The Viking Way is a long distance route which runs from Hull down to Oakham. In doing so, it takes in The Drift, an ancient Brone Age trackway which runs along the Lincolnshire/Leicestershire border and passes around 4 miles to the east of Grantham, crossing the Grantham canal and rising uphill over the A607 and continuing through the villages of Sproxton and beyond. This stretch of the route from Denton to Skillington is designated a SSSI because of the limestone flora present, one of the best examples remaining in Lincolnshire.
There are a wide range of limestone specialist species listed in the SSSI citation and a quick visit at the weekend identified just a few. I was amazed at quite how spectacular some of these species are, especially if you look closely. Here are a few of my favourites.
Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare)
This species has tall, diffuse spikes of flowers which can’t seem to decide whether they want to be bright blue or a soft pink and generally opt for a combination of the two, although the blue, to which all flowers mature, will catch your eye from a distance. Below the flowers is what looks like a long spiked tongue, giving the flower the face of something mythical, almost dragon-like. This is only present when the flowers are newly appearing and is actually the buds of new flowers which will bloom along the tongue as those before them die back, a little like the way flowers travel up a foxglove spike as the season progresses.
This is a species of sandy or chalky soils and is not a common sight elsewhere around Grantham but can be seen flourishing along the Viking Way.
Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor)
This species is a more general meadow species and can be found in the nearby Muston Meadows too. It is often introduced in wild seed mixes as it has a very valuable characteristic which helps species rich swards to develop; it is hemiparasitic upon grasses, tapping into their root systems to steal nutrients and thereby controlling the vigour of the grasses. Unchecked, grasses often grow fast and tall to outcompete and overshade wildflowers and the yellow rsttle helps to control this and encourage diversity.
It is a small, unassuming plant but the flowers are really quite extraordinary, they remind me of yellow octopi beaks. The flowers are generally focussed along one side of the stem and eventually turn to brown, papery seed cases within which the seeds rattle in late summer, giving the flower its common name.
Yellow toadflax (Linaria vulgaris)
This, like the viper’s bugloss, is another species typical of chalky, limestone soils and is a relation of the snapdragons which might be a more familiar sight in gardens. They share the same heavy lip with their ornamental relatives which helps them to control which species can pollinate the flowers; only strong muscular insects such as bumblebees can push through to reach the nectar and pollen.
These are quite a late flowering species and only one or two specimens were in bloom at the end of June, expect them to become more apparent through July and into August.
Meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense)
This is the parent plant of many of the hardy geraniums you can find in gardens around the country. It is in the nature of horticulture to improve, enhance and amend the appearance of a species through selective breeding and there are a wealth of beautiful cultivars available, with flowers are larger or more profuse or with a colour which is the distillation of one shade from the pallete of the wild. But I think there is something special about the wild type, the hue of violet blue is so delicate and slightly etherial, difficult to define yet so distinctive that the hazy colour catches your eye from the verge when driving past any of the many clumps on the roadsides in the Vale of Belvoir.
It prefers dry, sandy soils and so it thrives on The Drift where it will flower well into August.
There were plenty of other species to see too and the above are just a small selection, others already out include hedge woundwort, red campion, bladder campion, ox-eye daisy, tufted vetch, wild mignette, yarrow, bird’s foot trefoil, red and white clovers, black knapweed and germander speedwell.
Where puddles formed and the ground was a little damper, the white haze of meadowsweet and creeping buttercup colour the vegetation cream and yellow whilst the purple and yellow flowers of bittersweet hang amongst the elder and the dogrose along the hedges which bound the track.
With such an excing unusual flowers to see, this short strip of ancient trackway (although it extends for miles to the north and south if you wished to explore further) is well worth a visit!
A friend and I walked the same section on the day you added your report. As a result of our walk we have now recorded 108 flora species along this part of the SSSI this year. Unfortunately, we missed the Meadowsweet, Filipendula ulmaria, and the Yellow-rattle, Rhinanthus minor. [Did I forget to cross it off my optimised list for VC53?!] However, we have found large carpets of Yellow-rattle on other areas of The Drift.
When I first explored the track it was quite different from what it is now. The encroaching scrub had reduced this part of The Drift to a narrow path. Fortunately, Natural England have caused work to be carried out to remove the scrub that had greatly reduced the diversity of the flora. Furthermore, reseeding has contributed to the colourful wild flowers returning.
On our walk we noticed that the Black Knapweed, Centaurea nigra, in flower was of an uncommon form. This rayed Centaurea nigra appears to have been introduced with the seed mixture used in the reseeding. It is found throughout The Drift SSSI and where a seed mixture was used on road banks near Colsterworth. In my experience it is usually rare in South West Lincolnshire; in fact I have only ever seen one plant in many years of survey work and that was on the Grimsthorpe Estate. The plant does add brilliant colour to the Drift but I do wish that more care was and is taken to ensure that any seed mixture used is representative of the flora of the site being ‘improved’.
