Words: Dixe Wills
Posted on 14/06/2019
In 1825, someone pulled a magic sword from the River Witham. At least it appeared to be magic. The medieval weapon had a curious sequence of letters and characters engraved down the length of the blade: +NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+. For nearly two centuries it has baffled historians, and though today it’s generally believed to be some sort of loose Latin acronym calling upon the Holy Trinity to protect its owner in battle, no one is really sure.
It’s fitting that there remains some equivocation about this discovery because the River Witham is a waterway that likes to cloak itself in mystery. One look at a map of Lincolnshire is enough to see that the river’s course through the landscape isn’t usually how a river behaves. It describes a huge arch across the county as if keen to see everything it can before plunging into the sea. If we head upstream from its mouth at The Wash, we pass Boston Stump and head along the Water Rail Way to Lincoln. Here, the river flows through the famous ‘Glory Hole’ – the gap below the oldest bridge in Britain that still has buildings on it.
Having skirted Newark the waterway pulls alongside the Trent and toys with the idea of joining forces with its more eminent cousin. It was here, at the ancient village of Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, that I began my search for the source of the enigmatic Witham.
This little village in eastern England would doubtless have remained obscure had it not been for the birth of Sir Isaac Newton at Woolsthorpe Manor. Now a National Trust property, the manor is where Newton first refracted light and had his (probably mythical) falling apple moment that inspired his work on gravity. It seemed an appropriate place to begin the scientific venture that is the tracing of a river’s source.
After its unorthodox meanderings further downstream – the result of glaciation and possibly a complex process called isostatic rebound – it was surprising to find the Witham content to maintain a steady north-south direction for a while. I followed it through abundant pasture, the rain-speckled grasses washing me up to my knees; through fields of wheat and along narrow country lanes. Contrary to popular belief, by no means all of Lincolnshire is fenland: here the scenery is as gently undulating as any landscape artist could wish for. Except there were no artists, or indeed anyone else outside the villages. The lack of a visible path across some fields, and the height of the vegetation within them, made me feel like a pioneer forging his way through virgin territory, albeit one with an OS map in hand.
A knightly settlement
To be fair, the Knights Templar had got here rather before me. Until 1312, when they were disbanded, they had a preceptory (local headquarters) on the banks of the Witham, though all trace of it has disappeared beneath the crops. I passed through the little village of North Witham to get to the site and was soon at the larger South Witham, exercising great will-power in not stopping off at the appealing Angel Inn for victuals and foaming ale.
It’s just north of here that the Witham takes its last (or first, if you’re heading downstream) change of direction, suddenly coursing west along a shallow valley. In a couple of miles it reaches the Cribbs Meadow National Nature Reserve. But before that, one branch splits off to the right, heading through Crown Point Farm. Could that lead to the source? And in the nature reserve the river splits again, forging due west before coming to a halt beside the embankment of a disused railway line. Might that be the source?
I consulted my map again carefully. The most common definition of a river source is that it’s the most distant point in the drainage basin from which there is a constant supply of water. The result is that, by the merest fraction, the true source is the most southerly of these three tines of the Witham’s fork. It meant I almost left Lincolnshire altogether. I found myself walking along a bridleway that doubles as the border with Rutland, England’s smallest county. The Rutland side of the path was a wonderful advert for the practice of leaving wide field margins to nature. It was a joyous riot of wild grasses, borage, sunflowers, wild fennel, vetches and countless other wildflowers. Three very healthy-looking hares bounded in and out of this jungle as I walked along.
And at the end of this glorious stretch, the source is very evident: a long ditch that makes a sudden dogleg beneath a hedge to come to a halt beside the path. A single young oak above the gully marks the spot. Evidently, the Witham likes to save its mysteries for further downstream…
How to search for the source
Start: Woolsthorpe Manor, Water Lane, Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, Lincolnshire, NG33 5PD
Distance: 6.5 miles (10.5km) – for a shorter walk start at Point 3 (North Witham) or Point 4 (South Witham)
1 With your back to Sir Isaac Newton’s house, turn right along Water Lane. At the crossroads, turn left on Stainby Road and then right at the next crossroads, along Stamford Road.
- As the road begins to bend left, take the footpath on your right to ahead over fields. There’s no path across the first field so aim generously to the left of the distant church steeple. At a minor road turn right to walk into North Witham.
- After the church, keep straight ahead on a lane to follow the western bank of the river. Take the first footpath on your right (if you come to a footpath on your left, you’ve gone too far) to cross fields with the river on your left. Again, although there is a right of way, some fields have no path as such so judge your direction from a map. Cross two bridges and the site of the Preceptory of the Knights Templar is on your left (all trace of the buildings has disappeared beneath arable fields).
- When you come to the road at South Witham, turn left. Directly after a sharp right hand bend turn left along Church Street, past the church of St John the Baptist and the Angel Inn, and at the corner with Church Lane go straight ahead along an alleyway.
- At the end, by The Blue Cow Inn (another excellent refreshment stop), turn right along the High Street. This becomes Mill Lane. Follow this road, with the river off to your right, for 1.5 miles (2.4km) to a T-junction. Turn left and just after passing through the embankments of a disused railway line turn immediately right along a bridleway signed ‘Dead End’.
- Continue straight ahead, joining the Rutland Round long distance footpath with a little shimmy left through a gate and an immediate right. Carry straight on along a bridleway. Just before you come to the end of the field, look for the obvious ditch by a young oak. You have found the source of the Witham.
- To return home, a number 28 bus (centrebus.info; 01164 105050) runs from South Witham to near Grantham railway station.
Illustration: James Albon