a hundred years or so ago.  The discovery was almost as big a thing as finding King Richard III underneath a car park in Leicester.

Flinders Coffin

The coffin and the remains are currently undergoing scientific analysis but once this is complete the body will be returned to Donington and interred with special rejoicing and appropriate reverence in the church in the village.

Donington is miles and miles away from anywhere that tourists normally go but will almost certainly become a place of pilgrimage for visitors from Australia and I said to John that how lucky he was to be among the first to come and he nodded in agreement.

He agreed again that he would write the story.

“People will come Ray, people will come…”

After coffee we left Donington for the final stop on the whistle-stop tour of The Fens.

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The Story of an Aussie in The English Fens (Part Two)

Crowland Abbey 05

Crowland is only a small market town (without a market as we had been recently informed) so, with nothing to detain us it was just a short walk from the Trinity Bridge to nearby Crowland Abbey, once a Benedictine Monastery and now, what’s left of it, the Parish Church.

Monks seeking solitude have always sought out remote places to live and the inhospitable marshlands of Eastern England were once perfect for this purpose.  The Fens have been referred to as the “Holy Land of the English” because of the former monasteries and Abbeys at Crowland, Ely, Peterborough, Ramsey, Spalding and Thorney.

The Fens have a special place in English history, here Hereward the Wake led resistance to the Norman invaders and here King John lost the Crown Jewels in the murky waters at Sutton Bridge.

There was a monastery at Crowland because of the hermit monk Guthlac who settled here sometime in the seventh century.  Now, Guthlac was clearly as mad as a box of frogs – this is an extract from his chronicler…

“Guthlac the man of blessed memory began to dwell, after building a hut over it. From the time when he first inhabited this hermitage this was his unalterable rule of life: namely to wear neither wool nor linen garments nor any other sort of soft material, but he spent the whole of his solitary life wearing garments made of skins. So great indeed was the abstinence of his daily life that from the time when he began to inhabit the desert he ate no food of any kind except that after sunset he took a scrap of barley bread and a small cup of muddy water.”

This is Guthlac who seems to have been cleaned up a bit for his stained glass window portrait in Crowland Abbey…

St Guthlac Window

Guthlac became famous for dealing with demons, self flagellation, performing miracles and providing sagely advice and the Abbey was founded and built as a place of important pilgrimage for medieval pilgrims.  It was dissolved in 1539 along with another estimated eight hundred religious houses in England during the English Reformation. The monastic buildings including the chancel, transepts and crossing of the church were demolished and plundered fairly promptly but the nave and aisles were spared and to this day serve as the Parish Church.

Saint Guthlac remains important in the Fens and there are several churches in the area that are dedicated to his memory.

Crowland Abbey 01

We walked around the grounds and through the ruins of the Abbey and then finding the church door open ventured inside.  I was slightly surprised to find it open because these days church doors often remain firmly locked due to the increase in vandalism and theft.  There was no such bother sixty years ago or so when we went on family holiday and my Dad visited almost every church we passed by – he liked visiting churches – unlike other holiday attractions they were free to enter.

John declared the visit to Crowland to be a great success but there was much more to see and do so we left Crowland and drove north to the town of Spalding which was once famous for an annual Flower Parade.

John was surprised to discover that the road we were using was no more than three feet above sea level and the surrounding fields were even lower, well below sea level.  These low lying fenland areas extend over one thousand, five hundred square miles extending through Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk.  Much of the Fenland originally consisted of fresh or salt-water wetlands. These have been drained and continue to be protected from floods by drainage banks and pumps. With the support of this drainage system, the Fenland has become a major arable agricultural region in Britain for grain, vegetables and cash-crops.

Fens Farmland

The Fens are particularly fertile, containing around half of the grade one agricultural land in England.  Spalding in the area of South Holland is a thriving district at the very heart of the UK’s agri-food sector and it is estimated that a staggering 35% of the UK’s food, either grown, processed or delivered will pass through South Holland at some point in its production cycle.

