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Water meadows

Water meadows were fairly common in Herefordshire, and were often found adjacent to mills of one sort or another. A water meadow was an ancient system of encouraging the growth of grass before the growing season to provide stock with an early feed. Water is diverted from the river by means of carriers to irrigate the meadow, preventing the ground from freezing. The water is controlled by a series of sluices, which divert the water through narrow head mains, over the meadow and into the wider drains; the intention was never to flood the meadow. Hay could be taken in the summer, after which the meadow could be floated again to encourage grass growth for late grazing. It also helped reduce the problem of a shortage of spring feed, especially at lambing time.

The first English account of floating meadows was written by Rowland Vaughan, who described his works at Turnastone (the "Trench Royal", HER reference no. 365) in the Golden Valley during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

There are thirty-three water meadows listed on the Historic Environment Record database, and they are located in various parts of the county. One of the earliest schemes was a large system of floated meadows at Staunton-on-Arrow (HER 31942), which was begun in 1660 and not completed until 50 years later. Lord Scudamore also had floated meadows on his land at Holme Lacy (HER 31941) in 1709 and William Brydges of Tyberton had water meadows laid down by specialist workmen in 1712 (HER 31940), with instruction for them to come back and re-do it the following year.

The most common water meadows in Herefordshire were on the simpler cathwork system, whereby streams were run over hillside pastures, utilising their natural fall. In the 1770s the benefits of water meadows were said to be immense, but the practice was by no means common. Artificial water meadows could not be constructed along the deeply-entrenched Wye, and some other waters could not be exploited to their full potential due to divided ownership rights over meadows and streams.

Water meadows of various types were most common towards the end of the 18th century, and a few more were floated in the first half of the 19th century.

Owing to high labour costs, water meadows became uneconomical to maintain and few are still operational. Beside the river Lugg at Hereford, recently much contested ground, dole stones still mark different holders' strips.

The water meadows at the Venn Farm in Bishops Frome (HER 38503) can still be easily identified on the ground and give us a clue as to how they worked. There is a series of ditches in a field with the river on the east and a mill race on the west, and the area covers about three hectares. The ditches run east to west between the river and the mill race; they are 1m wide and 0.2m deep with a gap of about 5m between each ditch. Halfway along they are all cut by a channel that runs north to south, and this would appear to drain into the river. There is a series of bridges and weirs along the channels, presumably to control the water flow.

[Original author: Miranda Greene, 2005]