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!