I call them ‘the Saxon Ponds’ because it is said that long ago they provided fish for King Alfred’s daughter Aethelgifu and her nuns at the abbey in the hilltop town four miles away. The story goes that fish were taken from the ponds to be kept in the abbey stews, which were very small and could not have produced a great weight of fish on their own. The main fish raised at the Saxon Ponds would probably have been eels and bream, perhaps tench, just possibly pike and perch. Carp might have come later although there were few in England even at the time of the Dissolution in 1539.
I wonder if in those far-off days there were also one or two ponds in what is now Legg Close, the once-very-wet meadow upstream. This is just speculation, of course. There is no evidence that this was ever the case – no raised banks or stonework – but it would seem to have been an ideal place. This narrow piece of land was perhaps named after John Legg, the first Puritan vicar of the local church in 1648, though there have been vicars and local people of the same name since.
The brook that for most of the year is the main source of water for the ponds originates in Britmore Bog a mile or two upstream of Berry Wood Copse. I found several references to this source of the brook on the Internet as a “wooded bog”. Another rivulet runs under Berry Wood Lane from a spring on the side of high ground and joins the main brook a few yards into Legg Close. The ponds are further sustained by a modest flow into the small silt trap. This comes from Shute House in Donhead St Mary. A seasonal source of water, of which more later, is the ancient Berry Wood Copse, dating back to at least 1663, when a local clergyman, Peter Ince, is described as preaching there.
Trees take plenty of moisture out of the ground and once they began to colonise Britmore Bog the water available to the ponds would have been reduced. This part of the brook now stops flowing in a dry summer.
There are implications here for the management of Legg Close, I think. When I first came to know the ponds forty-six years ago, it was bog, with a wealth of wild flowers. On the sandy, higher dry areas, other plants flourished. Water drained from Berry Wood and filled the valley soil like a sponge, providing a reservoir to help sustain the ponds through the summer. The brook, undredged, overflowed in times of flood, maintaining “the wildness and wet” and reducing the severity of flooding downstream.
In 1995, to try to reduce the amount of silt entering the top pond, I had a new silt trap dug in Legg Close, bigger than the one immediately above the upper pond. The stream was diverted into this new silt trap, flowing from there through a big pipe and ditch into the small trap and thence into the pond. At this time Legg Close was undrained apart from the stream and so surface water too seeped into the trap, which quickly attracted frogs and toads. It was capable of enlargement when funds permitted and access to it was easy, with room for spoil whenever de-silting was needed.
In 2008, an attempt was made by the owner to ‘improve’ the grazing in Legg Close and to eliminate the poisonous-to-stock Water Dropwort. Drainage ditches were dug from Berry Wood to the brook, which – cleared of all obstructions – of course hastened to take its water down to the sea, meaning that in wet times floods were more intense, bringing down yet more silt. This was made worse by the bypassing of the silt trap in Legg Close and the direction of all the water into the inadequate silt trap immediately above the upper pond. The drainage ditches meant that the reservoir of wet soil was no longer there to provide water to the ponds at times of drought.
All this is reversible, happily, though much will have been lost in those 13 years. Ditches can be blocked and the brook re-routed into the silt trap in Legg Close. The trap could be enlarged and deepened, creating a marvellous invertebrate pond. The valley could lie wet again and managed to encourage the wild flowers. Wet grassland is a rare thing in over-crowded U.K., a precious habitat for a wide range of moisture-loving plants and creatures.
No doubt the main problem with the original ponds, however many there were, would have been the great quantities of sandy silt washed into them whenever the little feeder brook was swollen by heavy rain. This still happens. It seems likely that ponds may have come and gone over the centuries, dug out at the behest of an interested owner perhaps and then neglected and silted up into bog until the next excavation. Maps before 1896 show only dry land where today’s ponds are.
The history of two small ponds in an obscure Wiltshire village is bound to be sketchy. I did find somewhere a reference to two ponds built on a tributary of the River Nadder in the C18th and these could have been the Saxon Ponds. That was a time when landscaping gardens and lakes in the grounds of stately homes was all the rage and no doubt the less famous and wealthy would have followed suit. The big house, in whose grounds the ponds have almost always been, was a vicarage then and perhaps a rich clergyman took it into his head to build the lakes.
