Navenby – at the heart of the Cliff Villages

Words by:
Stephen Wade
Featured in:
March 2011

Feel the history – in brick and stone. Navenby, just eight miles south of Lincoln, could be overlooked on a map, but so much has being going on recently in this former Victorian market town that the story of the settlement and its people is quietly but insistently attracting interest.
It is undeniably a place of great beauty and that has changed little since a writer in 1930 wrote about it with a poetic tone: ‘ This is situated on a spur jutting out from the edge of the cliff, with a deep little valley sweeping round on the south side and breaking down into the plain. Nestling in the curve of the hill are some picturesque farm buildings and stacks…’ In other words, there is something quintessentially Lincolnshire about Navenby, and that has not been allowed to recede in the face of modernity.

The influence of communication has been strong, mainly related to the coming of the railways. In the great railway age in the nineteenth century, 1867 saw the creation of the Lincoln-Grantham branch of the Great Northern Railway, and a station just a short way from the village centre. The Nottinghamshire Guardian for 1862 announced that ‘ A company is being formed under the most distinguished patronage for the construction of a single line of rails from the Great Northern station at Lincoln, to Honington, four miles from Grantham.’ But more fundamental was the fact that the village is on the arterial Roman highway of Ermine Street.

At that time, there was a notable expansion of building in the village, and included in this were the Temperance Hall of 1852 and the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, built around 1830. Navenby was at the heart of the huge growth of Methodism in the county, along with other varieties of non-conformist worship. We can see just how massive a phenomenon Methodism was when we check out the 1851 Census of Religious Worship; this shows that the Wesleyan Methodists had 462 chapels in the county, and the Primitive Methodists 221.

Navenby has seen crowds over the years; in 1819 the travelling preachers John and Sarah Harrison preached in the village, and it was a time when the Primitive Methodists were out in public, singing at such events as public executions and forming camps at which they sang and prayed. One report of the time said that anyone passing would hear ‘a very Babel of broken exclamation with cries and groans, and shrieks that rent the air.’

In 1865, the choirs of the Parochial Choirs Union assembled at the church for their festival. The local reporter noted, ‘We were prepared for some unsteadiness in chanting the psalms, knowing that many of the choirs present had never attempted such a thing before’ but the only complaint made after the shindig was that the old box pews might be replaced by ‘modern seating’ for the next festival.

Navenby is a tranquil place, but occasionally the residents have dug in their heels and resisted change, as in 1964 when the Central Electricity Generating Board planned to build a string of pylons on Lincoln Cliff. The press reported what happened: ‘ After a good deal more research the board decided to cross the cliff north of Navenby.. Local farmers and landowners again combined against the board; there were angry protests from Navenby. The projected line was therefore moved slightly north so that it would run closer to the village of Boothby Graffoe.’

That was a rare occurrence: on the whole the village has been loved and treasured in the way that a Mrs Peel recalled when she wrote to Lincolnshire Life to recall her life there when her father ran the King’s Head public house. Her memories show a relish for the good old days, when everyone knew each other, and in a postcard she sent to the editor, she knew the names of three men in the picture. This is important, because the recent story of Navenby has been largely about discovering more about its past. It has been a focus of archaeological digs, including a discovery of a Bronze Age cemetery and also the vestiges of an Iron Age community. This work confirms the view that settlement of the area goes back a very long way- to around 600 BC.

There have also been finds from Roman times in the excavations. After all, Roman legions would have passed that way along Ermine Street, and evidence indicates that there was a garrison at Neveby when Lincoln was Lindum Colonia, and the centre of the great province of Flavia Caesariensis. But just to assert that there have also been Saxons here, the name recalls someone called Hafni, as in Old Norse, the roots of the name mean ‘village of a man called Nafni.’

Returning to the buildings, here we have the individual stamp on the village, perhaps represented most familiarly by the famous attraction of Mrs Smith’s Cottage. This Grade II listed building is Victorian, and was in use until the 1990s. There was no electricity in the house until the 1930s and a cold water tap was only installed in the 1970s because the cottage would have been condemned otherwise. Mrs Hilda Smith was the last resident, being there until her death at the age of 102 in 1995. The house is one of Lincolnshire’s prime tourist sites now, as such preservation is very rare, and it is a museum of great charm; the more nostalgic lovers of past social life will perhaps lament the fact that the outside privy and pig sty have been demolished, though.

Visitors wanting to glimpse the interior of such a home from years gone by will see a range – the hub of the home for so long through English history. But going upstairs still involved climbing a ladder. That a museum should be simply an ordinary everyday house is actually a very special instance of our need now to maintain and lovingly restore the last remaining homes of the past where families were brought up, in spite of hardships and deprivation.

St Peter’s Church rightly claims the attention too. The writer W J Rawnsley went into rapturous praise of it in his account of Lincolnshire early last century, writing of the chancel that ‘it is as fine as any to be found, no other being built on so magnificent a scale, except Hawton in Notts and perhaps Merton in Oxfordshire.’ He added that ‘Few churches can give more pleasure to the lover of church architecture than this; and its fine position on the edge of the cliff… makes a visit to Navenby very memorable.’

