Drove Farm, Old Alresford


Another Spring in the Arle valley. The blackthorn has nearly finished flowering, and the hawthorn is just coming into leaf. A kingfisher dives, a flash of exquisite iridescent blue. How blessed we are to be able to work in this ancient landscape, formed by the power of nature for millions of years and shaped by humans for millennia.

As landscape architects, we approach each project with respect for the layers of history created for centuries before the canvas becomes ours to work with. Each landscape shelters within its folds memories of those who went before us, and invariably, marks have been left by those who inhabited it. Some of these marks are visible, others we discover through our research, or through conversations with local people who have known the landscape for longer than we have, and some memories never quite reveal themselves in full, and we can only detect a hint of their presence.

The landscape around Drove Farm has considerable time-depth and a long association with people who settled in the vicinity of the river during the Neolitic, Bronze and Iron age. There is evidence of multiple and successive historic settlements, Celtic and Saxon on the valley sides, and Roman settlement on Fobdown just above Drove Lane.

So for centuries, the landscape at Drove Lane has seen successive human interventions, and new layers have been added continually to old frameworks. One such example is the ancient earth boundary bank which runs south
of the public footpath. This earth bank is many
centuries old.

We found the oldest written reference in a Saxon charter in the British Library
From this manuscript, a grant by King Ine to Winchester Cathedral of Land at Alresford, dated 701 (more than 1300 years old) it is evident that in Saxon times, the Arle was considered the headwater of the Itchen, which was then called the Icene, a name of Celtic origin (the majority of rivers in England were named by the Celts). The trees on these banks are of much more recent origin. The trees (lime and chestnut) planted some 150-200 years ago, formed part of a much more recent boundary associated with New Place (now Arlebury Park).

Under new ownership of the stretch of the river Arle between Drove Lane and The Dean, and associated land north of the river, we were asked to assess the history of the landscape before considering proposed new interventions.

As landscape architects we influenced the choice of natural materials for the new house that was recently completed. The flint and stone came from the very geology that underpins the riverine landscape – flints, picked from the meadows, and limestone, from an ancient Cretaceous rock formation at much greater depth with outcrops on the Hampshire/Dorset border.

Insofar the landscape is concerned, we worked with Natural England, the Wildlife Trust and the Environment Agency. The first phase of landscape restoration focused on the riverine landscape, consisting of the river, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, carrier stream, ponds and meadows.

The sheetpile weirs which compartmentalised the river were removed so the river once again flows uninhibited, allowing fish and other animals to move freely. Connectivity between the carrier stream and the river was re-established as a result of which the carrier stream is once again a nursery for young fish and invertebrates. The ponds, very degraded as previously part of a commercial fish farming operation, were de-silted, with thousands of cubic meters of silt removed, and are now largely free of algae. All industrial, concrete remnants of the fish farm were removed. A wet meadow was created alongside the river to replace the lost water meadow landscape, and the upper meadows are restored to traditional species rich hay meadows, once so characteristic for the river valley, but in decline in many places. It is a joy to see that cowslips once again grace the fields in Spring, and when the meadows are in full flower later in the Summer, they are heaving with bumblebees, butterflies and other invertebrates. This in turn attracts bats
and other animals who feed on the insects.

The field boundary along Drove Lane was re-planted with hawthorn hedgerows, which encloses the field to the north, but the southern boundary which borders the public footpath was left open. This field was planted with wild grasses characteristic of traditional hay meadows. As this field was over enriched with phosphates associated with the watercress bed gravels that were dumped on this field for years, wild flowers, which do not thrive under these soil conditions, will be introduced once the phosphate levels have dropped. Poppies, pioneers of recently disturbed soils, colonised the meadows in their thousands already in the first year. Sheep graze this meadow in the aftermath of hay production, a pastoral sight which has been welcomed by many users of the public footpath.

The Christmas tree plantation was
felled early this year. It was abandoned as a productive site, and the sale of Christmas trees ceased many years
ago. Hundreds of trees had already fallen in high winds, and Southern Electric was forced to clear a large section below the power lines to avoid the risk of interruption of power supply to the northwest of the town. By definition, biodiversity
potential of single species commercial crops is very low, so the plantation had little if any value to wildlife. The coniferous trees were also very incongruous with the traditional river valley landscape, which typically consists of small meadows enclosed by hedgerows.

The Christmas trees have been removed,
and the field is now being re-graded. The excess chalk from the excavation for the new house, now completed, will be spread in thin layers on the chalk subsoil, before the topsoil (a finite resource) is dressed over this again. The meadow will then be seeded with traditional hay meadow grasses, and wildflowers. This year alone, more than a thousand large hawthorns have been planted to form new hedgerows, and further new field
boundary trees will be planted to re-create some of the ancient boundaries which have disappeared over time. Some of the felled Christmas trees have been
recycled to improve the surface of much widened public footpaths. In the process, all barbed wire along the footpaths has been removed, which will provide a safer and more pleasant experience.

We all know this landscape is very precious to many users of the public footpaths around Alresford (Old and New), who have followed the works with interest, sometimes trepidation. However, works are now near completion and a clearer picture has emerged, which has led to greater understanding.

Many of the new layers added to this landscape acknowledge and honour the past. At the same time they are an important investment in the future, and will hopefully create valued future memories for the generations that will follow.

Imagination Design Ltd Landscape Architects – [email protected]