This is certainly what happened in about 1892, when one Horace Chapman, the controversial vicar of the ancient church in the village, made extensive alterations to the house and landscaped the grounds to include a walled garden and lakes. They are distinctly shown on the 1900 6” to the mile O.S. map and are labelled “fish ponds”. They clearly have the same shape as the current ponds. Confirming that the ponds we have now date from Chapman’s time, the structures appear to be Victorian: for example, the beautifully constructed tunnel that carries the water from the upper pond to the lower, the bricked island in the lower pond, and the dams and sluices, though the last have been much modified over recent years to stop leaks. Also, we found marble-stopped bottles dumped near the upper pond when we came to restore the ponds in the 1970s. These date from the 1870s.
When new owners took possession, about 60 years ago, they found just a bog where the ponds had once been. Silt had filled the upper pond and then the lower. It was decided to dredge the ponds to bring them back to something resembling Chapman’s originals.
The first attempt was a failure, the contractor defeated by the silt. Some years after this, in 1975, the local angling association was invited to make a second attempt in return for a long lease. I was club Hon. Secretary at that time and so was heavily involved in what happened next. Fortunately, I kept a diary recording the club’s experiences at the ponds until 1982. Then for about ten years I lost touch, apart from an occasional story from friends about what was happening down there. In 1992, I was invited by the owner to take over management of the ponds and my stewardship has continued until the present day.
Since 1975, these have been anglers’ ponds. More recently, they have been managed in favour of a threatened species of fish, the crucian. The Saxon Ponds were initially one of the very few fisheries in the country to focus on that fish.
In the interests of conservation, the vegetation around the ponds has been left largely untouched, except for pollarding and coppicing of the willow and alder, the cutting back of dogwood and bamboo, and the maintenance of a path acceptable to fishermen. The aquatic plants have been managed in the interests of fish and fishermen, rather than for aesthetic reasons, though the two sometimes have sometimes coincided, for example the planting and management of water lilies. The structures have been maintained but leaks have been a problem for many years, with the solutions usually those of enthusiastic amateurs rather than expensive professionals. Silt has always been a problem, particularly in the upper pond. Dredging has been occasional and not always as thorough as it might have been.
Now, though, in 2021, the ponds are about to be substantially restored for the first time since Chapman’s day, over 120 years ago. At this important moment in their history, it seems appropriate to put on record my unique experience of the ponds over the past 46 years.
I’ve written about the fishing itself in several of my books; if you wish to know more about those pleasures, you can find it in The Net on the Garage Wall, Always Summer and One Last Cast and of course on ‘The Crucian Website’. This essay, though, deals with the general management of the ponds and my relationship with them rather than the actual fishing, except in passing.
For the first eight years, as angling club secretary, I was part of a team dedicated to providing good fishing for members. Our first challenge was to restore the ponds as best we could and my diaries of the time record how we set about it.
We began work on the lower pond on April 6th 1975. The towering rhododendrons on the south bank and the island were cut back to about five feet. We had some fine bonfires – rhododendrons burn well. A big alder on the island was cut down, as were several big pines on the north bank. The timber from these was sold to defray costs. We removed the old boards and drained the pond, in preparation for dredging by a local contractor. It was then that I met the excavator driver, Alan Parsons, who did much work for me over the years to come, an artist with his machine.
The aborted dredging of several years before had left much of the silt in heaps on the pond bed; more silt had accumulated since then. This spoil and the extra silt were disposed of on the banks and the original brick-faced island exposed once more. The bed of the pond proved to be mostly of firm greensand and gravel, with two softer patches – one near the top of the pond on the north side, where a spring emerged and the mud seemed bottomless; the other on the south side of the island. Dredging was limited in those places. After the machines had left, we spread three tons of chalk to sweeten the remaining mud and cleaned down the island bricks.