In the interior, the Easter Sepulchre stands out, as it did for Niklaus Pevsner in 1964, as he noted that ‘ At its foot stand three Roman soldiers in relief and in the spandrels above are two exquisitely draped figures, the three Maries and the angel.’

The church has elements from various dates in its composition: the west tower is late Victorian, the east window being rebuilt in 1876; the sedilia and piscine date much further back to the early fourteenth century, the beautiful pulpit is Jacobean, but the rood screen is from a much later date, 1910.

The secular buildings reflect the social and cultural history of Navenby, and arguably most striking in this respect is the Angel and Royal public house: the place was originally one of the oldest medieval inns, with very old cellars. It was originally used by the Knights Templars, whose domain was close by at Temple Bruer, and when that order was destroyed in 1312, the Knights Hospitallers succeeded.

The name is explained partly by the stone angel over a window and arch, a figure crowned and impressive. But the place does indeed have royal connections as well: in 1213 King John presided over his court while on the move here, and a truly significant event here relates to Richard III, whose is reckoned to have signed the death warrant of the Duke of Buckingham on these premises. The guide books are also keen to inform the reader that the much travelled playboy prince, the future Edward VII, also stayed here in 1866, and that the name comes primarily from that visit.

Another place of special interest is the Dial House in North Lane, which has the rare inclusion of a priest hole, something very common in Lancashire, the stronghold of recusants in the early modern period. The Old Rectory, also in North lane, was built in 1859 by London architect, H A Darbyshire and has been noticed and praised by writers on architecture.

If we have to regret the disappearance of any building in Navenby, it is surely the Green Man Inn, because this drinking place at the junction of the A15 and Green Man Lane, has links with the notorious Sir Francis Dashwood, founder of the infamous Hell Fire Club. He formed what were called ‘Gentlemen’s Clubs’ in various areas of England, but as he owned land nearby, he chose Navenby as the location for his local ‘Club.’ Dashwood, always a sociable man, was very much the kind of rebel individualist that the early eighteenth century produced; it was an age of extremes in culture and in sport; the aristocrats gambled as well as spending money on art collections and on giving their sons the luxury of the Grand Tour. But although Dashwood is linked to the founding of the Hell-Fire Club , the Brotherhood of St. Francis of Wycombe, he was also a member of the Lincoln Club which met at the Green Man Inn on the heath. It comes as no surprise, really, as Dashwood had several Lincolnshire connections. His cousin was Francis Fane of Fulbeck and he had close friends in the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society. But the ties with Lincoln rather than the south of the county, were what he desired. At that time, there were around a dozen similar clubs in the county, and each had its own character and aims, mirroring the nationwide growth of radical and liberal clubs which were interested in fun and entertainment as well as good fellowship. The Lincoln Club owed its existence to Thomas Chaplin of Blankney., who was a nephew of Thomas Archer who founded the Dilettanti Society, another fraternity for high jinks and indulgence. The Club’s meeting place was given a long club room, and all around the long table were busts of the members, by wooden panels.

Navenby is teeming with stories from the past, and it is hard to avoid the most poignant: the war memorial listing the names of the 22 local men who died in the Great War; but it is very much a busy, modern community as well, eager to preserve yet also to move forward, still ‘Nestling… with its picturesque buildings.’

With its attractive, linear High Street, lined by handsome stone and red brick houses, Navenby has over the last five years established itself as the shopping and visitor heart of the Cliff Villages that line the ridge that runs from Lincoln to Caythorpe.

Long established local businesses such as Odlins Butchers and Welbourne’s Bakery have survived and thrived as champions of local food despite the encroachment of supermarkets into nearby towns. Odlins have established a thriving butchery and grocery in their recently refurbished store as well as the mobile delivery service they provide to surrounding villages. Welbourne’s Bakery is famous for their award winning Lincolnshire Plum Bread as well as their baked on the premises loaves, pastries and cakes. As businesses have developed and new ones opened it has all added to the variety and charm of visiting Navenby. It is now possible to spend a good day in the village, taking in its history, with a visit to the church and Mrs Smith’s Cottage, take a break with a mid- morning coffee or light lunch break in one of the cafés, spend the afternoon shopping for clothes, gifts or antiques and finally enjoy an evening meal and drink in one of the villages pubs or restaurants.

Many new houses have been built in recent years which have given local businesses a more secure base on which to promote their trade. As one local shop keeper explained, it is essential to deliver what local people want and keep them happy and then other customers will follow and this seems to have been the case. The only cloud at present has been the closure of the Post Office in the village but already there is a campaign to try to find other suitable premises. With the influence of village businesses owners it will hopefully be a successful outcome to retain a service which brought many locals into Navenby on a regular basis.

