GLAF Site Visit to Alney Island

GLAF Site Visit to Alney Island

Thursday 21 October 2021

We met together at around 11am on a morning in fine weather to be shown around part of the site designated ‘nature reserve’. Our guide for the next couple of hours was the kindly, but guarded, Ian Elphick, Senior Countryside Ranger, for Gloucester City Council.

Preamble: Alney may have considerable historic significance in that in 1016 it is asserted that Edmund Ironside, son of King Ethelred, the unready, met with Canute of the Danish Vikings at a place called Alney. They are believed to have engaged in sole combat (over the division of England) and Canute was injured. Shortly afterwards Edmund was murdered by the treachery of Aedric Streona and thereby Canute obtained possession of the Crown over all of England.

The Site: An island of some 80 hectares or more (3.4km x 1.9km) close to the city, within an area where the River Severn splits into two surrounding channels (east and west). Telford’s historic ‘Over Bridge’ links the island with Over {pedestrian use only). Historically, it was a place of much recreation for the people of Gloucester. There had been Horse racing on ‘Mean Ham’ (1.5-mile course) from c1720 up until 1839. It was then revived in 1861 and 1862 with a break until 1870. The Island had a popular cricket ground and in another part of Alney stood the Gallows between 1731 and 1790.

In subsequent years there have been businesses that include boat building, brick making and lime burning. Clearly it was once a busy and popular area and an adjunct to the City of Gloucester. The various Hams have exceptional agricultural history, and each have a shared ancient history with the monasteries and abbeys of Gloucester.

Perhaps I should mention Maisemore or Maes mawr (Welsh word meaning ‘great field’) at the northern tip (2.5 miles on the A417 n/w of Gloucester) The Maisemore Bridge connects the Island on the west bank of the Severn.

Finally, on my historic comments, I should mention something of Richard of Gloucester. It is reputed that Richard would not take money from the very impoverished people of Gloucester; he would prefer their love instead. When he stayed it was probably at the Abbey palace or at the castle of the sheriff. Richard granted the Town a charter of liberties in 1483. See the plaque on the eastern side of St Michael’s Tower at Gloucester Cross. In commemoration of that event King Richard’s Wood on Alney Island was planted in 1983.

Observations of our Visit: Alney Island is an agri-industrial site. It is a complex of flood meadows, subject to flooding in winter, withy beds, scrapes and ditches. There are remnants of prior industrial use now overgrown and partially hidden. Some restoration of farmland meadows, fencing, path surfacing and areas of exclusion. It is important for flora, birds, mammals, and invertebrates.

There is confusion over ownership and responsibility in some areas as there is also about ‘rights of way’. There are, without doubt, some lovely, varied landscapes. It is a wonderful area to walk, with a dog while paying heed to any wildlife and to the docile habits of the old resident breed of Gloucester cattle quietly grazing. There is good relatively level, well surfaced paths for walking and cycling.

Potentially, I see no difficulty in considering the introduction of a bridle way but this must be safely secure. From a nature reserve perspective, I felt much of the area had been abandoned. Such excess thickets and overgrown areas do not encourage good habitats and eventually much recreational land will be lost to the brambles and thickets. Of course, this was offset by the gorgeous landscape of Richard’s Wood and the open grazing aspect of Town Ham. So much more can be done, at relatively little cost, to restore the potential of many more acres.

This amazing area of healthy countryside is on the doorstep of a busy city. Perhaps we should consider its access points, are they encouraging. Do people feel safe using the site? Undoubtedly, it would feel and be much safer if it were more populated. I would like to see each of the Hams clearly signposted and some interesting information boards in place. By the way, I would not advocate making the area into a sterile recreation ground. It has huge potential as a registered ‘Country Park’. I guess this all turns to the subject of funding.

We should start by ascertaining who owns or is responsible for what and maybe an Association should be formed if there is not one already. There is much to investigate. Perhaps Charlie M could raise some maps of the place from his personal source. I look forward to making another visit with the GLAF next year to see if we can assist with any encouragement for this project.

Alan Shelley for GLAF 22.10.21


The suggestion of a potential bridle way (rather tongue in cheek) would of course require considerable thought regarding new access and security.

It would appear to me that Alney Island (Olney and Olanege) may have gained its name through a colony of Alder trees. Alnus + old Saxon ey for island. Alney = Alder Island. The Alnus thrives in a wet habitat. It fixes nitrogen from the air. They are good for restoration of land and their timber develops a hardness that is resistant to rot. Suitable for lock and sluice gates. The wood is excellent for forging as it burns with an intense heat.

56 hectares of the southern half of the island is nature reserve, owned by Gloucester City Council. Farmland in the northern part provides additional grazing to the resident Gloucester Cattle owned and managed by the City Council’s Rangers. This low land at Gloucester was historically recognised as the lowest crossing point into Wales.

Desktop Survey

The river is inclined to burst its banks in the eastern channel and the water moves across the island to the western channel. Culverts and drainage ditches with large retention pools provide flood management. Serious flooding occurs at times and cannot practically be mitigated against.

There are an infinite variety of habitats for wildlife. Footpaths connect with most spaces although improvements are required, and a more circular route would be desirable. Perhaps such a route could be lined with alders and occasional oak. Surfaces are generally good, but maintenance is required in some areas. General responsibility is with the City Council for 80 hectares of open space with nature reserve and for Westgate Park. Other parts are the responsibility of the Canal and River Trust and the Herefordshire & Gloucestershire Canal Trust.

The Island is included in the Sustrans National Cycle Networks Routes 42 and 45. (53 miles to the centre of Bristol). For Walkers, there are four long distance routes that pass through Alney Island. The Gloucestershire Way, Severn Way, Glevum Way and Wysis Way. (400 miles of signposted footpaths). The site may benefit from some limited (suitable) seating areas.

