Lincoln South Common – Walking through history

Words by:
John Bennett
Featured in:
February 2015

Lincoln South Common is much better known than most of the places I have written about, but I am frequently surprised by the number of people who have never explored it properly. Hopefully I can tempt more of you to seek out its hidden corners and understand the incredible history of this wonderful area.

The Common can be found on the south-eastern edge of Lincoln, but it is still barely a mile from the city centre. It comprises a rough open hillside facing north and west, sandwiched between Canwick Road and Cross O’Cliff Hill. The Viking Way long-distance footpath runs along the top (southern edge) of the Common, while the quiet cul-de-sac of South Park delineates the bottom (north edge).

There are countless places for pedestrians to gain access to the Common on all four boundaries, but motorists are advised to use South Park where there is usually ample parking. The Common offers some of the best views over the city, especially looking towards the Cathedral and Castle on the opposite hillside. There are also expansive views over the Trent Valley to the west, and on a clear day you can make out the rolling hills of north Nottinghamshire beyond the line of the Trent power stations.

Geologically the limestone that forms the long north-south ridge of Lincoln Edge was formed in tropical Jurassic seas about 160 million years ago, while dinosaurs walked the nearby land. The Lincoln gap, now filled by the River Witham, was created relatively recently by glacial meltwater at the end of the last Ice Age. While the city developed on the opposite hilltop, and spread out across the flatlands, the area of the South Common remained open. Anyone visiting the Common for the first time would be forgiven for thinking that it has always looked as it does today, but they would be wrong, it has been a hive of different activities for centuries.

Although there is no conclusive evidence, it is likely that there were prehistoric settlements on the Common from about 10,000BC until the Roman occupation. The Jurassic Way is thought to have run across the top half of the hillside, as people gravitated to the drier, higher ground to avoid the low lying marshlands. There are many springs on these upper slopes, where the limestone meets the underlying clay, and they may well have had some ritual significance in these early times.

In the woodland area in the south-east corner of the Common there are the remains of old quarries, almost certainly connected to the line of the Roman Ermine Street that ran through here down to the river crossing. Ermine Street was one of the major routes of Roman Britain, and of course Lindum Colonia was one of their most important towns. The line of the old Roman road can be found in several places on the Common; consult the information boards that are situated around the area for how to find it.

There is evidence of much quarrying on the Common during the Roman period (90–410AD), and it is thought that the original fort erected by the Ninth Legion was here too. After the Romans left, Lincoln fell into decline, and there is little evidence of activity on the South Common until the high medieval period (850–1350AD) when the city prospered again. It is part of local folklore that the site of the allotments, adjacent to where the regular fun fairs are held, used to be a ‘leper colony’. This was in fact the Hospital of the Holy Innocents of Malandry, comprising a chapel and hospital, and they did indeed care for lepers.

Around the same time St Catherine’s Priory was established just to the north-west of the Common, and there are many small earthworks in the area commonly associated with the Priory, possibly access tracks and water channels. Both the Priory and leper hospital claimed ‘Rights of Common’ over the area, and there is clear evidence that the Priory took water from the springs high on the hillside. It is thought that the small pond high on the eastern edge of the Common acted as a cistern for the Priory, with man-made gullies angling down across the hillside towards the site of St Catherine’s. It is likely that the original water conduits were underground, and the gullies are the result of those collapsing.

During this period the people of Lincoln and Canwick also had Rights of Common and grazed their animals alongside those of the Priory and Malandry. The hillside must have been cultivated in several places too, as there are clear ridge and furrow networks on the eastern side of the area. There is also evidence of old drainage channels running down the slope, possibly to improve the rough pasture. Certainly the Common was very valuable to local people for crops as well as their sheep and cattle.

It is likely that the boundaries of the Common as we know it today were set during this period, as the track network from the surrounding villages was improved to cope with the increased traffic into the busy market town.

Quarrying would have continued as the city grew and prospered. Not just Lincolnshire limestone for the big imposing buildings nearby, but also Northamptonshire ironstone, and clay for bricks and tiles. A keen eye can see many small escarpments on the Common from these old quarries, and small hummocks created from waste materials extracted but dumped nearby. The best place to find these is near the top of the slope. So during this period the South Common would have been a hive of activity, from farming and grazing to quarrying and stonemasonry.

The quarrying for clay in particular continued for many years, and the two large ponds that we see today were landscaped from one large clay pit. During the early industrial period major brickworks were established nearby at Cross O’Cliff and Southcliffe, and clay from the South Common may well have supplied them, as well as a large tile factory on Spencer Street. It is thought that quarrying ceased on the Common after the 1757 Act of Parliament that enclosed much of the land in the area, in effect defining the South Common as we know it today. However, it only got that name in the mid-nineteenth century – until then it had been known as Canwick Common.