Thanks for the comments, that sounds like a good species list, is that including grasses as well? I’d be interested to see the full list! I went up a couple of weekends ago but only just found the time to go through the pictures last week – I bet a few more things have come into flower since, the scabious was looking close!
It was great to see how well this section was doing, and it even looked as though the bikes/4×4’s were managing to find somewhere else to tear up, not too much disturbance!
That is a shame about the black knapweed (that was only just coming out when I went past), it’s a double edged sword I guess, seed mixes are an easy way to get the diversity back up but the introduction of ‘alien’ strains will presumably influence the population for years to come now and could lead to the loss of local varieties.
The species list I have made after two visits this year is as follows:
Acer platanoides, Achillea millefolium, Aegopodium podagraria, Aethusa cynapium, Alliaria petiolata, Anisantha sterilis, Anthriscus sylvestris, Arctium minus, Arrhenatherum elatius, Artemisia vulgaris, Arum maculatum, Atriplex patula, Brachypodium pinnatum, Bromus hordeaceus, Bryonia dioica, Capsella bursa-pastoris, Cardamine hirsuta, Carduus crispus, Centaurea nigra, Cerstium fontanum, Chenopodium album, Cirsium arvense, Cirsium vulgare, Convolvulus arvensis, Crataegus laevigata, Crataegus monogyna, Cynosurus cristatus, Dactylis glomerata, Dipsacus fullonum, Echium vulgare, Elytrigia repens, Epilobium hirsutum, Euphorbia helioscopia, Fallopia convolvulus, Ficaria verna, Fraxinus excelsior, Galanthus nivalis, Galium album, Galium aparine, Galium verum, Geranium dissectum, Geranium pratense, Geranium robertianum, Geum urbanum, Glechoma hederacea, Hedera helix helix, Heracleum sphondylium, Holcus lanatus, Knautia arvensis, Lamium album, Lapsana communis, Lathyrus pratensis, Leucanthemum vulgare, Linaria vulgaris, Lolium perenne, Lotus corniculatus, Malva moschata, Matricaria discoidea, Medicago lupulina, Myosotis arvensis, Narcissus agg., Odontites vernus, Papaver rhoeas, Papaver somniferum, Persicaria maculosa, Phleum bertolonii, Phleum pratense, Plantago lanceolata, Plantago major, Poa pratensis, Poa trivialis, Polygonum aviculare, Primula veris, Prunella vulgaris, Prunus spinosa, Ranunculus acris, Ranunculus bulbosus, Ranunculus repens, Reseda lutea, Rosa canina, Rubus caesius, Rubus fruticosus agg., Rumex obtusifolius, Rumex sanguineus, Sambucus nigra, Schedonorus arundinaceus, Senecio jacobaea, Senecio vulgaris, Silene dioica, Silene latifolia, Silene vulgaris vulgaris, Silene x hampeana, Sisymbrium officinale, Solanum dulcamara, Sonchus asper, Sonchus oleraceus, Stachys sylvatica, Stellaria media, Tamus communis, Taraxacum agg., Tragopogon pratensis, Trifolium pratense, Trifolium repens, Trisetum flavescens, Urtica dioica, Veronica persica, Vicia cracca and Vicia sativa segetalis.
Some species that I would have expected to find have not been crossed off on my optimised list. I have found that it is so easy to assume that you have already recorded a common species. Another visit should find those that I have missed.
I have divided The Drift SSSI into three sections. The list above is for the northern section which extends south east from Hill Top Farm, [near the A607], to Gorse Lane. The middle section extends south east from Three Queens, Gorse Lane, to the road between Hungerton and Saltby. The southern section extends south east and then south from this road to the Glider Launch Site.
The southern section does contain the more interesting flora species. My friend and I have found two species of orchid there this year.
I must mention the following for anyone who intends to visit this southern section. My friend and I visited the southern section on May 15th. of this year. When we returned to my car which had been parked on the verge of the road from Hungerton to Saltby we found that a rear window had been smashed and that a number of items had been taken after someone pulled down the rear seat to gain access to the ‘boot’ of my hatchback. The damage to my car and the theft of personal items ruined what had until then be a very enjoyable day.
Sorry to hear that – it’s always a risk when parking in these out-of-the way places unfortunately and puts such an unnecessary downer on an otherwise lovely day!
I am hoping to look around the more southerly sections at some point but perhaps I’ll cycle after that warning!