The Witham Corridor
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.
If you look at a map of Lincoln you will see how an irregular cone of green space runs right from the southern edge of the city into the very centre at Brayford Pool. It becomes increasingly narrow and hemmed in by housing and industry as you head into town, but south of Bracebridge it remains a fairly wide area of peace and tranquillity, this is the Witham Corridor. It is also known as the Witham Valley, but this can be confusing as there are several places along the course of the river throughout the county with this designation. In this article I will concentrate on the area south of Bracebridge, and cover the section between Bracebridge and Brayford Pool another time.
If you told someone that you intended to walk from North Hykeham to Lincoln Cathedral they would probably think you had gone a little mad. The prospect of walking all the way along Newark Road and the High Street, with all the attendant traffic pollution and noise, or worse still along Tritton Road, is not particularly appealing. However, if you were standing on the bridge over the river on Meadow Lane, looking across the pastoral scene towards the cathedral on the hill, you could have the last laugh. It is about five miles as the crow flies, but considerably further if you take the twists and turns of the river into account. It is unlikely that many people would actually do the whole walk in this way though. I would recommend you check it out in small sections, or as running and dog walking routes as I do, unless you like a challenge!
As I described in my article on Lincoln Catchwater Drain, the land to the west and south of Lincoln is very low lying, and until the early nineteenth century was largely a mosaic of marshes, ponds and meandering streams, prone to regular flooding. The draining of the area included a complex series of ditches and drains, and the major canalisation of the Witham itself. A feature of the river all the way to the sea at Boston is the embanked sides or levees. Between Lincoln and the sea the river has also been considerably straightened, losing much of its character, but the section we are about to explore retains a lot of charm despite the embanking.
Returning to the bridge on Meadow Lane, the changes to the river are immediately apparent. For more than half a mile it runs arrow straight towards the cathedral, between those symmetrically embanked sides. If you look at the Ordnance Survey map of the area you will notice a small stream, the North Hykeham Pump Drain, curving away west towards North Hykeham, then back east to join the river downstream. This is the original course of the Witham before the major works of the nineteenth century created the ‘canal’ in front of you. There are footpaths on both banks all the way to Bracebridge from Meadow Lane, either rights of way or permissive paths. It doesn’t matter which you choose at this point, but you have to make a decision pretty soon. You will see a small footbridge over the river about 400 metres away, and may be forgiven for assuming that there are several more before you reach Bracebridge, but in fact this is the only one. This makes the river a very effective barrier between the communities of Hykeham Road and Brant Road, despite them being so close geographically. Before you leave Meadow Lane behind, you might reflect that you are surrounded by rich agricultural land. Everything around you is pancake flat, apart from the low ridge of Lincoln Edge forming the horizon to the east just behind the houses of Brant Road. This is the epitome of Lincolnshire ‘big sky country’.
There isn’t much point lingering on the first stretch along the river to the footbridge. Nothing much changes, just the flat fields on either side, but you will want to consider your route choice ahead. The footbridge is a major crossroads and it is decision time. There is a wide footpath east to Brant Road and the lower half of Waddington. You could plan a day walk to head this way, following the Viking Way north along the ridge to Bracebridge Heath, descending across the fields to return via the riverbank.
There is also a footpath west to North Hykeham which gives better options for a shorter circular walk along the river valley. This footpath can be accessed from Belton Park Drive in North Hykeham too. The way across the fields from the footbridge to North Hykeham is very pleasant. If you choose this route from the river you will cross the North Hykeham Pump Drain just before you reach the houses, and find yourself with another route choice. Carry straight on through the houses for North Hykeham, shops and pubs. Turning left takes you back to Meadow Lane, but you should take the right hand option where you will find a lovely curving path between the Pump Drain and a series of horse paddocks. This is a very pretty spot. The Pump Drain sounds industrial, but is actually a very attractive stream with many aquatic wildflowers and is a haven for butterflies. After a few hundred yards the drain curves back towards the river, and the footpath meets another wider drain coming in from the west. We follow it along the backs of the houses for about a mile before it eventually meets the river itself.
Despite the proximity of the houses, and a bank on the right that restricts views across the valley, this route still feels pretty rural. The houses are largely hidden behind high hedges, and anyway, if you start to feel claustrophobic you can always scramble up the bank to remind yourself of the expansive views. You can join or leave this footpath via Fen Lane beside the playing fields, again at a small bridge to the Windermere Avenue estate, or continue on towards Bracebridge. For a while the houses off Hykeham Road retreat behind grassy meadows, even Manor Lees School is almost invisible from the footpath, then another small brick arched bridge appears ahead. This is where we meet the Witham again, and turning right along the bank will take you back to Meadow Lane. The route choice is a little complicated here, so be careful. Cross the bridge and you will see two paths on the right, either side of a wire fence. The left hand one becomes a track to Manor Farm, the Rivermead estate and Hykeham Road. So pass through the kissing gate instead onto a short, muddy section between hedges. This soon opens up on a surprising sight, a wide grass pasture sloping down to the river. This is the only place close to Lincoln that I know where the river isn’t embanked or walled in with concrete. On your right you can walk down to a lazy meander, often frequented by greylag geese, or stay straight ahead to another gate. Pass through the gate and over a small drain, then through another gate and you are back on the river embankment.
