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Stan Clark -Water Meadows. 

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In my last years of attending Bugbrooke School, Mr Lantsbury gave the top class a project to do about Mr Philip Campion's Farm. Mr Campion came into school one afternoon a week for a start, and gave us talks all about the farm and all the names of the fields, and what he grew in them. He also explained the crop rotation system that he was using, and the reason why, along with its advantages.

The water meadows in flood, January 2008

One boundary to his farm was the river Nene, and this was where the water meadows were situated. Mr Campion not only came and gave us a lecture about these meadows, but took us all down into them one fine summer’s day to have a look at them. I was to find it fascinating, as to all the goings on which kept them in good condition, along with the reasons and the way they were managed. At the time these meadows were full of wild flowers and vetches with so many different insects, butterflies and moths. The place was so alive, and for me to be out of the class room was so wonderful and exciting, for it was how I  loved things to be, next to mother nature as she really is.

Mr Campion told us that these meadows had been flooded every year in the winter months for hundreds of years. One of the reasons was so that the rich silt that the water carried within it, was deposited on these meadows. It contained nutrients and minerals that were good for the soil, and for what ever grew in these meadows. Another main reason for allowing them to flood was that, in the winter months when the hard winters set in and everything was frozen solid, the ice that formed on these flooded meadows kept the ground from getting frost in, so that when the spring came along and the water had been drained from out of these meadows, it was found that they could get very early crops off them, especially the heavy hay crops that were full of nutrients.

One other thing that was an advantage to people living down stream, was that by containing water in all these meadows that were situated both side of the river Nene, it would help to alleviate flooding, as the sudrush of water that was used to flood these meadows did not go down stream, but was contained within these wet lands and released gradually over the back end of winter into early spring.

The water meadows looking west from Bugbrooke Mill.  The Nene is on the right with the flooded meadow to the left.  January 2008.

The Anglia Water Board found the information that I had recorded about the management of these meadows to be very useful and informative. I was requested to attend one of their meetings, in an advisory capacity for the Mayor of Northampton at the time , Mr Arthur McCutchen.

From the source of the Nene down its whole length to the Wash, a great deal of time and effort went into building sluices and keeping the channels clear, not only to help flood the land but to drain it ready for the very early grass crops. At one period in time, hundreds of men were kept in employment by the upkeep and maintenance of controlling these meadows and the water levels.

The last area to employ people to do this job of maintenance were in the fenlands of Norfolk and Lincolnshire and the Bedford Levels. These counthave very large rivers running through them to the Wash. Some were nicknamed fen tigers as, at one time a lot lost their lives with swamp fever (what we know now as a type of malaria).

The meadow lands in this area of Northamptonshire, were known to be some of the richest grazing lands in England. Cattle would be driven all the way from Wales down the road known as Welsh Lane (B4525) or down the old Banbury Lane itself at one time, when they would be fattened up ready for Market.

It is on record that Cattle were sent to this area not only from Wales but Ireland as well for this purpose. It was to keep the Drovers very busy for hundreds of years doing this job until the railways were up and running, and the cattle were brought to Northamptonshire by rail, or to Banbury, Blisworth, and St Johns Street Station (that once stood opposite the Northampton Cattle Market), thus makine drovers jobs none existent over night.

From the upper reaches of the Nene and its tributaries all the way to the Wash, the water meadows were used not only for fattening up cattle, but for reed cutting for thatching, osier beds for basket making, and for the growing of willow trees for making load ladders from the long curved boughs and for thatching pegs to hold the thatch down onto the roofs. Gypsies would make all manner of clothes pegs from these willow trees. Wild fowling and different shoots took place too, because of the different water fowl the river and wet lands attracted at different times of the year. The jobs are too manifold to mention.

Mr Campion talked about all the mills that once used the water for power that were spread out down the whole length of these streams and rivers to the Wash. For one period there were two water driven flour mills in Bugbe. One was down the West End of the village, and one stood up upstream from where Heygates Mill now stands. Starting from Kislingbury Mill and working upstream, there are mills at Harpole, Bugbrooke (Heygate’s), Heyford , Flore, Weedon, and Dodford. The Nene is joined by another stream at Weedon with mills further upstream on both tributaries, such as Snorscome mill next to the village of Everdon.

Upstream from Bugbrooke there is Orestone brook, with the adjoining Wash brook. Both of these tributaries had small flour mills situated upon them at one time. When I was a young boy, a mill stood on the side of the old Banbury Lane near to Pattishall, that has since been demolished. All these mills and places of work controlled the flow of water, together with small or large meadows that would flood and take the extra water if and when it rained more than normal.

The only time nowt the river floods these meadows and wet lands, is when the river breaks its banks. It is no longer managed as it was years ago, and the river is not encouraged to break its banks any more, due to all the new dwellings that have been built along it and on its flood plains. Now the banks are built up very high or they dig them out several metres deeper while straightening out certain lengths so that they contain the excess water and they get the water to run downstream faster. Someone else gets the problem with the excess water.

As far as I know there not many people taking an interest in the old ways of looking after the river until things go very wrong, when there is a flash flood or such likes. Folks then ask what is going wrong when the answer is staring them in the face. One old man once said to me it’s no good digging out the bottom of a dry puddle in order to make more room for the water, for when it does come it will always find its own level.

Mr Campion rightly predicted problems would arise if the water meadows, along with the streams and rivers were to be neglected in the future.

Stanley Joseph Clark