Twice a year the famous water meadows in Harnham are drowned, a centuries old technique to flood the meadows next to Salisbury Cathedral. This traditional process is carried out by the Chief Drowner, wearing a bowler hat and clutching an antique drowning tool, followed by a crowd of curious locals. For many, it is the only chance to walk on the actual meadows, which are mostly off limits for the rest of the year. This unique experience is a very gentle, English way to visit such a natural yet historic site and to see this traditional farming practice in action.
Water meadows are a relic of a bygone era, when men toiled the land, the seasons determined what we ate and farming was central to our lives, with the success of the crops leading to feast or famine for the community.
Water meadows were used to improve the bounty of the crop. Once prevalent across much of England, particularly the chalkland rivers of southern England, they are now mostly gone, with just a few remaining.
Those in Salisbury are possibly the most famous in the country, with beautiful views to Salisbury Cathedral, recognised by many from the John Constable paintings of the cathedral seen from across the water meadows.
THE PURPOSE OF WATER MEADOWS
Water meadows were an essential component of the ‘sheep and corn’ economy of Wiltshire for 400 years. Salisbury was famous in medieval times for its wool and cloth, with wool woven, fulled, dyed and exported across Europe from the nearby port of Southampton. Salisbury grew to be one of the largest towns in England by the 15th century, with a population of around 8,000. Large flocks of sheep were needed to supply the demand for the wool and to keep the prosperity going. Corn was another essential product and the sheep would graze on the meadows during the day and move to arable fields to enrich the soil with their dung and urine each evening, in what was known as the sheep fold system.
Before the introduction of water meadows, the size of flocks was restricted by the amount of food available to sustain them throughout the winter, particularly during the ‘hungry gap’ in March and April when hay supplies were low and grass had not yet grown.
Drowning the water meadows in winter was a way to encourage the grass to grow months before it would naturally. An early flood of water would warm the grass, bringing nutrients and oxygen and starting the grass growing much earlier than it would otherwise. Drowning created the movement of water across the meadow’s surface, preventing stagnant pools from forming and harming the grass. It was said that water should flow “on at a trot and off at a gallop”.
Later on when the soil was drying out, the fields could be re-watered and an extra cut of hay taken to feed livestock. Larger sheep flocks could be kept, more manure produced and so arable cultivation could be extended to grow more corn. These unique drainage systems could increase the land's value by as much as sixty times its unimproved price.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF WATER MEADOWS
The control of water for farming dates back centuries. From the medieval period to the 17th century, irrigation in England was a simple process known as ‘floating upwards’, which involved blocking a watercourse, causing it to overflow and flood the surrounding farmland. Millers played a leading role in the development of water meadows, making mill ponds, drainage channels and hatches to control the flow of water. This could cause problems with water-logging so more sophisticated ‘floating downwards’ systems were developed to provide a constant movement of water and to control its flow.
Two main forms of floating downwards were used: ‘catchworks’ and ‘bedworks’, each suited to different landscapes. Bedworks is the most sophisticated type of water meadow and is that which you will see in the Salisbury Water Meadows.
The earliest bedwork systems are from Affpuddle, in Dorset, where documents refer to ditches and channels along the meadows of the River Piddle in 1605. From the 17th century onwards bedworks were created in large numbers, particularly in the chalkland areas of Wiltshire, Dorset and Hampshire. It is believed that the meadows in Harnham were created around 1660 and by the 1790s there were about 20,000 acres of water meadow in Wiltshire alone.
During the Napoleonic Wars of 1803-1815, food prices increased significantly and more landowners and farmers invested in drainage systems, as the country had to try to become self-sufficient. The hay crop was particularly important in Harnham as they supplied the many coaching inns in Salisbury. By the late 19th century however, imports of cheap foreign grain, the introduction of artificial fertilisers and the break down of the sheep and corn farming system in Wessex all led to their decline.
Water meadows drastically decreased in number as they became uneconomic, with mechanisation not a viable option on the soft, wet ground. Between 1918 and 1960 almost all water meadows were abandoned and levelled, with the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food offering grants to level old water meadows to encourage more efficient food production and World War II saw some of the land ploughed. In 1970 radial gates were installed in Harnham which saw the water levels drop dramatically so that much less was available for irrigation.
