Historic Watercourses: Using Imagery to Support Identification of the Historic Character of Watercourses. A Case Study on the Dorset Stour Catchment

Author(s): Robert McInnes

Rivers are a key component of the English landscape and they have fulfilled a vital role in its culture, development and history over the centuries. Many of the earliest settlements developed where fords allowed the possibility of crossing rivers, and particularly since Roman times towns and cities developed along their banks, often at bridging points such as at Chester, York and London. Elsewhere, bends in rivers provided defensive locations for Medieval castles such as those at Ludlow and Durham. Many of England’s sixty-three major rivers have been developed progressively in recent centuries. They have been widened, obstructed or re-routed, and their waters dammed or diverted to suit changing agricultural, industrial, trade and commercial requirements over time. Rivers not only make a very significant contribution to the economic wellbeing of the nation, but they also provide opportunities for relaxation, recreation and enjoyment within a diverse range of outstanding natural and heritage-rich environments. Over the centuries, buildings and other structures of heritage interest, including mills, weirs, leats, water wheels, water supply infrastructure, monasteries, castles, churches, locks, bridges, fish ponds and water meadows, have been constructed or cultivated in what have often become vulnerable locations, which are now increasingly affected by inundation, undermining or, in some cases, total loss. Climate change impacts, including more extreme weather events, are exerting an increasing influence on the heritage assets within or adjacent to river systems; these events are likely to be more severe with increasing flooding and erosion damage in future decades. The last two decades provide numerous examples of devastating consequences for heritage from rural flooding. Around the coastline of south-west England, the CHeRISH project – ‘Coastal Heritage Risk – Imagery in Support of Heritage Management’, commissioned by Historic England and completed in 2016 (McInnes, 2016), examined how historical imagery dating back to the late eighteenth century could inform heritage management in coastal zones. The study concluded that a similar approach could be very valuable with regard to other heritage-rich environments within the interior of the country, such as river systems. Such a study could use imagery to provide additional data and information in support of our understanding of the ‘historical character’ of river catchments. In terms of historic character this is not just confined to specific ‘heritage sites’ such as bridges, mills or manor houses but through historic categorisation taking a wider view of the landscape itself as heritage (Clark et al., 2004; Historic England, 2018). Landscape paintings, prints, old photographs and postcards can be used as evidential proof of the historical character of river landscapes and features. The use of imagery represents a novel way of illustrating river character change through time, which also allows the evaluation of heritage benefits in an immediately accessible format. An intended output from this study, alongside improving our understanding of heritage, is to highlight the value that artworks and other historical imagery can fulfil as competent and supportive tools for heritage evaluation and management across all of England’s river environments. Rivers and their catchments extending from source to sea cover most of the interior of England. However, it has been observed that “the archaeology of watercourses in England has been seriously under-developed in terms of baseline knowledge” (Firth, 2014) and that “a formal categorisation of watercourses in terms of their historic character would be very helpful… focussing on the identification of different ‘types’ of watercourse based on the historical development” (Firth, 2017). This approach has been supported by Historic England through the commissioning of the ‘Historic Watercourses’ project (Fjordr 16390/ HE7244). This study, which focuses on the use of imagery, will support the wider study of historic watercourses being undertaken by Fjordr. These studies for Historic England are both being undertaken within the catchment of the River Stour, a 98km long river, which flows through Wiltshire and Dorset in southern England and drains into the English Channel. The catchment for this river and its tributaries extends to a total length of 1,240km. Running southwards from its source at Stourhead in Wiltshire, the river flows through the Blackmore Vale, before breaking through the chalk ridge of the Dorset downs and flowing across the heathlands of south-east Dorset. Increasing in size as it is joined by its tributaries, the Stour at Christchurch is joined also by the River Avon before flowing out through the harbour into the English Channel. The varied topography, natural environments and heritage encompassed within the Stour catchment makes the river an ideal case study for the evaluation of historic character and its portrayal through imagery.

Report Number:
Desk Top Assessment Environmental Monitoring Methological Research Water Management Water Heritage


If you require an alternative, accessible version of this document (for instance in audio, Braille or large print) please contact us:

Customer Service Department

Telephone: 0370 333 0607
Email: [email protected]