After over one hundred Members, volunteers and friends of the museum attended a guided walk over the meadows recently, Dr Hadrian Cook – teacher, lecturer, researcher, writer and long-time associate of the Harnham Water Meadows Trust – gave a fascinating talk on it all at the museum last week.
Again, about a hundred attended, and it was yet another of those wonderful lectures when you knew the speaker could have talked, and the audience happily listened, for hours. The history of the meadows, set against the changing fortunes and requirements of agriculture over the ages, was interesting, of course, but, to those of us with limited background in science, that side of it was a revelation. The late medieval and early modern farmer would not have considered himself a scientist but he obviously knew his land, and nature, and made maximum use of the meadows. Dr Cook explained that, in the end, here in Salisbury, the sheep, grazed on the meadow, were little more than a mechanism for ensuring the arable fields on the sides of the hills were kept manured (see earlier blog for how that worked out). They had long since ceased to be important for their wool, or even of much importance, in the greater scheme of things, for their meat.
It was also interesting to learn a little about the engineering involved in making sure that the flooding of the meadows worked as it was intended to do. It was nothing so simple as just digging a few ditches. The intricate arrangement of leats – top carriers and carriers, all at the right levels – hatches (to control flow) and drains must have been something learned by the locals over time. It had to work properly, or the grass would just rot if left wet. Then there were causeways and sometimes aqueducts to build too!
It was the advent of artificial fertilizers that contributed to the end of water meadows. What have we lost…?