The River Till – the story of a winterbourne
Updated: Sep 6, 2022
I’ve been planning to write this blog for a while but an article in this morning’s Guardian (23 January 2021) prompted me to bring it forward. This is a little bit history, a little bit natural history, a little bit environmental and a little bit click bait photography!
Chalk streams are a feature of the Wiltshire and Dorset landscapes, although not uniquely so. They can also be found in Kent for example. Many are archetypal winterbournes in that traditionally they are dry in the summer months and rise in the winter. The number of villages with the word “Winterbourne” in their name will not have escaped the Wiltshire traveller.
For many years there has been a debate as to why the dry periods seem to be getting longer. There are suggestions of over-abstraction of ground water by water companies and farmers, or whether it is a result of climate change. But at this time year the chalk aquifers are full and the once dry grassy hollows are again running with crystal clear water. Some of our chalk streams of course run all year round and are rich with wildlife supporting water voles, trout, may flies and even (as was seen recently in footage taken in Salisbury) otters. Salisbury is of course famous for being the meeting place of five chalk streams – the Nadder, Ebble, Wylye, Bourne and Avon. If you have read my blog entitled ‘Eden’s Last Post’ you’ll have seen my photograph of Norrington Manor which was taken whilst standing in the dry bed of the Ebble.
At the heart of South Wiltshire’s chalk uplands is the 300 square mile plateau of Salisbury Plain, the largest remaining area of calcareous grassland in north west Europe. Here can be found the little River Till, although its status of “river” seems a little overstated (unlike its brethren in Lincolnshire and Northumberland). I have a close and intimate relationship with the Wiltshire Till as it runs through my garden! The stream rises in Tilshead and flows south and south-east through Shrewton, Winterbourne Stoke (where it crosses beneath the A303), and Berwick St James before joining the Wylye River near Stapleford. It is a SSSI and passes through conservation areas in Shrewton and Winterbourne Stoke.
Apparently as recently as the early 20th century the Till in Shrewton was known as “the Waterlake”. I’m not sure of the derivation of that name but following a particularly wet autumn in 1840 followed by heavy snow in January 1841 and subsequent thaw accompanied by more heavy rain, on 16 January 1841 there was a catastrophic flood. Many buildings were destroyed in the village and three people died as the waters rose to 7 or 8 feet above the river level. There are several little terraces around the area known as Flood Cottages, including those next door to me.
Since that dreadful day in 1841 the river has flooded on many occasions. Most winters it bursts its shallow banks and floods the fields between Tilshead and Shrewton. I can recall more than once the little lane between Orcheston and Shrewton in front of Appleford School being covered by a foot of water. And beyond, between Shrewton and Winterbourne Stoke, the meadows are frequently beneath several inches or more of water as they are now. Here it becomes a haven for birdlife. I’ve spent many happy hours watching Canada geese, egrets, grey heron, teal, and mallard as well as kingfisher, spotted and green woodpeckers, kestrel, buzzards and red kite. I’ve seen a guy hunting with a peregrine falcon here and watched as a weasel searched for birds’ eggs.
Whilst the flooding may be a nuisance for some, in the past it was something to be valued and even engineered. Between Shrewton and Winterbourne Stoke there are the remains of two sluices. In his magnificent book A Shepherd’s Life, W H Hudson wrote beautifully about the landscape typical of chalk streams like the Till, whose shape was moulded by the skills of the highly regarded sluice man, or drowner. He knew exactly when to open and close the sluices to allow the fields to be flooded. This part of Wiltshire was once extensively grazed by Wiltshire Horn, a breed of self shedding sheep that requires no shearing. It was not reared for its wool or its meat but for its abilities as a fertilising machine! The sheep would graze the meadows hereabouts leaving piles of nutritious fertiliser as they went. The fields were flooded to raise the temperature of the land, thereby giving the grass a head start, and eventually drained to allow the growth of rich chalk grassland for cows to graze. Cows still graze these meadows but sadly the Wiltshire Horn and the sluices have gone. For now anyway!