As you leave Ruskington do step aside into Jubilee Street to view the quaint little ‘Tea-total Houses’ built to commemorate built Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897.
The Sleaford Navigation
The Sleaford Navigation opened in 1794 and connected the town to the River Witham at Chapel Hill thirteen miles away. It is called a ‘Navigation’ (rather than a ‘Canal’) since it utilised a pre-existing river, the new River Slea, rather than being dug as a completely new channel. The new’ river name itself is something of an understatement for it dates back to the Middle Ages when it was engineered as a diversion of the ‘old’ River Slea in order to power local watermills.
From Haverholme Bridge, there is a glimpse of the remains of Haverholme Priory beyond the woods. Haverholme is the ‘island between two rivers’ and the first priory founded here in 1137 was for Cistercian monks from Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire. Within two years they moved on to Louth Park and offered the site to St. Gilbert of Sempringham, whose Gilbertine order remained for 400 hundred years until the Dissolution in 1538. The priory subsequently had various owners during the next two and a half centuries before finally coming into the possession of the Finch-Hatton family, the Earls of Winchelsea. They held the property until 1927 when it was demolished but for today’s surviving tower.
The elegantly arched road bridge nearby dates from 1893 and bears the arms of the Earl of Winchelsea because he paid the extra cost of its construction when the local authority would only pay for a simple flat bridge. The lock here had the highest rise, nearly ten feet, on the whole navigation and some restoration work has been done here by the Sleaford Navigation Trust.
St Mary’s Church, Evedon
From Holdingham there is a short detour to Evedon. The name comes from ‘Eafa’s Hill’ where St Mary’s Church stands, or rather leans, down the hillside at the end of the lane. Its remoteness may well indicate that the nucleus of the village has shifted over the centuries. The tower is the oldest part of the church and it has tilted because the underlying clay has subsided. Near the porch is a row of unusual and ornately carved C16th and C17th horizontal gravestones, which are listed monuments.
On the edge of Sleaford we reach Cogglesford Mill, which was one of at least a dozen along the River Slea in mediaeval times. As a watermill site, Cogglesford’s origins may go back to Anglo-Saxon times although the building we see now dates from the early C18th. The building is now a visitor attraction.Old Sleaford, or the ‘Old Place’ as it still appears on OS maps, stretches under the meadows and housing estates to the south of the Navigation at Cogglesford. Rich in archaeological finds it dates back to the Neolithic era around 4,000BC and evidence of a mint possibly indicates it to be the local ‘capital’ for the Coritani tribe. Hundreds of coins (over 700 from one ‘dig’ alone) have been excavated here.
Lollycocks Field and The Nettles
On the opposite bank, as we walk towards the town centre, we pass an area of low-lying ground once important for growing osiers (willows) used in basket making. Known as Lollycocks Field, this rough grassland was mentioned in the Domesday Book and since 1983 has been maintained by North Kesteven District Council as a nature reserve. As you near the footbridge beyond the nature reserve, look across the water for a glimpse of art installations created by artsNK for the Nettles. This area is managed by artsNK as a space for experimental outdoor arts projects. One is a ‘Woven Willow Sculpture’ by Alison Walling and near it, a sculpture by Nick Jones made up of a sequence of large wooden frames that provide vistas through two fallen trees whilst also supporting the branches. On our final few yards beside the Navigation, we come across three mosaic panels set into the pathway by Alan Potter. They represent aspects of the waterway’s local importance and the bargemen’s reliance on horse, wind and manpower.
The Hub National Centre for Craft & Design
Sleaford’s wharf area has undergone considerable regeneration in recent years and a converted 1880s seed warehouse occupies pride of place as The Hub National Centre for Craft and Design. It contains two galleries, artist and community workshop spaces, a fine craft shop a cafe and the office base of the artsNK team.
Nearby in Carre Street is the restored Navigation House (1838), formerly the Navigation Company offices. Over the doorway is their coat of arms designed by Sir Joseph Banks, an important supporter of the Navigation scheme, who also suggested the company motto, which he ‘borrowed’ from Ovid. Now badly eroded, it reads “Leve Fit Quod Bene Furtor Onus”, that is “A Heavy Burden Correctly Carried Becomes Light”. The building is now a heritage centre.
St Denys’ Church
Having started beneath the grandeur of Lincoln Cathedral, the trail ends fittingly in the shadow of another of Lincolnshire’s magnificent churches; Sleaford’s St Denys’ which stands guard over the bustling market place. The dedication is unusual in that it is an amalgam of Dionysus and St Denis. The steeple contains the oldest part of the church (circa 1180) and is important as a very early example of a broach spire; St Denys’ is also renowned for its window tracery. The nave dates from around 1360 with the chancel and clerestory added about 1430. The interior is crammed with monuments from mediaeval gravestones to C21st stained glass and two other important features are the communion rails designed by Sir Christopher Wren and another William Morris window in the south aisle known as the ‘Angels and Oranges’.
Artwork in Sleaford
There are a number of other artworks to be seen in Sleaford besides the ‘Navigation’ mosaic seen on our way into town. Especially worth seeking out are the stainless steel ‘Mast and Sail’ by William Lasdun rising from the water near The Hub; the hilarious ‘Washing Line’ in Money’s Yard, by pupils of Kesteven and Sleaford High School who worked with Nottingham artist, Chris Lewis Jones and the ‘Wyvern’ (a two legged dragon and symbol of Sleaford Victorian developers, Kirke and Parry) by Richard Bett at the southern end of South Gate. There are also examples of Nick Jones’s street furniture around the town, all with a local heritage theme.