Alan dug a blind ditch at the top of the pond to intercept any effluent from the barn where cattle over-wintered. I’d noticed a rather smelly puddle! In the sluice, the existing elm boards were liberally coated on the abutting edges with water pump grease, replaced in the iron runners and the pond began to fill. It was then that we found our first leaks, through the sandstone blocks that formed that part of the dam. I spent many hours, dwarfed by the sandstone blocks of the dam, filling the cracks with mortar mixed with ‘Sealocrete’, an additive that enabled plugging of leaks against the flow. I can remember it quickly warming in the hand as it began to set and I forced it into the crevice. As the leaks diminished, the water level slowly rose, revealing more leaks that were treated in their turn.
Meanwhile, we replaced some of the boards in the upper pond sluice, to see if there were leaks there. In my entry of 24th June, I noted: “The top pond remains a serious problem,” but I think this was referring to the massive quantity of silt. We had no idea then of the difficulties we were going to encounter later with the sluice and dam.
In the lower pond the level slowly rose, finally to lap over the top board. Now we could safely begin to stock with fish. At first, we relied upon our ‘stock pond’ at West Knoyle, with the fish caught on rod and line and then transferred to our new pond. 120 tench up to about 1lb and a couple of roach were put in, in three instalments, that summer, and by the end of July tench fry showed us that our fish had already spawned.
Now we could turn our attention to the upper pond. Logically, we should have dredged that one first so that any silt washed downstream could be removed later. I cannot remember now why we did not do things that way round, probably because the upper pond appeared to present more problems and we were impatient to get fishing!
In preparation for the dredging of the upper pond, we first removed the boards we had put back in the sluice to investigate the soundness of the dam. We had found that the pointing between the bricks by the sluice was in poor condition and that water was running through the gaps. Also, exploring the tunnel beneath the track as far as the sluice, we had discovered a sump some four feet deep behind the sill, where the water falling over the boards had eroded concrete and clay. We should have filled this with concrete but instead we used rocks from the stream below the dam. Mistake number one. That was inexperience. I know now that it is better to over-engineer rather than try to cut corners where water is concerned. It seemed to us then that the sill itself was OK and that the distance between it and the sump was sufficient to keep all safe and sound. Had we concreted the sump, probably the problems we later had would have been averted.
For the time being, though, we did what we thought was necessary, which was, in addition to filling the rather scary sump with rocks, to re-point the wall for about three yards each side of the sluice, and to lard the bottom two boards, apparently sound and left in to hold back the silt, with water pump grease – I had read somewhere that this was very effective against leaks. Nowadays, I never bother with this apparent refinement, because well-cut boards swell with soaking and let through remarkably little water. I know now that the very best solution is to have two sets of runners and boards, with the space between filled with sawdust; this is absolutely watertight and easy to deal with when the time comes to lift boards for lake-maintenance. Sawdust is much better than clay.
The dredging of the upper pond was an exciting affair. I marvelled at Alan’s skill in negotiating the softer areas of the lake bed and his delicacy in dredging the silt close to the dam walls, something I have never since dared to have done since that first time for fear of damaging the structure. The several islands or, rather, heaps of silt left over from the abortive dredging of several years earlier, were removed. Much of the spoil was carried by a second excavator to an area beside the track on the pasture adjacent to the lower pond. It must have been relatively dry because I remember it as a heap rather than a lagoon. When it had dried out sometime later it was sold as extra-rich topsoil and carted away.
The rest of the spoil was landscaped around the pond. We had pollarded and coppiced the bankside willows and alders in preparation for the dredging and once the water returned, all looked magnificent. Our second pond was done, ready for stocking. We planned to begin to fish both ponds on June 16th 1976. Our lease was to run until the end of September 1982, free of charge in recognition of our hard work in restoring the ponds.
In the September of 1975, 33 carp between 1lb and 5lb were put in the lower pond to go with the tench, and 100 or so roach, half of them quite big fish, with one or two crucians in the upper pond.
On 16th June 1976, 30-plus tench from our ‘stock pond’ were added to the upper pond. In the lower pond, the fish had obviously found things to their liking because tench to 2lbs were caught by the few anglers who tried – I remember being surprised at the excellent rate of growth in one year from just 1lb maximum in 1975. Brown trout were occasionally caught there too, either migrated from the river or grown on from the spawning brownies we’d seen in the linking stream on our first visit.