The phrase ‘Aladdin’s Cave’ springs to mind when you first enter Navenby Antiques Centre. Cabinets to the left are filled with cascades of costume and fine jewellery, ornaments and silverware and to the right shelves of books fill the wall. In the centre of the room are furniture and pottery. This is just the first of five rooms and antique collections of great interest and variety which deceptively lie behind the single window frontage of the centre.
Laura and Dean Conway own and run the centre and as well as dealing in Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian furniture and collectable themselves, they rent out cabinet and floor space to around twenty other antique dealers. Each dealer stamps their own individuality on their collection and it is this variety which makes the centre such a fascinating place to visit.

There are pictures, pottery, cards, kitchenware, glassware, linens, jewellery, silverware, cabinets, tables and chairs, curtains, clothing, tapestries and needlepoint, garden furniture, statuary, ironwork and more collectables and memorabilia than can be listed. One of the newer businesses within the centre is Forget Me Not Fashion who sell vintage clothing which is extremely popular with local fashionistas.

Laura, an ex maths teacher, has built up the thriving antiques centre over the last three years in this premises. “The maths still comes in very handy for managing the finances”, she said “but I have taken great pleasure in watching the centre grow into something unique to Navenby and I love it when people seek us out or visit by the coach full while they are in Lincoln for one of the antique fairs”.

Laura and Dean are hoping that they will soon be able to extend the first floor of the centre to open it up as a larger space with perhaps the opportunity for even more variety to the collectables they offer.

Felicity Macy has over forty years experience of working in hospitality and although she retired eleven years ago, here she is in Navenby as head chef and proprietor of Macy’s Brasserie.

Some readers may know Felicity from the time she worked at the Wig and Mitre or when she ran her own catering business but two years ago she saw an empty property on the High Street in Navenby and knowing it used to be a restaurant and had a suitable layout and kitchen, she began to negotiate a lease. Macy’s opened in April 2010.

Felicity’s philosophy has been to provide locals with a home from home at whatever time of the day they visit. She explained: “We are open throughout the day and evening, customers can have whatever they like from an all day breakfast to a romantic meal without any restrictions on time or menu.”

There are delicious coffees and teas, with tempting homemade cakes and light bites. If you really fancy scrambled egg and smoked salmon for a mid afternoon snack then, no problem.

Each month there are live music events featuring jazz or blues with a 3 course meal and Macy’s has proved very popular for private parties. In the warmer months there is a garden and dining area to the rear of the Brasserie.

Everything Felicity and her staff serve is made on the premises from ingredients locally sourced. Abbey Parks Farm Shop supplies most of her vegetables, while all her meat is from local, traceable sources. Felicity explained that: “The homemade bread and jams have proved to be so popular that we have plans to open a deli within the Brasserie which will sell these and other delicacies such as olives. I have fantastic staff who work for me and they really know what our local customers like”.

The local community have certainly taken Macy’s to their heart with the U3A group meeting each month and the WI using the venue for their AGM.

Jenny Giles established Jolly Posh, her gift and interiors business six years ago in a prominent position on the High Street in Navenby after she retired as head of art at the High School in Sleaford. It has definitely been an outlet for her creative flair and there has been no time to get bored as she is always busy buying, sewing or working with other members of her family in the shop. Jenny’s philosophy is that she must supply what the people of the village will want to buy. “I always go to the big trade shows myself because you cannot tell the quality of items from brochures and I am always looking for new and unique products,” she explained. “It is hard to work to stay ahead and be innovative but that is what sets us part from other businesses”.

Jenny’s daughter, Libby, and her daughter-in-law, Vicki, both work in the business with Vicki developing their growing on-line business.

Visitors to Jolly Posh will find collections of giftware, cards and wrapping, contemporary costume and fine jewellery, handbags, scarves, pictures, clocks, kitchenware and cook shop ranges, pottery, ornaments and statuary. Fiona, another member of staff is an ex-florist and she creates arrangements of plants and bulbs in bowls and containers which make beautiful, seasonal gifts.

Collections of French influenced furniture with co-ordinating fabrics, cushions, lighting and basketware complete the designer, country home look.

Jenny sews many of the fabric items herself including cushions, aprons, throws, peg bags and children’s and babies hats. “I enjoy sewing and I know that these items are exclusive to Jolly Posh. I have just made our latest collection of cushions with Arbuthnott fabrics and customers love them,” she said.

Jenny has worked in partnership with other Navenby businesses to provide special buying evenings for local groups. These are especially popular at Christmas time but could be at any time of the year. Groups can book to have the shop open exclusively for their group and afterwards go to the Kings Head for a ‘Jolly Posh’ menu meal.

Next month, Jolly Posh will be taking delivery of the first pieces of an exciting range of French furniture, which they will stock exclusively in this area. “It really is beautifully made and I know the style will suit our customers taste and homes so I cannot wait for it to arrive in the shop,” Jenny concluded.

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