In his excellent book The History of the Countryside, Oliver Rackham describes four ways in which we lose our landscape: the loss of beauty, of freedom, of wildlife and vegetation, and of meaning. There’s also a fifth way in which we can lose our landscape: by forgetting.
Water meadows – true water meadows that is – were found alongside many rivers in England, but it was the chalk rivers of the South that lent their unique qualities particularly well to the creation of what has been called the pinnacle of intensive farming before the industrial revolution. In a historical context intensive is a term which, when compared to the mechanised, economically driven farming that holds sway over much of our countryside today, rather pales into insignificance. True water meadows were not just meadows alongside rivers that were flooded in times of high flows, but meadows that were purposely flooded or drowned – the men carrying out the flooding were called drowners – using an artificially dug channels. They ranged from simple gravity fed systems to a complex plexus of sluices, hatches, drains, mains, carriers and channels. The idea was not to flood the meadows with standing water which would kill the grasses, but to have a constant stream or trickle of water flowing into, across and then out of the meadow. By drowning at particular times of year, and preventing frosts, Spring growth on a water meadow occurred earlier. Livestock would benefit from the ‘early bite,’ and a harvestable hay crop also occurred earlier. [continue]