Some idea of the productivity of the ponds comes from the netting we did in the October of 1977. The lower pond produced nearly 2000 4”-6” tench, half of which went to the Wessex Water Authority, as well of plenty of bigger fish to over 2lbs. We were able to move good numbers of the smaller fish up to the other pond.
We had found a number of dead carp from that first stocking over the previous year and no carp at all turned up in the netting, much to our disappointment. As replacements, in the April of 1979, we bought 68 mirror and common carp from Burton Bradstock Carp farm and put them in the upper pond. In the September, we brought 92 2”-3” mirror carp and 19 half-pound tench from our Luckfield pond. It isn’t clear from my diaries how these were distributed but when the lower pond was cropped in the September of that year, a few commons and one mirror were recorded. Several carp had been caught in the upper pond so this fish was obviously in both.
In 1978, the upper pond was drained to replace the boards, which we really should have done at the outset. Interestingly, some members had moaned about the sport in this pond; there were mutterings about the need to stock with more fish. In the event, we moved about 1000 fish to the lower pond while the work was done. There were some beautiful roach to nearly 2lbs, plenty of tench to 2.5lbs, and crucians averaging about 8oz. The slightly uneven sill meant that a small leak persisted for some time until fresh silt clogged it.
The next few years saw concerns about water levels on occasions but no crises. The ponds came through the famously hot and long 1976 summer well enough and the fishing gave pleasure to many members, though we restricted numbers and they had to pre-book their visit there, with no unaccompanied junior members, the wisdom of which precaution became evident later.
In 1982, with a new lease agreed, ending in September 1989, we went further. The upper pond was drained, left dry for several months, dredged again and landscaped. The old iron runners were decaying so we replaced them and put in new boards. The dam was re-pointed. The refilling, though, brought serious problems. When five boards had been put back, a big leak developed beneath the sill and the water vanished. It seemed clear that during the several months that the pond was empty the concentrated flow of water through the sluice had eroded beneath the sill. Mistake number two. Ever since, I have left at least one board in place when we have drained a pond, to reduce the chance of an accidental under-cutting.
We decided to re-build the sill and the area immediately in front of it with waterproofed concrete. We used 12 tons of it in the end, all carefully vibro-pokered to remove air bubbles and compact it as much as possible. To do this work, we built a temporary dam at the exit from the silt trap and forced the water to spread over much of Legg Close instead of coming into the pond. We had no way of knowing how long this would give us so we worked at top speed. The Ready-mix driver appreciated our haste because he wanted to get the waterproofed concrete out of his transporter as soon as possible – he was afraid of its setting prematurely, which would have put his vehicle out of commission, probably for good!
As we stood back to admire our work, the first trickle of water over the top of our makeshift dam told us that we had finished just in time. The boards were put back in place and we went home well-satisfied with ourselves.
At the seven boards’ level, the water started to recede instead of rising. Guided by vortices, we found the problem. Mistake number three! We had not extended our concrete platform in front of the sill far enough or deep enough; the water had found its way underneath. This we cured with tons of clay dug from the adjacent pond bank, a thick plastic rick sheet folded twice, with another layer of clay on top. This did the job and is presumably still in place, awaiting an expensive and professional job sometime in the future.
With the upper pond now full and fit for purpose, we re-stocked from the lower pond and sport in both gradually improved. A bed of white water lilies on the north side of the pond became a favourite fishing spot. By 1982 the lower pond dam was again giving problems and would need our serious attention soon. I could not be involved with this, though. Education in the town was being re-organised, I was after promotion and the day job had to take precedence. I resigned the secretaryship and had to turn my attention elsewhere.
During the next ten years, from 1982 to ‘92, I heard rumours of what was happening down at the ponds: how the lower pond sluice and dam had been upgraded at considerable expense, how bream had been put into the upper pond, how well the perch had done, etc., etc. And then I heard the dramatic news that the barn adjacent to the ponds, full of straw for winter bedding for the animals, had been burnt down. Juniors had been allowed to fish there unaccompanied by an adult, two lads had gone to the barn for shelter and a smoke, and a huge fire was the result. The consequence of this was that when the time came to re-negotiate the lease, the Hon. Secretary of the club at the time could not persuade the owners to renew it.
