Tennyson Country part 2: The Wolds

In which I force my way into a pub and end up to my knees in water.

I remember staying in the guesthouses in the past. I stayed in some pretty grotty ones as a teenager when I began to venture out on my own and money was tight. They were dim, sprawling Victorian townhouses: shabbily decorated; a 10 o’clock curfew, after which the front door would be locked; a shared ‘Television Lounge’ and, worst of all, a shared bathroom (on the same floor as your room if you’re lucky!). It’s all a far cry from the luxury B&B in which we Mrs P and I stayed in Lincoln. The Cathedral View guesthouse couldn’t have had a more apt name. Slap bang in the middle of the city, in fact, to get a view of the cathedral it was necessary to crane ones neck upwards. The beautifully decorated bedroom had all modern facilities, including an en-suite (from the French, meaning “with sweets”) with a ‘walk-in’ shower: no rattly old sliding door or sticky curtain for us! This one cascades with the force of a tropical monsoon and is lovely. The breakfast was amazing too. Normally, I don’t eat much in the morning: a cup of tea and a single slice of toast is all I can manage before the clock hits double figures. Why is it that on holiday I am able to get around an enormous plate of sausages and scrambled eggs, garnished with bacon and tomatoes before even embarking on the toast course? The food here was great: all locally sourced, fine quality and beautifully cooked. The meat and eggs were sourced from a nearby farm and the bread came from a bakery in the same street. I went for the full English (minus beans, of course. Why anyone would want baked beans for breakfast is beyond me). It was all absolutely delicious and set Mrs P and I up for a day’s exploring.

Bag Enderby Church
Bag Enderby Church

We ventured into the Lincolnshire countryside. Firstly on A-roads, among the choking exhausts of heavy lorries and farm traffic, through a flat agricultural landscape, with crops turning yellow and gold in the late summer sun. Eventually, we turned off the main road and took roads less travelled by and it made all the difference. The landscape gave way to gentle rolling hills with little villages nestling in wooded hillsides. This was the Lincolnshire Wolds: a beautiful landscape of rolling, chalk hills that covers a large part of Lincolnshire and is designated an area of outstanding natural beauty. After a little searching (My car pre-dates Sat Nav and I refuse to invest in a portable unit, believing that they take all the fun out of driving) we arrived at the little village of Bag Enderby.

A tiny, sleepy little village of a farm and few buildings clustered around a little church. There was no-one around, save for a small group of ramblers by the church, who were gathering for a hike. The wolds are perfect walking country: a haven for a myriad of wildlife and full of gentle climbs that can give fantastic views, from the cathedral to the sea. I have a great deal of respect for ramblers but they’re a bit ‘hard core’ for me: all rucksacks and proper footwear. I have one pair of shoes and these serve me for all purposes: work, gardening, walking, beach, formal occasions. I see the purchase of a proper pair of walking boots as the top of a slippery slope.

After bidding each other cheery ‘good mornings’, I pushed open the heavy door, complete with Viking shield boss decoration, and ventured inside. I love churches. As an atheist, they hold very little religious significance for me, but I can appreciate them as places for quiet contemplation and reflection. They also tend to be full of history and often hide some spectacular glass and carving. This was one of two local churches where George Clayton Tennyson, the poet’s father, was rector, and there was a nice little display, telling the story of the Laureate and his connection with the area. There were also a few leaflets and postcards available: one of them detailing a short walk to the village of Somersby, where Tennyson was born.

I embarked upon this now.  It was a beautiful summer’s day as I crossed the field towards Somersby. I could see the rectory, white against the trees, and could even make out the gothic wing, added by the reverend Tennyson to accommodate his growing family. There was a number of Bulls in the field that the path traversed, staring at me intently. I strode purposefully through their territory, pretending not to be frightened by the enormous, angry looking beasts. Apparently, they respect this behaviour and will not attack. Unscathed, I crossed a stile and on to a farm track to enter the village of Somersby.

“What shall sever me
From the love of home?”
Tennyson’s birthplace, Somersby

Tennyson’s birthplace, once the village rectory, is now a private home and not accessible to the public.  A pleasant, white painted house; quite large but then, there were eleven children and the Reverend George Clayton Tennyson extended the house to accommodate all the little Tennysons.  Their childhood in Somersby seems to have been a happy one, despite the occasional rage of their father. They would play in the brook and the woods around their home. Alfred remembers it fondly in his verse and was certainly happier than he was at the grammar school in Louth, where he was bullied and utterly miserable. His father conducted a large part of his education at home. This was sporadic, however, as his the Reverend George Clayton, suffered from epilepsy and frequently succumbed to bouts of violent depression. He alleviated these with alcohol, to which he became addicted.

