. The History of Hemingford Grey Meadow


The History of Hemingford Grey Meadow

Anyone standing on the old town bridge of St Ives and looking up river will be struck by how the town stops abruptly at the river. Beyond is a completely rural scene with a large expanse of grassland stretching from the river bank away into the distance and with the view to the south ending with a line of trees. In spring and summer this area is covered by long grass, and in autumn and winter the shorter grass is frequently being grazed by sheep. People may be walking along the path towards the village of Hemingford Grey. Others may be walking along the riverbank or fishing. But for a few days in most years the view will be quite different and a stranger might even think that a lake lies to the south of the town. This is when the river is in flood. The flood waters bring fertility to the grassland and whilst the waters are temporarily stored on the Meadow the houses in the town and the village are saved from flooding.

The Meadow is very near St Ives and has always had strong links with the town but it is, in fact, in the parish of Hemingford Grey; the old parish boundary between the town and the village follows the course of the River Great Ouse. It is known as Hemingford Grey Meadow or, more often in the past, the Great Meadow. It is about 1 ˝ km across and now covers an area of about 50 hectares. Before the days of oil- powered agriculture, hay was a vital resource being used as winter feed for the draught animals that pulled the ploughs on the arable land. In fact hay meadows were the most valuable of all land and every agricultural community needed a good source of hay. The Hemingford Meadow has a long and fascinating history. We know the village had meadowland at the time of the Domesday survey and no doubt our Meadow was there before that.

The towns and villages in the flood plain of the River Great Ouse were fortunate as they had a considerable acreage of meadowland. In most years these meadows would be flooded for a few days and the floodwater would bring a layer of silt that added fertility to the land and gave a better hay crop. After the hay was harvested the land would be used for grazing animals. The soil of Hemingford Grey meadow contains a high proportion of gravel and drains easily. This means that the water does not stand too long and the grassland does not deteriorate and become marshy. All such meadows also need to have ditches or streams that help the water to move quickly back into the river. Floodwater could also be a problem if it flooded the arable land as well as the meadowland. At a time of high population when the village needed all the plough land it could get, it was important to protect it from flooding, and so a flood bank was built to protect the arable land to the south of the Hemingford Grey Meadow. The resulting ditch on the meadow side also helped take the flood water away. It is likely that the bank was originally built in the 13th century before the Black Death caused a catastrophic drop in population. This bank, that used to be kept clear of vegetation, is now covered with shrubs and trees. By the late 20th century it had become an inadequate barrier and is now reinforced by a new flood bank built to the south and completed in 2007.

In 1801 when the agricultural land in the village was divided into smaller fields under the Enclosure Act, the Meadow could not be fenced but the ownership was still rationalised. The first map we have that shows any detail of the Meadow is for this time and shows about 30 strips owned by many different people or organisations who were often living at a distance from the village. These included a Cambridge college, St Johns, showing that the Meadow had considerable value as an investment. The Enclosure Act also gives a summary of the rules for the management of the Meadow. It was to be “shut up” to allow the hay to grow from February 13 and for many years the St Ives Town Crier announced this in the town. Then, after the hay had been carried, it was open again for grazing from August 13. Grazing rights were allocated according to the acreage of the Meadow that the owner held. From this time no cottagers had grazing rights as they had had before, so the Meadow ceased to be a grazing common from the date of Enclosure.

The Meadow is still managed according to the rules established at Enclosure though ownership has gradually moved into fewer hands and instead of the grazing being a mixture of cattle, sheep and horses it is now grazed entirely by sheep.

As the Meadow has always been grassland it has the typical flora of a fairly fertile river meadow. In more recent years there was some use of weed killers and chemical fertilizers but this is no longer the case and the beautiful meadow grasses and flowers such as buttercups and cuckoo flowers can flourish. There are few rarities but there are some plants typical of grassland managed for hay such as the Greater Burnet with its heads of almost black flowers and the semi-parasitic yellow rattle. Cutting for hay means that only a few birds can nest on the Meadow. The corncrake used to be common, though it was so secretive that it was rarely seen, only heard. In most years a few skylarks nest on the Meadow but even these are much less common than they once were. It is after floods, as the water recedes, that the Meadow becomes most attractive to birds when worms and other small creatures are forced to the surface and flocks of gulls, waders, ducks and swans arrive to feast on the new food supply. The river bank has a quite different range of plants and animals. Patches of purple loosestrife are one of the most attractive flowers, along with the various rushes and the yellow water lilies. Otters, that used to be hunted along the river, are at last returning, though rarely seen and one can often see king fishers, common tern and cormorants fishing the river. Swallows and House Martins feed over both the river and the Meadow as do the Sand Martins that use holes in the quay and in the structure of the New Bridges as an alternative to their usual nest sites in sand banks.

After haymaking the public can enjoy the Meadow and though access is officially only across the public right of way or along the permissive perimeter path, events have often taken place on the Meadow by permission of the owners. This goes back at least to the late 18th century when for a few years the Meadow was used as a racecourse. Celebrations for the wedding of the Prince of Wales were held on the Meadow in 1863 and another big event there was when St Ives received borough status in 1874. The site of the celebration bonfire took many years to re-grow! Some people remember that, in the early days of flying, you could pay 10 shillings (a huge sum) for a ride in a plane when a “well known aviator” came to the Meadow. A tragic accident happened in 1918 when a small plane, based at the airfield at Wyton, had come down to St Ives and then took off again from the Meadow but failed to gain height and hit the St Ives Parish Church spire which collapsed into the nave. The pilot was killed in the accident. The Meadow’s suitability as an informal airfield meant that in the Second World War trenches had to be dug across it to deter enemy planes from landing; remains of these are still visible.

Fishing is still important along the river bank, though probably fewer people travel from a long distance to fish here as they did when men used to come by coach or train from the northern cities often travelling over night to get a full day’s fishing. The river is no longer the popular bathing place it was in the early twentieth century when there were no really good public pools and many people could not afford holidays at the seaside. Floods in summer are fortunately a rare event but there are people who remember rowing their boats across the meadow in one summer flood. In the past the river was the main highway and the riverbank served as the “hayling” way for towing the commercial barges. Now the river is very popular for cruisers and many of the visitors to St Ives arrive by boat. From being a small but important market town St Ives has also become a tourist resort for people interested in the river, the gentle countryside and the historic town.

Recreation has become one of the most important uses of the Meadow. In summer hundreds of people walk from the town to the village across the Meadow and on a fine day there will be picnickers, dog walkers and perhaps a group of artists along the riverbank. The St Ives Regatta no longer takes place from the Meadow but it is used for other events. The Inland Waterways Association’s Festival in August 2007 will certainly be the largest event it has hosted in its 1000-year history. Signs of this will remain for several years but very soon it will recover to what it has always been, a most beautiful place enjoyed by residents and visitors alike and still serving its agricultural use for the production of hay and grazing of animals.

Bridget Smith
April 2007