National Character Area 89

Northamptonshire Vales - Description

The Northamptonshire Vales today

This is a large, relatively open, uniform landscape composed of low-lying clay vales interrupted by varied river valleys. Its sense of place comes less from its overall landform and more from its visually dominant settlements and views of the surrounding higher ground. The area has many settlements within it, including the major urban area of Northampton, and it abuts the southern edge of the city of Peterborough. Other large to medium-sized settlements include Market Harborough and Wellingborough, with many attractive towns and villages, buildings and features of historic interest in between. As in the Nene Valley, there are many fine stone buildings built from locally sourced Ketton Stone (oolitic limestone, extracted at Ketton, just north of this NCA) and ironstone extracted from within the NCA.

Despite the predominance of settlements and a general lack of tranquillity, this contrasts strongly with a distinctly rural feel to the landscape, particularly in the southern part of the area, which features a mixture of arable and pastoral farmland. Country houses, historic landscapes, designed parkland, and waterside trees and meadows add further variety.

To the east of the Northamptonshire Clay Wolds, the younger, generally harder rocks of the Inferior Oolite Group extend south-west to north-east through Northampton, juxtaposed with outcrops of the Great Oolite Group (including the Cornbrash) along the Nene.

The area is dominated by the river valleys of the Welland and the Nene which, along with flooded gravel pits and their associated wetlands, which result from reclamation schemes, have given rise to some of the most important freshwater wetlands in the Midlands, supporting large numbers of wetland birds and wildfowl, especially over winter.

The Welland Valley is narrow and remote, the main industrial influence being the views of Ketton cement works to the north. The scarp at the edge of Rockingham Forest is a dominant feature and the generally open character is punctuated by waterside trees. On the narrow valley bottom, meadows are frequent but there has been much conversion to arable in recent years and the overall character is remote and rural. As in the Nene Valley, there are many fine stone buildings of Ketton Stone and ironstone. The Nene, a historically navigable river, has well-defined terraces and is fed by numerous tributaries forming side valleys. Much of the flood plain is now dominated by either active gravel working or the lakes formed from former workings. The Upper Nene Gravel Pits, from Northampton to north of Thrapston, are designated a Special Protection Area (SPA) of European significance for wintering birds. The Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) designation that also covers this area is for wintering and breeding birds as well as the associated wetland habitats. Land use is both arable and pasture. Valley sides are dominated by the rectilinear pattern of Parliamentary enclosure. The Ise Valley is in part disguised by the settlements of Wellingborough and Kettering and in part, near Newton and Geddington, is designated as an SSSI for nature conservation importance as a good example of meadow and a lowland clay river, with much intact habitat that includes riffles, pools and meanders. It supports several priority species such as white-clawed crayfish, water vole and otter.

Woodlands are not characteristic and are usually small and confined mainly to valley sides and to spinneys and ‘fox coverts’ on ridges and on more undulating land, particularly in the Ise Valley. There is intermittent woodland cover along the Welland and Nene valleys. Tree cover throughout the area has been substantially affected by Dutch elm disease. A few large wooded areas do exist but these are principally those maintained in parkland estates or for public recreation. Ancient woodland and orchards are scattered and fragmentary; their distribution derives from and reflects the pattern of boundaries and margins of medieval and later open field townships. The landscape contains a considerable variety of field patterns and a strong pattern of enclosure – regular geometric patterns with straight hedgerows and roads among which sit farmsteads – and there are also sizeable areas of less regular non-Parliamentary enclosure dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, such as those along the Brampton Brook and River Ise. There is considerable variety in the distribution, condition, extent and density of hedgerows and tree cover. Hedgerows tend to be low, and hedgerow trees are often in poor condition. There are waterside trees and meadows, but generally the flatter areas are given over to arable, where hedgerows can be particularly low, broken or intermittent, for example at Dingley. The most common hedgerow shrub is hawthorn, but older hedgerows contain a wide variety of species often characteristic of woodland, including field maple, dogwood and buckthorn. Hedgerow trees such as ash and oak provide additional habitat for birds and bats. Characteristic hedgerow butterfly species include brimstone, orange-tip, gatekeeper and holly blue.

Fragments of ridge and furrow survive under pasture but most important is the survival of open field patterns at Sutton Bassett and Welham (Welland Valley), Great Oxendon and Clipston (Ise Valley).

This is an area of mixed farming where, on the slopes of the many minor valleys and on more undulating ground generally, pasture in small fields, close to settlements, tends to predominate. Seeds from arable weeds are an important food source for many species of farmland bird such as grey partridge, corn bunting and skylark. Habitats associated with arable farming also support butterflies such as the small skipper, gatekeeper and ringlet.

