With the weekend looking wet we decided to take a longer walk today, anticipating we would complete shorter walks over the weekend.  We’d planned this walk on OS Maps a week or more ago at around 10 miles but with a few route variations on the way, to reduce the amount of walking on roads, we ended up walking about 13 miles.  The walk starts from South Witham and passes through the ‘counties’ of Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Rutland.  Technically Rutland isn’t a county, being a Unitary Authority, but it was at some point and we were happy with that! We set off a lunchtime in warm sunshine but with a stronger wind than recently and you certainly felt it along exposed stretches of the walk!

Initially the walk followed what had become a well trodden path during the COVID-19 Outbreak from the High Street in South Witham, Lincolnshire, past the village church and The Angel public house before a short stretch along the road towards North Witham; there’s a pavement so its an easy and safe walk. Ignoring the first footpath off to the right (which heads eastwards to the A1 but no further) the second path headed in a north easterly direction towards the Water Treatment Works.  Signage on the gate suggests that ‘cows, calves and a bull’ are in the field and, as Cooper was with us, we’re always conscious of the interest he creates for them!  We’d spotted them a couple of times during the week but today they were no where to be seen.

After the short, shallow climb diagonally across the field we exited at the corner of the Water Treatment Works and used the very clear signage to follow the next section of the path.  Essentially it was a trek north across fields with a mix of crop, grass and set-aside to North Witham which soon became visible in the distance.  The infant River Witham follows the path along on the right and, with broad headlands, many walk along its banks rather than following the clear and, in the main part, well defined path; we did the same for part of the walk. 

Half-way along the path to North Witham the route passes through the site of the Witham Preceptory of the Knights Templars, a scheduled monument.  The Preceptory served as a place for worship and communal living, much like a monastery, for the Knights Templar who mainly used it as a place for recruitment and military training.  It was one of the smallest of the Knights Templar Preceptories in England, was established in 1164 and used as a Preceptory until 1308. Today all that can be seen are earthworks and underlying parts which remain largely undisturbed since the Middle Ages. 

On reaching Bull Lane (shown on Google Maps as Water Lane) in North Witham, a short walk east (don’t head into the village at this point if you’re walking the route) took us across the River Witham for the first time and Cooper enjoyed a paddle and drink from the stream. With that completed we took the signposted footpath on the left hand-side, just after the bridge and, following the edge of the field, climbed uphill in the general direction of St Mary’s Church in North Witham which we shortly glimpsed through hedge and over trees.  At the corner of the field the path takes a steep descent to a gate and then a steeper, but hand-railed, descent back to the River Witham which is bridged at this point and was unexpectedly picturesque.  After crossing the bridge we ascended the other side of the river valley for a short distance before climbing a stiled wall into the churchyard and our first full view of the parish church.

The church of St Mary shows evidence of building work being completed during the Saxon period but was originally established on it’s present site in 1086 by the Normans.  An original Normal doorway can be found in the northern wall of the church as well as other unusual features for a church of it’s size.  Isaac Newton’s mother, Hannah, married the Rector, Barnabus Smith, in January 1646 and Isaac’s half-siblings were baptised in the church.  Evidence of Isaac’s presence in North Witham can be seen, apparently – we never found it, in graffiti accredited to him in and around the church; something we shall have to look for the next time our walking takes us in this direction.

On the far side of the churchyard we left by the main gate, crossed the lane, grandly named Church Street, and headed along an obvious path which zig-zags between houses and is bounded by high fences and hedges. The path ends on Rectory Lane and a short walk along the road to the right brought us back to the road between South Witham and North Witham at a crossroads after passing the old Rectory and a charming row of terraced farm cottages.

At the cross roads, the route took us through the grounds of the village hall, on the opposite side of the road, to a small opening in a chain-link fence which led into the field beyond.  From here we caught further glimpses of traffic on the A1 in the distance and also of the village of Colsterworth and Twyford Wood beyond.  Twyford Wood is a familiar stomping ground for us being the site of the former RAF North Witham before being managed by Forestry England. 

After leaving the grounds of the village hall the path descends to a tributary of the River Witham which is crossed by a wooden footbridge.  The stream at this point is clearly used as a play area with rope swings hanging from the branches of over hanging trees but at the time we passed was a tranquil place where we sat briefly listening to the flow of the water over a shallow ledge and Cooper ‘took on more water’.

The path now climbed along the side of the field until we passed through the boundary hedge we were following on the left-hand-side and headed across a further field towards the corner of Stainby Warren.  Stainby Warren is the largest of the small clumps of woodland in the area and is surrounded almost completely by a well maintained dry-stone wall. At the northern-most corner of the warren the path continued in a north-westerly direction across an undisturbed field of rough grass to a finger post, in a hedge but easily seen, at a cross roads, or is that cross-path, of footpaths. At this point we passed through the hedge and continued in roughly the same direction across fields to Stainby.

