The Witham Corridor (North) – the riverside footpath
This is the latest 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.
In my last article I described the section of the Witham Corridor south of Bracebridge; here we continue north along the river right into the heart of Lincoln itself. This route is now well established, but it wasn’t always so. It took a complex partnership of groups to create what we see today, and it is a shining example of how to bring the countryside right into the centre of a large city. What was formerly a muddy riverside path is now used by at least 1,300 people every day (2003 research), both for leisure and as a regular commuting route into work, and yet many more people seem unaware of its delights.
As you stand by the road at Bracebridge, having just completed the riverside walk described last time, you will be assailed by traffic noises and smells. This is one of Lincoln’s busiest roads, so take great care crossing. If the traffic is very bad you should walk 150 yards to your left and use the pedestrian crossing before returning to the bridge. Do not be seduced by the open gate and grassy looking path along the east/right bank of the river, because it is a dead end. The left/west bank is the only way to Brayford Pool, although you have a small route choice to get there. The old footpath still exists along the top of the river embankment, but there is also the new cycle track that runs parallel and occasionally alongside all the way to the city centre. Personally I always use the old footpath because the views are superior, but if it is particularly muddy underfoot you might decide to brave the speeding cyclists on the tarmac route in places.
To find the start of both routes you need to walk into the car park of The Plough pub. Hug the buildings tight on your right and go through a small gap in the fence to join the footpath, or head half left to the northwest corner to pick up the cycle track. The site of The Plough was originally an island, and there was a building there called Eel Pie House. This has long gone, but there has been an inn here since the early nineteenth century. For about half a mile the two routes are distinctly different, but this isn’t always the case. The footpath immediately opens up as you ascend the riverbank, and you will be amazed at how suddenly you feel as though you are back in the countryside again. Apart from the pub behind you, you might even struggle to see any buildings nearby as you spot the Cathedral high on the hill in the distance, framed by trees on both sides.
On the east bank is a small wood that shrouds the houses along Newark Road, whereas scattered trees and rough open land shield the buildings on your left. The cycle track is on the other side of this rough open land, hard up against a high wooden fence. The walk along the riverbank is very pleasant, as the rough ground on the left gives way to meadows and horse paddocks. The embankment also feels much higher than it is, giving an expansive feel to the route.
There are often fishermen down by the water, and apart from in midwinter you will usually be surrounded by wildflowers and butterflies along here. The only other exception is if you are unlucky enough to visit just after the Council have mown the riverbank. There is a constant debate about mowing roadside verges and riverbanks. In an ideal world they would be left alone and a wide variety of flora and fauna would flourish, but public safety is also an issue in places, and rights of way need to be kept open. Perhaps a compromise here would be to use a man with a strimmer rather than a tractor with a wide mowing attachment on the rear?
The Walkers factory eventually appears on the opposite bank, but your eyes will be drawn to the horses in the fields to your left, and the large wooded area ahead, this is Boultham Park. As you approach the park along the riverbank you will also see the attractive footbridge across the river that links with Russell Street and Newark Road. This bridge used to be further north near Dixon Street, and once gave access to the private estate of Boultham Hall. The Hall became vacant in 1909, and during WWI was used as a convalescence home for injured soldiers. After the war much of the land was sold off for housing, but the City Council bought what remained in 1929 and opened it up for the people of Lincoln.
Back on the cycle path you will pass a gap in the fence just north of the pub car park that gives access to/from Witham Close, and Rookery Lane beyond. Whichever route you took from Bracebridge you have more choices once you reach Boultham Park.
Unless you are in a hurry I’d recommend taking some time to explore the park, a slow walk round the lake will take about thirty minutes. The Hall itself was demolished in 1959, and what remains is a mixture of attractive woodland, manicured lawns, formal gardens and children’s play areas. There are plans for a café/toilet block to attract more people to the park, and they are currently pursuing funding for this.
