David Lovelace gave a fascinating talk on Water Meadows, which he is studying as part of an on-going project by Historic England. He explained that little evidence exists of their origins: controlled flooding of pasture to provide water for livestock and boost the growth of grass for both pasture and hay may be centuries old, their siting and the necessary maintenance skills passed down the generations orally.
However, one important local document, an analysis of land-use on the Roger Mortimer estates in 1325 (just before the Black Death), gives an insight into the importance of water meadows to medieval farming. The value of meadow-land exceeded that of any other land use (it was worth 11d an acre, compared with 5½d for pasture and 3d for arable). 15.6% of Mortimer’s land was given over to meadows. The management of water meadows is much less documented than, say, woodland management. There is reference in a document of 1582 to the process (at Somergilles). The first book on the creation and management of water meadows dates to 1610, though there is evidence to suggest the author, Robert Vaughan, may well have been writing from hearsay and imagination rather than actual practice! A court case of 1847 against negligent land-owners, reported at length in the Hereford Times, gives proof of how they operated and of the need for collaboration between adjacent land-owners. Their use declined in the late Victorian era (though some systems did survive well into the twentieth century) and the orally transmitted knowledge died too. There have been none in Herefordshire for a hundred years.
David Lovelace described the different types of water meadow: “Floating Up” means control of natural flood-water, “Catch Works” are artificial gaps made in the banks of a water course, but most of the talk focussed on the method known as “Bed Works”, a system of linear channels and gullies incorporating an exit system. Bed works often worked in tandem with water mills, and the medieval ridge and furrow system may have been adapted for irrigation.
Today, evidence of former bed work systems exists in various forms. Despite erosion of unmaintained ridges, these features may still be seen in places. Sluice gates have survived, some adapted for other use, some merely remnants to be seen in hedges. Field names on the tithe maps of 1840 give a guide to where meadows were situated, and some of their features appear on large scale OS maps. A man named Captain King-King, ordered to destroy his water meadows at Staunton Under Arrow for arable use in WW2, drew a detailed map of his bed work system. The RAF flew photographic sorties over North Herefordshire in 1945 and their aerial photography shows evidence of water meadows, and a Luftwaffe photo of 1940 failed to show the Rotherwas factory as it was shrouded in cloud, but did provide evidence of irrigation systems! More recently, Lidar showed the channels of a long-defunct water meadow system on a Leintwardine farm.
Changes in technology and a government-driven focus on arable farming in war time resulted in the loss of these ancient systems. However, the war-time initiatives for arable rather than livestock farming to predominate were not altogether successful – farmers lacked the necessary machinery, labourers and expertise. Furthermore, the old methods of irrigation arguably allowed better control of natural flooding. It would be difficult now to reconstruct systems; we lack the detailed knowledge of how individual systems worked and tenant farmers have to make a living. At least the research of David Lovelace and his colleagues gives us an insight into this fascinating aspect of the history of agriculture: I look at the land between my home and the Clun with a fresh eye now!
The talk concluded with a range of questions showing the interest and engagement of the audience.