- 2015-12-02 18:17:00
There can be no doubt of how special a place Swordy Well pit was to John Clare.
I’ve loved thee Swordy Well and love thee still
Long was I with thee tending sheep and cow
In boyhood ramping up each steepy hill
To play at ‘roly poly’ down – and now
A man I trifle o’er thee cares to kill
Haunting thy mossy steeps to botanize
And hunt the orchis tribes where nature’s skill
Doth like my thoughts run into phantasys
And he also used Swordy Well as a symbol of all that had gone wrong in the countryside writing in The Lament of Swordy Well
I’m Swordy Well a piece of land
That’s fell upon the town
Who worked me till I couldn’t stand
And crush me now I’m down
The silver springs grown naked dykes
Scarce own a bunch of rushes
When grain got high the tasteless tykes
Grubbed up trees, banks, and bushes
And me, they turned me inside out
For sand and grit and stones
And turned my old green hills about
And pickt my very bones
But Swordy Well’s troubled story didn’t end there. Long after John Clare’s death, it became one of the very first nature reserves in the country, leased by Lord Charles Rothschild and featuring as one of the key sites for nature in the country in Rothschild’s famous 1912 list and managed by the National Trust between 1915 and 1924. After that brief interlude of natural peace, it reverted to agriculture and disappeared beneath the plough and the quarry face before emerging in the 1980s as a rubbish tip, filled up with years of Peterborough’s household waste! And that wasn’t all, in 1997 Clare’s former “roly-poly” ups and downs became a national VW racetrack and paint-ball centre, hosting thousands on a warm August bank holiday, with camper vans, fireworks and drag-racing.
But now Swaddywell, as it is called, is a well-established and flourishing nature reserve and a place that any lover of John Clare must visit if they are coming to Helpston. Located just 2 miles up the road from the Cottage, the reserve is owned and managed by the Langdyke Countryside Trust since 2005 when the VW racetrack came to an end.
And it is well worth the visit – a testament to the recuperative powers of nature! In June and July the top field is covered in bee and pyramidal orchids while the pit itself is home to over 1200 species of invertebrate, including several nationally scare species, such as the beautiful grizzled skipper butterfly. Species that Clare would have known such as the red kite, skylark and weasel can be seen or heard throughout the year, while other recent arrivals such as collared dove, Roesel’s bush cricket and muntjac deer would surprise him greatly!