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The History of The Harnham Water Meadows

Click here for the Evolution of The Harnham Water Meadows

The meadows between two arms of the River Nadder reaching virtually into the centre of the City of Salisbury, and known as the Harnham Water Meadows, are part of the extensive and highly visible aspect of the irrigation system of floated water meadows, dating in the main from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries. These flanked all the rivers of the Wessex chalkland (much of Wiltshire and reaching into Dorset and Hampshire) including the five rivers that converge in or near Salisbury. For a location map click here.

Salisbury has expanded over the last century or so, with building on much of the flood plain obliterating most of the meadows around Harnham. However the central part of the formerly more extensive system has remained in agricultural use, no doubt protected by its position as a virtual island with limited access, and subject to wider flooding.

The first known reference to the meadows at Harnham was in 1669. There is no known record of any owners or to whom the land may have been leased until 1743. Then the ownership of the manor of West Harnham was in the hands of the Earl of Pembroke and his Steward was in charge of seeing that the occupants of various sections of the meadows were properly maintaining and operating them. At the time of Enclosure in 1787 a detailed map was made of the parish of West Harnham. It shows for the first time all the occupants of the various meads and how all the main carriers were placed. By this time the Earls of Pembroke and Radnor were the two principal landowners.

The next major development was in mid nineteenth century when the then Earl of Pembroke constructed a new system of carriers on the western meadows. This had early concrete (rather than the original stone or brickwork that had followed during the eighteenth century) for the sluices, bridges over culverts in the main drains and some channel margins. The system became more complex with aqueducts and inverse syphons to carry main carriages over or under drains.

The agricultural archaeological remains now visible on the Harnham meadows date partly from the early to mid seventeenth century but there have been changes and additions since. Documentary evidence, on particular floated systems, is very limited but it is clear that such systems were widespread on the chalk rivers of Wessex by the eighteenth century. These irrigation systems remained in active use through much of the nineteenth century and some into the first half of the twentieth. A very few remain in use and the Harnham Water Meadows Trust is engaged in a programme of some restoration to working order, although this has also to incorporate current conservation needs.

With the introduction of artificial fertilizers and the agricultural depression the irrigation systems generally fell into disuse between the mid nintenth and mid twentieth centuries. Parts of the Harnham system now managed by the Trust are thought to have been operated into the 1920’s but protected from modern development since then by its ‘island’ position.

Floated meadows are now valued for their contribution to the well being of rivers and flood plains- defined as Watering - the science, history, management and conservation of water meadows.

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