Way back in the dim and distant past, the well that supplies the water for our river Banwell would not have been apparent, as it would have been covered by sea water. As the sea retreated, the well would be seen, but instead of running into a stream the water from the well would have spread far and wide, following the least line of resistance, winding and overflowing over the countryside, forming many streams.
As agriculture developed on the levels, the need to control and channel the water became apparent, so that watering of crops was not left to the vagaries of the flowing water.
So, at some point (referenced in Banwell Court Rolls in 1352) people started to dig channels, called “rhynes” (pronounced “reen” and comes from the Welsh rhewyn which means ditch) to direct the water. The naturally meandering predecessor of Banwell river still survives as a substantial paleochannel (Paleochannels are remnants of river and stream channels that have been filled with sediments and overlain by younger units) .that flowed north from the fen-edge across the Hams and Cormoor, meandering past the modern Lower Gout House and then probably linking up with the naturally meandering stream now called Balls Yeo Rhyne which joins the Burton Town Rhyne.
In Search 23, Dave Yarde discovered, after very heavy rains, that a natural river channel emerged from the gardens on Riverside and ran some 100 metres eastwards and then crossed Riverside Road and the present Banwell River and then ran east and north into Twenty Acres field – in all probability linking up with the paleochannel described above.
The present river is entirely a man-made construction ( a “canal” rather than a “river), one only has to see it on the map to realise that the dead straight lines of the channels from Banwell to the sea could not have been the result of chance or nature. The embankments either side prevent it from draining the land through which it passes and while this major feat of engineering may have been designed simply to carry the water to the coast, it is tempting to think that it was designed to act as a canal, linking the Bishop of Wells manor at Banwell with the Estuary (this was done by the Abbots of Glastonbury on the Somerset levels. The expertise for such draining projects came over from the Netherlands (Huguenot Protestants fleeing persecution from Holland in the early 1600s who had considerable experience of drainage, embanking and reclamation).
In 1352 in the Banwell Court Rolls, it was specified that the tenants of Banwell were responsible for the “Banwellesyeo” (Banwell River) while the tenants of Puttingthorpe (St Georges) were responsible the “Ballesyeo” which refers to that stretch of Balls Yeo between Lower Gout House and the Bourton Town Rhyne. North of Bourton Town Rhyne the Balls Yeo currently continues along a clearly artificial course through Puxton and West Hewish. In 1598, the Banwell Court Rolls referred to stockades on the Old Yeo.
The name “Banwell River” is a recent one; in 1730 Strachey described how the Banwell stream divided into two branches, what is still called “Old Yeo” flowing northwest along the southern and western sides of Banwell Moor, and the “New Yeo” (now known as “Banwell River”) which flows directly north before turning west at Lower Gout House. Although the Old Yeo is older than the New Yeo (the modern Banwell River) it is apparent that this was also an artificial creation.
When, and over what period, the Banwell River was constructed is difficult to establish, but it is likely that the construction, to what it is today, was spread over centuries with references to the Banwell river from the 12th Century onwards.
The cleaning of the rhymes is essential, because the level of the Marsh at least as far as Old Gout House is below the level of the sea at high-water of Spring tides, and a breach in the sea wall at that time would flood the land with sea water and render it unfit for pasturage for a considerable time. If you look at the low wall which runs between the river and the old cottages on Riverside will see a number of small stones built into it marked with numbers and initials. The space between each pair of stones was called a “work” and the number referred to a list held by the Dyke Reeves, which showed which property was charged with the care of that part of the river and the initials are those of the person who held that property when the stones were last marked.
As late as 1912, it was their responsibility to see that the river was cleaned three times before the end of September – this meant that the bed and sides of the river should be cleared of weed and grass (known as “Keeching the rhyne”). Thorns, trees and withys growing too near the rhyne had to be cleared away. At much longer intervals the streams had to be “thrown”, that is to say that the bed is laid dry and the passage dug out to its proper depth and width by throwing out the waste matter which had collected on at the sides and on the bed of the rhyne.
This photo from 1930 shows how they carried out the “Throwing of the Rhyne” (nowadays referred to as “desilting”). Note the number of men who had to be employed and the very laborious nature of the work.
Today, the responsibility rests with the Environment Agency and the work is carried out by mechanical digger.
The map dated 1815 shows the river and rhyne systems at that time which are little changed to this day.
Parts of the low-lying areas of wet grassland adjacent to the river are at risk from overflowing. The risk is judged to be approximately 1 year in 2 and this also applies to parts of the former Weston airfield. The majority of flooding from the river occurs on Banwell Moor which consists mainly of farmland used for grazing. The area is very low-lying and is a natural flood plain. Preventing flooding on Banwell Moor would increase water levels in the urban areas downstream, so no schemes have been recommended to alleviate this flooding.
Acknowledgements: Reference to the Council for British Archaeology Report 000 – by Stephen Rippon.
Input from Bob Mitchell, Stan Rendell, Dave & Tony Yarde.