National Character Area 74

Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire Wolds - Description

The Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire Wolds today

The Wolds are essentially a range of undulating hills, broken by vales and dominated by Jurassic scarp and dip slopes. It is a remote and rolling rural landscape with open, empty plateaux contrasting with the more intimate sheltered valleys and lower slopes.

Jurassic mudstones (towards the west), limestone, sandstone and ironstone overlain by glacial till throughout much of the area produce a topography of low lying vales and more prominent escarpments. Post glacial erosion has created steeper sided valleys forming the rolling landform seen today.

Soils are lime-rich, loamy and clayey which provides moderately fertile land for agricultural use, especially on the plateaux. The field pattern is large to medium sized and is commonly bounded by well managed hedgerows displaying the rectilinear pattern of 18th and 19th century enclosures. The area has a strong hunting tradition and many small copses, coverts and spinneys planted in the 19th century have survived.

Along the base of the scarps there are spring-line flushes and streams flowing down through steep sided valleys to main river corridors; north eastwards into the Wreake, north westwards to the Trent and westwards to the Soar. The River Eye has important invertebrates such as the native crayfish and whitelegged damselfly. Neutral grassland is the most common type of unimproved grassland and it is often characterised by the presence of ancient ridge and furrow markings or by a rich flora. Calcareous grassland in the NCA is associated with outcrops of Jurassic limestone.

In the south, Rutland Water reservoir is an important source of water for the surrounding urban areas, and is also a nature reserve which supports an internationally important assemblage of waterfowl and is designated a Special Protection Area and Ramsar (Ramsar sites are wetlands of international importance designated under the Ramsar Convention. The Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar, Iran, 1971) — called the “Ramsar Convention”� — is an intergovernmental treaty that embodies the commitments of its member countries to maintain the ecological character of their Wetlands of International Importance and to plan for the “wise use”�, or sustainable use, of all of the wetlands in their territories) site. It comprises extensive sheets of open water with a complex of wetland and lakeside habitats, including lagoons, islands, mudflats, reedswamp, marsh, old meadows, pastures, scrub and mature woodland. Over winter the habitat supports a percentage of the northwestern European populations of gadwall and shoveler and regularly supports at least 20,000 waterfowl.

In medieval times, the area was well populated and there remain many deserted and shrunken settlements. Extensive ancient earthworks can be seen around some of the present villages. The present settlement pattern is sparse, comprising small, regularly spaced villages which are generally clustered around a church. Farmsteads are dotted across the landscape.

To the south the land falls into the well-wooded Wreake Valley, which in contrast to much of the rest of the area is strongly affected by 20th century development including gravel workings, the deep coal mine at Asfordby and major new roads. It has a much denser pattern of settlement. However, even here, the predominantly rural and partially deserted character can still be seen with extensive ridge and furrow and strong patterns of parliamentary field enclosure.

In the east, the land subsides into the Vale of Catmose which is a deeply rural area disrupted only by the cement works on the northern edge of Ketton just outside the area. It is dominated by Rutland Water which is a focal point in many views. The Vale is more wooded than the rest of the area although the northern part is predominantly arable.

A more remote and rural character exists on the high Wolds, where small settlements are connected by wide enclosure roads with wildflower-rich verges. Modern influences include pylons, airfields and the busy A46.

In the west, gypsum is mined around the Leakes. East Leake and Keyworth have developed into quite substantial settlements, being a short distance from Nottingham and the power station at Ratcliffe-on-Soar is a dominant visual feature. In the east there are limestone and ironstone quarries towards Lincolnshire.

There are some enlarged commuter villages with high density modern housing such as Cotgrave, Gotham and Keyworth. Melton Mowbray and Oakham are the only large settlements in the area and are busy market towns. Melton Mowbray is known for its associations with pork pie and stilton cheese making. Oakham has also seen recent expansion but retains its historic centre with Oakham Castle remaining a distinctive feature.

Building materials are predominantly red brick with red pantile roofs. The spired churches are characteristically built of ironstone and limestone, which are quarried in the east. The local style of banding the two stones is very distinctive. Belvoir Castle is the grandest building in the NCA and provides long and extensive views over the Vale of Belvoir that extends into the neighbouring NCA.

The landscape through time

The Wolds are underlain by a thick sequence of Carboniferous mudstones and river-lain Coal Measures overlain by Triassic sandstones and mudstones deposited in a persistently arid environment. These concealed strata have strongly influenced the development of the Wolds NCA. The Carboniferous rocks provide coal and oil and the Triassic rocks a source of gypsum (still mined today) and a deep aquifer supplying water to the north and west of the area.