HOW THE HARNHAM WATER MEADOWS WORK
Bedwork systems have a main weir or dam to divert water from the river with subsidiary weirs and sluices (one-hatch weirs) on smaller carriers to ensure an even distribution of water. Early hatches were simple boards which slotted vertically into wooden frames or stone settings and were raised by peg and hole arrangements, and there are still some of these in the Harnham Water Meadows.
They meadows are fed by two arms of the river Nadder, with the Nadder draining into that most famous of chalk streams, the Avon. As the Avon wends its way to sea, more water meadows feed from it, such as those at Britford, Charlton All Saints, Downton, Burgate, and Fordingbridge. (You can walk through some of the these water meadows all year round, just a few miles away.)
The meadows were updated in the mid 19th century by the Earl of Pembroke, with new carriers, hatches and aqueducts added, with brick and cement used for hatch settings and some boards fitted with iron ratchet and crowbar raising mechanisms. Small bridges were also added to allow hay carts onto the area to carry the hay from the fields.
DROWNING THE WATER MEADOWS
After many years of neglect, the water meadows were taken over by the Harnham Water Meadows Trust in 1990. They bought Rose Cottage, which was once the Lock-Keepers Cottage, a Grade II listed house in the water meadows area which has a major water sluice and two important streams running through in the garden. The Trust raises money to restore the meadows, preserve the ancient irrigation system and create an environmental 'green lung' within the city of Salisbury.
They hold several fundraising events throughout the year, one of which is the drownings. The drownings happen twice a year, a few weeks apart in February, and people can join the expert volunteers to watch this ancient process in action.
I joined the crowd at Rose Cottage on a cold but incredibly sunny February morning. The Chief Drowner had Covid, but his deputy donned the requisite bowler hat, traditionally worn to show his status as Drowner, and with a small group of volunteers, one holding the megaphone and others holding up a map of the meadows, we were given a talk about the whole process.
We started off at the stream in the garden of Rose Cottage, then moved en masse across Town Path into the meadows. These are normally off limits to visitors to preserve the delicate eco system, so after years of just admiring them from the Town Path, it was a real treat to be allowed through the gates.
We followed the team around as sluices and hatches were opened, watching the water trickle across the lush green grass. As the water moved through the channels, kids in wellies got in, squealing with delight as the water raced towards them. We moved as a colourful flock across the green meadows, cameras snapping away, people chatting and laughing, dogs playing, kids running and splashing, with the cathedral a beautiful presence in the background.
The Drowner carried an antique drowning tool with him, and with his bowler hat he just needed a smock to complete the image of a traditional Wiltshire farmer. The purpose of the pronged drowning tool remained a mystery until we got to see it in action - it is used to clear all of the debris from under the water near the hatch gates, so that the openings aren't clogged up with weeds, leaves and other detritus
The final gate opening was the most fascinating. We lined the edges and watched as a wave moved from the hatch all the way down, going from a stream so still that you could see the clouds reflected perfectly in it, to a bubbling torrent.
It was the perfect finale to the event; something so small yet so satisfying for all of us there. People moved away, wandering through the meadows for a final explore, admiring a view of the cathedral and the backs of the gardens in the Cathedral Close that we never normally get to see, walking through the soggy fields to look at the River Avon, seeing how the empty channels were now flowing with water, and sploshing our way through the once dry grass to get back to Rose Cottage.
It was a lovely, gentle morning, helped of course by the weak February sunlight and blue sky, but one where you felt reassured that there are still pockets of traditional country life, and grateful for the wonderful volunteers who spend so much time and effort to keep this piece of rural, agricultural Britain alive and thriving, well into the 21st century.
Rose Cottage is now the HQ of the Harnham Water Meadows Trust, and the ground floor is a visitors centre filled with information about the meadows - its history and how they work.
It is not open for ad hoc visits, but keep an eye out on their Facebook page, Instagram account or signs near the Town Path for details of opening days throughout the year.
You can also email them in advance to arrange a guided tour around the meadows for groups or families.