Greetwell Hollow and Old Quarry

Words by:
John Bennett
Featured in:
April 2013

This is the second in a short series of articles aimed at highlighting some of the beautiful areas around Lincoln that remain relatively unknown to the majority of people.
When you discover somewhere new and fall in love with it, the first thing you want to do is tell everyone. Then a little voice in the back of your head whispers “keep quiet”, because one of the things that attracts you to beautiful places is solitude, and too many people could spoil that. This is an age old quandary, one that I have no simple answer to. But if anyone is persuaded to visit any of the places I describe I would hope that they would treat them with respect. Always follow the Country Code, step lightly, leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but photographs.

This area is situated on the north-eastern edge of Lincoln, between the Carlton Estate to the north, and Greetwell Road to the south. There is ample parking at the Carlton Centre itself, although I have heard that they are increasingly intolerant of people parking there and not using the shops, so it might be best to park on the housing estate. There is room for two cars by the entrance to Greetwell Hollow on Carlton Boulevard, but this is often full.

Although the Hollow and Old Quarry are both the result of industrial mining operations, they are quite distinct in character, and if time is limited you may want to visit each separately.
Greetwell Hollow is a nature reserve administered by the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust. It is largely undulating grassland with scattered scrub and small areas of trees. A stream flows steadily down towards several marshy areas in the south of the reserve. There is an intricate network of paths, most of which are easy to follow, but some do get more indistinct and overgrown during the summer months. It is generally dry underfoot, but can get muddy in places – and be prepared to use stepping stones to cross the stream in one place. To the west of the Hollow the Old Limestone Quarry was still active as late as August 2003 and although nature is rapidly taking over there is still the feel of a surreal industrial wasteland in places. The southern part of the Hollow, and much of the Old Quarry, have been designated areas of special scientific interest (SSSIs). The whole area is rich in wildlife and wildflowers, so keep your wits about you and take your time exploring.

There is an extensive information board by the entrance gate on Carlton Boulevard and an old grindstone acting as sentinel just inside, where you will find a choice of at least three paths to follow. On a clear day you can see right across the Hollow to the Old Quarry on your left. Whichever route you take will be downhill and remember that it will be uphill all the way back to Carlton Boulevard, so allow more time for the return journey.

The features of Greetwell Hollow were created by iron ore extraction during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, hence its nickname locally of ‘the ironstone’ or ‘irony’. The original mining operation was a mixture of opencast and underground adits or tunnels. As you walk around the area today you will see numerous pits, gullies and hollows, all of them softened by vegetation, but they add to the fun of exploring. There are some very steep and loose slopes if you get off the main paths, so take care, especially if it is wet. You will also find some long level sections that are the remains of old narrow gauge tramways used to transport the iron ore away from the quarries. Although mechanised systems were tried, it is interesting to note that horses were still used to move the ore trucks right up until 1933 when the final mine closed. The underlying geology is limestone in the northern part of the reserve, hence the short dry grassland, whereas clay predominates to the south where the marshes are.

Considering how many people live within an easy walk of Greetwell Hollow it is surprisingly quiet most of the time, although visitors might notice a lot of litter around the entrance gateway from nearby fast food restaurants. Local residents do regular litter patrols, but there is still no accounting for people who see nothing wrong in dropping their burger boxes and drinks bottles wherever they happen to be sitting. But walk a few yards into the reserve and signs of human habitation soon disappear. As you are basically walking down into a bowl, even traffic noise quickly drops away to be replaced by the sound of running water and birdsong.

I’ve often seen barn owls hunting at dusk, and elusive kingfishers can sometimes be seen as a flash of iridescence close to the stream. There are many wildflowers throughout the year, including rare orchids, but the most spectacular display is in spring with the beautiful bright blue Speedwell. It forms a beautiful carpet of colour in several places for many weeks. Occasionally this magical carpet appears to lift off, as dozens of stunning Common Blue butterflies take flight at once. This is by far the best place to see the Common Blues locally, and they are very easy to photograph when at rest amongst the grasses. A couple of hours can pass very quickly in the peace of Greetwell Hollow, but if you have time you will want to visit the adjacent Old Quarry to the east as well.

I will mention right at the outset that access to Greetwell Quarry is confusing at the moment. There are ‘private keep out’ signs in several places, although a public right of way does run through the centre of the area and locals clearly wander freely across the quarry without being accosted. The City of Lincoln ‘Heritage Connect’ website also talks about the quarry being used by local people for recreation, and I have been unable to get a definitive answer about access, so your guess is as good as mine. Suffice it to say that I’ve been all over the area dozens of times and have never been stopped. There are plans to build hundreds of houses on the Old Quarry – I’m not sure how advanced they are – and the proposed Lincoln Eastern Bypass will come very close to the south-eastern corner. So the whole area may change drastically in the future.

As well as walking directly across from Greetwell Hollow there are several other access points to the Old Quarry. You can get in via two footpaths on Carlton Boulevard, another off Whitefriars Road, and the aforementioned right of way that runs from Greetwell Road in the south to the housing estate by Whitefriars Pond. Whereas Greetwell Hollow feels enclosed and intimate, the Old Quarry is very open and spacious. There are numerous criss-crossing paths, but it is generally so open that you can walk almost wherever you want. In places you are walking on bare bedrock, while in others you are on old spoil tips surrounded by limestone cliffs. The old quarry faces are still unstable in places, so take care approaching them. As you stare at the limestone cliffs, it is worth reflecting that the rocks were formed in shallow warm tropical seas 165 million years ago in the Middle Jurassic period. Dinosaurs ruled the nearby land and waves were breaking on coral reefs above. There are many fossils in the limestone, mainly broken shells and corals, but you might be lucky and find a giant Plesiosaur, they have been found here! These rock faces take on some beautiful colours as the light changes, ranging from silver grey through golden yellow to pink and purple around sunset.

There are possibly even more wildflowers in the Old Quarry than Greetwell Hollow. Bird’s Foot Trefoil creates a golden carpet over much of the area throughout the summer, and I have found at least three colonies of beautiful Bee Orchids there, occasionally a rare Pyramidal Orchid too. The south-eastern corner is a great place to watch kestrels hovering while they hunt for prey, so be sure to take some binoculars and a long lens for your camera. Like the Hollow the quarry is a haven for butterflies, and it is perfectly possible to see more than ten species in a single visit.

It is unlikely you’ll see all the hidden corners here in one day, so I would definitely recommend returning at different times of year to explore further and see the changing seasons. The spectacular summer colours contrast greatly with the subdued winter tones. Although generally very quiet, the quarry does attract off road motorcyclists from time to time, so your peaceful stroll may be disturbed temporarily. You often find runners and dogwalkers here too, and under snow the Old Quarry is transformed into a playground for Nordic skiers and snowboarders. If you type ‘Greetwell Old Quarry’ into YouTube you will find a very spectacular mountain bike video made there. It is definitely used for a wide range of ‘recreational activities’!

Another reason to visit this area is the beautiful sunsets. There is a footpath that runs along the top of the cliffs of the north-eastern quarry wall. This gives uninterrupted views across the quarry and Hollow all the way to the Cathedral on the hill two miles away. It offers a fine skyline silhouette for sunset photography, and if you time it right you can even watch the sun set directly behind the Cathedral’s towers. There are no better viewpoints for seeing those classic big Lincolnshire skies, especially after a stormy day has cleared the air.

I hope you enjoy your visit to Greetwell Hollow and the Old Quarry. Together they certainly offer a nature walk with a difference right on the edge of the city, and the quarry in particular is unique to the Lincoln area.

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