18 August 2022

What are the Salisbury Public Drownings and how can you attend one?

When you hear the term ‘public drowning’ you probably think back to a time in history filled with witches, stocks and gruesome trials.

While Salisbury is a medieval city packed with tales of witchcraft, today, drowning is a method used by water meadow farmers to maintain the land and encourage grass growth. Salisbury’s water meadows, which can be found in West Harnham, now welcome adults and children to the meadows to witness the agricultural process in all its glory.

The next public drownings will take place on the 22nd of January and the 5th of February. Visitors are invited to meet the drowners at Rose cottage at 10 am to learn about the meadows and see them in action.

What is drowning and how does it work?
Local Drowner, Dr Hadrain Cook, explained how and why drowning takes place.

“Drowning is a type of grass management by which water is controlled flowing over the surface. The objective is twofold – one is to make the grass grow earlier in the year than it otherwise might do, and then later in the year we can have not one, but two hay crops, so you can roughly double the amount of hay that comes off the meadow.

“What we are doing at the moment is demonstrating winter and early spring drowning and what happens is that the river water raises the temperature of the soil just enough to make the grass grow. Secondly, anything that is in the water in terms of nutrients will find its way into the grass and help its boost.

“The third factor, which is very important, is that it keeps the water moving. When it is cold, as it is at the moment, gasses dissolve better in water. This allows oxygen from the atmosphere which keeps the soil bugs alive, otherwise, it would go stagnant and that doesn’t make the grass grow.”

According to Hadrain, drowning has three effects; a warming effect, a nutrient effect, and finally, an oxygen effect which all keep the water from going stagnant.

“In the 17th century that made the watermeadow quite economically viable. You could at least double the rent on the meadow because the tenant could make more profit out of it because he could get more animals on it early. Typically sheep and lambs, and he could get an extra hay crop later,” explained Hadrian.

Public drownings occur twice in the drowning season which falls between January and March. The meadow also welcomes college for professional groups along by appointment.

A retired teacher, and university lecturer, Hadrian started welcoming the public to drownings to not only teach others about the agricultural process but also to help increase donations to the Salisbury Watermeadow Trust, which helps to maintain and preserve the meadows for future generations.

“The drowner was the trade name of the mead man. It was a Wiltshire nickname, and it’s because you drown the meadows and put them under. We came up with the idea of public drownings because it gets people’s interest – the strapline is ‘we still have witches here in Wiltshire’.

“In west Harnham particularly it’s become a bit of an institution. I will get anything between 40-50 people and the maximum we’ve had is 120. It goes on for about an hour and a half, it’s entirely outside.”

What can you expect from a public drowning?

“People will get an explanation about how watermeadows work, they will see a watermeadow being drowned, and then I will ten demonstrate drainage and putting the water on the meadows again.

“Children are welcome and people are invited to wear wellies. Children can stand in the little gentle carriers and watch the water coming up and that’s great fun. Unfortunately, we can’t have dogs because it’s a working farm.”

The public drownings are free to attend and you do not need to book or pay any money upfront. At the end of the experience, you can donate to the watermeadows if you enjoyed your visit.

Find out more about the Harnham Water Meadows here. Photography by Countryside Photography by Andrew Wiltshire.

Written by
Beth Doherty
View all articles
Written by Beth Doherty