The Water Meadows

The water meadows by George Morris. (written in 1995)

The Dutch engineers are reputed to have brought the idea over to England in the early 1600s. The laying out, levelling etc. was a skilled operation, as the object was to flood the land evenly to a depth of two to three inches for periods of three to four weeks. In the winter, when there were hard frosts this prevented the ground from freezing and brought valuable nutrients to the soil. Indeed, after a period of flooding, there was a brown sediment all over. The means of achieving this flooding was by a series of channels of varying width and of hatches to control the flow. A large hatch was situated across the main river unloaded to divert sufficient water through the subsidiary channels for the purpose required. The first of these channels was referred to as the main carrier and varied in width accordingly to the size of the error to be flooded, but we’re only 18 inches deep. Anything deeper would have been wasted water. When the area to be flooded was reached, further small hatches were involved to again divert the water, this time to the actual beds. As the quantity of water was being diverted, the carriers diminished in size until, along the high beds they were only a spade width and instead of hatches, had “stops” positioned to effect the even flow over every square inch of land. These stops were merely turves, cut from the high spots and pegged at intervals in the floaters, as these small channels were called, with wooden pegs cut from the nearby hedgerows. Between the higher ridges of the land there were V shaped ditches, which carried the used water back into the main river, these were called drawns.

To accomplish all this was, as I said before, a work of considerable art and I can only admire the engineers who first devised and carried it out. The upkeep of all this was also required a certain art and great interest on the part of the men doing the work they were called “drowners”. Incidentally I am the last of these folk who was engaged in this work in this area and who is still here to tell the tale. I worked mainly on Highbridge farm run by my Grandfather and Breach farm, owned by my father. There was a family of “drowners” – old Mr Beedon and his two sons, Bob and Jim  who taught us the work when we came over from the Isle of Wight in 1922, and I have on occasions assisted them in working the Meadow, where you are now sitting and those adjacent which are now the Eastleigh playing fields. To my knowledge there are no water meadows on the island. I often feel sad when I realise that almost all these meadows have gone never to return. I consider it a privileged to have been part of the scheme. To recall the sight of the water flowing evenly and knowing the good it was doing, gives a wonderful feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. There were several reasons for the cessation of these activities. One was the amount of labour involved, and consequently the cost, even though a farm labourers wages were but 30 shillings per week, less nine pence for insurance; a “drowner” was paid a little more. The cost in maintenance was high. The use of artificial manures did away with the need for the natural fertilisers. The levelling of the beds, carriers, floaters and drawns meant that the application of manures and harvesting of hay crops could be carried out by tractors in a fraction of the time when all had to be done by hand. The use of weed killers also got rid of the natural weeds which grew in abundance. These so called weeds were herbage of several kinds. Many of which were beneficial to the cattle, and the animals knew which they were. These have had to be replaced by antibiotics and concentrated foods etc. Also, and perhaps I am now indulging in a bit of nostalgia, there were numerous flowers, grasses, reeds and rushes, many of which I don’t know the names of and many of which you will be familiar- water avens (which we know as granny bonnets) marsh marigolds which are called kingcups, forget me nots, buttercups, milk maids, meadow sweet, shivery shaky grass. Down by the deeper drawns and by the river’s edge were meadow sweet, purple and white loosestrife, comfrey, yellow irises, and reeds of several descriptions. The taller reeds were used to cut and used for thatching hay and corn ricks. When was the last time you saw a well built and tidily and effectively thatched rick. I said I was being nostalgic didn’t I.

In a piece I wrote about the water Meadow some years ago, I told of my experience of them, but I have since read of added uses to which they were put in other parts of the country. Both my father and grandfather were dairy farmers but kept no sheep. I stated that sheep were not fed on these meadows because of  liver fluke and foot rot. I now understand that where sheep were kept, they were allowed onto the meadows at certain times of the year, but were penned on higher ground, where there were corn and other crops grown. This meant that they had the benefit of lush grass and that the crops benefited from their dung, and that treading of their feet. This enabled sheep farmers to keep larger flocks, than they would otherwise have done. In our case, having only cattle, we started preparations just before Christmas. Thus, by early February we were ready to let the water in. The positioning of the main hatches would depend on the variable change of flow of the water in the river due to weather conditions etc. Once the desired amount of water was flowing evenly over the meadow the “drowner” would walk around with his spade under his arm and make any adjustments to keep it so. By the way when doing the repair work, I always wore well-oiled leather boots, but when the water was in, I wore rubber boots. In the old days, even before my time, the drowners had no wellington’s. Do you wonder that they suffered, quite early in life, with rheumatism an arthritis. Almost the only tool of his trade was an almost heart shaped spade which he kept sharp with a carborundom stone, which he called a rubber, and which he carried in a roughly made leather or canvas type of sheath which was attached to his belt. Some areas where the soil was fibrous or spongy the spade would be effectively sharp for quite a period but where there were seams of gravel the file was constantly in use. Unfortunately, in the meadows in which I worked, there were large patches of a gravelly nature and these tend to lower the pace of work and heighten one’s temper. One invariably worked on one’s own, so this latter condition affected no one but oneself. I have said how much I enjoyed this type of work, but as in all walks of life, no matter how dedicated one is, there are always little things that cause irritation. To return to the water meadows, after about three weeks from the initial flooding the main hatch over the river was raised and the flow of water was allowed to return to its original course. The water in the meadow drained fairly quickly and very soon the grass started to grow, and if the weather was reasonably mild the rate of growth was little short of amazing. Remembering that the temperature was never really cold, except to one’s feet, and the ground had been kept frost free, it should not have been too much of a surprise. By this time of year the fields on the higher ground were eaten well down and the hay supply was getting low, so the fresh flush of grass was most welcome for the cattle and also for the monthly milk cheque for the farmer. After the water had drained away and the soil firmed up, the cows were let in on it for a few hours a day. Longer than this, due to the unaccustomed lushness of the grass, there would have been ill affects on their digestive systems. As they became used to it they were allowed longer periods and the effects were very noticeable in the milk buckets. Yes, we use buckets in those days because the milking was done by hand. I am of course talking of the days before milking machines. No longer does the cowman get the satisfaction of the sound of the steady stream of milk, as it hits the empty bucket and the deepening sound as the bucket gradually filled. Having said this, I must say that milking was not my favourite pastime and if I could get out of it by doing other work, drowning, working with horses or any of the other numerous jobs to be done on a small farm, I was glad to do so. Unfortunately, milking had to be done seven days a week, so although all other work came to a standstill on a Sunday the milking had to be attended to. Invariably, cows also decided to calve on a Sunday, or so it seemed. This could be very frustrating, especially during ones courting days.

