This scenic riverside walk follows the River Witham as it meanders through Belton Park, a wildlife rich open area of grassland and ancient woodland of around 1300 acres with an historic herd of wild fallow deer. The walk links into a longer route which extends further into the park.
The river rises south of Grantham and runs for a length of about 80 miles north to Lincoln, where it cuts through the ridge, down across the Fens and into the Wash at Boston. The Belton section of the river is part of the Grantham Urban River and Wetland Plan. The project aims to restore the river banks for the benefit of wildlife.
Belton House, Grantham, Lincolnshire, NG32 2LS
Normal admission charges apply when accessing this walk. After passing through the visitor services building turn right and walk behind the building following the surfaced path in the direction of the car park. Cross the drive, watching out for cars to your left and follow the grass path through the trees. One of the first notable trees immediately on your right is a rare sugar maple. Look out for squirrel darting across the tree canopy, especially in the autumn as they store food for the winter. Speckled wood butterflies and other invertebrates are active here and throughout the walk, especially in summer.
There’s an unusual tree on your right, the tallest of its type in the UK. It’s a sugar maple, a native of eastern Canada. It’s an ornamental species suited to cooler climates, is shade tolerant and shows glorious leaf colour in the autumn, which probably explains its presence here.
Follow the path parallel to the river for a distance of approximately 200 metres until you see a gate and wooden fence. Go through the open gate. Carry on across the grass, and bear left for 200 metres or so towards another small gate next to a pond. You'll come back to the pond on your return journey and find out more about it. Once through the gate head right, down towards the raised wooden boardwalk.
The boardwalk was constructed by Belton’s Ranger Team in the summer of 2018 with the help of volunteers. It provides a raised route over some of the wetter areas along the river bank. Wild roe deer can sometimes be seen in the fields across the river, and buzzard and kite frequently circle overhead looking for prey. On your left is an ancient willow with fallen branches, still alive and growing. Green and lesser spotted woodpecker and jackdaws are frequently present, and tree creepers can often be seen looking for insects on the old hawthorn trees.
At the end of the boardwalk, head towards the river. The grass can be marshy and wet in places, especially in the winter when it floods as river levels rise. Follow the meandering course of the river upstream. The dense and varied bankside vegetation includes bulrushes, willow, alder and hawthorn and is a natural habitat for water vole that flourish at Belton despite being in decline elsewhere.
The River Witham restoration project is a jointly funded project between the National Trust and the Environment Agency. It forms part of the wider Grantham Urban River and Wetland Plan. The project aims to restore the river to a more natural condition for the benefit of wildlife, including water vole and otter. Over time the river has widened and deepened, losing its natural connection with the floodplain. Brushwood ‘mattresses’ were introduced in 2017-18 along the river’s edge to reduce the amount of erosion and encourage natural sedimentation. The work narrowed the river channel, improving natural habitats for invertebrates. Gravel has also been added to raise the level of the river bed, restoring its natural profile and improving conditions for wild brown trout spawning.
Continue to follow the course of the river as it meanders. The quiet location, size and speed of the river benefits a diverse range of wildlife. Butterflies are frequent visitors to the river corridor, especially in the summer months, and include speckled woods, several white species, coppers, silver-washed fritillary and banded and blue azure damselflies. One of our earliest butterfly is the orange tip which loves the lady's smock as an early nectar source. The river is also home to a nationally rare species of crayfish.
The white-clawed crayfish is small and bronze-coloured. It inhabits small, shallow freshwater streams, hiding under rocks, stones and small crevices where it forages for food. The UK's only native freshwater crayfish is in decline due to the introduction of the non-native North American Signal Crayfish which has brought disease to the indigenous crayfish that has no natural resistance. It’s an endangered and protected species.
With the river on your right, head up the incline to the site of the deserted medieval village of Towthorpe. Though hard to see there are earthworks here and evidence of the ridge and furrow associated with medieval farming methods.
