Walk on the other side

At first glance they might look like the Yorkshire Wolds, but as Roger Ratcliffe finds there are different delights.

If I had been blindfolded, spun round a few times, taken on a car journey and dumped in this remote country area I would've looked around at the rippling landscape of huge high-hedgerowed fields, the long escarpments of hanging woodland and steep-sided meadows, and known that I had been here before.

Most likely, it was somewhere to the south east of Malton.

The sense of dj vu would have stayed with me through long chalk valleys and quiet back-lanes until I came across one of those white-painted wooden signposts you find in places that seem to have barely changed since the early days of the motor car.

Even so, some of the village names might still have confused me – Welton for example – although most of them would be unfamiliar. And then it would finally have dawned on me that I was in the Lincolnshire Wolds.

This feeling of Yorkshire's Wolds having a mirror image on the other side of the Humber struck me quite early in my visit. But after a couple of days I began to realise that, actually, the "Linkesheer Walds", as local dialect has it, exude their own character. Perhaps that's because the area is more distant from big cities and much further off the beaten track. There are also some differences in geology, which make honey-stoned villages such as Tealby look like they've been plucked from the Cotswolds.

Not for nothing is there a colour known around the world as Lincoln Green. It's a bright shade which somehow encapsulates the English countryside in spring, and the Lincolnshire Wolds in particular, but in May and June this landscape also has broad brushstrokes of another colour. This one is Wolds Yellow, produced by the vast fields of fluorescent rape. Not surprisingly walking is one of the area's biggest draws for outsiders and was the reason for my visit. This is one of the most footpathed and signposted terrains in England, and besides the 147-mile Viking Way from the Humber Bridge to Oakham in Rutland there are hundreds of circular and linear routes described in free leaflets. This year's seventh Lincolnshire Walking Festival (see panel) will feature almost 100 guided rambles.

What makes walking here a real joy is the discovery of lots of little paths. Many lead through great stands of ancient woodland – venerable limes seem to be a speciality – or climb up onto the airy chalk edges through meadows covered by wildflowers.

There are some achingly beautiful corners, like the chalk stream of the River Bain near Biscathorpe. Then there are curiosities that take you by surprise, such as long-abandoned medieval villages, their populations having been wiped out by the Black Plague, or the poignant stone memorial I found next to a field in the middle of absolutely nowhere. Apart from a mound of drilled-up concrete that was once a runway, it is the only reminder that in the Second World War this was RAF Kelstern, home to a squadron of Lancaster bombers which launched nightly raids over Germany. Two dozen aircraft never returned.

Like the Yorkshire Wolds, the area has some fine old towns to wander around. In some ways it's possible to compare Louth with Beverley, not least because each has impressive churches and a prosperous air. Louth's magnificent 15th century St James's Church has the tallest spire in England and can be seen over a wide area of Lincolnshire. A century ago a local cobbler drank 10 pints of beer, accepted a bet to climb all 295 feet of it, and danced a hornpipe on the top stone before climbing down.

The warren of streets are filled with small independent shops. There's even a small department store called Eve & Ranshaw. Good food sellers are particularly evident, and The Cheese Shop is one of the best cheesemongers I've come across. Long-established pork butchers seem to be around every corner, with Jacksons judged to be Lincolnshire's best in 2009, while Jim Sutcliffe at Meridian was recently named BBC Young Butcher of the Year. And yet ask locals which they prefer and the chances are they'll raise a finger in the direction of Lakings at the quiet end of Eastgate.

The small towns of Caistor and Alford are worth seeing for their superb Georgian market places. Alford has added interest in its 400-year-old thatched manor house and the best-preserved five-sailed windmill in England – you can buy freshly milled flour here.

Horncastle is the antiques capital of the East Midlands, and the backyard of Clare Boam's sprawling centre has probably the biggest collection of old tea and dinner services you'll find. Come here to replace that "irreplaceable" cup or plate.Horncastle is also a great place to eat. Magpies, so-named because it's part of a row of black and white cottages, is where chef Andrew Gilbert uses the best local produce to brilliantly fuse cuisines, as though he has shuffled a pack of picture postcards. A reservation there is something to look forward to after all that walking.

Up at Ludford, there's more traditional gastro-pub food at the Black Horse Inn, winner of Taste of Lincolnshire awards. Or there is Louth's The Priory, a Victorian boarding school built with stone from a ruined Cistercian monastery but now a boutique hotel.

You start eating in the bar, once the headmaster's study, then move to the stuccoed dining room. At the end of the sixth course the waiter hovered and said: "Paul (the owner and chef) is feeling really enthusiastic tonight and wonders if you'd care for another savoury course before desert." I had this mental picture of Paul going crazy in the kitchen, and out came ramekins of pan-fried woodpigeon breast, smoked Lincolnshire bacon and piquant cabbage. The villages, however, are where you find the essence of the Lincolnshire Wolds. Nowhere is more unchanged than Somersby, where the Victorian poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson grew up. The beautiful River Lymn – not much more than a chalk stream – surely inspired his poem The Brook, with lines like:

I come from haunts of coot and hern,

I make a sudden sally,

And sparkle out among the fern,

To bicker down a valley.

Better than any photograph, it is a great image to take home.

WHAT'S ON OFFER

Lincolnshire walking festival runs from May 21 to June 5, with a huge choice of organised walks in the Lincolnshire Wolds area of outstanding natural beauty and surrounding countryside. To receive the 2011 programme e-mail aonb@lincswolds.org.uk

Roger Ratcliffe stayed at Brackenborough Hall Coach House near Louth. Tel/fax 01507 603193 or www.Brackenboroughhall.Com

The Priory Hotel and Serendipity Restaurant is in Eastgate, Louth. Tel. 01507 602930.

The Black Horse Inn is in Magna Mile, Ludford. Tel. 01507 313645.

Magpies Restaurant Is At 71-75 East Street, Horncastle. Tel 01507 527004.

YP MAG 8/1/11

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