The Mead (trimmed)

I recently went, with Dan Britton from Plotgate community farm, to Salisbury where we visited Harnham Fields – where there are some well-known restored water meadows. We met Hadrian Cook and Kathy Stearne, of the Harnham Water Meadows Trust, and we were treated to a personal guided tour round the land that they look after which forms an island between two branches of the River Nadder. We saw a variety of different sluices, including a four-way hatch which gives control over water flow in a wide area of the meadows, and into which it was said that the old ‘drowners’ would tip carts full of manure to fertilise that whole area. There were other structures built with local bricks and Victorian shuttered concrete, and we met a group of enthusiastic volunteers who that day were out fixing broken fences.


When the new land was bought last year, it took a while to think of a name for it. Then a copy of the 1841 Tythe Map for Barton St David provided the answer: on it the field was labeled Mead it was an old water meadow. Dan is particularly interested in water management, and gradually a plan to manage this particular asset has been forming in his mind. A notable feature is the pattern of shallow channels, looking similar to medieval ridge and furrow’ earthworks, known locally as gripes. They were created so that water flowing across the land could be controlled using a system of sluices; and the meadow could be flooded at the end of winter, which was a means of warming up the land. It also meant that the ground was fertilised by nutrient-rich silt that had washed down the river during the perennial winter floods.


This technique of deliberately flooding the meadows was known as drowning, and the drowners had a highly skilled job; when done well this lengthened the growing season giving two or even three cuts of hay each year as well as improving its quality. As a result the meadow could be worth several times as much as unimproved land. Our mission was to see how this could be done, and we admired the lush grass that resulted, even in early April.

SKM C45824042211470

An extract from the 1841 Tythe map for Barton St David, showing the area around Plotgate Community Farm.
The thick line leading north from Tootle Bridge is Cunlease Rhyne, the old route of the River Brue.

The land was bought by the Plotgate Venture Land Trust, and could be leased to Plotgate Community Farm. The far end of thi
s new land is narrower and a less regular shape than the big rectangle of The Mead. It is also known to be polluted, both by run-off from neighbouring chemically-farmed land, and also intermittently by a sewage outflow. The surrounding rhynes are now regularly tested for phosphates and nitrates which are present more than anywhere else below the sewage outflow and in the nearby River Brue, some of whose water is channeled onto the farm. The land was bought in full knowledge of this, and it has been taken on as a challenge rather than as a problem. The developing plan will include dealing with the pollution by natural means. This should be possible to integrate with restoring the water meadow; Kathy, who visited Plotgate the following Tuesday, advised not to use willow trees to absorb the pollutants which had initially been the intention but to rely on the functioning of the water meadow itself. This would convert the pollutants into nutrients, which would enrich the meadow directly.


Along the east side of the Mead is the Cunlease Rhyne, now practically devoid of flowing water but once the route of the River Brue. The remains of a floodbank follow the meandering course of the old river. In the 1200s the river was re-directed to a new course a field or two over to the east, again with a bank holding back floodwaters. This new route which follows Honey Mead Lane from Tootle Bridge to Baltonsborough Flights has always been known as Dunstans Dyke, though it is well known that the work was undertaken some 300 years after Dunstan was Abbot of Glastonbury and responsible for a number of engineering works in the area. Why it is so named is not known, but a theory worth discussing is that the original embankment, along with the Cunlease Rhyne, could indeed have been constructed in the time of Dunstan, and that when the river and the embankment were moved, the name was moved with them. The original Saxon embankment would have been constructed in the mid-to-late 940s.


All the fields immediately to the west of the old river course are labeled on the Tythe Map Mead. When they were laid down as water meadows is not known, though certainly before 1841, and there are signs that concrete sluices were built, or perhaps repaired, later in Victorian times. The hey-day of the water meadows in this country was between about 1600 and 1900; during that time and possibly before they were often improved and re-designed. So the gripes in Plotgates meadow could have originally been part of a much earlier model. It is believed that water meadows might even go back to the Roman era, though of course as with their road building it could have been that the skills were lost after they left, only to be re-discovered more than a thousand years later. Today there is considerable work to be done, repairing or rebuilding sluices, in places repairing the embankment, and working out the detail of which way the channels across the meadow need to flow. It is, however, in remarkably good condition, and it should be quite possible to restore it to its former glory If not, says Dan, to something even greater.

When we got back from Salisbury, the first thing we did was to walk around The Mead, noting Dan
s plans as to how the entrance from the original property could be improved; where the clay sub-soil could be built up along one edge of the field, out of the wet, and a road formed for vehicle access; and where sluices and other structures might be built. The classic water meadow configuration would include a carrier, channeling the water in, and a drain returning it to the wider water system. Both, since the early twentieth century, have been incorporated into the local network of rhynes.

Experienced people such as Kathy Stearne and Hadrian Cook are being very supportive, and with their advice mitigating the water pollution should be easy to integrate with restoring the water meadow. The easiest way to deal with the pollution is to allow the water to stand for two or three days, allowing the pollutants to precipitate out and fall to the bottom of the water to become nutrients. The timing is critical here, because one of the key principles of a water meadow is, when the land is flooded, to keep the water moving so as to avoid it becoming stagnant and anaerobic, or frozen. The result is to increase the temperature of the land, which is particularly useful early in the season when it can stimulate early grass growth. It was particularly successful as a key element of the ‘sheep-corn’ method, in which sheep were fed rich lush grass in March and early April and then fenced into a ‘sheep fold’ at night, where they very effectively manured land to be used for growing wheat and barley. An adaptation of this method may be appropriate for use at Plotgate.


It is also worth noting that the old drowners recommended using dirty water, mixing it with the wash from the farmyard, or even with sewage outflow, to add nutrients. In a book edited by Hadrian Cook and Tom Williamson, Water Meadows History, Ecology and Conservation, Roger Cutting and Ian Cummings (in chapter 6 pp 80-81) point out that, The technique of floating’ clearly provides an effective stimulus for grass growth, at levels which compare favourably with modern, intensively managed and commercially treated pastures” (i.e with the application of chemical fertilisers). The main reasons for the water meadows demise were the import of cheap grain from America, which began towards the end of the nineteenth century, and the expanding use of chemical fertilisers. For those who see the impending need to avoid intensive farming, to grow organically, and to focus on supplying their local markets, a revival of the water meadows is a project well worth considering.

I would direct anyone who would like a good summary of water meadows and how they work to ‘Water meadows, their form, operation and plant ecology’ by Roger Cutting and Ian Cummins (chapter 11 of ‘Water Management in the English Landscape’, an earlier book also edited by Hadrian Cook and Tom Williamson). Please contact Bruce Garrard at if you would like a scanned version of this article.