The picture above is of Hemingford Meadow taken from the southern end of the London Road viaduct
At first glance, perhaps from St Ives Town Bridge, the Meadow appears as merely a very large area of grass, perhaps grazed by sheep. People may be walking across the footpath that leads to Hemingford Grey or they may be walking along the river- bank or fishing. On a few days in most years, and after a period of heavy rain, the whole area may look more like a lake. At these times the river has flooded over the Meadow where it’s water is temporarily stored thus saving houses in the town and village from damage.
The Meadow, though adjoining St Ives, is in the parish of Hemingford Grey. Many of the villages and towns along the course of the River Great Ouse have these flood meadows. For many centuries they have been the source of hay and been used for grazing after the grass has re-grown. The thin layer of silt deposited by the flood- water increases their fertility. In the past hay was vital for supplying winter-feed for the draught animals used to plough the arable land and hay meadows were the most valuable agricultural land.
Hemingford Grey Meadow has a very long history; there was meadow land in the village at the time of the Domesday Book. The Meadow Bank, on the south side of the Meadow that was probably constructed in the 13th century to protect the arable land from flooding. For most of its history the Meadow would have been in multiple ownership. At the time of the Enclosure Act in 1801 it was owned by about 30 people and it still has several owners. Their boundaries are marked by posts adjoining the Meadow Ditch. Uncluttered by fences or hedges, which would impede the flow of water during times of flood, grazing animals have access to the entire meadow. These grazing rights are allocated according to the proportion of meadowland owned by a farmer.
Due to this traditional management, which continues to this day, the Meadow has a wide range of different grasses and flowering plants including buttercups, Cuckooflowers and the semi parasitic Yellow-rattle, the seed heads of which rattle when dry. There are also very attractive plants along the riverbank. In winter, especially after flood-water has retreated, flocks of birds feed on the worms and other small creatures that are forced to the surface. After hay making the public can enjoy the Meadow though legally access is confined to the right of way and the permissive path around the perimeter. But events have often been held on the Meadow including horse racing in the late 18th century and celebrations for the wedding of the Prince of Wales in 1863 In the early days of flying planes would often land on the Meadow, including the one in 1918 that, in taking off, collided with the church spire leading to the death of the pilot and extensive damage to the church. During World War 2 trenches were dug across the Meadow to prevent enemy gliders from landing.
The latest change to the Meadow is the construction of a new and higher flood bank south of the ancient Meadow Bank and making that Bank redundant.
The Inland Waterways Association Festival in August 2007 will be the largest event ever held in the Meadows 1000-year history. Signs of this will remain for several years but very soon it will recover its rural beauty and it will continue to be a place enjoyed by residents and visitors alike and still serving its agricultural purpose.
Copyright: Bridget Smith
The picture above is of Hemingford Meadow taken from the northern end of the London Road viaduct overlooking the Dolphin Hotel Car Park