Some remarkable Victorians tramped over every foot of Britain to create precise pictures for posterity, though they used neither camera nor canvas. Even the unremarkable slopes of Meadleys Meadow came into focus on a certain day in 1876, when a team of men visited to grant it immortality.
They marked out the meadow’s boundaries, measured its area (17.485 acres), hand-drew its crescent-shaped dew-pond. And they plotted the trees. Every significant tree in this meadow, all thirty five of them, was faithfully and accurately represented by a miniature cloud on a stick.
In its attention to detail, this single field illustrates one of the greatest map-making achievements of the pre-digital age – the 25 inch to a mile Ordnance Survey series. And over the course of a morning, a printout of the old map in hand, I found that snapshot of the past sharpening my images of the present.
GO Man go……
Though the supposedly oval pond was full of water with likely lush vegetation, while crowded by two adjacent shade trees that sucked its summers dry, it was empty and the shade trees had gone so I could now make out its quarter-moon curvature. For the first time in years of walking this undulating field, its dips and folds concealing and revealing, I stepped a few feet off the path towards the wooden fence at the south and discovered a remnant of the original Victorian metal enclosure with its original gate now padlocked! This led me to discover the metal kissing gate on the eastern boundary which gave access to the footpath crossing the field in ancient times with the last remaining hawthorn the sole survivor of the original hedge.
Thrilled with these finds, I zigzagged around to check how many of the field’s original trees had lasted. Twenty five trees had been lost, including five for the Visitor Centre – none of which had been replanted as a matter of restoration!
All but one of today’s ten trees had the smooth shapeliness of middle age, towering perhaps forty feet or more but lacking the gnarled and crooked credentials of old age. None of the oaks had the spreading waistline of approaching senility and the wrinkles and burrs to match. They were still a couple of centuries from shedding their antlers and morphing from a veteran tree into an ancient monolith. I walked over and spoke to each one of them, patted their trunks and wished them a happy birthday, at least 150 years young. The odd one out was lying prostate on the ground waiting to be consumed by nature.
I pondered on the haphazed planting of the trees all those years ago – there were only three trees shown on the Estate map of 1762. So by the time of the survey thirty two more trees appeared – but not by the hand of man. Acorns will not germinate under a tree so the oaks rely on the good services of the colourful jay to spread their progeny – the bird plants the acorns for a winter larder and invariably forgets where it put them!
Will they be there in the next century? I doubt it – there is regular talk of turning the meadow into a car park, although that would be difficult to equate with the conservation aims of the National Trust! In Britain 97% of wildflower meadows have been destroyed since the survey. It was only a year ago when the Dairy Hay Meadow – the twenty two acre field next to the farm on the Ringshall Road once owned by Elizabeth 1st – was destined to become the Estate car park until it was rescued by an ancient restrictive covenant placed on the property. Nothing is sacred these days!