I spent three days visiting the DRY project River Fowey catchment last month. It was a great opportunity to get to know the area a bit better and make some very helpful friends!
I was lucky enough to get glorious weather when visiting Garin Linnington from the Forestry Commission at Lanhydrock Estate. We sat in the sunshine with views of the National Trust property and talked about the effects of recent droughts on new tree plantations in the catchment. Garin particularly remembers 2013/2014 and drought-related disease in new trees as well as some of the effects on older trees such as branch drop. Interestingly, he said that it was easy to tell the difference between a tree affected by drought to those affected by other disease or animal damage (such as deer and grey squirrel).
Using the Royal Oak in Lostwithiel as my base I had back-to-back meetings on the Monday afternoon, chatting with Gilliane from Lostwithiel library and Caroline and Mark from the Lostwithiel Environment Group about the possibility of holding a DRY project event in Lostwithiel. Caroline and Mark have since arranged for the DRY project to attend LostFest which is a popular community festival held annually in the town. This should be a good opportunity to hear local stories of drought, the River Fowey and water use. I also met Mary Jones who seems to be a very active community member. She took a keen interest in the project and went above and beyond to help identify local stories of drought. With a wealth of knowledge about local and Cornish history she proved an ideal tour guide for the town and surrounding area. We arranged to meet the next day to visit a local farmer.
On Tuesday morning it was nice to see Chris Timms again from the St Neot Archives. Chris and his colleague spoke extensively about the history of the River Loveny (a tributary of the Fowey) that runs through St Neot and how it was used in the Tin industry, for mills and as a domestic water supply. The Archive has detailed records of the establishment of the sanitary committee in the village and the introduction of mains water. Chris reported anecdotally that some of the locals had been suspicious of the new water supply and had continued to get their water from the river!
Chris arranged for me to meet Bevill, a farmer close to St Neot. He and his family have been sheep and cattle farming for many years. Bevill remembered that although 1976 had been dry they did not run out of water on their farm and had continued to rely on their private water sources including a borehole. He said that domestic water was prioritised. If they had lacked a water supply they would have had to sell stock, but the prices would have been driven down across the board so they would not have been any better or worse than anyone else. They were still able to buy fodder locally (in other areas this was difficult and farmers used winter feed earlier).
On Tuesday afternoon we met Mary again and she took us to meet another farmer at St Winnow. He recalled that in 1976 the grass was so parched that they had to go round chopping all the branches off the trees to feed the cattle. He said that for him water use was not too much of a problem because they used springs, because it was an area with high rainfall and because they had cattle for beef rather than dairy which would be much more water intensive.
On Tuesday evening I presented the DRY project to the Old Cornwall Society – thanks to Mary (again) I was able to squeeze in at the beginning of one of their regular monthly talks. Local history groups have been really usefully sources of watery knowledge and drought memories in some of our other river catchments so I hope to catch up with the group again.
On Wednesday, I joined the Bodmin Library Knit and natter group to show them some of our digital stories and see if they had drought memories. I met some lovely, welcoming ladies and they had fascinating local stories about water use and water saving. I’m really grateful for the time they gave me.
The trip ended with a visit to see Malcolm Allen from the Woodland Trust. Malcolm built on the information Garin had given me right at the beginning of the trip about drought impact on woodlands and also painted a wider picture for me about plans for woodlands in the area and the partnership and catchment-level work that the Trust carries out – with plans to dramatically increase the number of woodlands in the area over the coming decades.
The drive home in the rain on Wednesday evening was quite different from the sunshine that I arrived in but the trip was really useful for increasing our knowledge of the effects of drought on farming and woodland in the catchment, as well as getting to know some friendly faces, so thanks to everyone who made time to help me!