Bad news for the members was good news for me. Out of the blue, the owner phoned to ask if I would like to look after the ponds and control the fishing. I jumped at the chance and in 1992 the ponds became my responsibility. The angling club netted and removed most of their fish. I was disappointed to find that they had also removed a seat overlooking the upper pond, put there in memory of a member who spent much of his spare time fishing the ponds. The plinth remains there, a reminder of the club’s displeasure. I could not blame them. Losing such a unique fishery, into which so much hard work and money had been invested, must have been a bitter pill to swallow.
In the July of 1992, then, I began the long process of turning the Saxon Ponds into my own dream fishery. To follow my diary year by year and day by day would make this essay far too long, so I’ll describe the main themes and events of the 28 years since the ponds became my sole responsibility, in the hope that they will be of interest to those who now fish the ponds and of some use to those who follow in my footsteps in looking after them.
First, then: the fish. I felt that the ponds had probably been over-stocked during previous years and that they would benefit from being dried out, so that wind, rain and sun could restore fertility. In November 1992, the ponds were lowered in turn and the fish collected by the angling club – I remember the slightly strained atmosphere! In all, missed in the club’s first netting, there were 64 mirror carp averaging about 2lbs, about 20 modest-sized tench and plenty of fry, carp, roach, bream and roach. Also, there was a big population of crayfish from juveniles to berried adults.
That winter, the ponds were exposed to the weather. Learning from experience, I left in a couple of boards so that the resulting pools protected the sills from erosion and provided a reservoir of invertebrates to re-colonise the ponds when they were filled in the spring of 1993.
In 1993 I stocked the lower pond with 18 green tench to 3lbs, 10 6” – 8” mirror carp, 20 6” – 8” golden rudd and 12 8” – 12” gold tench. With my fish farmer’s hat on, I hoped that the newly productive pond would bring in a reasonable income for the owner from sale of fish to the ornamental trade. It was at this time that my little business, Brookwater Aquatics, was flourishing and I had plenty of potential customers. Fishing was a secondary consideration for the time being.
Early in 1994, the first stocking with crucians took place, 18 six-ounce fish to the upper pond, to go with some golden rudd and tench. I had remembered how crucians had thrived in the ponds in the past, growing well and with a fine colour. I put in straw bales to counter any algal bloom, always likely after ponds have been rejuvenated. In the old days, the dry time was also when they sowed the pond bed with a crop and allowing stock to graze. I have never gone quite so far but have often left a pond dry for several months. Silt is the great enemy of ponds and oxygenation through exposure to the air reduces the vegetable part of it. Decay is accelerated, silt volumes diminished, and pond fertility improved. Invertebrates are quick to re-colonise the ponds if a pool is left immediately above the dam.
Stocking with crucians had consequences beyond my imagining at the time. I tell the full story of the national crucian resurgence in One Last Cast. Here it is enough to say here that those few fish and their offspring eventually played a large part in my work on crucian conservation and the writing of my book, Crock of Gold – Seeking the Crucian Carp.
By 2009, my fishery policy had become fixed: I had discovered through experience what worked best at the ponds, as far as fish health and productivity were concerned. The upper pond contained just tench and crucians, the lower had a mixed population of tench, crucians, roach, perch and a very few carp. The reasons for this are complex and are explained in my books and on The Crucian Website. There seemed no reason why this ideal situation should not continue, with excellent fishing for a small number of enthusiastic anglers and a modest but steady income for the owner from cropping surplus fish and fishermen’s subscriptions.
Then, however, predation became a significant factor. First, we lost our big carp to otters. The dozen or so mirrors and commons remaining from the old days had grown impressively, the biggest to well over 20lbs. By 2015 all but one had been killed by otters, their corpses found on the bank with perhaps just a pound or two of flesh eaten. Three years ago, cormorant predation too became serious. On my walk down to the ponds, I’d see several of these greedy birds perched in the trees surrounding the lower pond or I’d frighten one from the water.
A test netting of the lower pond confirmed that the fish, particularly the crucians, had been hard hit. A fine, well-balanced fishery had been blighted by birds that, crazily, are protected by statute despite their dreadful impact upon biodiversity.
