A Victorian's view

A particularly exciting element of the project is the existence of the diary of a Victorian naturalist, Joseph Burtt Davy, who on 10th October 1890 spent a day walking the area and has left us detailed notes of his observations.

Joseph Burtt DaveyLeaving Alford at 6.30am Davy walked the sixteen miles to Horncastle, meticulously recording the wayside plants still in flower. At Bag Enderby and Somersby he examined the churches hoping to find the little wall-rue fern for which there were earlier records, but the fern had been “restored away” with the stones between which it grew. A variety of cornfield weeds still in full flower in a sandy field at Somersby made “a bright show” in the October sunshine. He noted too the alders which line the streams in the little valleys which fret the southern Wolds.

Reaching Horncastle by 10.45am, he caught the 11.00 o’clock train to Woodhall, and walked back to the Tower on the Moor, the remains of a medieval hunting lodge, then still isolated in open moorland.

He was unfamiliar with the heathland (lowland moorland) habitat and found several plants which were new to him, but he wrote “one would need to spend a whole fortnight on the spot to do any good…it takes time to find out the most likely localities for the rarer plant species, and one cannot get the time nor spare the cash to spend days there often”. 

Nevertheless he compiled a long list of plants which it is interesting to compare with that for the present day. Heather (ling) was the dominant plant on the moor, with patches of crimson bell heather, and clumps of broom “still with a few of its bright yellow flowers”. In damper places he found the cross-leaved heath, creeping willow and sphagnum mosses. Hard fern grew in abundance on the ditch sides with marsh pennywort and various mosses below. In a similar site was a clubmoss, probably the marsh clubmoss which was found in the area as lately as 1954, but is now probably extinct in Lincolnshire. 

From the Tower on the Moor he walked eastwards across part of Roughton Moor which is now covered with houses and a caravan park, and entered Ostler’s Plantation, originally a wood of Scots pine, larch and oak planted on some 400 acres of moorland in the early 19th century by land owner John Parkinson. When he became bankrupt in 1827 the land was taken by his former agent William Ostler.

Emerging from the wood he crossed a stream which marks the boundary between Roughton and Kirkby-on-Bain, and found himself in a sandy potato field surrounded on three sides by woods. Men were digging potatoes in the field which had a variety of weeds including wood cudweed and the elegant slender St John’s wort, both of them now uncommon in Lincolnshire.

From there he crossed the Woodhall–Kirkby road, passing through the belt of oaks now in the Trust’s reserve, and onto the moor on the opposite side where he called at the gamekeeper’s lodge to ask for a drink of water. The woman told him that the water was not good to drink, but gave him a glass of a home-made concoction made from what she called ‘Dutch myrtle’ which she grew in the garden for that purpose. It was, he wrote, “rather bitter but refreshing”. This was the shrub bog myrtle which survives sparsely in the Moor Farm and Kirkby Moor reserves.

He then walked across the moor in the direction of Tattershall. This area had been Parkinson’s original plantation, all but 40 acres of it having been destroyed by fire in 1845 it had reverted to heather-covered heath with scattered trees, as shown by other accounts and contemporary maps. Beyond the Kirkby parish boundary was the area known as Tattershall Park Moor, the site of the WW2 Woodhall Spa airfield.

In Tattershall he made for the church hoping to find the fern black spleenwort which had been recorded on the stonework there, only to find that – as with wall rue at Somersby – it had been destroyed during restoration. The brick wall around the castle mound had pennywort, and a stonecrop (Sedum reflexum), both naturalised garden escapes.

Determined to make the full use of his day out he then walked another three miles to Dogdyke where he had read that there was “a large area of un-reclaimed swamp”. Failing to find it and with the light beginning to fade, he caught the train from Dogdyke arriving home at Alford at 9.30pm. He had walked for more than 25 miles. It was, he wrote, “a glorious day and I have felt much better for the change. It cost me four shillings and that was about as cheaply as I could do it”.