Re-connecting with Sow Dale

Barrie Wilkinson

Walking boots sit forlornly with no-where to go but a restriction on travel doesn’t stop exploration. As Communications Officer, Rachel Shaw, discovers with the help of an OS map and ‘Trustees for Nature’

In his part memoir, part history of the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust ‘Trustees for Nature’, Ted Smith writes of Sow Dale: “for centuries it formed part of an important access to the hills from the Fenland country”

I was intrigued; I pulled out my paper copy of the OS map for Lincolnshire Wolds South. Here the flatlands of the Fens with their widely spaced contour lines give way to hills and dales. What catches my eye immediately are close contours, almost an escarpment with a high point of 86 metres – impressive by Lincolnshire standards.

This is Hall Hill possibly from an Old English word ‘hoh’ meaning a low ridge or heel-shaped hill. When it was ploughed in the 1950s, urns with cremation remains were found. It’s thought to be the site of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery.

From there the land drops to the north-west into the village of Old Bolingbroke and the 13th century hexagonal castle. This sleepy village has a rich and important heritage. In 1367 it was the birthplace of the future King Henry IV and in 1643 it was besieged by Parliamentarians during the Civil War.

Then leading north out of the village is a valley called Sow Dale.

Cattle grazing Sow Dale nature reserve

Cattle grazing Sow Dale (Barrie Wilkinson)

Looking at the map it’s easy to imagine walking up Sow Dale, wondering who else had walked the same way. Gaining height until the high ground near Lusby is reached and, beyond, the site of the Civil War battle of Winceby.

What the map doesn’t show is the activity of the plough, not only uncovering historic artefacts but changing the nature of the land. Rough pasture and meadows transformed into bare earth and arable crops. Even by the 1970s, few places in this landscape had remained unploughed.

One such place was the nearby Snipe Dales which became a Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust nature reserve in 1972. At Sow Dale, the plough had already started to make inroads and by the 1980s more intensive farming converted large areas of it into arable cropping. It was at risk of losing its wildlife and landscape interest.

In the mid-1980s, the Wildlife Trust launched an appeal for funds to secure nature reserves. Buying land ensured its future as a reserve in perpetuity. One objective was to purchase land at Sow Dale. As a nature reserve the traditional landscape could be retained along with the rich variety of wildlife.

People gave generously. Land was brought and nature reserves established including at Sow Dale. However, Sow Dale was divided. The upper and lower sections were brought and became nature reserves but not the middle section.

Ted Smith wrote: “A stream threads its way down the valley fringed with water forget-me-not and brooklime to the lower part of the Dale where we acquired another fifty-eight acres of pasture intersected with fine old hawthorn hedges – a splendid sight in Maytime. The pasture is grazed by sheep and cattle. Eventually we hope the whole of Sow Dale can be restored to meadow and pasture.”

Common whitethroat singing

Common whitethroat singing in a hawthorn hedge (Chris Gomersall/2020Vision)

More than 30 years later, Ted’s aspirations were realised. Another appeal for funds was launched and people again gave generously. The purchase was also partially funded by The Banister Charitable Trust and the legacy of Angela Bates.

Angela had a deep love of the Lincolnshire landscape and a concern for the relationship between agriculture and wildlife conservation. She became involved with the Trust shortly after moving to Lincolnshire in 1956. Angela was a long-standing trustee and Sow Dale was one of the last nature reserves she visited. It felt appropriate for her legacy to be used to manage the whole of Sow Dale as a traditional pastoral landscape.

Sow Dale was whole again. The fragmented landscape reconnected as a bigger, more resilient nature reserve. 

I fold the map back up. It will be while before I can walk through Sow Dale and imagine again those who have walked the same way. As well as travel restrictions, there is no public right of way and there’s still work to be done to make it accessible.

But without the Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust, donations and the legacy of Angela Bates, the valley may have been lost to wildlife and people.