When I visited Itchen Stoke Mill Farm a few weeks ago, the trees had lost their leaves but the River Itchen still sparkled in the late autumn sunshine. Alresford folk often walk, cycle or drive past the farm’s glorious water meadow on their way to lunch at The Bush Inn, Ovington, but few get the chance to stop and watch the meadow work. I was lucky to be invited with my family, neighbours and their dogs to join the Hampshire Conservation Volunteers (HCV) as they prepared to open a vital sluice gate. This gate would divert the river ‘in at a trot and out at a gallop’ through the ancient network of ditches and drains, floating the meadow for winter.
Hugh Corry, the HCV’s librarian, told me that this story began nearly 400 years ago, when an enterprising mill owner heard of some new improved agricultural methods being tried out in the East Anglian fens. Controlled flooding in the autumn would protect the grass from frost (it takes a lot more cold to freeze a sheet of moving water than an unprotected tussock of grass) and spring flooding would boost the growth of the meadow with nutrient-rich silt. The only snag was, digging out a network of ditches from scratch by hand would very hard work – where would the mill owner get the staff? Fortunately, the corn mill at Itchen Stoke served two villages: Itchen Stoke on the north bank and Ovington on the south. With stakeholders in both parishes, he could call on plenty of labour to develop the meadows. The villagers started digging between 1635 and 1650, running feeder channels in on ridges along drainage ditches and out through the hollows. The system’s sinuous paths still trace the contours today, and look more like a human circulatory system than the regular herringbone design used later in Victorian water meadows. After the initial great dig, the ditches were maintained by one man, the ‘drowner’, and a boy who worked from October to April. They kept the system clear of blockages, ensuring that one inch of water could be made to ebb and flow steadily across the meadow during that period.
The project was successful. The water meadow produced early grass for the sheep in the spring, and two or three hay crops each year, doubling its productivity in the days before synthetic fertilisers. Maybe it was too successful, for the Itchen Stoke Mill meadow got left behind. Its owners ignored ‘Turnip’ Townshend’s four-field crop rotation in the eighteenth century, rejected guano imports from Chile in the nineteenth and spurned synthetic nitrate fertilisers in the twentieth.
The net result is an ancient water meadow, bustling with birds, animals, river creatures and flowers. The Harrison family manage the farm as a River Itchen Site of Special Scientific Interest and qualify for Natural England’s Higher level Stewardship. For the last 40 years, the HCV have also helped by taking on the drowner’s job for one weekend every autumn, digging annual regrowth out of ditches and shoring up mud dams. Even with the assistance of modern power tools, it’s hard-going physical work, but as the team-leader, Karen Minett, explained, ‘It’s special, an annual vigil. There’s a huge sense of satisfaction when they flood the meadow on the Sunday afternoon.’
‘We’re ready to open the sluice now!’ It was time for the HCV team to straighten their backs, children to squelch out of the ditches and dog-owners to haul swimming Labradors out of the river. When everyone was accounted for, Roger Harrison opened the gate and a silver thread of water started flowing along the main channel. It was like watching the tide flood the moat of a giant sandcastle. Then smaller hatches were opened and boards pushed down, switching the flow into arteries and veins and bringing the circulation system to life. The children rescued field voles and beetles as they scurried from their flooded homes and the grown-ups followed the flowing water down the valley. It went further than ever this year, almost reaching the disused watercress beds beside the lane. Tongue in cheek, Roger said, ‘I’ve got a book indoors with instructions on how to roll the worm-casts off the meadow, in order to scythe the hay more efficiently next year.’ But this would have to wait for a future task – the HCV team were intent on reaching the mill and their well-deserved tea.