We stopped briefly in Spalding to visit the grounds of Ayscoughfee Hall a medieval manor house which is now a museum, walked for a stretch along the river and admired the elegant Georgian houses across the water and then continued our journey to our next destination – the village of Donington.

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The Story of an Aussie in The English Fens (Part One)

Crowland Bridge 01

John is a blogging pal from Melbourne in Australia (John corrects me and tells me that is Melbun if you are an Aussie but I stick with the Pommy, as in Lord Melbourne, after who the city was named) and we have followed each other for several years and have become good friends.

Recently John announced that he was travelling to England for just a few days and hoped that there might be a possibility to meet up.  I told him that he was welcome to come and stay in Grimsby but as he only had a single spare day in his busy itinerary that this would be quite difficult.  Grimsby is a great place to go to but not a great place to get to, it just takes such a long time.

The solution was to find somewhere practical where I could drive and John could get to easily from London.  Looking at a map I settled on Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, a ninety mile drive for me and an hour train journey for John.

We met early one evening and over evening meal John explained that he had little interest in visiting castles or cathedrals or stately homes and such and that he would prefer to see the countryside.  With a an interest in farming he had read about the area of England called The Fens and was certain that he would like to see the farmland and the marshes of what some people might consider to be one of the least interesting parts of the country to visit.

The Fens

This made it easy for me, I lived and worked in Spalding in the heart of The Fens for ten years between 2000 and 2010 so before going to sleep that night I came up with what I hoped was an interesting itinerary for the next day.

After an excellent breakfast the day started to go badly.  There was a thick fog across the entire area, my SatNav wouldn’t work and there was a road closure due to an accident that blocked the road to my first intended destination.  This is when I remember that it is a good idea to put a paper road map in the car but of course I hadn’t so I was confused and making driving decisions without any useful assistance.  (A passenger from the other side of the World was, I have to say, not a lot of help).

After a long, and as it turned out an unnecessary detour, we crossed the mist shrouded fields and arrived in the small town of Crowland just as the fog disappeared and the sun began to shine.  That was a relief because this part of England is quite beautiful in sunshine but desperately dreary in any other sort of weather conditions.

Crowland is a long way off the tourist trail and was surprisingly busy today which took me by surprise but maybe it was because it contains two sites of historical interest, Crowland Abbey and Trinity Bridge.

Trinity Bridge

We started at the bridge which is a scheduled monument built in the fourteenth century and the only one of its kind in the United Kingdom, perhaps even Europe, perhaps even the World!  The bridge has three stairways that converge at the top. Originally it spanned the River Welland and a tributary that flowed through the town and was a clever and economical solution to the crossing of two watercourses at their confluence, reducing the need for three separate bridges to a single structure with three abutments.

The River Welland doesn’t flow through Crowland any more, it used to inconveniently flood so it was diverted some time ago away from the centre of the town and flood defences were put in place.

The river in Crowland grows reeds which produces some of the finest material for roof thatching in England.  Sadly it is expensive to process and has been undercut by cheap thatch from Eastern Europe.

John was taking pictures and blocking the pavement and as a consequence entered into conversation with a busy woman with a shopping trolley who was anxious to get by without stepping into the road.  He apologised and explained that he was just patiently waiting until he could get a picture of the bridge without people.  She gave him an old-fashioned look and asked how he expected to achieve that on Market Day.

We looked around but could see no market stalls and sensing our confusion she told us that there is no street market any more but everyone still comes into town on a Friday anyway.

Street markets in small English towns are difficult to find these days, they are no longer economical or viable, just like the thatch food is cheaper in European supermarkets.

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Lincolnshire to Cornwall, The Wye Valley

River Wye

When I was a young boy we used to go quite regularly to Cornwall on family holidays. I last visited Cornwall for a holiday (I have been there since for work) in 1975 when I stayed in a bed and breakfast at Crantock village near to Fistral Beach at Newquay.  On that occasion to get there I drove a route through the Wye Valley, an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and this time I was keen to replicate the journey.

