Recreation on the Ham
For centuries the Ham has produced a food crop of grass based upon a system alternating grazing and growing. This, coupled with frequent deposits of silt from flooding has preserved the fertility of the soil. Other uses of the land have been limited to the edges; osier growing, fishing and gardening, all of which may have both recreational and business uses. The most popular use of the Ham is to walk on it.
Commercial fishing has died out with the ending of netting around 1940. One right from those days has survived. This is the right for all fishermen to land their catch at Sandy Point and to mend nets there. In the case of B.T. Moore vs. Thomas Rice & others, in the Gloucester County Court, 21st May 1869, it was ruled "Fishermen ‘for a long time past’ have enjoyed the right to land catch and repair nets at this place and shall be allowed to continue to do so". There is some game fishing for salmon in the Severn but the main fishing done is recreational angling or course fishing. The rights are permanently let to the T.P.A.A. and permits are required from that body, the Water Authority and are expensive.
Council Minutes, November 1870. Ald. Garrison "That it is inexpedient to sanction horse racing on the Severn Ham at this time". Carried. Nonetheless, at least one more meeting took place, in 1886. The course was the usual circus, aligned roughly NW/SE at the lower end of the meadow. Meetings were of one- or two- days variety and took place at irregular intervals between 1721 and 1829, and during the 1840s. [See Tewkesbury Races in the Sport section.]
There were four sites in popular use, two on the Mill Avon, immediately above and below the Abbey Mill, and two on the Severn, above and below the weir. The Old Avon was used for water polo in the 1920s & 1930s, with the quay as grandstand. The most popular venue was Sandy Point which hosted the Swimming Club from 1892 to 1937. The excavation of of sand for wartime defences and flood erosion and deposits have altered the line of bank considerably, Not many swimmers use the salmon shute as a water slide now. (See also Knaves' Acre.)
Cricket: Several of the fifty or so clubs in the area practiced here in 1878.
Soccer: Between the mills were pitches used by local teams which included the Town A.F.C. in 1890 to the Magpies in 1939. There was a brief post-war use.
Ten acres were offered by Mr. Dowdeswell for public recreation at £3 per annum for each acre. The offer was let go by default when it was said that fencing would be £100. Ten acres were reserved in 1907 for children to play on. Aircraft made frequent use 1914-22. From 1945 to 1954 the Grammar School used the perimeter path as a Cross-Country course. From about 1960 such use of the Ham has been curtailed, "In the public interest." The reasons are two-fold find both based on financial interest.
The first cause of the limitation of the use of the Ham for recreational purposes was an objection by Healing’s Mill proprietors to large numbers of people using the public highway through the mills. Ostensibly this was in the name of safety, mainly the risk of fire from vehicles passing between the warehouses. That this was of doubtful veracity may be assumed from the fact that 98.5% of all traffic through the mill is self-generated and the fact that the main reason for expansion on to the Ham was given to be the need for a central servicing place for all mill trucks, which have to pass through the mill.
In the second case the objection was by the Town Council and was purely financial. As the sole owner, for all practical purposes, it was said that "You can’t keep 177.7 acres for weeds and buttercups". (Cllr. R.J. Bourton 1974). Also, by Cllr. B. Devereaux, the quality of the grass was alleged to have deteriorated due to pollution during floods. No other flood meadow suffered like loss. To improve the income it would therefore be advisable to keep the people off and to eliminate the plants that weren't grass. There was a lot of opposition to both plans. It seems that the Ham was a long established water meadow almost unique in its state of preservation and host to 24 types of grass and forty or so herbs. One was very rare. Spays are non-selective. Naturalists united and the Ham was declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It was still sprayed but not so indiscriminately. The grounds for the "improvement" were a bit weak. Income from hay had risen from £1.50 an acre in 1891 to £60 in 1978. It has continued to rise, reaching £5,781 in 1978, which was over and above the aftermath income. The outlay on the land itself has been virtually nil. Why it should have been thought needful to meddle with a steadily-growing asset in a manner the results of which were unknown and potentially disastrous is a mystery locked in the bureaucratic mind. The Monkey Syndrome, perhaps?
In 1966 it was suggested that it would be profitable (the word used was “beneficial" to have on the Ham a golf course, picnic area, caravan and camping: sites, a marina, boating lake, small railway, hotel, clubhouse and carparks. In 1970 the water authority suggested building an embankment all round and making A reservoir. In 1971 the Borough Planning Committee approved a plan for a lake, golf course, picnic and horse riding trail. Apart from the railway all those recreational activities could take place on and around the Ham without making any changes whatsoever. All, of course, are forbidden.
Registration as common land conferred no extra rights nor altered any existing ones. It was just one more step along the path of having everything listed and on the right index card. One final comment: for five hundred years the Ham was unchanged; in the last one hundred some 20 acres have been lost. The wastage is accelerating.