To the west of the NCA Triassic mudstones and narrow bands of harder limestone, c.210 million years old, create a landscape of sharp scarp and shallow dip slopes known as cuestas. Towards the end of the Triassic period, relative rise in sea level deposited predominantly marine sediments, which characterise the NCA to the east, Lower Jurassic muds and silts giving way to ironstones and limestones, c.175 million years old. These form the main Wolds escarpment and provide the distinctive creamy grey limestones and orange brown ironstones in buildings.

Pre-glacial sands and gravels of the ancient River Bytham (today the River Wreake follows this ancient river course) represent the oldest Quaternary sediments in the NCA over much of which till from the Anglian glaciation (500,000 to 370,000 years ago) has been deposited. Post Anglian climatic fluctuation has lead to the development of a series of sand and gravel river terraces and the establishment of today’s river system and rolling landscape.

The evidence of prehistoric activity is sparse although possible occupation sites have been found towards the north above the Belvoir escarpment and a significant iron-age occupation has been found in the Knipton Valley. The Neolithic rock carvings on the gritstone outcrops above the village of Rigton are of national importance.

In the Roman period the Fosse Way, now the A46, cut across the western edge of the area and is still prominent in the landscape.

Early Anglo-Saxon occupation of the area may have been limited but it is likely many of today’s towns and villages are of Saxon origin although it is not certain whether the numerous bys and thorpes of the 9th- and 10th-century Scandinavian invaders represent re-naming of existing settlements or the founding of new ones.

The medieval landscape was probably one of intermittent woodland with vast rough pastures reached by lanes and trackways from the surrounding valleys. Many of these routes can still be traced today. As the population grew, small villages, surrounded by their open fields, came to dominate a landscape from which the tree cover had largely disappeared.

Many villages were deserted from the 14th century onwards and the landscape became thinly-populated and dominated by sheep grazing.

Main population centres such as Oakham and Melton Mowbray lie at the edge of the area. Melton Mowbray developed into a substantial market town in the post-medieval period.

Belvoir Castle, originally a Norman castle, was a stronghold of the Royalists during the Civil War. The Great Hall of Oakham Castle is one of the finest examples of late 12th-century domestic architecture in England.

The late 18th and early 19th century saw the rebuilding of many farmsteads as agricultural cultivation began to increase and by the 19th and 20th centuries arable cultivation continued on a large scale. Industrialisation increased with the development of ironstone and gypsum quarries and deep coal-mines at Asfordby. A complex mosaic of grassland, scrub and woodland vegetation has developed in disused pits and on spoil heaps.

Brick making was prevalent and in a brick pit near Barrow upon Soar in 1851 a plesiosaur was recovered, known locally as the ‘Barrow Kipper’. It now resides in the Leicester Museum and is very much a symbol of Barrow with a representation of the plesiosaur appearing on signs and street furniture throughout the town.

Food shortages during and after the Second World War, led to intensive farming practices and large areas of grassland were ploughed up. This trend continued following the adoption of the Common Agricultural Policy resulting in a dramatic change in landscape and often a decline in biodiversity.

Rutland Water reservoir was constructed in the 1970s by damming the Gwash Valley. It is a highly distinctive feature and valued for its wildlife and recreation assets. At the time it was the largest pump storage reservoir in Europe and by surface area, it is the largest reservoir in England.

While the rural landscape retains a mixed land use, there is an increasing trend of agricultural production, resulting in the loss of hedgerows and hedgerow trees and damage to areas of ridge and furrow and other earthworks. While the historic hedgerow pattern is largely intact, significant proportions of the area’s hedgerow trees are over-mature and require augmenting. Agricultural stewardship is now being successfully used as a means of addressing these issues.

There has been limited expansion of the settlements in recent years however, there has been a proliferation of new, large scale agricultural buildings. Recent large scale engineered road improvements to the A46 have also had an impact on the wider countryside although it has presented opportunities for roadside planting of native tree and shrub species.

Flood protection works have contributed to the erosion of traditional riparian character along the Wreake valley however, sections of the valley are now managed through stewardship schemes, which seeks to combine flood management with environmental protection, and where possible, enhancement.

Overall, the landscape remains strongly rural and largely unchanged in recent years.