If you go looking for signs of these old quarries on the Common you need to be aware of similar looking earthworks that are actually old shooting butts. These were created for local militia to practice from the mid-eighteenth century. The construction of the Great Northern Railway in a cutting across the northern edge of the Common in 1867 disrupted some of the old firing ranges, but shooting continued into the early twentieth century. It probably only stopped after the Common became popular for a wider variety of recreational activities.

After the railway came to Lincoln the city expanded hugely in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with large Victorian houses built along the northern edge of the Common for the fantastic views. People flooded out onto the open hillside to escape the increasingly industrial town and tightly packed terraced streets. In 1844 a rural walk had been created along the top of the Common, and around the same time the whole area was enclosed by metal railings, many of which can still be seen today. The ‘promenade’ entailed major landscaping work at the top of the Common, including the planting of trees and softening of the old quarry faces to create a narrow terrace. This remains to this today, and since 1976 the old rural walk has been the Viking Way long-distance footpath, giving fine views when you can see through gaps in the trees. Trees were also planted and fenced off around the lakes created from the old clay pit to further landscape the area.

Although grazing did continue it was greatly reduced, as much of the Common was soon turned over to football and cricket pitches. A very challenging golf course was also created, including bunkers full of sand. I remember watching many Sunday League football matches on the Common, along with hundreds of others come rain, wind or shine. I seem to remember that golf was less enjoyable, as the grass was so long you soon lost your ball if you missed the fairways by a few inches!

These activities only ceased in the late twentieth century, and you can still see the flat areas that were the football pitches along the bottom of the Common. It is a good game trying to find the lines of the golf course, but it can be done. The grass remains relatively short along the lines of some of the fairways, and a few of the flat raised tees are still visible. There are also a couple of short concrete strips that I believe were laid with matting to create cricket wickets, but these are very overgrown now and hard to find.

The sports pitches were badly damaged during the First World War as the area was used to test ‘Little Willie’, the prototype of the first military tank. The tanks were developed by the Foster works on Firth Road, but while testing were actually stored on the Common. After the war, much landscaping was required to restore the sports pitches.

After the Second World War the allotments were created on the site of the old Malandry and grazing continued to decline. Now only a handful of horses are regularly grazed there and the South Common is well established as a park for use by walkers, runners, dog walkers, mountain bikers, and of course for sledging in the winter when we get any snow. Since the sports pitches were abandoned the whole area has become more overgrown generally.

There is still a good network of footpaths, but the south-western part in particular is getting very wild and impenetrable, especially with summer growth. This corner is definitely not a place to explore in shorts during the summer months! If anything, the South Common has become more interesting as it has been left to grow wild. The City of Lincoln Council do still maintain the Common, mowing the grass occasionally and repairing fences for instance, but it is increasingly a wonderful oasis of unkempt peace and calm within the city boundary, with plenty to reward multiple visits throughout the year.

The rough grassland is not particularly rich botanically – the reduction of grazing has meant that coarser types of grass now predominate – but there are more interesting marshy areas to be found. As well as the small fenced plantations, there is a wide variety of large scattered tress across the Common. You will find lime and sycamore, with a few veteran beech and ash, also a single large elm. The ponds support a range of aquatic plants, including bulrush, reed, water-plantain and duckweed. The springs and marshes higher up also give rise to marsh marigold, silverweed and tufted hair grass. And the abandoned railway cutting is home to many other wetland species such as water figwort, butterbur and false fox-sedge. I have seen all the major British butterflies on the South Common, and dusk is a good time to watch kestrels and barn owls hunting along the top of the hillside. You might also catch the occasional fox or deer running between the patches of cover in the south-western corner. A friend of mine even crept up on a sleeping fox in that area who was obviously not used to people walking by.

The next big change to the South Common will be in the striking shape of the Lincolnshire Bomber Command Memorial, due to be built on the south-eastern skyline in the next couple of years. Main access will be by road from the south beyond the top of Canwick Hill, but there will also be a pedestrian route from the eastern end of the Viking Way footpath.

Even with all these attractions, most people will probably still visit the South Common for the fresh air, the wide open spaces and those expansive big sky views. Get out early in the morning before the mist has cleared for that rare sight of the Cathedral floating above the fog. Whatever your preference you will find something to delight you on Lincoln South Common – happy exploring.

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