National Character Area 45

Northern Lincolnshire Edge with Coversands - Description

The Northern Lincolnshire Edge with Coversands today

The Lincolnshire Edge is a distinctive limestone scarp or ‘Cliff’ running down the length of the area, from Whitton on the Humber Estuary in the north to Lincoln in the south. To the east of Scunthorpe a second scarp of calcareous mudstones and siltstones, including ironstone, forms the western margin of the north part of the NCA. These slopes rise prominently from the flat cultivated lands of the Humberhead Levels and the Trent and Belvoir Vales, forming a distinct wooded edge to these areas. From the top of the Cliff there are impressive panoramic views out over the Humber Estuary, the Levels and the Vales, with several viewpoints, notably at Alkborough and Scampton. The Edge then dips gently to the east, with views out over the clay vale of the River Ancholme, most of which lies within the Central Lincolnshire Vale NCA.

The fissured nature of the underlying rock means that there are few surface streams. Groundwater percolates into the limestone to emerge as springs where it meets the underlying impermeable mudstones at the foot of the scarp. The Edge forms a watershed between the Trent to the west and the heavily modified Ancholme and its tributaries to the east. To the south the River Witham cuts through the limestone at Lincoln and flows south to The Wash.

On the top of the Edge is a covering of shallow, well-drained, brashy limestone loam soil which gives rise to productive arable cultivation, including cereals, oilseeds, root crops, potatoes and some vegetables, along with pig and poultry rearing. There is only a small amount of mixed farming and generally livestock numbers are low, pigs being the most numerous and usually housed in sheds.

This is a predominantly large-scale arable landscape with occasional shallow dry valleys. Fields are typically large and rectilinear with gappy clipped hedgerows, or rubble limestone in places. Field sizes tend to be smaller around the villages. The dispersed farmsteads are typically large, with courtyard arrangements of barns and sheds that have developed over time, often overshadowing the original stone farmhouse. Copses of mixed-species trees provide some shelter. In places the limestone comes close to the surface, giving rise to small areas of calcareous grassland, which can also be found in a number of disused limestone quarries.

This is a significant area for farmland birds such as grey partridge, lapwing, tree sparrow and corn bunting, and also for hares. Although there are few wetland habitats within the NCA, the lower-lying areas below the scarp to the west, where the River Trent runs through the Humberhead Levels, are important for providing winter feeding and roosting for wildfowl and birds such as curlew, snipe and redshank.

A number of straight roads and trackways, often with wide grassy verges, cross the area; the Roman Ermine Street, now the A15, is the most pronounced, running north from Lincoln to the Humber Estuary.

To the south and east of Scunthorpe are areas of wind-blown sand, the Coversands, which give rise to a very different and distinctive sandy landscape of open heath, acid grassland, and oak and birch woods, with pockets of mire and wet heathland. Once extensive, these heathy areas have been reduced by enclosure and conversion to agricultural land, quarrying for sand or ironstone, or conifer planting. At Risby Warren Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) the original inland sand dune formations can be clearly seen, with mosaics of open sand, extensive lichen heathland, acid and calcareous grassland, and broadleaved scrub, broken up by shelterbelts of pines. These heathlands are distinct from southern or upland heaths, having more affinity with Breckland heathlands. Nationally rare species found here include the woodlark and grayling butterfly. Lichen-rich heathland also occurs on the undulating sandy hills of the Coversands at Messingham Heath, forming mosaics with acid grassland and birch woodland.

There are extensive woodlands near Broughton, including Broughton Far Wood, an SSSI for its ash/oak woodland lying on clay overlying limestone, and Broughton Alder Wood with its spring-fed wet valley dominated by alder trees. On the western boundary, near Laughton, are further extensive woodlands, including plantations, on the sandy soils.

Around and to the north of Scunthorpe the underlying ironstone was exploited and this, along with local limestone and coal from the coalfields to the west, gave rise to an iron and steel industry. Scunthorpe is now characterised by extensive housing and industrial estates, wrapped around the massive sheds, chimneys, lighting columns and other structures of the steelworks. Ironstone workings have been restored, often leaving stretches of open water, scrub and grassland, providing attractive areas for recreation. Sand quarrying continues, while at Messingham Sand Quarry SSSI the workings now form a mix of open water, wetlands, woodland and sandy heathland.

The dip slope of the Edge inclines gently down to the Ancholme Valley where springs give rise to easterly flowing streams draining into the highly modified River Ancholme, which runs close to the eastern boundary; part of the old river course falls within the area. Here, on low-lying land below Appleby and Broughton, the land has been drained and the fields are large and rectilinear, bounded by ditches, creating an open, intensively cultivated landscape.

To the west, below the scarp of the Edge, soils are deeper on the lower-lying land towards Gainsborough, a market town located on the Trent. Here there is more of a sense of enclosure, with pastures bounded by full hedges, several parklands and estates associated with country houses, and woodlands on the steeper slopes of the scarp and on sandy soils around Scotton. A number of attractive small villages, including Kirton in Lindsey, Willoughton, Glentworth and Fillingham, nestle along the springline at the foot of the Cliff. Older houses, walls and farm buildings are often built with the local warm-coloured limestone, with dark brown or red tiled roofs, creating an attractive visual coherence.

