Thirty members of Till Valley Archaeological Society enjoyed a talk on the Culley brothers and the use of water meadows, as well as a visit to Crookham Eastfield Farm on one of the hottest summer evenings this year.
Steve Pullan, from Natural England, started the evening off with an interesting talk on George and Matthew Culley, who had an enormous influence on agriculture in Northumberland in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Born near Darlington, they were sent by their far-sighted farmer father to be educated in the latest farming skills.
They arrived in Northumberland and chose Fenton, near Wooler, as their first farm to rent. Their main aim was to increase productivity, and they did this by bringing more land under cultivation and managing it more efficiently.
They spent all they could afford on improving the land by soil enrichment, systematic drainage, introducing new crops and a new rotation system.
And a radical new feature was their introduction of water meadows.
These were already used naturally in other parts of the country prone to flooding. Where the Culley brothers stood out was in introducing them to new areas, such as North Northumberland.
The process involved constructing new drainage systems near a source of water and engineering methods of providing a constant flow of richly-manure water over fields.
This produced an early crop of grass at key times, resulting in a higher yield of lambs. It also resulted in the production of better quality wool. All this was married with the introduction of the Border Leicester sheep, which they bred and became highly sought-after.
In a sense, this water meadow system was the ‘high-tech’ of its time, and now there is concrete evidence of where they applied this method in North Northumberland.
This has been obtained by study of documentation – both brothers were prolific correspondents and wrote books on their farming methods – and also by aerial photographs and examination of fields where the remains of their drainage systems survive. Chillingham Way to Wooler and Crookham Eastfield are amongst these.
No doubt the introduction of water meadows made a significant contribution to the fame and wealth of the brothers. They went on to rent several more farms, such as Crookham Eastfield, Thornington and Red House. Eventually, they were able to purchase their own farms, such as Akeld, Humbleton and Easington Grange.
They travelled extensively, seeking out yet more new techniques in farming.
The phenomenon of water meadows did not last long in this part of the world, however. It was very labour intensive and contributed to higher charges for renting farms because of an increased yield.
By the 1840s large quantities of guano was being imported for fertilising and water meadows faded away.
After the talk, Tillvas members were fortunate to have the opportunity to visit Crookham Eastfield Farm, where owner Andrew Joicey showed the group around.
Original pipework from the water meadows was brought out for our examination, before a tour of the old farm buildings around a still partly-cobbled courtyard. Changes in farming practice mean most of these buildings are now redundant.
Members of the Historic Buildings Group of the Crookham and Branxton Village Atlas Project could be seen controlling their eagerness to investigate them further. Cameras were heard clicking away at what could be original features of sturdy stone barns, some of a huge size.
We are very grateful to Steve Pullan and Andrew Joicey for providing this insight into farming practice, which revolutionised the path taken by agriculture in our area.