Our response to this predation is documented on the website, with plenty of illustrations. Ropes across the upper pond during the winter seem to have largely kept the cormorants away from there. Refinements to this system in the future could be diagonal ropes at a higher level to further disorientate any bird thinking of landing in the pond. Compact discs attached here and there to the ropes glitter effectively in any breeze and sunlight. I was sceptical about this to begin with but am now a convert. We transferred the surviving fish to the upper pond and the lower one was drained. We then built chestnut paling refuges wherever there was overhead protection from willows. How effective these have been remains to be seen: but we do know from underwater camera shots that the fish use them.
It may be that opening out the ponds with the proposed new landscaping and greater human presence will persuade the birds to look elsewhere for food. It would be a shame for such fish-friendly conservation ponds to be regularly plundered by birds that by rights should be at sea.
A less obvious kind of predation, not of fish but of their food, was the plague of signal crayfish that the lower pond in particular suffered in the late 1990s. These invaders came from the river into which the pond water flows: I sometimes saw them clawing their way up the vertical boards of the sluice. For three years I trapped them to the tune of well over 1000; we removed all that we caught in our nettings; anglers were asked to kill any that they hooked. These were the red-clawed American imports, not the smaller white-clawed British species, which we would have tolerated. Signal crayfish were farmed extensively at that time for food and many of ours found their way into cooking pots. Eventually, numbers declined – perhaps whoever was farming them upstream gave up. Nowadays, we occasionally catch or see one but a sort of balance has been achieved and we no longer see them as a threat.
Another problem hardly counts as predation and is better described as an incursion. From time to time, climaxing in 2018, cattle found their way into the pond area. When the banks were wet this caused considerable damage to the paths and banks. The last occasion and our remedial action are described on the website. Improved fencing and the fact that sheep now graze the fields not steers should mean that this problem is firmly in the past. The anglers are grateful, too. Not everyone enjoys the company of cattle, especially when they congregate around gates and are reluctant to move!
Apart from the cormorants, the otters and the signal crayfish, the wildlife of the ponds has always been one of the great delights of the ponds, to go with their intimacy, seclusion and quietness. Clean water and sympathetic management of surrounding vegetation has ensured the right environment for a rich variety of plants and creatures.
In the ponds, the number and variety of snails and other invertebrates changes according to the density of fish stocks. There are also other inhabitants, unstocked but welcome: brook lampreys, which come down from the feeder stream, and freshwater mussels. Signal crayfish, which have colonised the ponds from the river, have occasionally been a nuisance. Just occasionally, eels - another threatened species - have been recorded. Managing the numbers and size of fish is an art rather than a science: too many of them in a pond means that the range of other creatures is limited and the fish grow slowly: too few means that anglers struggle to catch. Only occasionally over the years I have felt that this balance has been achieved, largely by accident.
Insect larvae provide much of the fishes’ food. Clouds of Chironomids, non-biting midges, are sometimes unbelievably huge around these ponds, though biting insects are fortunately rare. Ephemerids have enjoyed the clean water. The huge numbers of insects attract birds like martins, swallows and flycatchers. In turn, they and the dragonflies are prey for predatory birds like sparrow hawks and hobbies. To see the swift pass of a hobby hunting the dragonflies on the upper pond is a privilege. Bats, though less common than in the past, still come out in the late evening to feed on the midges.
Another bird of prey often seen near the ponds is the kestrel, attracted by voles, mice and shrews. We did some exploratory trapping some years ago and there were plenty of these rodents, encouraged no doubt by our numerous eco-heaps. Buzzards and owls are after the same prey and we cherish the not-uncommon sight of a barn owl. Owl calls can make an evening’s fishing memorable, no matter how few fish are caught.
Herons and kingfishers are common sights; sometimes we get a visit from an egret. These fish-eating birds are welcome: they are part of the natural balance of the ponds and have little impact upon fish stocks, unlike the voracious cormorant. Songbirds are numerous and the dawn chorus can be memorable. When the ponds have been lowered there have been visits from snipe and sandpipers.
