We write monthly for the magazine Bridport Times. To see this article as originally published, view the pages on Issue.
Written by Adam Simon
Do you remember playing with water and building dams as a child? Something we all learned very quickly was that water runs inexorably downhill. You can channel it, slow it down or hold it temporarily but ultimately it insists on going downwards. On our farm, water ends up harmlessly in the sea quite soon, but it can be troublesome en route. Readers will have noticed that, after the dry summer, we had a lot of rain early this winter and we have needed to help some of our water find the ways we wanted it to take rather than letting it choose its own.
Anyway, the big child in me rather enjoyed the idea of hiring a mini-digger for a week and addressing the overdue drainage repairs. A couple of blocked culverts were cleared, a silted-up ditch was re-opened and a damaged field drain repaired. Three new shallow drains were created to reduce the spread of boggy patches, two new micro-ponds were dug, providing new habitat which will be valuable for at least a few years, and a water pipe was laid to service a new trough. I did score one own goal: water flowing off a steep, scrub-covered slope was elegantly redirected away from the arable field it had been water-logging onto a piece of permanent pasture where it could disperse. I found later that I had misjudged the slope and missed the right line so it was actually flooding onto the crop in the next field over! Fortunately, the problem was easily solved with an hour of hard sweating with a spade, and without burning more diesel.
Underneath our farm are limestone layers topped with heavy clay. The limestone is porous, and water flowing through it dissolves channels, rather like a miniature cave system, that can erupt at the surface as a spring. Some of these stay constant for many years. Such a spring provided the water for the original village reservoir until the mains were connected in 1960 and it now waters five fields effectively. However, these springs can also pop up suddenly in unexpected places, run for a few years and then stop again. These flushes can be a blessing: a wet place in the field can bring in extra wildlife and be a great enhancement but they can be troublesome too, making access or cultivation tricky. The traditional answer to problems such as these is to drain the land. Surface ditches intercept water and protect the land below them. To make the most of this pattern of drainage ditches underground field drains can be constructed to break through natural water routes or collect percolating soil water. Here at Tamarisk Farm we find a pattern of drains laid and maintained over centuries emptying into the surface ditches. They are mostly of clay pipes but some earlier ones were made with flat stones placed to line and roof a channel, forming a network under a whole field. Over the years some have become damaged and, with no maps, repairs are difficult. We have had a few notable successes but it is a big job with a lot still to do.
I once met a farmer with a very wet field which he said had drains he could not repair. His explanation was that the drains had been laid by hand by Italian prisoners of war. The trouble was that the supervising sergeant-major treated them very badly, including forcing them to dig 6 feet down. This would have been too deep to be useful anyway, but by way of revenge they had placed slates across the drains every few yards before covering them, so the whole project was doubly futile.
Most of my work with the digger was simply taking away excess surface water so that it did no harm, but there are times through the year when there is not enough water. The work I did of moving water away swiftly fails to make use of it. Permaculturalists and modern soil scientists quite rightly remind us that we should treat water as a resource, not a problem. Taking advantage of the water system, cared for by the authorities, by installing troughs on mains water isn’t always a perfect solution either. Firstly (and quite rightly) it costs money and it is silly to pay for a commodity we have anyway, but there are other reasons to avoid depending on it. The pressure in some places is too low to reach to the top of the farm. Channels dug to bury the pipe can intercept ground water and carry it downhill, often emerging inconveniently at the next trough to make it wet just where the stock congregate to drink. Leaks spring up and are wasteful and expensive. Even if it were perfect, we would need to use it with care: our mains water is extracted from the chalk hills above Litton Cheney and taking it is lowering the water table and diminishing the chalk streams and winterbournes, taking water from both farmers and wildlife on the downs.
The systems laid out by earlier farmers are fascinating and impressive. Here, probably about 250 years ago, ditches and drains were set out as a carefully engineered system to capture water from the whole hillside above and around the village and collect it in the mill pond. There it was stored until it was needed to run the water-wheel in the farmyard, grinding grain for the stock. The pond is still here but sadly the wheel and mill are long gone. At the same time on Labour-in-Vain Farm, the various drains formed a complex web which are connected to numerous small ponds, nine in total. A small reservoir on Tulks Hill fed two old troughs in the fields and another in the farm yard, as well as supplying the farm cottages. One of the ponds was almost certainly another, smaller, millpond. This system provided all the water for the whole 200 acres until the late-twentieth century. Sadly, many of the drains have deteriorated so many fields have wet patches and some of the ponds dry up early in summer. We have repaired or reinstated some and hope to do more. Even in poor repair the ponds are useful for the animals, both farm stock and wild animals, to drink from (or sometimes to wallow in!) and they are a haven for smaller wild things, great crested newts and dragonflies especially.
We have done plenty to improve the use of surplus water over the years, creating drains and ponds with triple purpose: landscape, wildlife and back-up water for stock, which have been very successful and given great pleasure. We have had the help of diesel-burning machines: how much more impressive it is that the older systems were all done by hard hand labour.