Spires and Steeples: Art and Heritage

Nocton to Dunston

This is the easiest section of the whole trail linking these two extremely attractive villages and is an ideal (and delightful) starter for novice walkers. The present footpath, although now surfaced, obviously forms an ancient link between the two villages, flanked as it is in places by traces of ridge and furrow fields, relics of the mediaeval strip farming system.

Nocton Estate

The route also crosses the former site of something more modern, which might now almost be classified as industrial archaeology. In 1919 some 8,000 acres of local fen and heath land became part of the farming empire of the Dennis family and their Nocton Estate was to become the centre of Lincolnshire’s largest (by far!) ‘Potato Railway’ for potatoes was their main crop – primarily grown for Smith’s Crisps. The estate manager was ex-army Major Webber who managed to procure vast amounts of narrow gauge track taken from WWI trenches around Arras and stored at an army supply base there. He had it shipped over and brought to Nocton.

Begun around 1919/20 the network of narrow gauge lines eventually extended throughout the estate for almost 23 miles from the banks of the Witham six miles away to the east to the GE & GNJR line in the west; it remained operational until 1964. Little visible trace remains, though the alignment of the modern farm tracks gives clues in places and there is a former, iron gatepost or water point in a hedge gap beside the path at GR059638.

History of Dunston

Dunston appears to have quietly slumbered through history lacking any connection to the high offices of state as did Nocton. Nevertheless it is an ancient settlement being recorded in the Domesday Book as ‘Dunnestune’ – ‘Dunn’s’ farmstead – but came under the jurisdiction of Nocton. It was a sizeable community too with forty-seven families (villagers, smallholders and freemen) recorded so a population of around 200 seems a reasonable estimate; Domesday also mentions six mills. Dunston has always been a large parish too, encompassing, as do most of the villages hereabouts, both large areas of fenland and heath. St Peter’s church was largely rebuilt in 1874 but its mediaeval tower remains and there is still a transitional Early English south doorway. The rebuilding here was also paid for by the Ripons of Nocton Hall. The almost complete absence of any churchyard at the back of the church is due to an early C19th the vicar annexing it into the vicarage garden.

King George III

In the mid 1700s, the Dashwood family were the landowners here and it is through them that Dunston is well known as well as providing another link to King George III. At that time the heathland to the west of the village was an area of trackless country with highwaymen a constant hazard for travellers. Sir Francis Dashwood, notorious as the founder of the famous ‘Hellfire Club’ at his other country seat in West Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, had the Dunston Pillar built on the heath in 1751 beside what is now the A15 road. Intended as a land lighthouse to guide travellers to safety (GR008619) it was 92 feet high topped by a large lantern but in 1810 the lantern was removed and a giant statue of George III put in its place to commemorate the monarch’s jubilee. George was removed during WWII, he was allegedly a danger to low-flying aircraft from nearby RAF airfields, and his smashed body now lies in Lincoln Castle vaults but his head (repaired) was until recently displayed in the castle grounds.In recognition of this there is a carving of George by Simon Todd at Dunston village hall; the relief plaques on its supporting plinth are by local schoolchildren.

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