Improvements by the addition of way marking, information/interpretation boards etc should not be allowed to dominate or interfere with the vernacular of this rather wild landscape. The site should also relate to the Westgate Park and Quay spaces.

There are two main public car parks. The ‘Reserve’ park, off the A417 and the ‘Castle Meads’ carpark on the southside, off the A470. The nature reserve is around 200 acres (since 1993) and is managed by the City Council with NGO ‘Friends of Alney Island’. The Summer site provides around 60 species of wildflowers, including orchids, Gypsy wort, Willow herb, Tall Melilot, and Figwort. There are pheasants, waterfowl, raptors, redwings, treecreepers, and reed warblers plus many insects including various dragonflies, Marmalade Hoverflies, Essex Skippers, Small Skippers, Brown Argus, and Cinnabar moths. Besides badgers, foxes, and rabbets there are signs of Roe and Muntjac deer.

The surrounding River Severn is habitat for several endangered species including otters, water voles, white clawed crayfish, and the depressed river mussel.

Industrial buildings and remains, include the bridges for railway and road. Telford’s historic bridge is an attractive feature, and it provides a spectacular viewpoint for the ‘Severn Bore’ in spring tides (15m). There is the Lock Cottage and the abandoned Llanthony Lock, a Transformer Station alongside some remains of an old electricity sub-station and several remnants of old railway such as rails, railings etc. Some of the remains should be retained and possibly enhanced as they provide historical interest to the site. In the past there had been a railway marshalling yard with 14 sidings from a line that crossed the Severn and terminated at the quay by the canal.

It is the variety of past uses and the wild nature of the site that is important in retaining this site to be unique and interesting. While it is essential to create a safe comfortable place to explore, there should be no attempt to recreate a sterile recreational park. With the further applications of mini cattle grids and kissing gates the cattle may be able to graze freely around the site without any danger to the public or vice versa.

Agricultural Past

This semi-derelict flood-plain as seen today belies the valuable landscape of medieval times. It was rich meadowland with bridges, fish weirs, mills and wharves that generously served the royal borough and the castle.

Most of the Hams were owned and jealously managed by the various religious houses. They were strictly regulated, and the grazing routines carefully stinted with cattle some horses and sheep. In medieval Gloucester, as elsewhere, the meadows were normally closed from Candlemas (2 Feb.) until midsummer when the hay was taken off: for the rest of the year, they were open as pasture to eligible commoners. The high value of these lands in 1535 = 24d an acre against 10d for arable and 20d for pasture. This indicates the abundancy of grass to be taken after alluvial flooding.

On the west bank of the Severn was Sudmeadow and, Wallham to the north, where the hay was parcelled among several owners. On the west bank the hay anciently belonged to Gloucester Abbey and St. Oswold’s Priory. This was comprising of Priest ham (Castle Mead) and Nun ham (Oxlease), Port ham, Archdeacon Meadow , Great and Little Mean ham, Common ham, and Pool Meadow.

Priest ham and Nun ham were given to Gloucester Abbey c750, they had been a part of Abbots Barton. Half of the Island was in the parish of Maisemore, and the other half attached to the parishes of St Mary de Lode or St Nicholas. Port Ham had been part of the demesne of Abbots Barton and was granted (at the Dissolution) toward the new see of the Bishop of Gloucester, until about 1801, then vested privately.

The manor of Maisemore was given to Gloucester Abbey in 1101. In about 1235, the abbey challenged the right of Gloucester burgesses to common pasture in the manor. The outcome was that the burgesses paid £23 6s 8d for a right of common pasture after the hay was carried in all the abbey’s meadows west of the Severn except those belonging to the foreign manors. In practice, their right extended to Port Ham, Archdeacon Meadow and Little Mean Ham in the manor of Maisemore and Oxlease in the manor of Abbot’s Barton.

During the late Middle Ages, the pasture was mainly grazed for the manufacture of wool, meat, and cheese. Llanthony cheese was a delicacy. The town burgesses (freemen) had grazing rights after hay was removed from the meadows. Common Ham was open throughout the year, although they shared it with 280 sheep belonging to the abbey. The abbey also kept pigs in Common Ham, in pits from where the burgesses dug earth and clay for use in town. They were more heavily exploited for brick clay from 1649. Archdeacon Meadow was also open to the burgesses. There was a quarrel with the men of Maisemore over these rights, which required settlement by arbiters in 1519. The first mowing was usually in the hands of the abbey. The abbey’s title to sheep pasture in Oxlease, Port Ham and Common Ham also passed to the city with the manor of Abbots Barton. In 1571 the city’s lessee agreed to reduce the stint from 480 to 240 sheep and not to put them on Oxlease before 31 October (21-year lease).

The medieval history of the common meadows became an issue after 1875, when Gloucester City Council entrusted their management to a committee of city freemen. In 1887 the freemen claimed that they, and not the council, had succeeded to the common rights granted in 1518, and in 1891 and they sued the council for encroaching on their privileges. The town clerk, George Sheffield Blakeway, refused to answer the suit until the archivist had set in order all the council’s medieval archive. The archive gave him grounds for a counter claim. The agreement of 1518 entitled each burgess to pasture his own beasts up to a maximum of five; but the freemen’s leaders, being shop keepers, had no animals and were breaking the agreement by letting the pasturage.

Accordingly, under the Gloucester Corporation Act, 1894, the council took powers, which it exercised in1899, to buy out the freemen’s rights with a view to turning the meadows into public recreation and pleasure grounds. In more than 100 years since then, only a fraction of the meadows have been laid out for the purpose intended!

These historic references have been extracted from a talk on “The Severn Flood Plain at Gloucester” by John Rhodes MA, FMA, FSA, 18/05/2006.

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