In the early 1960s, my parents relocated from their birth town of Derby (it was only consigned city status in 1977 despite having always had its own cathedral) to start a new life in rural Lincolnshire, the second largest county by area in England.
I was therefore destined not to grow up in the peaks and valleys of Derbyshire but in the flat fenlands surrounding the small market town of Spalding, renowned at the time for its tulips, sugar beet and potatoes. It is where I attended secondary school and subsequently began my journalistic career on the local newspaper.
So, it is with residential impunity and a little insider knowledge, that I can assert with some authority that the county of Lincolnshire has always had something of a reputation as a political, economic and cultural backwater. By the same token, the propensity of its adult population – at least up to the present time – to vote conservatively in such large numbers was always a bit of a mystery to me.
In the referendum of 2016, it was not hard to predict that such entrenched voting behaviour would culminate with a huge tranche of the county – and most notably the towns of Grimsby, Boston and Spalding – voting to deliver one of the country’s highest collective ‘anti-Europe’ votes.
England’s forgotten county
But the sprawling county, with a surprisingly varied topography allied with an indistinct coastline that barely defines its boundary with the North Sea around The Wash, is so much more than the political summation of its largely ageing and traditional population.
All this, along with Lincolnshire’s unexpected role in defining significant eras of the nation’s history, is brought into sharp focus in the excellent new book, Edge of England: Landfall in Lincolnshire by Dublin-born novelist and poet Derek Turner. Its publication by Hurst in the summer of 2022 was as impeccably timed as the content is revealing.
Unsurprisingly, the reader soon learns that after spending two decades exploring and reading about England’s “forgotten county” Turner is now a solid gold Lincolnshire “Yellowbelly” resident himself, keen to pay a long overdue homage to the land of big skies, mega agriculture, and an ever-changing way of life.
While much of the book’s prosaic beauty lies in acute observations of time and place, noted in detail on every page via Turner’s poetic turn of phrase and language, the historic importance and influence of the county also comes as a revelation in itself.
Laying out his raison d’être for his book in the introduction, Turner states that the “proverbial mentions” of Lincolnshire he found during his extensive research were all seemingly “disparaging”, showing the county as “decaying, boorishly rustic”, and even a target of “diabolical ire”.
When asked about Lincolnshire not many, he says, responded with a good word, while others seemed “nonplussed” even to be asked. “The mere word could almost be a conversation killer”, he writes. “Lincolnshire started to look like a continent apart – a large, and largely blank, space, almost islanded by cold sea, great estuaries, soggy wastes, and a filigree of fenny waterways.”
An English version of Ukraine
In the book’s opening, Turner defines the county as “an ill-defined, in-between transit zone lazily assumed to have no ‘must-see’ sights and little that was even interesting”. He goes on to say the county was “notable chiefly to agronomists and economists as a high-functioning English version of Ukraine, sometimes even called ‘the bread-basket of England’, where steppe-sized harvesters combed squared fields between equally angular chicken sheds. It was a county very hard to comprehend”.
Turner readily describes his book as “amorphous” and his narrative duly wanders amiably through the different regions, building as it does a fascinating – and no doubt to many readers unexpected – portrait of landscape and place.
Indeed this county-wide tour covers pretty much every quarter, taking the reader from the “huge and muddy maw” of The Wash and the flat, reclaimed fenland of “South Holland” to Lincoln “the City on the Cliff” and the beautiful Wolds, before heading north east to the Humber and the once great fishing town of Grimsby.
Turner thinks the county is already less distinctive than when he moved there because every day it becomes “a tiny bit more like everywhere else”. There are “more roads, more traffic, more bland homes, and fewer small shops, fewer mouldering old buildings, fewer quiet places, fewer wild animals”.
Lincolnshire, he also observes, has more than its fair share of bungalows with plastic windows, caravan parks, garden centres and chicken farms. “Is it so surprising that so many passing through shake their heads and tap the accelerator?” he asks.
The book is punctuated too with poignant insights and anecdotes, such as: “Lincolnshire people, like people everywhere, have often misused their environment, would probably have exhausted it long ago had they had the means, and must often have resented their lot. But some at least must have loved where they lived, finding a locus for patriotism in the disregarded plain, just as other English see Jerusalem in Barking or Huddersfield.”
As a true convert to an “unfashionable” county, Turner says he first alighted on the prairie-like plains and marshes of Lincolnshire in search of his own “understanding” and, in doing so, discovered a “huge new side to England”.
“For all its problems – past, present or projected – Lincolnshire is still a county like no other,” he concludes. “This is an England time half-forgot, where you can still find an unabashed past inside an unpretentious present – and freedom and space on a little offshore island.”
For any potential visitor, armchair traveler or existing resident, whether born and bred in the county or a relative newcomer, this is so much more than a mere guidebook or informative travelogue.
Lincolnshire’s understated chronicles, unfashionable towns and undervalued countryside conceal fascinating stories, as well as unique landscapes – its Wolds are lonely and beautiful, its towns characterful, and its marshlands and dynamic coast metaphors for constant change.
Turner has produced a hauntingly beautiful and honest lament to a rural existence threatened by encroaching modernity, materialism and standardisation as well as the accumulating effects of climate change. If ever a county deserved a book all of its own then it must be the often overlooked one of Lincolnshire.