Two Thousand Feet of History

The most poignant of Lincolnshire’s ancient monuments may only been seen from above

Unlike some of its neighbours, the county of Lincolnshire doesn’t crow about its past. It hasn’t claimed to be the cradle of a nation or hijacked national heroes such as Robin Hood and called them its own. Whilst Lincolnshire has been the birthplace of historical heavyweights such as Isaac Newton and Alfred Lord Tennyson – to name but two – it doesn’t make a song and dance about it.

Nevertheless, this unassuming county is steeped in history. Whilst many popular landmarks are in plain sight, some are less obvious, lying beneath its fertile topsoil.

Flying in a microlight aircraft over the north-eastern corner of the county provided an ideal opportunity to experience several aspects of Lincolnshire’s history in one memorable evening. It included one of the most evocative of our ancient landmarks – its deserted medieval villages.

The popularity of the sport of microlighting means that these insubstantial-looking aircraft are a familiar sight to the region’s inhabitants. Despite the early misconception amongst both flying and non-flying communities, and contrary to their appearance, the machines can be extremely sturdy, benefitting from extensive use of modern composite materials.

Their cockpit design gives excellent unobstructed vision and helps impart a ‘back to basics’ sense of flying – perfect for viewing ancient landmarks from the air.

North Coates Airfield

The evening’s flight – and history lesson – was to begin at North Coates, an isolated airfield perched on Lincolnshire’s windswept North Sea coast, where a vibrant flying club serves to keep aviation alive. The club was formed in 1995 and replaced the Royal Air Force as occupier of the site, continuing an occupancy that began eighty-one years earlier.

It was in 1914 when the army opened a camp on the site, and the first aircraft – a BE2C – landed in the August of that year.

It wasn’t until 1926 that the airfield, then known as North Coates Fitties, really became established, when an armaments practice camp was formed. The name Fitties, a Danish word meaning ‘salt marsh’ was dropped at the outbreak of the Second World War when the airfield was transferred to Coastal Command.

Bristol Blenheims operating from the airfield were given the task of conducting low-level attacks upon enemy shipping, and it was in this role that Coastal Command continued throughout the war.

Since 1945, the airfield has hosted a number of maintenance units and a squadron of Sycamore helicopters, before becoming the UK’s first Bloodhound surface-to-air missile site.

To the many servicemen and women posted to North Coates during its long and varied history, this must have appeared an extremely bleak and inhospitable area indeed. Despite its unwelcoming position, the flat landscape and eastern location rendered it an ideal site for an airfield.

It was these same characteristics that made the county a centre of RAF operations during the Second World War. At the height of the service’s activity during hostilities, approximately thirty-thousand acres (12,145 hectares) were given over to RAF stations, earning Lincolnshire the name ‘Bomber County’.

This high concentration of airfields also made the area a key enemy target.

It was vital that the airfields were defended from the Luftwaffe and, to do so, fighter squadrons were established at bases such as Digby, Wellingore, Kirton-in-Lindsey and Hibaldstowe. Nonetheless, some raids penetrated the defences and significant evidence of enemy bombing can clearly be seen in the fields around North Coates and Manby, with many craters discernible as crop formations from above.

Bomb craters, visible as crop formations

The hollows created by enemy bombing are imperceptible at ground level but from 2,000 feet the shadows formed by a low, evening sun enhance indentations in the ground, generating a three-dimensional effect.

‘… evidence of enemy bombing can clearly be seen in the fields …’

Also visible as faint patterns in the ripening crops are some of the county’s 250 ‘lost’ villages.

The first of these became visible a few miles north of Louth as the evening sunlight created tell-tale shadows on the ground, exposing the abandoned village of Calcethorpe.

Once a thriving community, the last recorded inhabitant was here in 1660-2, after which the land was converted to pasture. A similar example lies only a few miles to the southwest at South Cadeby.

Deserted medieval settlements survive only as disturbances below the topsoil and, like the bomb craters from the Second World War, are hidden at ground level. From the cockpit of an aircraft, however, the effect of different aspects of the earthworks upon ripening crops exposes these ‘ghost villages’, revealing buildings, enclosures and roads.

The ‘ghost village’ of Calcethorpe, Lincolnshire

Ancient ditches and pits below the topsoil retain more water than the ground around them, allowing crops growing over them to grow higher. The reverse occurs where the foundations of buildings remain buried. Lack of moisture caused by the layer of rubble effectively stunts the growth of plants above. Low light, as from an early morning or late evening sun, creates shadows that are dramatic when viewed from the air.

Whilst a favourable light reveals the early settlements, it doesn’t tell us why the occupants abandoned them. Did the desertion take place progressively or did a single major catastrophe empty the villages, rendering them nothing more than shadows on farmland? To answer that question we must go to the history books.

Lincolnshire has long been a ‘people magnet’ with successive generations attracted by its considerable agricultural potential. Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Danes all arrived to exploit its fertile land. By 1066, when William the Conqueror shared out land to his loyal lieutenants, the county was one of the most densely populated regions in his new kingdom, with more people per acre than any other county, except Norfolk or Suffolk.

At that time, almost all cultivable land was either growing crops, used for grazing or forestry. Such was the population density that an inhabitant of the time would have been unable to walk more than two miles in any direction before arriving at a village.

“Lincolnshire has long been a ‘people magnet’…”

In the southern Wolds and central Kesteven regions, where population was most intense, villages jostled each other in their demand for land. Clearly this was a situation that could not continue.

The Black Death of 1349-51 has often been blamed for the wholesale desertion of medieval villages. Whilst the plague was undoubtedly a factor in population reduction, it is unlikely that it was responsible for wiping out whole communities.

The reason for the widespread abandonment that commenced in 1300 is more complex and, like modern factors behind population shift, was driven by economic forces.

Landowners began to see that sheep farming promised a far larger profit than the small agricultural holdings run by their tenants.

Tempted by higher earnings, they began to enclose their land to cater for the new livestock. This was, of course, to the detriment of the tenants who soon found themselves deprived of fields and even their homes. Forced to make a living elsewhere, many migrated to the towns.

Such was the problem of rural depopulation, an Act of Parliament passed in 1489 made it an offence to convert arable land to pasture. despite these steps, landowners continued to risk penalties and persisted in enclosing land and demolishing settlements well into the sixteenth century.

Sadly, even when this activity declined, other factors evolved – such as the creation of country parks and landscaping of estates – acceleration depopulation. Rather than halt the decline, the nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the problem continue at an alarming pace, a situation that is ongoing today.

The county’s lost villages must surely be the most poignant of its historical monuments for, hidden beneath colourful fields of wheat or barley lie the foundations of homes where families lived, hearths where meals were cooked and children played. With them are the enclosures where men toiled, and churches that witnessed the christenings, marriages and burials of successive generations.

From two thousand feet these lost villages reveal themselves in the rich tapestry of Lincolnshire’s fields. Thanks to aerial surveys, such as that of the 1920s which first revealed the deserted village of Grainthorpe, near Kirton-in-Lindsey, they are no longer truly lost but simply dormant.

Nevertheless, neither the dull rumble of traffic along nearby roads, nor even the resonance of aero-engines from overhead can ever awaken them from their timeless sleep.

Grainthorpe ‘lost village’, near Kirton-in-Lindsey