This really is a beautiful section of the river. There are trees and rough pasture instead of cultivated fields on both sides now. Every twist and turn reveals new views, and wildflowers abound. The houses are much nearer on both sides, but are barely visible behind the trees and high hedgerows. There are new houses being built off Hykeham Road here, but even they will eventually be hidden behind hundreds of new trees that have been planted.
Across the river you will catch a glimpse of All Saints’ church tower through the trees. Hidden from the west bank of the river is Bracebridge Hall Fishponds, a beautiful spot, but more of that later. Beyond the new houses you come to some small industrial units immediately before Bracebridge. They are a bit run down and look strangely quaint after such a rural stroll. Bracebridge itself looks very fine as you approach it, even with the traffic pouring across it. The last section of footpath squeezed between the buildings and the river can get very overgrown in summer; shorts are not recommended if the nettles are high, and I speak from experience! Suddenly you find yourself on the forecourt of the Esso petrol station with the overpowering noise of Newark Road.
Returning to the footbridge and the other route choice: If you choose to continue along the east bank of the Witham from the footbridge you will soon come to a sharp right hand bend in the river. Here is another bridge, but it is just pipes heading to the small sewage works on the east bank. Luckily we live in a land of westerlies, so there is rarely any smell from these works as you follow the river paths.
The section of river north from here is a delight, with several gentle curves meaning that the views ahead are constantly changing. The distant cathedral appears, disappears and re-appears as trees get in the way. The fields here are often flooded, especially in the last couple of very wet years, and the area is alive with the sound of geese and other wildfowl. Our dog was very confused the first time he saw a Great Crested Grebe fishing underwater!
Because of easier access from Brant Road this bank of the river is a lot busier than the western one. It feels more open here too, with wider views across the fields in all directions. I often think that the houses along Hykeham Road look like a series of discrete villages from this side, rather than a continuous suburban development.
A few hundred yards beyond the sewage works there is a strange, isolated railing on top of a concrete wall by the river, and opposite is a footpath through a metal farm gate that leads to Primrose Close and Brant Road. Rough pasture and horse paddocks have now replaced the cultivated fields on this side of the river, and small areas of trees start to appear too.
A couple of hundred yards further on is another path back towards Brant Road. This can get very muddy during winter. The previous path to/from Primrose Close is much more reliable during wet weather. Across the river you can see Manor Lees School and Manor Farm with its array of solar panels by the big barn. The river gets very ‘twisty’ from here, and you soon find yourself opposite the meadow that slopes right down to the water’s edge.
Despite being only a few yards apart, the views from each bank of the river are very different between here and Bracebridge. The east bank has fine views across the horse paddocks and rough pasture to Lincoln Edge. There is often a swan’s nest here in spring, and in the evenings the cacophony of noise from the various wildfowl can be deafening. Look out for the rare water violets by the stream that parallels the river along here, and large families of ducklings hiding under the overhanging vegetation. Then at a sharp left hand bend in the river there is a wood on your right, and another muddy path cuts through to Syston Grove. If the riverbank path is overgrown or too muddy, which does happen, there is a nice alternative walk from Syston Grove to Bracebridge using the cycle path. Between the river and the cycle path is Bracebridge Hall Fishponds, another very pretty spot.
Many people will only have seen the fishponds at the Bracebridge end, where they are often dank and dismal to say the least, suffering terribly from fly-tipping. But away from Newark Road they are a delight. A short circular walk around the fishponds can be had here using the riverside and cycle paths. The view across the ponds to All Saints church from the riverbank is perfectly framed, and it changes drastically throughout the seasons. I love to visit the fishponds at dusk throughout the year, the light here is stunning. The combination of a light breeze and low angled light through the reeds is a photographer’s paradise. Under hoar frost and fog this is a magical place too, you would never believe that hundreds of houses are but a stone’s throw away. The ponds are alive with all manner of wildfowl throughout the year, with pretty wildflowers in the spring before the lush summer growth prevents a close approach to the water. As usual, beware biting insects on still, summer evenings!
Most of the houses in the Brant Road area were only built after the 1960s. Before that Bracebridge itself was a sleepy village, then a suburb of the rapidly expanding city to the north. All Saints itself dates from the eleventh century and still looks like a village church, it is well worth the short detour from the river. The fishponds date from the late nineteenth century when Bracebridge Hall was built and ornamental grounds developed. The hall itself is further north along Newark Road, and is now Grosvenor Hall Care Home. The distinctive decorative lodge at the junction of Brant Road and Newark Road was also part of the original estate. The actual line of Brant Road was even diverted to accommodate Bracebridge Hall and its grounds, but it is hard to imagine it all now that it has been swallowed up by the city.
So now, by whichever route, we have reached the bridge over the river, hence the name Bracebridge. It is a noisy place after the river walk, so you may be in a rush to get away again. But The Plough pub beckons just across the road, where you might want to consider continuing along the river right into the centre of Lincoln. That is a very pleasant walk in itself, with many surprises along the way, and I’ll be describing that in detail next time.