Old Ways

Water Meadows, What are They?

Water meadows were first developed by medieval farmers as a form of irrigation. This type of water management system played a significant role in agriculture from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries.

They were of particular importance during the months of March and April to sustain livestock. Winter feed stores had pretty much been used up by then, and grass in summer grazing fields had not yet come through.

The grass in water meadows grew earlier and was rich in nutrients, meaning animals could be fed earlier in the yea. Maintaining water meadows was very labour intensive.

Although some survived until later, they generally fell out of use in the late Victorian era. Agricultural methods went through huge changes, with increased mechanisation and the introduction of chemical fertilisers.


What is a Water Meadow?

Water meadows are quite distinct from other forms of wet grassland. Essentially they were irrigated areas alongside a river or stream. These special areas produced hay and rich pasture. They varied in size from a few hectares to the entire length of a river flood plain. Water meadows were often created in groups where the landscape was suitable.

flooded water meadow
A good example of how water meadows look like when flooded. Credit: English Heritage

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Carefully engineered channels were dug to bring water from the source to the fields. A series of weirs and sluices connected the channels. The whole system worked together, allowing a shallow layer of oxygenated water to flow across the meadow.

Eel House, Salisbury water meadows.
Eel House, Salisbury water meadows. From the days when extensive irrigation programmes were undertaken in Salisbury’s water meadows, and eels were plentiful in the Avon, now it’s no longer in use, and is falling into disrepair. Fascinating building, it’s on private land.

This process is known as ‘floating’ or ‘drowning’. It was used for limited periods at certain times of the year. The person responsible for maintaining a meadow system was called a ‘drowner’. Also known as ‘meadmen’ or ‘watermen’, they were highly skilled labourers. The flows were controlled so as to, in turn, flood and then drain a meadow.

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The drowner’s aim was to bring nutrient bearing silt from the river and deposit it evenly across the land. Tight control of the irrigation meant he could keep the meadows watered, fertilised and warm.

Early Growth

The periods of flooding also helped keep weed growth to a minimum. A carefully managed cycle could maximise the early growth of grass. The grass was used for spring grazing and to make hay in the summer.

water meadows
Water meadows allowed an early ‘bite’ for the flocks after a long winter

The movement of the thin film of water had to be carefully maintained, so it wasn’t allowed to stand and waterlog the ground.

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The nutrient laden silt oxidised the soil, which reduced the effects of frost in winter. It also raised the soil temperature enough to encourage grass to grow weeks before other pastures were ready. Later in the year, summer floating raised the moisture level of the meadows to increase the hay crop.


Early irrigation in England (pre-seventeenth century) was carried out by a process known as ‘floating upwards’. This simply involved blocking a river or stream and causing a controlled overflow which flooded the surrounding farmland. This practise continued until the eighteenth century in some areas of England.

water meadow
A drowner at work on a seven-hatch weir at Lower Farm, Britford, near Salisbury, in 1954.

In the 1700s, Dutch engineers introduced another method of floating upwards known as ‘warping’. Warping was used extensively in The Fens and involved the diversion of seasonal tide water. Floating upwards generally deposited silt and provided some protection from frost. However, if the water didn’t drain off quickly enough, the grass could be damaged.

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‘Floating downwards’ systems were developed to prevent this. While floating upwards systems involved blocking the watercourse, a downward floating meadow was irrigated by a network of leats and channels.

This kept the water moving and meant the flow could be strictly controlled. The two main methods of floating downwards are known as ‘catchworks’ and ‘bedworks’. The topography of the area determined which system was best to use.

Catchworks systems were simpler but needed steeper hillsides or plenty of natural springs. Bedworks could carry water over much shallower gradients using more sophisticated man-made waterways.


The catchwork system, also known as ‘catch meadow’ or ‘field gutter’, was the simplest type of downward floated water meadow. Water from springs or streams running off a hill would be used to irrigate a valley or hill slope.

While hay was made in many fields, generally speaking the best grass for hay was that grown in waterside meadows, especially carefully-managed water meadows. Credit: Historic England

If these water sources weren’t available, a feeder pond would be used to collect rainwater. The water was then diverted into a ditch or ‘gutter’. These gutters followed the contours of the land to run along the top of the meadow. A drowner could block individual gutters using stops of turf, peat or logs, or the use of a more permanent sluice. In this way, he caused the water to overflow and run down the hill, irrigating the area of meadow below.

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As it continued on its journey, the water would drain into other gutters running parallel to the first. The process could begin all over again and the lower pastures were also irrigated. The way the flow of water down the hill and at the bottom of the meadow was regulated ensured any surplus was carried away by a drainage system.