I have many happy memories of the wildlife of these ponds, the swooping flocks of martins and swallows, the owls and the bats. I’ve watched water voles, though numbers have declined over the last decade; grass snakes hunting for frogs and toads and swimming amongst the water lily pads; frogspawn and millions of toad tadpoles, though never a newt. Moorhens, coots, little grebe, wild duck and occasionally geese have used the ponds for feeding and breeding. I have seen foxes, found evidence of badgers and glimpsed deer, roe and fallow, during my quiet hours by the ponds.
Once, sadly, a roebuck drowned, trapped in the sticky silt in the upper pond and I had the melancholy task of retrieving the body and leaving it in the undergrowth by the silt trap for scavengers to deal with. Another time, a wounded cormorant took possession of the same pond. Even as I aimed my powerful airgun, I felt sympathy for the bird’s inability to take to the air, but that sympathy evaporated suddenly as it dipped under to emerge with one of my precious crucians struggling in its beak. When it rested on the sandbank by the inflow, I was able to get close enough to dispatch it, with a mixture of sadness, conscience and relief.
I have seen glow-worms and huge hawk moth caterpillars, freshwater mussels and dragonflies and damselflies in a great variety of species and colours, clouds of midges beyond numbering and by the lower pond sluice my first and only harvest mouse. In more recent times a black swan paid us a visit for several weeks.
Fishing is indeed much more than catching fish. The ponds and their environs are a paradise for wild flowers and other plants. I remember being told how a team of Wiltshire botanists researched the plants of Legg Close and found well over 100 species in the days before the draining. By the ponds and in the margins, there are daffodils and snowdrops in season, sedges and reedmace, giant marsh marigolds and wood anemones, saxifrage and bluebells, campions and comfrey, flag iris and wild geraniums – and a host of other wild flowers that I do not recognise. Brambles provide some really exceptional blackberry-picking and the holly trees are generous with berries. Alder and willow are the main trees around the ponds but there are birch, Scots pine, oak and elder as well. Within the ponds are native white water lilies and submerged aquatic plants that vary year from year: we have sometimes been plagued by Canadian pondweed and hornwort and have at other times enjoyed the more modest growth of curly-leafed pondweed, milfoil and bright green starwort.
Now that cattle no longer graze the fields around the ponds, we can enjoy the tranquillity of sheep. Observing the pattern of the seasons through the farming year gives me pleasure and I hope others too.
Dredging the ponds varies the species of these submerged aquatics because it makes different nutrients available to them and each plant seems to have different requirements. We never know which plant will become dominant after we have removed the silt. It is the upper pond that has been most affected in this way. The lower one was dredged in 1975, as already described, and again in 1997. Also, it has been left dry occasionally, when we had work done on the sluice and when we put in the refuges. The upper pond has been dredged more often: 1975, 1982, 2002 and 2015. In addition, the top end, where the feeder stream enters and first drops its silt, has been dredged at least twice, in conjunction with the small silt trap.
In all these cases, we used two big excavators, one in the pond, the other on the bank. When the silt had to be moved away from the ponds, we used huge dumper trucks and tractor and trailer. For the machines to be kept busy all the time, we needed at least three dumpers or trailers. There is no longer room for spoil on the banks, so in the future it will have to be transported to low places in the pasture. When we did this in the case of the lower pond in 1997, we upset the pattern of drainage in the field on the Semley bank and I had to install a drainage ditch and pipe to keep water out of the house garden. The planned reinstatement of the bigger silt trap in Legg Close will help greatly to reduce the frequency of dredging the ponds. Despite its occasional necessity and undoubted benefits, desilting is environmentally disruptive: countless creatures die in the process and the less it is done the better.
In 2008, we applied several hundredweights of Siltex, a very fine-particled chalk, in the hope that this would reduce the vegetable component of the silt. Results were inconclusive. It may be that much of the silt is sandy loam upon which the chalk will have had little effect. There was no noticeable increase in depth.
The sluices and dams have given problems over the years. The upper pond dam has always leaked to some extent and there is a noticeable loss quite high up on the left-hand side of the sluice looking upstream. We have never been able to find out the source of this leak. Repointing of the brickwork has been done on three occasions to try to reduce water loss, with some success. Strangely enough, the condition of the pointing and the brickwork is much better under water than above. I have described the early problems with the sluice and our emergency repair work. This must now be buried under tons of silt and there has been no recurrence of the catastrophic leak. However, any future dredging close to the dam could cause problems and necessitate expensive repair work. Others must decide whether this is worth tackling. The work we did all those years ago cannot last for ever.
