The Lincolnshire Wolds: Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty: Once 'Highly Fashionable', the Lincolnshire Wolds Still Bear the Indelible Impressions of Numerous Medieval Villages That Have Long since Returned to the Soil. but It's the Picturesque Rolling Hills and Gin-Clear Chalk Streams That Draw Visitors to the Region Today

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I'm standing in the dark, about two metres under the ground, touching a soft, wet object and trying to work out what on Earth it is. Probably some sort of fungus, guess my guides--staff from the Lincolnshire Wolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)--as they shine their mobile phones on the alien like life forms hanging from the ceiling None of us really know as it's the first time any of us have been down into this Second World War RAF bunker.

This might seem an unlikely place to end up in on a tour of an AONB, but the Lincolnshire Wolds are covered in old airfields. 'With a top height of 168 metres, the Wolds are the highest point on the east coast between the Yorkshire Moors and the Kent Downs[says Helen Gamble, AONB project officer. 'So it was an important defence site during the war:

The 558 square kilometres of chalk topped hills were designated an AONB in 1973, and the airfields were seen as a plus rather than a minus. 'It's a really worked landscape,' says Gamble. 'It was one of the reasons it was designated. The bones of the landscape are fleshed out with how they've been used by people.'

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Originally formed around 150 million years ago, the Wolds were later ravaged by glaciers, leaving a rolling landscape of rounded hills and wide, ice-scoured valleys. Their gentle contours appealed to farmers, and agriculture has been a defining feature of the landscape ever since. In fact, as we drive around the Wolds, the only people we see for hours are a farmer driving his sheep across a road and a butcher sharpening his knives in a shop window.

But it wasn't always so empty. 'During the Middle Ages, it was highly fashionable', says David Start, director of the Heritage Trust of Lincolnshire. The county's wealth, he explains, was based on the good farming available and the region's easy accessibility before the modern road system was built. 'It was a really busy county.'

Just how busy was revealed when early aviators looked down and realised the strange shapes in the fields below were the remains of deserted medieval villages. Indeed, the region has one of the highest concentrations of such villages in Britain. 'There are 235 in Lincolnshire and more than half of them are in the Wolds,' says Start. Their discovery led to a revolution in British archaeology and the creation of a whole new field of study during the 1950s. 'Before that time, they would dig through the medieval archaeology to get to the "proper stuff"--the Roman remains,' says Start. 'Even in my day, we referred to the medieval stuff as 'overburden".

Various theories were put forward, to explain why the villages were abandoned, including climate change and the Black Death. Start says that these contributed to the exodus, but the real problem was sheep. 'Sheep killed the villages', he says. 'From the 12th century onwards, the wool trade became a very lucrative business. Farming sheep was much more profitable and much less hassle than a load of peasants.' As a result, they were kicked off their land and forced into other villages. 'It literally changed the English landscape.'

And there was little the peasants could do to resist. 'You and your family were as much owned as the land', says Start. The villages were set up as a collection of rented croft smallholdings surrounded by rented fields divided into strips known as ridge and furrows, he explains. 'You paid for your strips in the field and your little bit of smallholding by giving a proportion of your crops to the lord. You could take on more strips if you could find the money, and had enough sons to farm them, but the lord could still chuck you off whenever he wanted.'

Despite the lack of security, the villages were still their residents' entire world. 'Many would be born, marry and die in the same village,' says Start. 'If you stand in one of the streets today, you can almost hear them: Perhaps, but it's easier to spot the visible evidence of their lives. …