Mineral extraction has transformed the Welland Valley ironstone areas since the late 19th century. In the 20th century extensive areas of the Nene Valley gravel terraces produced modern landscapes of lakes and wetlands, often managed for ecological benefits, particularly for wildfowl, and also for recreation. Riverside meadows and riverside trees continue to experience pressure and loss to gravel extraction and general neglect. Some unimproved grassland and disused railway lines offer further habitat for wildlife and recreational access. Areas such as Irchester and Summer Leys and Stanwick Lakes (within the Upper Nene Valley Gravel Pits SPA) act as important green infrastructure provision associated with the high levels of development growth in the area.

In the village and town centres, and to some extent in the frequent small towns and villages in the eastern part of the area, older buildings and walls are constructed in an attractive range of local stones. These settlements have been subject to less 20th-century influence, displaying an older character of mellow brick and stone, and fine stone churches. The visual impact of modern development is frequent and prominent on the edges of the larger settlements. Many of the towns and large villages such as Irthlingborough, Raunds, Thrapston and Higham Ferrers industrialised in the 19th and 20th centuries. Church towers and, notably, spires act as historical visual landmarks across the area. Along the Nene Valley, Oundle is largely a limestone town, and the unforgettable and extravagant Fotheringhay church displays the fine creamy grey stone. Extracted from the quarries at Barnack and Collyweston on the edge of the area, Barnack Stone and Collyweston Slates can sometimes be seen in the towns and villages that radiate out from the quarries. To the north-east, Ketton Stone, which is one of the purest oolitic limestones, has been used. Westwards along the Welland, extending down the Nene Valley and into Leicestershire, ironstone can be found and boundary walls are a feature. Brick predominates and varies in colour from orange to deep red, with the use of limestone and render a component both in the older village cores and in the more regimented terraces of the area’s industrial towns and villages. Market Harborough and Oundle have retained the older character of market towns and they are linked by a dense network of minor roads.

The area is rich in historic buildings, from the remarkable turriform Anglo-Saxon tower church of Earls Barton, to the late medieval buildings and many fine manor houses such as Dallington Hall and the groups of estate cottages and estate villages near the large country houses.

There is a relatively high rate of change to urban, with growth focused on Northampton, Wellingborough, Rothwell and Desborough but also occurring throughout, with many new estates appearing. Together with the presence and use of major transport routes, notably the M1 and other major roads such as the A14, A6, A45 and A5, this development is threatening the rural and unspoilt character of much of the area and further urbanising the road corridors.

The landscape through time

The rocks that characterise this NCA were deposited during the Jurassic Period between about 195 million and 160 million years ago, with later Pleistocene glacial sediments and river-formed alluvial deposits being laid down on top of the Jurassic bedrock some time during the last 1 million years. The Jurassic rocks consist of the Lias Group, overlain by the Inferior Oolite Group, the Great Oolite Group and the Ancholme Group (including the Oxford Clay). These Jurassic rocks consist of limestones, mudstones and sandstones, which were deposited in what was a tropical coastline similar to the modern-day Bahamas. The limestones were deposited when the area was submerged under a shallow sea, while in general the mudstones and sands were deposited when sea levels dropped and the area became a swampy coastal plain. The Oxford Clay, however, is rich in marine fossils and was deposited in a marine environment. East of Northampton the River Nene has a very broad valley, which seems out of keeping with the size of the present-day river. This was probably caused by the enormous amount of water that was released by melting ice during the ice ages. Substantial deposits of gravel were laid down in the valley by the glacial river system. These have been exploited for aggregate and other uses for many years and the flooded former workings now provide important habitat for waterfowl and other animals and plants.

