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Historic Water Management Assets NHPP Activity 4B1

Research carried out 2011-2015 into understanding and protecting the heritage significance of structures and features used to exploit water resources for public supply, agricultural production or power generation. This work was part of the National Heritage Protection Plan.

View of a historic watermill building
Historic mills such as Flatford Mill, Dedham, Suffolk are being adapted to provide a new source of renewable energy through the installation of turbines to generate hydroelectricity. © Mann Power Consulting Ltd

Scope of the activity

Water is a fundamental requirement for life. A plentiful supply of clean water is essential for a healthy natural environment and a healthy, productive society. Water is also integral to the economy, underpinning our ability to grow food, for industrial processes and for energy production.

Features in the landscape illustrate the efforts that people have made to exploit water resources for centuries. These include redirecting rivers; building leats, dams and weirs; creating irrigated field systems or draining vast tracts of land; and building watermills and pumping stations. Elsewhere, there is a rich legacy of water supply and waste water infrastructure, now ageing and requiring adaptation or replacement.

A wide range of historic features were covered in this Activity, reflecting those that were likely to be affected by European Union Directives, UK legislation and policy measures introduced to improve protection of the environment and water resources. The increasing use of mill and weir sites to generate small-scale hydroelectric power also provides challenges and opportunities for protection of historic structures. We focused on those categories of feature that were most likely to be at risk in the short to medium term (to 2020).

Expected protection results

Whilst designation may be an appropriate outcome in some circumstances, that is not the ultimate goal for all projects or places. Instead we aimed to improve understanding and awareness of particular categories of features and produce information to help owners and guardians to look after them. We will do this by preparing national guidance for assessing their significance; producing advice for their management, adaptation and re-use for specific purposes; delivering guidance for local communities and special interest groups to understand significance, monitor condition and report increased threat.

We will promote better knowledge of the location, condition and character of these assets through enhancement of The National Record of the Historic Environment and local Historic Environment Records.  It is likely that we will also identify specific assets that need more detailed investigation and characterisation to understand their significance.

A modern colour photograph of a watermill landscape with the millrace in the foreground.
Watermill landscapes often show significant adaptation to provide sufficient water supply, as seen here at Acorn Bank, Cumbria, where the millrace lies about 4m above the river level. © English Heritage, Jen Heathcote

Projects in this activity

Water and sewerage industries

The project built on the work of the former Monuments Protection Programme (MPP) investigations of these industries. It delivered an updated, prioritised list of designation (legal protection) recommendations, arranged by site type.

Modern colour image of a historic weir
This historic weir at The Leen on the River Arrow, Herefordshire has been adapted by the addition of a fish pass to improve the ecological status of the river upstream © English Heritage, Neil Rimmington

Guidance on micro-hydroelectric power and traditional buildings

A recent government–funded study noted that there is considerable potential for more hydroelectric power in England, much of it at a small-scale level.

Hydroelectricity is often well-suited to traditional buildings. These buildings may be watermills, with existing mill wheels. They may be buildings, which were once mills but have since been converted to other uses, and so only remnants of the original use are visible, or they may be other traditional or historic features such as weirs.

To help owners and contractors, we produced guidance on Micro-Hydroelectric Power and the Historic Environment. This is is part of a wider series on small-scale renewable energy options. Each explains how the system works and focuses on what to consider when they are installed in historic buildings.

Guidance on heritage-sensitive water meadow conservation

The remains of traditional water meadow systems have been destroyed at an alarming rate since they fell out of use from the late 19th century onwards, with large numbers having been lost within living memory. The main reasons for this have been changes in agricultural methods, including increased agricultural intensification, exacerbated by a widespread lack of understanding of what water meadows were, what their remains look like and why they are important. The project produced a concise introduction to water meadows, which makes this information readily available.

The archaeological components of water meadows rarely enjoy statutory protection, but many sites are managed for their ecological interest. The wildlife they support is frequently protected by a variety of 'natural' environment designations and benefits from sympathetic management through agri-environment schemes. The project has also produced a booklet describing the archaeological aspects of water meadows, and the tangible remains that may survive, for those working on wildlife conservation schemes. It provides advice on how to preserve and protect the archaeological features of traditional water meadow features as part of wider environmental considerations.

Watermills in Herefordshire

This pilot project assessed the heritage of watermills and the water management arrangements associated with them, such as weirs and leats, within the catchment of the River Lugg. It was prompted by recent loss of mill features and threats of further losses; as well as a need to better understand the relationship between features within mill complexes.
The project acheived three main aims:

  • To help towards enhancing the local Historic Environment Record.
  • To improve knowledge of the distribution and descriptions of the mills.
  • To make recommendations to suppport similar projects elsewhere.

You can read more about the Herefordshire watermills pilot project in the end of project report.

Heritage in inland waters

We commissioned a report on heritage assets in inland waters such as navigable rivers or canals to improve understanding of this subject, which had previously relatively little research. We also supported publication of a journal article about archaeology underwater in England's rivers and canals, by Antony Firth. "Heritage Assets in Inland Waters: An Appraisal of Archaeology Underwater in England’s Rivers and Canals." The Historic Environment: Policy & Practice 2015; 6(3), 229-239.

Aerial view of flooded watermeadows
The extensive watermeadows in the Lugg Valley, Herefordshire are unusually well-preserved and are seen here under natural flooding. © Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust.

Links to other NHPP activities

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Related publications

  • Water Meadows

    Published 1 December 2013

    Short guide to water meadows and their history

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