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GEMS FROM THE ARCHIVE: A lost way of life around Spalding


By Spalding Today Columnist


The old A1073, now a quiet back road between Spalding and Cowbit, runs past the village of Cowbit on a causeway called Barrier Bank, and you can’t help but notice how low-lying is the farmland to the west, as far as the River Welland.

This area is still known as the Cowbit Washes and, as the name implies, it once served an alternative but equally important purpose.

Before the construction of the Coronation Channel, in order to reduce the risk to settlements, excess water from the Welland was allowed to overflow onto designated areas of open land, where it could be contained by a network of high banks.

In most winters, areas such as the Cowbit Washes were likely to be under water for considerable periods, as, for instance, the Bedford Levels in Cambridgeshire are today. Not surprisingly, local people came to see the regular floods as more of an opportunity than a threat.

Open water in winter attracts wildfowl, and this was a resource which had always been exploited by fen dwellers.

The photograph here shows the setting up of a so-called clap net to trap plovers in the 1890s. This type of net was strung on a spring-loaded frame which could be activated manually or triggered by birds flying into it.

Setting up the clap net to trap plovers.
Setting up the clap net to trap plovers.

Golden plovers in particular were once a common prey species on wetlands in Britain, although their numbers are now hugely depleted, largely due to habitat loss.

The other main means of hunting on open water was by use of the punt gun.

These were shotguns with a hugely elongated barrel, too large to be fired from the shoulder. They were therefore normally fixed to a punt, which itself had to be manoeuvred into position as the gun itself could not be aimed.

Hunting with a punt gun. (11812865)
Hunting with a punt gun. (11812865)

The largest examples had a bore diameter of two inches or more, and could fire a pound of shot. The recoil could propel the punt backwards.

In the hands of experts they had a devastating effect, as it seems a single shot could take out 50 birds. A display in Ayscoughfee Hall museum vividly illustrates the practice.

This aspect of the area’s legacy is kept alive in the village of Cowbit, where a punt gun salute is still fired to celebrate every royal coronation and jubilee.

In a hard winter, the surface of this temporary lake would freeze over and, within living memory, hugely competitive skating contests were held on the Washes and similar areas of open water.

Their length, some eight miles, meant that races could be held over long distances, and trophies were awarded to the winners.

One of the trophies awarded to a victorious skater. (11812868)
One of the trophies awarded to a victorious skater. (11812868)

The above trophy is in the collection of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society.

Inevitably, however, the activity was subject to the vagaries of nature, and not without risk. In January 1903, a young woman was skating on the Washes with her brother and fiancé when the ice gave way and all three were plunged into the freezing water. The two men were pulled to safety, but the woman sadly drowned.

Although climate change means that severe flooding events may become more common in the future, it is unlikely that we will see the return of this way of life, although emergency plans to flood the Cowbit Washes were prepared as recently as 1997.

The museum of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society holds many photographs and objects illustrating such aspects of our local history and culture.

Visitors can enjoy free entry to the museum on open days, the next being on Sunday, June 16, from 2-4pm.

Details of all our open days can be found on our website, our Facebook page and in the pages of the Lincolnshire Free Press and Spalding Guardian, or email us at info@sgsoc.org for more information.



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