The history of the
Harnham Water Meadows
Explore our History
The Harnham Water Meadows are one of England’s best-known meadow irrigation systems. Wessex, in general, is a critical area for water meadows.
They form an important part of the historical landscape along with canals, mills, watercress beds and other engineered river-system features.
More about the Harnham Water Meadows
Located between West Harnham and Salisbury, the meadows sit at the confluence of the River Avon and the River Nadder. This includes around 100 acres of historic bedwork water meadows in various states of preservation on an island in the river system. The Trust owns approximatey half of these, but manages all of them. Around 10 acres are irrigated most winters when river levels are sufficient. Some areas have lost their infrastructure and operate merely as flood meadows.
There were water mills at Fisherton for corn milling, and the West Harnham Old Mill was industrial. Originally river levels were controlled at both mills, making drowning of the meadows easier than today. Today’s automated radial sluice gates by The Old Mill pub replaced an original structure.
What is a water meadow?
A true water meadow is a pasture irrigation system watered at the discretion of the farmer and a skilled specialist worker. The person who maintained and operated the meadows was called the ‘drowner’.
The early history of water meadows
Historically water meadows proved to be very important economically. Their construction and operation can be shown to date from the middle-ages in both England and continental Europe, but their widespread adoption really occurred during the seventeenth century.
Floated water meadows spread throughout Wessex, starting in Dorset in the 1600s and reaching the Wiltshire chalk valleys by the 1630s. There is no clear documented information describing the construction of the Harnham Water Meadows. However, on circumstantial evidence, it is believed to have been around 1660. This was when the meadow system was laid out on a pre-existing marshland at the confluence of the Avon and Nadder.
Changes in agriculture affect the water meadows
The vulnerability of the Sheep-Corn system to the economic downturn and technological change was demonstrated by factors such as labour costs, the introduction of imported fertiliser, and cheaper production of grain and lamb from North America and Australasia. This primarily occurred after the recession in English agriculture in 1879. After this time, some water meadows would have been abandoned while others changed to alternative husbandry depending on market prices for milk, meat, and hay.
Mid-19th century water meadows
to modern times
In the mid-19th century, the Earl of Pembroke made the last significant changes to the Harnham Water Meadows. His team built new carriers, hatches and aqueducts, formed using Victorian concrete, and small bridges over the channels to enable hay carts to be used to transport the hay off the meadows. The recession after 1879 meant that between 1880 and 1950, the number of sheep in Wiltshire dropped. Artificial fertilisers were introduced for arable land, farming was mechanised and many water meadows were gradually abandoned.
At Harnham, only the lower Seven Acres would likely have been watered throughout the history of the meadows. Here, land sales, removal of hatches and possible shallow ploughing in some areas during the Second World War diminished the infrastructure designed to irrigate the meadows. While anecdotal evidence suggests watering in places continued until the 1950s, installing the radial gates at West Harnham in the 1970s caused the overall river level to drop. Over-abstraction upstream further reduced the volume of river water available for irrigation.