In the 8th century, the great Anglo-Saxon scholar Alcuin wrote a poetic account of his home town of York in which he described the River Ouse flowing “by flowery meads on each side of its banks”. These flower-rich meadows, still referred to by the Old Norse name of Ings, had probably been harvested for hay then grazed by livestock until the winter flood season since Roman times. Indeed archaeologists have identified plant remains from cavalry stables buried under Rougier Street which include many of the species growing on Clifton Ings today. Throughout the middle ages and into the 19th century, the fertile floodlands were a vital resource for our city because hay was as important to the economy as diesel fuel is today: it was in constant demand for horses and as winter feed for livestock and beasts of burden. Elaborate customs evolved to ensure that this bountiful resource was shared fairly and not over-exploited, whilst everyone with an interest in the Ings was obliged to assist with tasks such as maintaining ditches and bridges. Today we call this “sustainability” but our forebears invented the concept centuries ago and the surviving examples of floodplain meadows are a living reminder of this.
Along the way, the riverside Ings feature in many of the events which have shaped York’s history including the Battle of Fulford, the rise and fall of land-owning religious institutions, the sieges of the English civil war and the establishment of York as a horse racing centre. Centuries of consistent management also created a very special type of grassland which is now internationally rare.
Friends of Rawcliffe Meadows would like to make more people aware of the fantastic historic and natural heritage of the Ouse Ings. Some years ago we produced a small booklet about this. We are now working on a more ambitious publication telling the story of the Ings. We have a small amount of funding but need more to bring this project to fruition, so we would love to hear from potential sponsors who might be able to help. We would also like to hear from local history enthusiasts or anyone who might have information on historic land use or farming practices – not just in relation to the Clifton/Rawcliffe floodplain but anywhere between York and the confluence of the Rivers Ouse and Wharfe. Old maps or photographs, anecdotes or reminiscences would all be welcome.