Beyond Boultham Park is another beautiful stretch of the river, with attractive houses on the east bank and allotments and rough woodland on the west. Here you get some idea of how low the land is in this part of Lincoln; in fact, the ground to the west often looks to be lower than the water level in the river. The houses along the river here are often the first to be flooded in Lincoln, and residents must keep a wary eye on the levels after a spell of wet weather.
Apparently this is a fine spot for bird watching, or so my ‘twitcher’ friends tell me. My knowledge of birds extends to noticing the numerous babies on the water during spring and early summer; they are a constant delight as they grow. In 2013 there have been four new swan families between Bracebridge and Brayford Pool, and countless ducklings, moorhens and coot babies.
The attractive spire of the Priory Centre at St Catherines is seen ahead and behind the imposing late Victorian/Edwardian houses on the east bank along this stretch. Look out for some quirky sites in back gardens, and a cat that likes to sleep on an upturned canoe.
After a few hundred yards the cycle track and footpath merge and you come to an ugly concrete bridge over the river, and the Bargate Sluice on your right. This is the junction of the river, the Catchwater Drain and the Sincil Drain. It is also a major crossroads for those of us on bikes and on foot, and a crucial point in Lincoln’s flood defences. In a previous article I described the walk from here all the way to Skellingthorpe, along the Catchwater Drain. You can also walk the other way along the Sincil Drain to the High Street and South Common beyond, but save that for another day.
North of the sluice, Victorian terraced houses press right up against the river, while the view west from the footpath is restricted by a high line of trees. These trees can be a curse if you want wide open views, but on wild windy days they are a blessing! Make the most of this grassy path along the embankment though, as it is the last time you will feel much connection to rural Lincolnshire on this route. You eventually reach Dixon Street, and from here the walk is entirely urban, although not without its attractions. Look out for butterflies collecting on the numerous buddleia bushes along the path, and there is still space for aquatic plants along the riverbank. From here on the footpath and cycle track are only separated by a painted white line on the tarmac, so be careful of speeding bikes if you are on foot.
The original wetland landscape of this area was transformed by heavy industry in the nineteenth century, and the famous names like Rustons and Fosters that made the city rich. Much of this old industry has in turn been replaced by lighter and high-tech businesses, giving an interesting mosaic of Lincoln’s industrial heritage.
North of Coulson Road you will be surprised by the fantastic Community Mural on an ugly old green corrugated factory wall. This was created in 2012 by a group of artists and local people, with the agreement of the factory owners. You could spend a long time here admiring their work, and smiling at the wit and humour in the environmentally themed pictures.
On the east bank you will see old riverside warehouses and the imposing Crown Mill that have been converted into modern apartments. Once again Victorian terraced houses back right up to the east bank, interspersed with anonymous 60/70s developments that wouldn’t look out of place in the old Soviet Bloc. Car parks and high security fences flank the route for a while on the left, until you reach the imposing modern housing development of Anchor Quays. This is reached by an attractive new footbridge across the river, which also gives access to the High Street area around Gaunt Street.
From Firth Road it is also possible to proceed on both banks of the river for the first time since Bracebridge. Bridges come thick and fast now and the route is increasingly busy as you enter the retail area of St Marks. This was built on the site of the old St Marks railway station and its associated goods yards, warehouses and factories. Two years out of the last three years, a pair of swans have built a nest right in the centre of this area on the grass outside Burger King and produced six or seven cygnets, much to the fascination of shoppers. Look out for them on the nest from March to May.
On this last section to Brayford Pool there is much challenging new architecture to argue over, especially connected to the University of Lincoln. I particularly love the way that large glass boxes have been attached to the old Great Central Warehouse to create the University Library. This was the first new purpose-built university in the UK for decades, and the decision to site it on derelict railway land in the centre of town was a masterstroke, although bizarrely some people still disagree.
When I was young I remember the Brayford as a dirty old ‘lake’, surrounded by semi-derelict buildings and full of half submerged, wrecked boats. The University and associated developments have transformed it into a vibrant and modern focal point for the whole city. There are so many fine places to stop and recuperate after your long walk along the river, and the transition from countryside to city centre is now complete.