The many river valleys were a focus of settlement from at least Neolithic times and had become extensively settled by the Bronze Age. Gravel terraces of the Well and and particularly the Nene were thick with bronze-age occupation and ritual sites, and the valleys have been settled ever since. The route of the prehistoric ‘Jurassic Way’ (not to be confused with the route of the current Jurassic Way long-distance footpath) ran through the area from Northampton towards Market Harborough and so influenced the distribution and shape of parishes. A total of 17 parishes are bounded to the Jurassic Way along a 14.5-kilometre stretch of its course and this area has a common character, similar to the landscapes that bound the River Nene. By the Iron Age, much of the better land had been cleared and there were major settlement sites along all valleys. Dense occupation of the valleys continued into Roman times. Period pottery manufactured in the Nene Valley was widely used in southern England. Anglo-Saxon influence was over a landscape that was already substantially cleared of woodland, except furthest from the river valleys. The ‘-tons’ and ‘-hams’ still dominate the place names, and parish boundaries in places reflect some ‘Saxon’ estates. Along the Nene Valley numerous thin, rectilinear parishes extend from the river, each taking a share of riverside, fertile flood meadow, river terrace and slope and the wooded tops of the valley sides (in the adjacent NCA). Away from the river valleys, settlement was less dense. As the population expanded, frequent nucleated villages developed, surrounded by open fields. At strategic sites along the valleys, Northampton and Fotheringhay castles marked the major centres. The prosperity of much of the area in the Middle Ages is most obvious in the large, imposing spired churches.

Northampton was a significant Viking settlement, expanding rapidly up to the 14th century. It was often treated as the capital of England throughout the Middle Ages and even into the Tudor period, with Northampton Castle hosting Parliament. Important towns such as Oundle and Market Harborough also owe their origin to the pre-conquest period. From the 15th century onwards there was piecemeal enclosure, but much of the landscape remained unenclosed until much later. With the pastoralisation of the landscape after the 15th century and with the production of cattle, the leather industry grew; it is still evident today, with a few remaining boot and shoe manufacturers. The landscape contains a considerable variety of field systems. The area is notable for the survival of nationally important examples of ridge and furrow under pasture and, importantly, the survival of open field patterns in the nationally important townships of Sutton Bassett and Welham (Welland Valley), Great Oxendon and Clipston (Ise Valley). With the exception of the wooded areas and seasonal wetlands the medieval open field system was extensive throughout this area. Significant enclosure had certainly taken place before 1750, but many open fields remained and the dominant settlement type associated with them was the linear village with farms concentrated within it. Extensive enclosure, some achieved by private agreement but much formalised through Parliamentary Enclosure Acts, took place in the late 18th and 19th centuries. As in the 15th and 16th centuries, enclosure usually meant the conversion of ploughland to pasture. Fossilised cultivation strips, preserved from the last episode of ploughing, were once widespread across the pastoral landscape of this area. Modern arable intensification has dramatically altered this picture, and now most of the remaining areas of ridge and furrow are highly fragmented and vulnerable, though sizeable ridge and furrow survives and acts in some parishes as a key historic feature.

Agricultural production developed in relation to the expanding markets of the industrialising towns, focusing heavily on livestock for meat and dairy products. Wealthier farms were those newly created, many with combination barns serving cattle courts. The poorer inheritors of the enclosed landscape clustered in the old village farmsteads, which gradually declined. As a result, the area contains a much modified, but still highly significant, medium density of pre-1750 farm buildings within the villages, mostly threshing barns, as well as some larger and high status timber-framed barns, which are 18th century or earlier. Landscaped parks with grand houses developed between the 16th and 19th centuries, when many of the area’s fine manor houses were constructed and villages were rebuilt in local stone. The 18th and 19th centuries saw the rapid growth of Northampton as a red brick-dominated residential and manufacturing centre. An iron and steel industry in Northampton and Kettering also played a major part. There was also the continuing growth of boot and shoe making. Textiles, engineering and brickworks transformed settlements in the eastern part of the area, spurred by the development of the Grand Union Canal and later railways. The principal towns acted as stopovers on the Great North Road, later to become the A1 corridor, and as a focus for much 20th-century settlement.

The Grand Union Canal, linking the Nene and Trent rivers, was a substantial stimulus to growth. In the 20th century Northampton continued to expand, absorbing surrounding villages. Wellingborough and Kettering developed as substantial towns and witnessed surrounding large-scale mineral extraction. Ironstone was won in the east of the area, particularly around the edges of Rockingham Forest, and sand and gravel have been extensively excavated, particularly along the Nene, creating a new wetland landscape.

In the mid 1960s Northampton was identified as a ‘new town’ and a development corporation was set up in 1968. This resulted in a dramatic and rapid expansion of the town, mainly to accommodate ‘overspill’ from north London, principally in the Eastern District, extending along the Nene Valley towards Wellingborough, and in the Western District, south of the river. Extensive modern-day development remains a major factor in the area, particularly along the main transport routes and especially in the vicinity of the major urban settlements, where out-of-town retail and industrial parks are common and widely visible features. Transport infrastructure developments – M1 widening, the A14/M1/M6 junction, the M1/M69 junction, and the park and ride at Junction 21 – are having an intrusive visual impact which is further urbanising the M1 corridor.