The area is punctuated by a number of prominent features, from the massive steelworks at Scunthorpe and the hangars of military airfields along the top of the Edge, to the distinctive and prominent cathedral in Lincoln, standing high up on the Edge overlooking the Witham Gap, where the river cuts through the limestone. On the plateau top, some airfields have been put to new uses, and large buildings constructed for grain storage, light industry, warehousing and retail and communications masts are often very prominent out on the flat open land of the limestone plateau. Several farms now have large rectilinear reservoirs to provide for irrigation of crops on the light soils of the plateau. The restoration of ironstone and sand extraction sites often includes semi-natural habitats as well as agricultural land, while some sand (silica) extraction continues such as at Messingham. Lincoln, with its links to Roman history, its magnificent cathedral and medieval town housing on the slopes below, remains a major tourist destination.

The landscape through time

The Lincolnshire Edge is a long, prominent ridge, running from Grantham to the Humber Estuary, formed by Middle Jurassic Limestones – the Lincolnshire Limestone Formation. The scarp slope rises sharply from low-lying land to the west, while the dip slope drops gently to the Ancholme Valley in the east. In the northern part of the NCA the presence of resistant Frodingham Ironstone in the early Jurassic Lias Group, forms a very distinct secondary scarp, overlooking the River Trent as it draws close below Alkborough. This ironstone is often rich in fossils, especially ammonites and oysters (‘devil’s toenails’).

In places, the bedrock is overlain by glacial deposits of till as well as sands and gavels deposited by glacial meltwater. After the last glacial retreat, the sands were re-worked by wind, covering an extensive area around Scunthorpe with sand dunes. These sands are still evident, and Risby Warren is exceptional as an inland dune system where surface morphology and dune formations can be clearly seen.

There is widespread evidence of early settlement along the Edge, including prehistoric burial mounds and linear boundary features. The legacy of the Romans is more visible, particularly the roads that converge on the fort and later colonia at Lincoln. Ermine Street runs north-south along the full length of the NCA, linking the iron-age and Roman settlement of Lincoln with a boat crossing point on the Humber. Lincoln was located in a strategic and defensive position, at the crossing point of the Witham and junction with Fosse Street, high up on the Edge, with clear views all round. Lincoln Cathedral was built during the Norman period, and evidence of city walls and medieval houses remains on the slopes below the cathedral.

Saxon and medieval settlements arose along the springline below the western scarp, many surviving to form the basis of the current pattern of nucleated villages. The Edge plateau was largely unsettled, providing common pastures for flocks of sheep otherwise folded on the fallow lands below. The linear parishes across the plateau reflect this, aligned east to west on each side of Ermine Street to take advantage of both the open heath and pastures on the tops, and the deeper soils on the eastern side slope and below the western cliff. The lighter soils of the Coversands were used as rabbit warrens. Some medieval villages were depopulated as a result of later agricultural changes, with ground formations still evident, for example at Gainsthorpe and Sawcliffe.

Enclosure of fields took place from the 14th century onwards, the field patterns on the lower land to both the east and west reflecting a more complex history with irregular field systems, and taller and more woody hedgerows. A mix of farm buildings of various periods, especially from the 17th century onwards, form today’s large farmsteads. As wealth accumulated, some large country houses with walled estates, parkland and fishing ponds were established, such as at Fillingham.

Drainage of the low-lying Ancholme Valley started in the 17th century, transforming the ‘carrs’ (marshy land) used for summer grazing into productive farmland drained by a network of ditches. As agricultural techniques developed, the open heaths along the Edge could be productively cultivated, and in the 18th and early 19th centuries they were subdivided by Parliamentary Acts, resulting in large-scale rectilinear fields enclosed by hawthorn hedges or in a few places by limestone rubble walls.

Gainsborough, located at a crossing point of the River Trent and at the upper extent of the tides, originally developed as a port, transferring goods from sea-going vessels to distribute inland. Ironstone and limestone were exploited near Scunthorpe from the 1860s, leading to the development of the iron and steel industry, along with the rapid expansion of the town. Later this industry expanded and extended into manufacturing and engineering works, along with sand extraction. Lincoln city also expanded, with extensive Victorian housing of red brick terraces and town houses, as the arrival of the railway in the 19th century encouraged its development as an engineering centre.

The plateau landscape changed during the 19th and 20th centuries as sheltering copses were planted adjacent to the big farmsteads, and some small plantations were planted on the side slopes for shelter, game and timber. Between the First and Second World Wars conifer plantations were established on the infertile Coversands to the east and south of Scunthorpe, and around Scotton.

Airfields were established on the top of the Edge in the First World War, and these became a core part of Britain’s east-facing deployment of bomber bases in the 1930s. Some airfields remain active, used for recreational flying, or for military purposes, as at RAF Scampton. Scampton expanded in the Cold War period as one of a number of V-bomber bases, and is one of the most historically significant military airfields in Britain. It is the home of the 617 Dambuster Squadron and the Red Arrows. Other airfields have been restored to agriculture or redeveloped for grain stores, and industrial and retail use, as at Hemswell Cliff with its complexes of large buildings.

Scunthorpe, characterised by extensive post-Second World War housing, faced the downsizing of heavy industry in the late 20th century, but industrial estates, supported by the construction of the M180 which provides links with the ports to the east and the markets inland, expanded to house light engineering, food production, distribution and retail uses. The mainly arable farms on the Edge flourished during the late 20th century, and this period also saw the construction of irrigation reservoirs and a number of communications masts. Some sand and ironstone quarries are now being used for landfill or have been restored for agricultural or recreational uses, while also supporting important semi-natural habitats.