The more complex bedworks were used to irrigate lower ground on river floodplains. A weir or dam was constructed across a river, with sluices to send water into a carrier channel or ‘head main’, which was often positioned on the outside of a river bend.

diagram of a water meadow
Diagram of how water meadows work. Credit: Cerne Abbas water meadows project

A hatch could be opened which let water pass into the head main. The water would then flow through a series of progressively narrower and shallower channels. Each of these channels was carefully aligned, with the exact positioning dictated by the meadow’s gradient.

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Smaller hatches and turf stops could precisely control the flow of water, so that it could be directed to specific areas of the meadow.

Eventually the water entered tapering channels known as ‘floats’, which ran along the tops of parallel ridges or ‘beds’. These ridges were normally about five metres wide, but could be anything between three and fifteen metres, with a depth of about half a metre.

A sluice on the River Nadder water meadows.
A sluice on the River Nadder water meadows. Image credit: Ian Capper

Overflowing from the ridges, the water irrigated each part of the meadow in succession. The ridge sides were known as ‘panes’ and the water would run down them as a continuous moving film with a maximum depth of no more than 25mm.

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A network of drains took the runoff and they worked on the same principle as the mains and floats. Gullies started small and gradually became larger, eventually emptying into one single ‘tail drain’.

The Napoleonic Wars

With the coming of the Agricultural Revolution in the mid-seventeenth century, English wetlands were turned into productive fields and pastures. The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) saw food prices rise dramatically and, as a consequence, an increased number of farmers and landowners invested in catchworks and bedworks.

The engineering of a water meadow took time and money, and required the building of additional structures of one form or another. Bridges were often needed to provide access. Culverts were built to take the water underneath roads and aqueducts carried it to further areas of meadow.

Bedworks required the construction of a main dam or weir to divert the river water. Smaller weirs and sluices along the way ensured an even distribution of water.

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A variety of materials were used, depending on what was available. Early hatches were just boards which slotted into wooden frames or stone settings. Fitted vertically, they could be raised and lowered as required by simple peg and hole arrangements.

Later, bricks and cement were used for the hatch settings and the boards had iron ratchet and crow bar raising mechanisms. By the 1800s, cast iron was being used for both weirs and hatches.

Salisbury water meadow

Little is left of these today, but an accumulation of loose material near the bank of a river or stream may indicate where they were once sited, or where they are now buried beneath the surface.

Where are Water Meadows Found?

Water meadows would have been found in many parts of England where conditions were suitable. They were notably more abundant in some areas because of the geography of the landscape and the agricultural system in use.

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Another influence was locations of larger estates owned and run by the agricultural improvers of the 18th and 19th century.

Catchworks were cheap to build and operate. They relied on the slope of the ground and there was no need to employ a professional drowner, so they were popular with hill farmers in Devon, Somerset and the Welsh Marches, where they significantly improved hill pastures.

Check LiDAR for signs of water meadows, they are very distinctive.

Bedworks were an essential element of the ‘sheep and corn’ economy of Wiltshire, Dorset and Hampshire for over four hundred years. The sheep grazed on the meadows during the day and would then be moved to spend their nights on unsown arable fields, where their dung would enrich the soil.

Water meadows meant more grass to feed the sheep, which in turn meant larger flocks could be maintained. More sheep meant more dung and greatly increased corn crops.

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As a result, bedworks became so profitable that by the eighteenth century they occupied almost every significant floodplain in the region.

Both catchworks and bedworks were used in other areas of England, including many Midlands counties, although not always so successfully. Some were known to have been established in East Anglia, but they were far less common and virtually non-existent in Northern England.

The Decline Of Water Meadows

An agricultural recession began in the UK in the late nineteenth century and so water meadows gradually fell out of use. Cheap foreign grain began to arrive in abundance. Many farmers switched to feeding their livestock on the root crops and oil cake that were being introduced. At the same time, new grass strains and artificial fertilisers were being developed.

Now abandoned,the water meadows either side of the river have many troughs like this, which would have been used for water management in flood conditions.

Hill pastures could be improved by reseeding and the application of nitrogen, so catchwork meadows were no longer needed. Bedworks were such an integral part of the sheep and corn system that they quickly fell into disuse as it broke down.

As well as grain, with improved transport links and refrigeration, cheaper lamb from New Zealand started to be imported on a large scale and dairy cattle had replaced sheep on the bedworks that were left by the 1930s.

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Their milk was transported by rail for sale in town and cities, which saved many farms from bankruptcy. Just twenty years later, falling milk prices and a shortage of labour made the few water meadows which had survived uneconomical. By the 1960s, most had been levelled and the sites put to new use.

