Food and Farming blog: Rediscovering the secrets of Queen’s Marsh

Harriet Bell

Harriet Bell is Community Resilience (Food & Farming) Manager, helping Dartington to explore new ways to feed ourselves sustainably.

Previously, she worked at West Town Farm, an organic mixed farm enterprise on the outskirts of Exeter, and 10:10, an organisation that encourages schools and businesses to cut carbon emissions. More blogs from Harriet

Find out more about our Queen’s Marsh restoration project here ⇒

If you’re caught up on our previous blogs then you’ll know that as part of the estate’s participation in Natural England’s “Higher Level Stewardship” scheme we were granted funds for a feasibility study into the restoration of one of our fields, known currently as Queens Marsh, as a wetland habitat.

Edge of Queen's Marsh, Dartington in flood, captured by Leonard Elmhirst on 30 Feb 1967
Edge of Queen’s Marsh, Dartington in flood, captured by Leonard Elmhirst on 30 Feb 1967

It’s one of those funny things, I think, that demonstrate some of the limits of human perspective that we tend to look at spaces like the estate and describe them as a natural environment because they contain trees, grass, wildlife etc. and they don’t often change drastically in a short space of time, just gradually over lifetimes.

Actually, the estate is a highly designed environment shaped by human activity for as long as we’ve been around (check out the archaeological finds for a sense of that) and there’s very little about it that’s entirely natural – it’s almost always a balance between nature and people.

Consequently one of the first steps when looking at how Queen’s Marsh might be returned to a previous wetland state was to try and discover what people had done to it over the generations to stop it from being a wetland in the first place.

Gallery: Archive history of Queen’s Marsh and Bidwell Brook

Queen's Marsh in flood, c.1930

Queen's Marsh in flood, c.1930

Flooded fields on the Estate at the lower drive near the Lodge. Source: The Dartington Hall Trust Archive

Creation of Totnes Weir

Creation of Totnes Weir

Reference to the original creation of the Totnes Weir between 1588 and 1591. Source: The Dartington Hall Trust Archive

Estate map, c.1930

Estate map, c.1930

Estate map, c.1930. Source: The Dartington Hall Trust Archive

Sluice gate vs tide flap, 1934

Sluice gate vs tide flap, 1934

The Dartington Trustees reject a proposal for a cast iron 'tide flap' at Queen's Marsh on the basis of expense, with a timber sluice gate eventually chosen instead. Source: The Dartington Hall Trust Archive

Tide flap design

Tide flap design

Design for the proposed cast iron tide flap. Source: The Dartington Hall Trust Archive

Culvert A

Culvert A

Technical drawing for the culverts, which along withe the tidal flap are still in place today. These allow water from Queen's Marsh to flow under the lower drive and limit the water from the River Dart flowing back up into the field. Source: Devon Archives and Local Studies Service

Culvert B

Culvert B

Technical drawing for the culverts, which along withe the tidal flap are still in place today. These allow water from Queen's Marsh to flow under the lower drive and limit the water from the River Dart flowing back up into the field. Source: Devon Archives and Local Studies Service

Sluice gate complaint letter

Sluice gate complaint letter

This letter from C.F Nielsen was sent after the installation of the sluice gate at Queen's Marsh, with unhappiness expressed at the new water level. Nielsen took up the post of farmer at Old Parsonage Farm on the estate in 1925, and his innovations were often controversial - you can find his biography on this site under About -> History -> Who's Who.

Sawmills spillage

Sawmills spillage

Letters expressing concern at the spillage of oil into Queen's Marsh in 1942, resulting in dead trout. Source: The Dartington Hall Trust Archive

Sawmills spillage

Sawmills spillage

Letters expressing concern at the spillage of oil into Queen's Marsh in 1942, resulting in dead trout. Source: The Dartington Hall Trust Archive

Post-war cleaning of Bidwell Brook, 1946

Post-war cleaning of Bidwell Brook, 1946

These letters document the request for help from Devon County War Agricultural Executive Committee in clearing the Brook - possibly through the use of German P.O.W labour. Source: The Dartington Hall Trust Archive

Post-war cleaning of Bidwell Brook, 1946

Post-war cleaning of Bidwell Brook, 1946

These letters document the request for help from Devon County War Agricultural Executive Committee in clearing the Brook - possibly through the use of German P.O.W labour. Source: The Dartington Hall Trust Archive

Queen's Marsh fishing plan

Queen's Marsh fishing plan

This letter details a meeting with Devon River Authority in 1966 over proposals to turn Queen's Marsh into a trout fishing lake. The proposal was deemed expensive. Source: The Dartington Hall Trust Archive

Queen's Marsh fishing plan

Queen's Marsh fishing plan

Another letter discussing the potential expense of flooding Queen's Marsh for fishing purposes. Source: The Dartington Hall Trust Archive

Overflooding concerns, 1970

Overflooding concerns, 1970

Letters from C.E.White, Dartington Estate Steward, expressing concerns over the measures taken to ensure the flooding at Queen's Marsh does not become too widespread. Source: The Dartington Hall Trust Archive

Overflooding concerns, 1970

Overflooding concerns, 1970

Letters from C.E.White, Dartington Estate Steward, expressing concerns over the measures taken to ensure the flooding at Queen's Marsh does not become too widespread. Source: The Dartington Hall Trust Archive

Sewerage pollution at Bidwell Brook, 1971

Sewerage pollution at Bidwell Brook, 1971

Letters expressing concern at the pollution of the brook, caused by a broken sewer at Redlake. Source: The Dartington Hall Trust Archive

Sewerage pollution at Bidwell Brook, 1971

Sewerage pollution at Bidwell Brook, 1971

Letters expressing concern at the pollution of the brook, caused by a broken sewer at Redlake. Source: The Dartington Hall Trust Archive

 

Some of the things were already known or one could easily conclude would have had a big impact, such as the construction of the Totnes weir; the large drainage ditches that are visible crossing the field; the sluice gate which enables water to flow away under the road.

Some things one could think might have had an impact but no one knew what it might have been, such as the use of the mill further up the stream. At a very basic level we also just needed to know where things might be found in the field so we didn’t go digging through power lines, sewage pipes or hordes of Viking gold (we wish).

Lastly, we needed evidence that suggested how the field and Bidwell Brook alongside it may have behaved, what it was probably like before it was altered to help indicate the potential for what it could be returned to, as well as how it was impacted by extreme weather in the past so we can plan for how it might cope with such events in future.

We made an appeal to the public which was incredibly helpful (although lead to much debate on the travelling habits of Queen Elizabeth I) but we also raided the Dartington archives.

The Dartington Hall Trust has two sets of archives, one set for the really quite a while ago information and one for the information that is within the last few decades. Ably assisted by Yvonne Widger, Archive and Collection, we searched for key terms, periods of time, sometimes with a clear idea of what we were looking for and sometimes without knowing what might turn up at all just following our noses for items which might be relevant.

Until the feasibility study is finished at the end of this month it’s hard to say what of the information we found was of any use at all but as I enjoyed looking through it all myself I thought others might also be curious to see as well.

I liked these documents for their insight into the time in history from which they come, for actually seeing something which Leonard Elmhirst had written or photographed himself and for the things that never change, such as the disagreements over approach or cost, but I warn you this collection of items is also frustrating for many of the same reasons and for the questions it raises and often leaves unanswered.

Harriet

P.S. Thank you again to the public for their responses which can be read here.


Find out more about our Queen’s Marsh restoration project here ⇒

 

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