Heritage Structure Restoration at Bere Mill

Mysterious structures are all that remains of many historic water meadow systems, making them precious pieces of local history. The Watercress and Winterbournes partners have been restoring several significant examples near Whitchurch.

Just a short distance outside Whitchurch, a home, farm, garden, and butchery cluster together on a site called Bere Mill. The actual mill itself, built in the early 18th Century, has an illustrious history of producing everything from corn and electricity to paper for bank notes. But nestled among the trees are other, stranger structures: the relics of an old water meadow system.

For over 400 years, water meadows were at the centre of Hampshire's agriculture. Chalk streams were partially diverted across nearby meadows, the constant flow avoiding stagnation and flushing in nutrient-rich sediment. 'Drowning' a meadow in the spring protected the ground from frost, allowing for earlier plant growth, and the resulting lush vegetation was a boon for wildlife too.

During the late 19th Century, however, water meadows started to dwindle in number. Changing agricultural practices saw the land put to other uses, and many systems were abandoned or destroyed. Bere Mill is one of the few places where the remains of a system can still be seen, and the Watercress and Winterbournes Landscape Partnership Scheme has been preserving this precious heritage.

"The farm workers who built these structures were very talented, and it's nice to be able to follow in their footsteps. The wildlife here has also been a big bonus - I never thought I'd be seeing water voles and birds of prey. Hopefully, once we're finished, the people passing by will see them too."
Colin Peters, Heritage Restoration Builder

The unusual nature of the structures at Bere Mill make it a nationally significant example of water meadow heritage. It has both sinuous (meandering) and rectilinear (grid-like) channels, and the hatch pools that stored water are narrow with sluice gates made from cast iron - a rare combination. Unfortunately, like many of their kind, these structures had fallen into a state of disrepair.

There were two bridges and three hatch pools at risk of further decline, so we gathered intrepid volunteers to restore them under the tutelage of heritage restoration builder Colin Peters. The first step was to clear silt, rubble, and vegetation from the bottom of the hatch pools. Scattered bricks were carefully collected, and cement from earlier preservation efforts was chipped away.

Some of the bricks ended up being too broken to use, and were replaced with ones taken from dismantled structures of a similar time period. Both sorts were used to rebuild collapsed sections of the hatch pool walls and bridge parapets. Other sections had fared better, and only needed replacement mortar to seal the gaps and make the surfaces weatherproof again.

"I knew very little about water meadows prior to starting work but when you took apart the damaged structures prior to rebuilding it became obvious from the amount of work which went into the them just how important water meadows were to farmers. I learned a lot about building conservation work and when the back started aching from moving hundreds of bricks I could always marvel at the family of ducklings who used the stream as their thoroughfare, the resident heron and the many other examples of wildlife in the vicinity."
Brian Metcalfe, Chalk Stream Champion
"The whole project has shown me how complicated the whole system was - it's really interesting how the water was engineered to go across the meadows in the springtime. Doing this sort of work, you get a sense of satisfaction that it's going to be here for many years to come."
Anton Page, Chalk Stream Champion

Most of the volunteers doing this work had never tried heritage restoration before, but all showed incredible dedication. They spent much of the summer on site and some of them, such as the brilliant Brian Metcalfe, attended almost every day. Huge thanks to them all for their tireless efforts, and to the landowner for the support that let us restore the second of the two bridges.

We're now exploring a replacement mechanism for one of the sluice gates, which would allow visitors to better visualise its function. We hope that the skills our volunteers have learned will help keep other important heritage structures from being lost to history. Why not learn about our wider work or our range of volunteering opportunities?