History of Hemingford Meadow

History of Hemingford Meadow
Talk by Bridget Smith to the Civic Society of St Ives on Friday 21 February 1997.

A meadow is specifically an area of grassland that is cut for hay, although it may be used for grazing animals as well. The fertility of Hemingford Meadow has always been helped by the regular winter floods that deposit river silt on the field, although this winter for the first time in the twenty years Bridget has known the Meadow, no flood has occurred. Hay from Hemingford Meadow is of especially high quality, and forms a valuable crop sold to feed horses.

Hemingford Meadow has also been called St Ives Meadow, although it is entirely in Hemingford Grey parish, and sometimes 'The Great Meadow'. It covers 150 acres and is nearly a mile across. It is bounded on its southern side by a bank and a ditch, which carry off flood water and protect fields further south from flooding. The bank is now overgrown but was clear enough for people to walk along it in living memory. A slight hump in Meadow Lane, Hemingford Grey, marks the point where boards had once been set up across the road to protect the village from floodwater. The date when the bank was made is not known, but medieval ridge and furrow in the fields between it and Victoria Terrace show that these fields were being cultivated in the Middle Ages. They were therefore presumably safe from flooding, and so the bank had probably been built by then.

The Meadow is smaller than it once was. The St Ives to Huntingdon railway cut off the south western corner of it, and the horse paddocks on its western end were also comparatively recent incursions. At the other end of the Meadow, the Dolphin Paddock was also once part of it.

Different animals have been grazed on the meadow. Nowadays it is usually sheep that feed on the 'aftermath', the grass that grows after the hay crop has been cut. Horses and cattle were there in other periods. Huntingdon's last execution for sheep stealing, of John Bishop in 1829, arose from sheep stolen at Hemingford. Was it the Meadow where they were stolen?

Under natural conditions the Meadow was probably under alder scrub. This was probably cleared away before Roman times, and it is quite likely that a hay crop was already being taken in the Roman period. Hay was certainly a valuable commodity by the time of the Domesday Book in 1086 because it allowed the draught animals used in arable farming to be overwintered. Meadow land could then be worth four times as much as the same area of arable.

By the 16th century (and probably earlier) the Meadow was divided up into strips farmed by different tenants. The tenants were all named in the 1806 Enclosure Award, which also mentions a footpath across the Meadow. The building of fences, mounds etc. was also forbidden. Strips were marked out with stakes or stones, as they are now, except that the 'stones' are lumps of concrete nowadays. Another map of 1910 shows the owners then, and the Meadow remains in multiple ownership to this day.

The Meadow has always been the setting for many leisure activities by people of both Hemingford and St Ives. Some of these are perhaps best passed over in silence, but one might mention swimming, regattas, angling, various celebrations and even a horse race meeting held there in 1781. The traces can still be seen of trenches dug across the Meadow to prevent airborne endings during the Second World War.

The Meadow's wildflowers have been reduced by the use of sprays. Not only weedkillers, but fertilisers too, have hit at the flowers by encouraging the grass to choke them. Birds such as corncrakes were common there in the 19th century and otters were common enough to be hunted until the Second World War. Nowadays the Country Stewardship Scheme is paying for sprays not to be used, as well as for the additional footpath to be provided all round the Meadow's edge. Fifty years without spraying could restore the wildflowers to their former glory. Portholme Meadow near Huntingdon shows how lovely this could be.

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