Monday, 21 July 2008

Plants of the Mersey Valley - Part 1., Times Past

In his book ‘A History of Didsbury’ (1969) Ivor Million speculates that, sometime in the Fourteenth Century, the lords of the Manors of Withington, Northenden and Cheadle joined forces to confine the River Mersey within earthen banks (‘dikes’). They may have done this in order to increase its flow and hence power a series of watermills at various points along its course (archaeologists have recently excavated the remains of such a mill at Northenden) (see Note 1.).

Before reservoirs were built in the Pennines the Mersey carried an even greater volume of water than it does now, and was even more prone to flooding. In his book ‘The Township of Chorlton cum Hardy’ (1972) John Lloyd tells us that: “Those who tilled the fields in those past ages were well aware of the need to control the flood waters in the ees and of the benefit of the layer of rich silt left by the receding water. Within the memory of people still alive [in 1972] the farmer who last tenanted Barlow Hall Farm commented that the sluice gates in the banks were never opened for the first flood of the year for this brought down all the rubbish, but the second flood brought down all the rich mud.” (See Note 2.).

This land management regime of periodic flooding led to the formation of ‘water meadows’ on either side of the river and such a landscape would once have been familiar to many inhabitants of river valleys in lowland Britain (see Note 3.). The resulting rich grassland would have been cut for hay or used for grazing cattle. The plant life in these meadows would have been similar to that in meadows throughout Britain but with a distinctive north western character which is still, just about, visible today (see Note 4.).

The key plants were, and still are, the grasses. Grasses tend to look similar until you get to know them and then their unique characters become apparent. Their names are certainly distinctive and beautiful: Sweet Vernal Grass, Meadow Foxtail, Timothy Grass, Cocksfoot, Tufted Hair Grass, Reed Canary Grass etc., etc. The regular cutting of these grasses allowed other, more colourful, flowering plants to flourish.

One of the first flowers to appear in the spring was the Butterbur. This occurred in largish colonies on richer deposits of silt, on stream and river banks and around the mill races. The flowers are rather peculiar and look a bit like pinkish clusters of tiny shaving brushes. The huge leaves of this plant appear later in the year and have been known to generations of Mersey Valley kids as ‘wild rhubarb’.

Around the time of the year that the Butterbur flowers were appearing, and in similar locations, would be found mats of fresh green leaves like miniature dock leaves. These leaves could be gathered around Easter time and eaten. The leaves were those of a plant called Bistort, which was sometimes called ‘Passion Dock’ or ‘Easter Ledges’. Later in the year Bistort produces spikes of salmon pink flowers which are very beautiful en masse. An altogether coarser plant of banks and silty places was Comfrey with its long, broad, bristly leaves and its tubular flowers in various shades of blue, pink and cream.

In June the meadows were in their full glory, the various grasses accompanied by: Sorrel – another member of the dock family with tiny reddish flowers which, en masse, gave a rusty tinge to the grasslands; Great Burnet – a tall plant with dense, oblong heads of tiny flowers the colour of dried blood; Hay Rattle – a small plant with purple-lipped, yellow flowers protruding from an inflated structure (the calyx) and Meadow Buttercups and several plants with yellow, dandelion-like flowers. These red and yellow colours were complimented by drifts of white provided by: Ox-eye Daisies - big white daisies with yellow centres and Sweet Cicely and Cow Parsley – two members of the carrot family with flat heads of tiny white flowers and delicate, lacy foliage.

The old meadows were dissected by numerous ditches and small streams and these too had their characteristic plants which grew either on the banks or in the water itself: Marsh Marigold with flowers like big, golden buttercups; Meadowsweet with its clouds of strong-smelling, creamy flowers; delicate Water Forget-me-nots with their tiny yellow-eyed, blue flowers; Water Crowfoot with white, buttercup flowers standing above the level of the water; Water-plantain with its spear-shaped leaves and small, lilac flowers and Horsetails with their strange jointed stems.

Dave Bishop, July 2008


1. Peasants were required, under the Medieval Manorial system, to have their corn ground at the Lord of the Manor’s mill. The Lord could then claim a significant proportion of the grain or flour as a tax called ‘Multure’. Hence a mill was an important part of the Manor’s economy.

2. “Ees” appears to be a local dialect word meaning “water meadow”. It may be an alternative form of the word ‘leaze’ which means ‘pasture’.

3. In his book, ‘The History of the Countryside’ (1986), Oliver Rackham tells us that water meadows began to appear after 1500 and suggests that they were, “the supreme technical achievement of English farming.” The success of such meadows depended on the engineering and maintenance of an elaborate system of channels levelled to within a fraction of an inch.

4. I will try to publish as many photographs as possible, of the plants mentioned in this article, in the Picasa Web Album attached to this Blog: http://picasaweb.google.com/friendsofchorltonmeadows/

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