Stories from the Barn
A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands
A Forgotten Landscape Lost Ponds
Looking out for lost ponds and forgotten landscapes.
I am on the hunt for a forgotten landscape, not secret valleys and hidden forests but lost ponds. So it is with an old map in hand I am on the hunt for possible sites. An Ordnance Survey map of 1910 showed a small circle in one of our fields. Further investigation revealed it to be an old stock pond part of a forgotten landscape right here on our doorstep.
An elderly neighbour revealed there had been three ponds in our field. In that case we had lost a vital resource which, if replicated across the land, would result in a huge loss of habitat and subsequent biodiversity.
A Forgotten Landscape.
Landscapes become forgotten because the reasons for their existence no longer exist. Field ponds were once an important resource. They were necessary to water both livestock and crops. However over time farming methods changed and the need for watering holes fell away. With no need for them from a commercial viewpoint, maintaining them was unviable. Over time plants encroach and smother the pond and it is a lost resource.
It is hard to imagine a time when there was no piped water. Nowadays cattle troughs in fields are fed from a mains supply, fresh water is always available. When the farm or village well was the only means of distributing water, field ponds and lots of them were essential.
Some of the ponds were filled in and planted over, others left to revert to nature. For a pond to thrive it needs maintenance. Weeds and rotten vegetation need clearing each year and the general health of the pond needs care.
The loss of field ponds has had a dramatic affect on the biodiversity in the UK. Water attracts such a myriad of wildlife from the smallest insects, reptiles, mammals and birds. A super abundance of wildlife that we could be restoring.
Where were the field ponds?
One of the first things to consider when trying to spot the ghost ponds is where the water naturally lies. Is there a lower point in the field where water naturally drains to? What if the pasture was on a freely draining hill slope? How did the farmers create the field pond then? Not all soil types and underlying geology would have been capable of holding water and therefore the pond would have been lined with puddled clay.
A Dew Pond.
The name Dew pond refers to an artificial pond dug into the landscape to catch water where the land is high or free draining. The circle on the old map of our field was a dew pond. It sat at the highest part of the field with chalk as the underlying geology. Dew ponds are associated with chalk and limestone areas of the UK including the South Downs and the carboniferous limestone of the White Peak of Derbyshire.
The skill of making these ponds or indeed creating the canal system, relied on the skills of workers to puddle clay. The clay was the magic ingredient and gangers moved around the country creating such ponds.
Creating the field pond or Dew Pond.
The ponds needed to be dug and then lined with clay but it had to be puddled.
What is puddled clay? It’s clay that has had all the air pockets squeezed out of it to create a dense, watertight, unmovable layer. Puddling was labour intensive but clay was cheap and potentially readily available as was labour.
Obviously not all soils have a high clay content and it needs to have at least 60% clay for a puddled clay liner to work. In many of our historic landscapes, clay pits were part of the make up. Good puddling clay can be found at depth and it was possible in some parts to dig to that depth and then puddle.
Puddling clay requires the clay to be squashed, forcing the air out. First the clay needs to wetted, how much water is needed is assessed by the texture of the clay. A sausage of clay should be malleable, too dry and it will break, too wet and it becomes a slurry. This was done by walking on the clay, heeling it in. About 25cm depth of clay was required, more if possible. The clay must not be allowed to dry out or it will crack. Sometimes straw was laid with the clay to allow for expansion but each gang would have had their own methods.
To allow the livestock to drink without entering the pond directly and thus damaging the lining, the ponds were bowl shaped.
How was the pond filled?
Some were filled by transient water and rainfall and natural pooling. The dew ponds however were different, they seem to be capable of remaining filled even through drought conditions. The name suggests they were filled by capturing the early morning dew or were filled by fogs and obviously rainfall. The jury is out on quite how they operate but they have been supplying water to hill top communities for thousands of years.
Field pond restoration.
As with all restoration work, it needs to be underpinned with good science. The University College London Pond Restoration Research Group is working hard to gather data that will be used to underpin practical pond conservation and restoration.
The local wild life trusts and other groups have been hard at work reinstating field ponds. Probably the best known of these is the Norfolk Ponds Project, that aims to establish community pond restoration projects. So if you would like to get involved in a conservation project through this Winter and into Spring, contact your local wild life trust and check out what is happening in your local area.
Read more about the lost footpaths and join the Ramblers Project to find out more ways to search for Britain’s lost landscapes.