We were staying with Lindsay (my sister) and Mick in Lydney in the Forest of Dean so this made the quest quite easy to achieve.

I especially wanted to visit two places on the route, Symonds Yat in England and Tintern Abbey in Wales.

We started at Symonds Yat and drove to the visitor centre at Symonds Yat Rock which is a high vantage point with wonderful panoramic views of the River Wye.  The river is the fifth longest in the United Kingdom after the Severn, Thames, Trent and Great Ouse and for part of its course provides the natural border between England and Wales.

Two pictures at Symonds Yat Rock, forty-five years apart…

symonds yat

That black shirt was always one of my favourites but it wouldn’t fit me now that’s for sure!

Symonds Yat Rock and View

From the visitor centre we followed a footpath through the forest and down to the fast flowing river and then took a gentle walk along the English west bank and back to the car park to the car that we had left there earlier.

From there we drove along the side of the river, along the route of ancient Offa’s Dyke, eventually crossing over the river and moving into Wales.

Some things in life stick in the memory like velcro and for me one of these was my first ever visit to Tintern Abbey.  As the road follows a sinuous course from the north it enters the attractive stone built village and after negotiating several turns quite unexpectedly the Abbey comes into view and rises majestically at the side of the river.  I remember it as a wonderfully powerful WOW moment.  This can never be repeated of course and I was ready for it this time but I still found it to be a special moment.

Now, I might be mistaken but I seem to recall that in 1975 you simply parked the car by the side of the road and just walked into the grounds of the ruined Abbey which was in the middle of an empty farmer’s field but you cannot do that anymore.  The Abbey is managed by the Welsh Government, welcomes seventy-thousand visitors a year and has all of the trappings that can be expected at a tourist attraction; a pay and display car park, souvenir shops, a café selling cream teas and a massive pub and restaurant and a forest of invasive signs.

Tintern Abbey

The Abbey cost £8 to go inside which seemed rather expensive so we didn’t bother, we saw what we could from the outside and then went to the pub for lunch instead.

There was more experience that I was hoping for before we left the Forest of Dean and that was to see a wild boar.  These days there are wild boar in several places in England but the Forest of Dean is the easiest and best place to spot them.  They had been extinct in England for four hundred years or so but sometime in the 1990s someone released the boar into the forest and they have flourished in conditions that suit them perfectly (rich, deciduous woodland, agricultural land nearby and the occasional household rubbish bin to raid) and it is estimated that there may now well be almost two-thousand roaming the forest in various sounders, the term for a herd of wild swine.

There is evidence of them everywhere in the forest.  Every few yards, the earth has been gouged up and pushed aside, the undergrowth freshly disturbed. At the base of the beech trees are long, raking scratches where the pigs has ripped over the topsoil, looking for something beneath. Bluebell roots lay limp against the earth where they’ve been pulled up and cut through, and around the base of the larger trees are deep, pale craters, as if the forest had recently been hit by a massive hail storm.

Lindsay is always telling stories of encounters with the animals and we had seen plenty of evidence that they were nearby and all around but so far we had not seen one but then in the evening driving to a pub in a nearby village we spotted a sow with some youngsters quite close to the road and I was happy about that.

And, the following morning as we left the forest on the first leg of our journey to Cornwall we glimpsed sight of a magnificent male beast foraging close to the road.  A lot of people in the forest consider them to be a pest but to be honest we considered ourselves to be very lucky to see them.

Wild Boar Forest of Dean

Lincolnshire to Cornwall, Twelve English Counties

Counties of England

Once a year I generally take a holiday in the UK with my daughter and grandchildren.  In previous years I have been to East Anglia, Yorkshire and Wales but on account of the distance never to Cornwall in the extreme South West.  An Australian motorist would no doubt consider four hundred miles to be a drive to the mini-market to get a loaf of bread but in England this is generally considered to be a long way and an arduous journey that requires rather a lot of meticulous planning.

