A new vision for Romsey

Carey Taylor finds out more about Romsey's historic waterways, the issues affecting them and talks to the people working together to solve them

Ambling through Romsey, you soon realise that water surrounds and defines this picturesque town. From the well-known Sadler’s Mill in the south to the rich habitats of Fishlake Meadows in the north, it seems the watercourses have kept Romsey afloat, in more ways than one. They have been instrumental in shaping the history of the town from Saxon Times onwards. Nowadays, they are still an essential part of the landscape, support a diverse wildlife and provide enjoyment for residents and visitors alike.

The River Test is a significant feature in the town. The main river flows through the north to the south on the western side and it feeds many of the waterways in and around the town. Some of the channels of the Test in Romsey have an important conservation value and some, such as the Barge Canal are recognised nationally as a designated Site of Special Interest (SSSI)

Managing the waterways is a complex issue - over time, development on the banks and poor management has had a negative impact on the appearance and wildlife of the waterways. To address these issues in the most effective way, a partnership of organisations with an interest in the waterways has been formed, with the aim of enhancing them for the people of the town and to protect threatened habitats.

Working together

The partnership brings together Test Valley Borough Council, Hampshire County Council, The Environment Agency, Natural England, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust and the Romsey and District Society. The local community has also been encouraged to ‘have their say’ with Test Valley Borough Council leading a four-week consultation in October asking for comments and ideas from residents on the future of the watercourses.

Councillor Martin Hatley, Planning Portfolio Holder at Test Valley Borough Council, said, "We have sought the views of the public and organisations in Romsey on the priorities and issues for the town and we were very pleased with the welcome the project has received. A number of people have volunteered their time to assist with the project, which really shows the public interest in the waterways and wetlands."

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The consultation document titled ‘Enhancing Romsey Waterways: Issues and Opportunities’ set out the issues that needed to be addressed under the five main areas of wildlife, landscape, water management, access, and heritage.

Protecting wildlife

If you’re lucky you might spot a Kingfisher at Tadburn Meadows or an otter at Fishlake Meadows. But restoring and enhancing them is crucial for allowing wildlife like this to flourish and survive. John Durnell from the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust has already identified some of the issues.

"Many of the Romsey waters are canalised with little wildlife present, the Barge canal is far too shady and Fishlake Meadows is becoming increasingly covered in scrub woodland. There are also issues around water quality and quantity within the waterways." Dr Robert Page from the Romsey and District Society who chairs the Society’s Natural Environment Committee agrees that Fishlake Meadows is an important site.

"It has reached a point where positive conservation management is essential if the current species richness is to be maintained. The bird life is extremely rich and varied, with nearly 150 species recorded. Otters also use the site and there is a large population of water voles both of which are protected species. The area is also important for bats, dragons, moths and butteflies. Just leaving the site alone will not maintain the wildlife into the future."

Love the Landscape

One of the main issues affecting the landscape is the appearance and environment of the water running through the town. Alison Graham-Smith is Natural England’s Conservation Adviser for Test Valley.

"By planting up the margins with appropriate vegetation, we will help to flush the silt from the channels and encourage the plants, insects and fish that like the clean gravelly channels of chalk streams. This will create healthy, attractive-looking channels through Romsey that will hopefully be valued by the people. These will also provide a unique educational resource for Romsey, and through such projects goes some way to addressing the issue of rubbish being dumped in the watercourses."

Going with the flow

Managing the flow of water is a complex task. Measures have to be put into place to reduce the risk of flooding but the water levels and flow must be able to support wildlife and commercial needs such as fish farming. Ian Tripp, who works at the Environment Agency specialising in flood risk assets and how flow is managed, has been working to balance this.

"Together with my Operations, Biodiversity and Fisheries colleges we have been considering various aspects of the waterways and how to manage them for flood risk management and to maximise environmental aspects."

Access all areas

Whilst there are many routes around the waterways for the public to enjoy in and around the town, some of them need attention and to be made more accessible. There are also stretches of water that have no public access. One of the aims of the partnership is to improve and open up these routes, and this is something that the public feedback has shown, as Alison Graham-Smith explains

"There was a strong desire expressed for people to have access alongside the watercourses because they appreciate seeing them and want to make the most of their landscape and historic interest." Dr Page also thinks that the access is important for people to appreciate and learn more about the waterways.

"Our ambition is to see new paths and viewpoints created, sited so as not to disturb sensitive species, all linked into improved footpaths in the current network, to provide significant new opportunities to walk and enjoy the wildlife and views."

Heritage matters

The waterways are key to the town’s heritage and this needs to be promoted and remembered. There are still striking reminders of the past as you walk around Romsey, from the old mills that have survived to the Barge Canal, which is what remains of the old Andover to Southampton Canal. The summary document from the consultation provides a brief summary of the industry that grew around the waterways stating that ‘the Domesday Book of 1086 provides the earliest record of mills in Romsey. Over time the Town has been a centre for corn milling, fulling, paper making, saw milling, and flax and hemp processing. The availability of water also meant that other industries had access to power and a number of activities grew up in the Town including tanning, brewing, dyeing and boat building. The water courses were also a means of disposing of waste products from these activities as well as acting as sewers’

Next Steps

The partners have considered all the comments received and are in the process of working up a draft strategy to address the findings of the consultation in the light of what is already known about the watercourses. These will be subject to further public consultation in late spring/early summer 2012.

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