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Resurrecting the Past to Save the Future

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Resurrecting the Past to Save the Future

Simon Cooper has reason to regret his mocking of water meadow restoration…







A decade ago I was sitting in The Mill Arms in Dunbridge, a long cast away from the River Dun, just a mile upstream of the confluence with the River Test. I was having a drink with the then Countryside Manager and River Keeper for the Mottisfont Abbey estate, Phil Marshall.  Phil was trying to convince me, via the aid of a biro and beer soaked napkin, that restoring the water meadows was:

a) a good idea
b) practical
c) going to happen.

To my shame, though I broadly agreed with a), I mocked him for b) and c). Driving past the meadows of his dream recently I had reason to regret my mocking.

Water meadows first arrived in the chalkstream valleys back in the 1600's when the Earl of Pembroke, an owner of vast tracts of Wiltshire, invited Dutch engineers over. Over the next few decades they turned the River Avon valley into one enormous flood plain, which in turn spawned many imitators so that soon hundreds of thousands of acres were purposefully covered with water from Christmas to late spring.

Though the agricultural reasons for the water meadows is something largely forgotten the relics are still to be seen. Sometimes you'll come across impressive stone hatches, hewn from the local limestone, that stretch across the river. Other times dried-up channels that radiate across the field for no apparent reason. Or little thatched dwellings, in the middle of nowhere, that straddle a stream.  These all had a purpose: the hatches redirected the water, the channels carried it across the fields (hence the terms carriers) and the buildings were home to 'Drowners', the men who lived out on the meadows controlling the flows night and day.

It was a huge undertaking, both financial and physical, that from around the time of Thomas Cromwell created an early form of intensive agriculture. These water meadows, protected and fertilized by the chalkstream water, provided the lushest winter grazing in Europe, earning fortunes for the landowners who were able to send their cattle and sheep to market earlier than anyone else to command premium prices.

Like most agricultural innovations it wasn't going to last for ever, but it lasted longer than most, in fact right up into the early 1900s when mechanisation changed farming methods. Today the water meadows as pioneered over four centuries ago barely exist (more about those that do in a minute) but the remnants live on and for that we should be grateful. In its most obvious form there are the carriers, mill streams and hatch pools that fishermen still enjoy - by some estimates they add 30 or 40 miles of bank to the length of the River Test alone.  And those dried-up channels are not as dried-up as they often look. In a wet winter they fill with water, soaking up moisture that provides a damp haven for insect life and meadow flowers all year long.

So even though they might seem past their sell-by-date, and mostly obsolete, the water meadows are still the most amazing home for the fly life and creatures that we all crave as chalkstream fishermen. But some people, like Phil Marshall, have gone one better, resurrecting the past to save the future. In the shadow of Salisbury Cathedral, the Harnham Water Meadow Trust have restored those early Pembroke meadows. High up the Itchen Valley at the junction with the Candover Brook Roger Harrison has the most wonderful wet land. And most recently the National Trust, prodded and cajoled by Phil, have created something new.

In the strictest sense they are not full blown water meadows, flooded by night and drained by day, but they are close as dammit for our 21st century needs. A decade ago I was foolish enough to doubt Phil, but I am glad to be wrong - these are a perfect incarnation of what makes chalkstreams so great.

Though not open to the public you are able to view the water meadows from the road. Turn off the A3057 between Stockbridge and Romsey at the brown National Trust/Mottisfont Abbey sign. Cross the River Test and the meadows are on your left, opposite the Abbey car park.


Flyfishing.co.uk is delighted to bring you Simon’s feature, which was first published in his ‘Fishing Breaks’ Newsletter. Simon’s company, Fishing Breaks, based in the heart of the River Test Valley, offers some of the finest chalkstream fly fishing available in the UK – and a whole lot more. Check out their website HERE


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river test, chalkstream, Simon Cooper, water meadows

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