Harnham Water Meadows are probably best know from John Constable's Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, but how many people know what water meadows are?
I have to admit that it was a term I bandied about for many years without realising it meant more than an area of grass down by a river. In fact Water Meadows (along with the Fulling Mill) were one of the major innovations that powered what is sometimes (inaccurately in my opinion) referred to as the little Industrial Revolution of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
The principles are easy to understand:
- A series of ridges and ditches were built across a meadow roughly parallel to a stream or river.
- Water was diverted from the stream along the top of the meadow and fed along the tops of the ridges.
- It cascaded down the sides of the ridges and flowed down the ditches.
- From there it flowed to the bottom of the meadow and was returned to the river.
The continually moving sheet of water helped to keep the grass frost-free, and ensured that there was plenty of new grass early in the Spring. This in turn allowed a hugely increased number of animals (principally sheep) to be over-wintered, and gave rise to a vast expansion of the wool trade.
Alongside many rivers, if you look carefully, you can still see some evidence of the ridges and furrows, but at Harnham, surprisingly enough, not only do they still survive almost untouched, they are slowly being restored by the Harnham Water Meadows Trust.
The project has been going since 1989, and has already restored some of the many hatches and sluices that were used to control the flow of water across the meadow, and has purchased Rose Cottage (a Grade 11 listed building of about 1840 near Harnham Mill) the only dwelling on the meadows. This was the home of the chap in charge of the sluices who must have one of the coolest job titles ever, The Drowner. This is set to become a visitor information and education centre.
Elsewhere on the meadows the Trust have introduced a small flock of the rare breed traditional Wiltshire Horn sheep, and a solitary llama for no particular reason that I could fathom (but see comments below).
Whilst it would be amazing to see a fully working water meadow in action, and I wish them every luck, I can't help wondering if domestic and industrial water extraction hasn't lowered the water table so much that this would be impossible without introducing pumps.
The meadows are best seen from the Town Path that runs from Longbridge at Fisherton in Salisbury (near where Constable painted the Cathedral) to Harnham Mill. For further information see my Salisbury and Harnham Stroll.