The Harnham Water Meadows

(HWMs) are located on a 40-hectare island between Salisbury and West Harnham. This area is formed by the division of the River Nadder before it merges with the Wiltshire Avon near Salisbury Cathedral.

The Dean and Chapter of Salisbury Cathedral, along with the Harnham Water Meadows Trust (HWMT), own the majority of the land. The HWMT manages approximately 34 hectares of water meadows and former water meadows, while the remaining area is privately owned and not under the management of HWMT.

The HWMs are renowned as one of the most famous systems of water meadows in England, with the prominent view of Salisbury Cathedral from much of the site.

They showcase a historical progression, starting from medieval grazing marshes and evolving into a series of water meadow constructions. Some areas have experienced degradation due to the abandonment of peat soil regions and limited ploughing during World War II.

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Currently, the meadows serve various purposes, including sheep pasture, hay meadow, floodplain meadow, and water-fringe areas with reed beds.


Approximately 10% of the total area may be periodically flooded, mainly due to consistently low river levels in the Nadder, which is a concern addressed by the Environment Agency. About 60% of the meadows still retain the infrastructure for irrigation, offering potential for restoration with modest investment.

Preserving the heritage value is a significant aspect of meadow management, and the HWMT incorporates archaeological remains into its restoration efforts. The meadows also hold the status of being a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) due to their diverse vegetation.

The interests of the natural environment and historical significance are balanced through a Farm Environment Plan, which serves as the foundation for management. In 2008, HWMT successfully enrolled the area in Higher Level Stewardship as an historic landscape, with administration and advice provided by Natural England.

The Friends of the HWMT, operating for over two decades, plays a crucial role in engaging the local community, including educational initiatives and outreach programs, with the help of dedicated volunteers you can also find them on Facebook

The Trust’s success can be attributed to a combination of professional services and volunteer efforts, as well as strong partnerships with other organizations.

Funding for the Trust’s work comes from various sources, including donations raised by the Friends, agri-environment scheme payments from Natural England and other public bodies, grazing rent, bequests, grants from charitable foundations, and income generated through visits and lectures provided by the Trust.


During the seventeenth century, the rapid development of water meadows in the chalkland valleys of Dorset stands out as a remarkable aspect of the region’s agricultural history. Dr. Eric Kerridge has provided a detailed account of the introduction and use of water meadows in the neighboring county of Wiltshire.

water meadow
River Piddle. View SE downstream at Druce Farm NW of Puddletown, Dorset The rivers and waterways in this valley were heavily managed in previous centuries to supply water meadows such as this one. Additionally, many watercress beds were established here

These water meadows were also prevalent in the chalkland areas of Hampshire. They played a crucial role in providing abundant grass feed for sheep flocks during the lean months of March and April when hay was scarce and natural grass growth was limited. This allowed for the maintenance of large sheep populations, which impressed contemporaries at the time.

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The primary purpose of these sheep flocks was for folding on arable land. The water meadows served as an essential foundation for agricultural advancements in the chalkland regions, as they enabled larger flocks to be sustained. The intensive use of sheepfolds was necessary to maintain the fertility of these thin soils.


The fast-flowing streams of the Dorset chalklands were well-suited for the creation of water meadows. The water originated directly from the vast underground reservoirs of the chalk downs.

Disused water meadow sluice in Dorset
Water meadows, Stinsford
Part of the old and sadly out of use sluice system that controlled the ebb and flow of water across the water meadows. Three sluices can be seen here. You can just about make out the chimneys of Kingston Maurwood House, above the trees between the two closes sluices.

It carried valuable sediment that deposited among the roots of the meadow grass. Additionally, the water had a constant temperature of approximately 54°F to 58°F throughout the year, making it ideal for preventing frost damage and encouraging early grass growth.

The excellent drainage in the chalkland areas, along with carefully designed levels and channels, ensured that the water flowed smoothly over the meadow’s surface. Stagnation was avoided as it would harm the grass instead of promoting its growth.

Constructing a water meadow was a costly and labor-intensive endeavor. It is interesting to note that there are no documented references to preliminary attempts at creating water meadows in Dorset. The origin of the necessary expertise and how the idea was initially conceived or disseminated within the county remains unclear.

There is no evidence to suggest that Dorset farmers were influenced by contemporaneous developments in Wiltshire or aware of the experiments conducted by Howland Vaughan in Herefordshire’s Golden Valley. In fact, the watering of meadows in Dorset seems to have started before Vaughan’s book was published in 1610.

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