After the first flush of grass have been fed off by the cattle, some areas will be laid up for hay. This meadow hay was of good quality, mainly because of the herbage amongst the grasses. If the weather was such that the crop could be harvested satisfactorily it continue to improve in the rick, or as we said ‘it continued to make’. When cutting out the trusses during the winter for feeding in the stable, the aroma was as sweet smelling as a bit of tobacco and the cattle enjoyed every mouthful. The present day method of hay making and stacking in the form of bales, is to me, a retrograde step although I must admit the process is less time consuming, and being mechanised, does away with the hard work, sweat and aching muscles that we experienced by the old method. The reason I say it is a retrograde step is because, when baled and stacked it doesn’t ‘continue to make’ to the same degree. In building a bale stack the hay is not layered and does not settle and heat up, partly because of the airspaces between the bales. I have had a difference of opinion with some of the younger generation regarding this. They can’t, or won’t  seem to accept that there is certain sadness when quality is sacrificed to speed and mechanisation. The fact that there is the need for antibiotics and concentrated foodstuffs to replace the natural quality of the herbage doesn’t seem to be taken into consideration. However, I am bound to admit that this is the price of progress. I used to say that no machine had yet been invented that could replace the work of the old “drowner”. I now agree that much of the work of keeping the main carriers and “drawns” in condition could be done by machines, but still insist that the detailed work needed to attend to the actual beds must be done by hand. The channels along the ridges of the beds, the floaters were spade width about 9 inches and about two inches deep. Imagine, if you will, the effect of the hooves of horses and cattle and the tracks of carts, waggons, or even tractors over these floaters. Even a single hoof mark is enough to allow a stream of water to escape with the consequent diminution of flow further along. Even a mole run, with the water continuously running through it, will increase in size with the consequent lessening of the quantity needed further on. What the “drowner” did with his spade was clear away any obstructions in the channel and strategically place them in the offending gaps. If deep they had to be held in place by pegs, cut from the nearby hedgerow or consolidated by the heel of a boot. As I said, no machine has, or will ever be, invented that can think and decide where to make these adjustments. Even the most mechanically minded have conceded this point. However, as the water meadows have now virtually disappeared, there will be no need for the inventors or engineers to puzzle their heads over this problem. One other advantage of these meadows I forgot to mention was that, after the hay crop was taken, the channels were given a quick overhaul, the area flooded for a few days or so and soon, now that the weather was warm, the grass would really grow. Imagine the value of this when the higher fields were eaten bare and browned by the summer sun.

I have spoken of the satisfaction in the mind of the drowner as he views his handiwork. The sight of the water flowing evenly over every inch of the land, knowing the benefits that will  accrue in the days ahead, gives him a feeling which is beyond me to describe. If you glance out of the window you will see a field of lush green grass, level and weed free, where Richards cattle are contently feeding. The conversion from the old water meadow has been well done and is profitable, but I will say that, because I am old fashioned in my ways and ideas and maybe because I am being nostalgic. I regret the passing of what was to me and many others quite an achievement in producing additional feed for cattle, winter and summer. There, too, is the loss of all those flowers, rushes, and reeds that I mentioned, together with the fauna. The nesting places of so many birds, peewits, moorhens, dabchicks, wild duck and even the occasional heron, have been disturbed and even destroyed. The disturbance has also meant that one no longer sees the otter around. I am sure you know understand me when I say I am saddened by all this and regret that progress, as it is called, can only be made by the destruction of so much that is beautiful, and has for many generations, been worthwhile.

The End