The lower pond dam and sluice have also needed quite a lot of work over the years. Sometime between 1982 and 1992, when I was not so closely involved with the ponds, the old sandstone structure was replaced by concrete. In 2012, I arranged for the pointing to be renewed and the whole of the pondside wall rendered with a latex-based mortar. So the walls themselves should be sound and watertight but there is a leak on the south side where the concrete ends. We have made many attempts to mend this: sandbags filled with a cement mix and then backfilled; imported clay; plastic sheeting and sawdust. All this was to save major work by contractors. The time has now come, though, for major work to undo the erosion and seal the leak permanently. There will be plenty of plastic to remove once excavation begins.
We also had a local builder re-concrete the area where the fall of water from the boards was beginning to erode a hole like the ‘sump’ that gave us trouble on the upper pond.
Looking forward to the renovation of the ponds, I suggest that two sets of runners to each sluice would enable a completely watertight arrangement, with the gap between the two sets of boards filled with sawdust. This is much better than clay, though it needs topping up every two or three years. Climate change may make the water supply less reliable.
The island has been a challenge. It has provided a haven for wildlife: geese have set up temporary home there, otters used it as a lunch table, kingfishers have perched there, songbirds nested. On the other hand, alders and birch have grown too fast on it, shading the water too much and dropping leaves and twigs that increase silting. Doing the necessary maintenance has not been easy. We have had to borrow boats for access and sometimes waded across to it when the water level has been lowered. It is too cramped a space for a big bonfire to be safe or comfortable and there is little room for more than one or two eco-heaps, so trunks and big branches have often had to be conveyed to the pond bank for disposal.
The Victorian brick revetting is in fair condition, but on the upstream side the bricks are beginning to collapse. Properly repairing this damage would be very expensive and perhaps not worth the effort. Tree roots must by now have thoroughly consolidated the island soil and erosion is unlikely. The bricks provide marvellous habitat for invertebrates and perhaps refuge for fish.
I have always kept a wary eye on the trees around the ponds. Many of them are in poor condition and several times over the years I have been worried about safety. The leaning Scots pine on the north bank of the upper pond always takes my eye as I walk or drive down the track. Is it leaning more than it did, I often wonder. If it fell, removing it from the pond would be difficult and expensive; on the other hand, it makes a fine feature. On the other bank, there is a willow by the stile into the upper pond area that sooner or later will collapse into the pond, perhaps on to the dam. Because of the thickness of the trunk, it needs to be removed by contractor, though we have lightened the pressure on the bank by pruning some of the branches.
The trees on the lower pond have been more of a problem. In 2006, a big leaning willow was giving concern, the tree surgeon had looked at it and a date fixed for the tree’s removal. On that morning I had an emergency phone call: it was not the willow that had fallen down but the oak next to it! Both trees were dealt with safely and swiftly, with the trunks and main branches left where they fell. These have created an eco-heap of epic proportions, home and shelter for many tiny creatures.
Since then, a thorn collapsed close to the dam. This too needed contractor attention but not before a massive ‘sponge’ of moss animals had formed in the submerged tangle of twigs and branches. Some six years ago, a huge willow on the south bank needed to be topped and a heavy branch removed to give it more stability. This tree is now falling into its neighbour and has to be felled, a great pity because for as many years as I can remember it has been the nesting site for owls and a home for bats. Further down the same bank towards the sluice, two years ago a birch fell partly into the water. We were able to deal with most of it but again needed contractor assistance to clear the bank completely.
I have been fortunate indeed to have had this long association with such a beautiful place. It is thanks to the Miller family, particularly Blanche, that this has been possible. We have worked together for the welfare of these two ponds for many years and she has been unfailingly supportive of my efforts. Thanks to her insistence that I remain involved, my licence to run the fishing for the new owner is safely in place. Of course, it will not be long before this will be beyond my capacity, as old age catches up with me, but I hope to see something of the regeneration of the ponds. I sense that they are still in good hands and that the creatures and plants that depend upon them will be cherished as they have been over the years of my involvement.
29th March 2021