Towthorpe Medieval Village
The deserted medieval village of Towthorpe is recorded in the Domesday record of 1086. Old Norse in origin, the village name is thought to be derived from the surname ‘Tovi’ and ‘Thorpe’ meaning an outlying settlement. It lists the presence of three mills, apparently more productive than those in Grantham, a church and priest, suggesting it was a fairly major medieval settlement at this time. The history of the development and subsequent demise of the village is unclear. Wildflowers are common here and include bird’s-foot-trefoil, lady’s bedstraw, cuckooflower (lady’s- smock) and in wet summers ragged-robin. On the river section look out for water mint, water forget-me-not, brooklime and water figwort.
Head for the wooden post with a waymark on it and follow the path through the trees, known as Little Towthorpe Plantation.
Little Towthorpe Plantation
Planting began in 1772, and was part of Emes’ plan to soften the parkland landscape established a century earlier. Species included oak, beech, horse chestnut, larch and scots pine, introducing additional colour and variation, especially in the autumn and spring. A hawthorn hedge was planted around the plantation to protect the young trees from the wild deer. Some of the standing dead wood is home to great spotted woodpeckers that you might hear. Daubentons and noctule bats are also here, the latter roosting in old woodpecker holes.
As the plantation narrows you'll see the timber wicket gate you originally came through beside Towthorpe Hollow Pond. Go through the gate and bear right, following the path which leads along the northern edge of the pond flanked by mature alder trees.
Towthorpe Hollow Pond
Fed by Towthorpe Brook, this is one of two ponds from the original parkland design. A distinctive feature in the landscape, it's mid-way along the South Avenue between the Lion Gates and the mansion. It’s a haven for wildlife, so look out for kingfisher and dragonfly darting across the water. White-clawed crayfish also reside here, and in 2009 the National Trust added large stones to the bottom of pond creating reefs to improve the crayfish habitat. The damp moist soils on the pond edge are ideal for sedges, rushes and the rare short leaved water starwort. Mature alder trees at the pond’s western end would have been coppiced to provide useful branches for hurdles or charcoal. Alder is also a good host for moss, lichen and fungi, and attractive to small pearl-bordered fritillary, chequered skipper butterflies and crane fly.
Follow the path along the edge of the pond, to the surfaced drive linking the Lion Gates to your right with the mansion down the drive to your left. You might like to take a closer look at the the historic bridge crossing the culvert that takes the water from one pond to the other under the drive. Initially as you head down the avenue of trees towards the mansion you only catch a glimpse of its chimneys then, as you continue, the full extent of this majestic house gradually grows in stature and prominence.
The avenue was planted with a double row of elm in 1690 when 'Young' Sir John enclosed the parkland. The 1st Baron Brownlow, a great nephew of Viscount Tyrconnel, considered the landscape of his predecessors old fashioned and in 1778 commissioned the landscape ‘improver’ William Emes to suggest modifications. Emes produced a plan proposing the removal of the avenue and introduction of informal plantations, clumps and copses. The Baron retained the avenue but softened it with additional planting. Dutch elm disease struck in the 1970s and the avenue was felled. The compacted, sandy soils made it difficult to successfully re-plant. The double row of Turkey oak was planted in 1988. The drive, with its avenue and ponds on either side, makes clever use of the terrain and terracing to provide impressive, changing views on the approach to the mansion. A journalist writing for Country Life in 1898 described the avenue as ‘one of the finest in the kingdom’.
Continue down the drive and as you approach the overflow car park look out for a large veteran sycamore tree on your left next to the car park fence. Carry on walking towards the mansion and the Oval Lawn where Belton Park Cricket Club play their home matches during the spring and summer months. Why not complete your walk with a tasty treat in the café or visit the gift shop and second hand bookshop.
Veteran Sycamore Tree
A longstanding feature of the 17th century parkland design, this sycamore is believed to be as old as the mansion. The Ranger Team keeps a close eye on it and maintains a layer of shredded bark around its trunk to help retain moisture over its roots.
Belton House, Grantham, Lincolnshire, NG32 2LS
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