The Cerne Abbas Water Meadows

From John Staley, a retired estates manager who supervised the partial restoration of the water meadow –

Water meadows, constructed from the 16th to the early 20th centuries, were areas of grassland subject to controlled irrigation to increase agricultural productivity.  In Cerne Abbas we are fortunate to have a complex water meadow at Barton Farm.

The water meadow was fed by water from the River Cerne, diverted by a series of boards manually moved up and down in a channel which was called a carrier.  The first sluice controlled a series of four smaller hatches supplying a flow of water to the meadow.  Each section of the meadow was irrigated by a small channel called a main that carried the water to the crest of each ridge where it overflowed and trickled down the sides (the panes) to enter a ditch and so return the water to the river.

diagram of the channels dug to manage the water meadow

An irrigated water meadow accelerated the growth of grass as water warmed the land in the winter so as to encourage vegetation.  This was the result of a steady flow of water keeping frost at bay.  The early growth of grass enabled farmers to give their flocks, both cattle and sheep, “an early bite” some four to six weeks before normal pasture.

The water meadows were a remarkable feat of agricultural engineering constructed entirely with hand tools and over long hours of work.  The men who did the work were known as drowners and meadmen.

Visitors are welcome to walk through Barton Farm water meadow but are advised by the land’s owner, Cognatum Ltd, that they do so at their own risk.

HOW TO FIND BARTON FARM WATER MEADOW:  A public footpath and sign to the water meadow can be found at the entrance to the Tithe Barn in The Folly.  Please keep to the path as it crosses private property.  On passing through a gate turn left over a bridge to arrive at the water meadow.


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