Last Sunday saw me venture onto Martin Down NNR - don't know how I had resisted so long this year! This time we walked up and out of the reserve onto the neighbouring downs, ending up at Penbury Knoll hillfort. Barely a soul around, with amazing views across the NNR and beyond across more of Cranborne Chase. The Chase is an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and forms a large area of downland, arable land and woodland in parts of Wiltshire, Dorset and Hampshire. In fact, on the walk, we crossed from Hampshire into Dorset.
That set me up nicely for the working week, which got off to a beautiful if frosty start. I was taking my first aid requalification training course, and this involved me walking into town across the watermeadows.
It's a beautiful walk I know well from my childhood growing up in Harnham (suburb of Salisbury), starting at the historic Old Mill pub and restaurant, right next to the Avon, then taking the Town Path through the watermeadows. These are still irrigated today - watermeadows are mostly found in Southern England, and started in the 1600s I believe, although there were various phases. The idea was to take the naturally-warm spring water from the chalk river (water percolates down from the surface into the chalk aquifer, being held there and released slowly, and therefore coming out slightly warmer than surface water in the winter) and 'drown' or irrigate the meadows in the winter months. this prevented frost and promoted early grass growth, meaning that sheep could be grazed on the meadows earlier than elsewhere, giving a competitive advantage to the farmers. They would be grazed on the meadows during the day, and then driven to nearby arable fields overnight, where their rich dung would aid crop growth. If you're interested in getting involved, you can attend demonstration days held by the Harnham Watermeadows Trust - highly worthwhile.
The watermeadows - although not traditionally valued for their wildlife - provide a green oasis right in the heart of the city, and habitat for overwintering wildfowl and waders. one part of it is also a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) for the rich flora, especially in the ditches, which also support water voles and many invertebrates - well worth a visit!