No landscape remains unchanging, but our churches are fixed points even though they were subject to much ideological change and their interiors were vandalised at the time of the Reformation (not by Cromwell’s troops, as still stated in many church guide books). Lincolnshire’s limestone churches are particularly fine. Simon Jenkins (‘England’s 1,000 Best Churches’ 1999) states that ‘Lincolnshire has the finest collection of medieval churches overall of any county in England. The county is one of England’s least known and least appreciated.’ - perhaps it should stay that way. Some 10,000 parish churches existed at Domesday; most have been rebuilt over the centuries. Sadly the monasteries have virtually disappeared from the landscape. There is no trace on the ground of Sempringham Abbey apart from a vague mound. The existing church was not part of the monastery.
Walking up Greenfields Lane on a clear day you can see Walcot spire, Folkingham tower, Threekingham steeple (incidentally Threekingham’s name has nothing to do with three kings, but don’t tell the pub landlord!), Sempringham and many more in the distance.
It is easy to misunderstand the medieval mind; the people who built the churches were skilled and highly intelligent engineers and masons. The buildings were, and still are, centres of religious devotion, community activity, entertainment and education. Business deals and legal transactions were conducted in church porches, implying that business must be honest in the sight of God. Michael Wood (The Story of England – Kibworth in Leicestershire 2010) has shown that because of the church there were literate peasants in medieval England who could write letters and engage lawyers to sort out land disputes. A current BBC 4 series ‘Churches – How to read them’ shows us just what the inside of a church meant to a medieval person. Pickworth and Corby Glen give us some idea about the colour of a pre-Reformation Church.
Our local landscape is amazingly varied, largely due to our complex geology. To the north of Ropsley huge heathlands were cleared in the 1820’s, producing a landscape of uniform fields and straight hedges. The heathlands have gone, but the names still remain – Ropsley Heath, Barkstone Heath, Caythorpe Heath. The large farm houses that we see today are built in the late Georgian style. The clearance of the heathlands involved large investment of capital, a great deal of labour and the use of professional surveyors to map out the land.
To the east of Folkingham are the Fens, where drainage ditches take the place of hedges. It has been shown that many of these ditches are quite ancient and that the monasteries were involved in producing the modern drained landscape although the process of drainage and the building of sea banks had been started by the Romans.
You need to walk the landscape to appreciate the detail, the shape of fields, the hedges and patterns of settlement. Our local landscape is indeed beautiful. It is not ‘brass band’ scenery, but it is subtle, gentle, rich and varied. It has been farmed for more than 3,000 years. Surplus wealth from this land has produced a rich culture – indeed the word ‘culture’ itself derives from the word ‘coulter’ – the cutting blade of the plough.
‘Fields in the English Landscape’ Christopher Taylor 1974
‘Hedges and Local History’ National Council of Social Services 1971
‘The Making of the English Landscape’ W.G. Hoskins 1955
‘The Story of England’ Michael Wood 2010
Brian Withnall December 2011