I live in Lincolnshire which is on the north east coast so a journey to Cornwall requires a drive in a diagonal direction right across the country from north-east to south-west.  As I plotted my journey it occurred to me that I was going to pass through twelve (25%) of the forty-eight Counties of England so I thought that I might take you with me.

To be clear here I am talking about the traditional historic counties of England such as Warwickshire and not modern administrative areas such as for example the West Midlands.

01 Lincolnshire

So, the journey begins in Lincolnshire where I have lived for almost twenty years, at first in the South in the farming town of Spalding but now in the North in the fishing town of Grimsby.  It is the second largest County in England and even though my destination was south we began by going north because this is the quickest way out of the County using its only motorway, the M18, to go east towards Yorkshire.

The White Rose County of Yorkshire is the largest in England and for administrative convenience was once divided into Ridings, North, West and East, but no obvious fourth and I wondered why? Well it turns out that there is a simple explanation because the word Riding is derived from a Danish word ‘thridding’, meaning a third. The invading Danes called representatives from each Thridding to a Thing, or Parliament and established the Ridings System.

To this day, Yorkshire consists of three ridings, along with the City of York, and that’s why there is no fourth, or South, Riding (but to confuse matters there is a modern administrative area of South Yorkshire). I once lived for a short time in Yorkshire in the North Yorkshire town of Richmond.

02 Yorkshire

We drove through a part of the West Riding (South Yorkshire) past the town of Doncaster and the steel city of Sheffield and driving south now slipped into Nottinghamshire in the North Midlands and into Robin Hood country. I have never lived in Nottinghamshire but I did work there once between 1987 and 1990 in the town of Arnold.

03 Nottinghamshire

Shortly after that we were in Derbyshire following the route of the Erewash Valley, an area of great mineral wealth, particularly coal, extending from Yorkshire and into Leicestershire.  I lived and worked in Derbyshire for almost fifteen years before moving to Lincolnshire and we passed close to the town of Ilkeston where my family still do.

04 Derbyshire05 Leicestershire

After Derbyshire the M1 motorway took us into Leicestershire, the County of my birth and boasting the finest football team in England and then into Warwickshire, the County where I lived and grew up from 1960 until 1980 in the town of Rugby famous for its public school and for Rugby Football after William Webb Ellis cheated at soccer and picked up the ball and ran with it.

Warwickshire is probably most famous for William Shakespeare and for a short time (just a year) I lived in Stratford-upon-Avon.

06 Warwickshire

We passed through the West Midlands and close to the city of Birmingham and then into the rural county of Worcestershire, briefly into the farming county of Herefordshire and the town of Ross-on-Wye and on into Gloucestershire where we were breaking the journey with a two night stop at my Sister’s home in Lydney in the Forest of Dean because two hundred miles is just about the limit that most people will drive in just one day so a break half way seemed to make good sense.

07 Hereford & Worcester09 Gloucestershire

I will return later to tell you about the Forest of Dean and the Wye Valley but for now I will continue my drive through the English Counties but before I can I have to report that we crossed for a short while out of England and into Wales and drove through the County of Monmouthshire before crossing the Bristol Channel and back into England and the County of Somerset

10 Somerset11 Devon

Now we were in the West Country but still with two hundred miles to our final destination.  The west country counties are all quite large so it took a while to pass through Somerset (seventh largest) and then through Devon (fourth largest) before we finally crossed the River Tamar into Cornwall (twelfth largest).  The Tamar almost completely separates Cornwall from the rest of England and is a geographical dividing line that kept Cornwall as somewhere rather remote and mysterious up until relatively recently.

The most westerly point of Cornwall and England is Land’s End but we weren’t going that far and fifty miles of so before the land ran out we drove to our holiday home in the fishing port of Mevagissey.

12 Cornwall

Sunset Through Trees

Clear skies yesterday provided a good sunset in Lincolnshire…

Sunset 01Sunset 02

Leading to a hard frost this morning.