On reaching the edge of the village, a short walk north along Gunby Road took us past a property with what would have been a railway gate across its entrance.  The gate is one of two at the same property, each complete with an original LNER lamp.  Stainby was served by a freight only line between 1916 and 1973 which ran from High Dyke on the East Coast Mainline with branches to Stainby and also Sproxton for the movement of ironstone from quarries in the area.  It’s likely that the pair of gates originated from that branch line and were relocated after it’s closure. 

Shortly after the misplaced railway gates we reached a cross roads where we continued straight ahead in the direction of Skillington before taking a footpath off to the left along a footpath heading west passing Stanton Plantation, to The Drift and the route of the Viking Way.  This part of the route started off along the edge of an arable field before crossing a disused quarry, which has been in-filled, and the route of the branch line to Stainby Goods Station which was readily discernible.  On reaching The Drift we turned right, following the Viking Way north briefly, which at this point traces the route of an ancient track with origins dating back to the Bronze Age, known now as Sewstern Lane.  At the crossroads, dominated by a water tower, we turned to follow the road into and through Buckminster. We’d entered Leicestershire, the second of the three counties we’d walk through on this walk.

Buckminster is a quintessential English estate village, the land in the area and many of the residential and commercial properties in the village being owned and managed by the Buckminster Estate.  The road into the village took us past the village cricket field, Buckminster Hall and its Park, the home of the Tollemache family, and the only pub in the village, The Tollemache Arms.  The pub is an impressive 19th century stone built traditional country pub.  It was closed on the day of our walk, as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, but is normally well worth a visit with a selection of real ales and a decent restaurant.  The Tollemache Arms is one of the few pubs in the area that serve ale in 1/3rd pint glasses in a ‘paddle’ so, if you’re unsure which to try, you can try more than one and still only consume 1 unit of alcohol!

Further along the road through Buckminster we passed The Row, seventeen terraced houses built for estate workers in the first decade of the 10th century.  The village shop, again closed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 outbreak, sits at the end of The Row and as the road bends left we caught sight of The Crescent, a collection of 12 larger semi-detached estate houses with large gardens built in a complete circle.  At the final bend in the road we turned left and, with village playing field ahead of us we followed the footpath signs south along a track which rapidly became a path along field edges.  At the end of a small stretch of woodland the path splits and we took the left hand path across fields again towards Sewstern. 

Sewstern is a much smaller village than Buckminster but it shares the same parish and properties in the village are still predominantly owned by the Buckminster Estate.  The village does sport a pub though … The Blue Dog which was closed as expected due to the COVID-19 outbreak.  The pubs name, one of many ‘Blue ….” in the area comes from the political allegiance of a major landowner Sir William Manners in the 1820’s.  Again a cracking little pub that is well worth a visit. 

Leaving Sewstern we rejoined the Viking Way and headed south in the general direction of Thistleton.  The path at this point is a broad track, with much evidence of its use by 4×4 vehicles, which weaves its way between tall, unkempt hedgerows.  We passed what we thought was a mobile ‘phone mast but turned out to be a military installation most likely linked to the nearby former RAF Cottesmore.  After passing Crown Point Farm and a small strip of woodland we reached Drift Hill.  The Viking Way follows the road at this point into Thistleton but to cut out some of the road walking we turned right along Drift Hill and then took the bridleway cum footpath south past Pasture Farm.

Just before Pasture Farm we spotted an abutment of a long demolished bridge that would have carried the Midland Railway line between Bourne and Saxby. The line opened on 1 May 1894 with passenger traffic along the line ceasing in 1959 but freight traffic continuing along this section to South Witham, and the Buckminster sidings, which opened in 1898, until 1964.  The line became part of the Midland and Great Northern Joint Railway (M&GNJR) east of Little Bytham.  Much of the former track-bed is still easily identified in this area.

A little south of Pasture Farm we picked up the Rutland Round following it eastwards to join the road, and Viking Way, into Thistleton and we had entered our third ‘county’ of the walk … Rutland.  Passing through Thistleton, a village we had walked through regularly in recent weeks whilst walking the Thistleton Triangle from South Witham, we took an alternative route out of the village along the first footpath heading north just past the village church of St Nicholas.  This footpath heads north but comes to an abrupt end at the Rutland-Lincolnshire border so a short distance along it we followed the edge of the field bounding a small area of woodland to join the footpath to South Witham. 

After setting off across fields the path is soon bounded by hedges on both sides as it skirts one of the remaining ironstone quarries in the area before following the route of the M&GNJR line into the village of South Witham.  On reaching Thistleton Lane we passed under the railway line once more to return to the High Street and the start of the walk 13.36 miles further on than we had started!  South Witham is a mixed village with some very old properties built with familiar local stone on it’s southern side and a large estate built in 1966 on its north-west side to house personnel from local RAF bases.  The village tripled in size overnight and, as the local bases at RAF Cottesmore and RAF North Luffenham have closed, the housing has become privately owned and rented.  The village maintains two pubs still, The Angel and The Blue Cow – another of those ‘Blue …’ pub names found so commonly locally.

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