“…the brook that loves
To purl o’er matted cress, and ribbed sand,
Or dimple in the dark of rushy coves
Drawing into his narrow earthern urn.

The church – the other one his father presided over – is a little larger than Bag Enderby. It is built of the same green sandstone, which allows it to blend in with its woody surroundings. Inside is a bust of Tennyson by Thomas Woolner and a small display cabinet featuring some photographs of the family and some of the poet’s personal possessions. There are also some souvenirs for sale: postcards, tea towels, pens and so on. They even had a nice little volume of poetry for a couple of quid, which is more than can be said for anywhere in Lincoln. For all of these items, there is an ‘honesty box’ where a customer can leave the correct change. I am always gladdened by these arrangements in little museums and country churches, relying on the honesty of people to take only what they pay for and not to abuse the system; it restores one’s faith in the honesty and inherent goodness of people. I helped myself to a couple of items and continued on my journey.

Display of Tennyson artefacts in Somersby Church

I returned to Bag Enderby via the leafy lanes that the family used to walk between the two villages. Near the church is an ancient tree stump where the children would play, swinging on its low branches while waiting for their father to conclude his business at the church. There is another local story that John Bunyan used to preach by this tree. I have travelled extensiley through Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire and many villages in the region claim to have a house, or a tree or a woodland clearing where Bunyan once preached. A bit like the pubs where Dickens once stopped by for a drink. I’m sure some of them must be correct. Mrs P (who, had opted not to join me on being told there would be no shops) was waiting at the car and we both agreed, despite the enormous breakfast we had consumed, that it was now lunchtime. We drove to the nearby village of Tetford, where there is a pub that Tennyson would visit, his favourite oak settle being preserved there. We would sit there and have a sandwich and a pint or something.

Another sleepy wolds village; no sounds but birdsong and the distant hum of a tractor in the fields. I pushed the door expecting it to swing open to a warm welcome and hubbub of village conversation. Probably a roaring fire, despite this being mid-July during the hottest summer in a millennium. Nothing. The door didn’t budge and, peering through a window, the whole place was in darkness. I was rather disappointed. To miss out on a significant location – and a pub at that – would leave a sizeable gap in my research. I dejectedly walked towards the car, where I was approached by a large, bearded man.

“We’re closed, I’m afraid” he said, apologetically.

“Will you be open this evening?” I asked “I’m researching Tennyson, you see, and I’d like to see the settle.”

“Wait there” he replied before disappearing inside. A moment later a bolt was shifted and the front door was opened by one of the friendliest looking women I have ever seen.

Tennyson’s settle,
The White Hart, Tetford

A had a pint and chatted to Nikki, the landlady of the White Hart, while Mrs P played with a small fluffy thing roughly in the size and shape of a terrier. Nikki told me that it wasn’t worth them opening at lunchtimes as, most of the time, the pub was empty and they had to provide heat and light that weren’t being used. It is sad that our village institutions are flagging: the churches and the pubs were once the centre of village life and would not just hold a weekly worship or an evening pint, but were the heart of the social life of the community. The churches are struggling to reinvent themselves for decreasingly religious generations and local pubs are struggling against rising prices and aggressive pub chains and ‘hospitality outlets’. This is true for towns as well as rural areas; they must be saved for, without them, whole communities will be shattered.

From the towns all Inns have been driven: from the villages most…. Change your hearts or you will lose your Inns and you will deserve to have lost them. But when you have lost your Inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England.

Hillaire Belloc

The Tennysons had a cottage in Mablethorpe and I had hoped to drive out to see it in the afternoon. It was a private home, however, and I had no idea if it could even be seen from the road. So we drove to a nearby beach, which, like Mablethorpe, had wide, reedy dunes sloping gently down to the cold North Sea but which, unlike Mablethorpe, had no amusement arcades, rock shops, tattoo studios and nightclubs. Alfred and Charles Tennyson came to Mablethorpe in 1827 to celebrate the publication of their first volume of poetry: ‘Poems by Two Brothers’. Charles and Alfred went to the beach and declaimed their poems to the sea. I didn’t declaim any poems to the sea but I did spend a very pleasant couple of hours up to my knees in the North Sea (which was surprisingly warm; even for July) contemplating the horizon while Mrs P wandered along the beach looking for interesting stones and shells (she loves a bit of beachcombing, does Mrs P). It was a great way to spend a hot summer afternoon and we stayed until the light was fading and most other people had packed up and gone. We don’t need fine white sand Mrs P and I; we care not for palm trees and beach bars and crystal clear tropical waters. Give us a stony beach and a cold, weedy sea and we’ll be happy. As long as we have a book, we’ll be happy.

For further information, please visit the excellent, and beautifully designed, St. Margaret’s Somersby website, which has been an invaluable source of information.

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