Reflections on Still Water

1st December 2015

I've just had my first glimpse of the new book and thought I would share it with you. Hope to see some of you at Shaftesbury Arts Centre on Saturday 5th for a signed copy.

'Reflections on Still Water' 'Reflections on Still Water'

Several things are happening on the day, including an auction of a copy of "The Net on the Garage Wall". Chris Yates has promised to pop in, as have Hugh Miles, Peter Wheat and Mark Wintle.

"Reflections on Still Water" will be out some time this autumn (2015). It's the story of a very special lake, which has been fished by many anglers over the past twenty years or so. It dates back to Victorian times but fell into dis-use and became a polluted bog. The book tells how we restored it and then managed it for wildlife and fishing.

The following extract comes from the very beginning of the book.

Once Upon a Time...

Early in the nineteenth century, a country squire somewhere in Wiltshire made a good marriage. With money to spare, he made five interlinked lakes of similar size by damming three small valleys. From the upper lakes the issuing brook flowed into the last two in the chain, Brach Pond and Eelstage Pond. Below these it passed through a broad valley of rich grazing land until it joined a sparkling trout stream, which in its turn boosted the flow of one of the most famous fishing rivers in the country.

After a year or two the owner of these fine new lakes could invite his friends and relatives to fish for trout and to shoot his ducks. There would have been plenty of ice for the ice house, to keep food fresh through the summer, sculling to be enjoyed in the warmer weather and fine skating during those cold Victorian winters. No doubt there were many elegant picnics under parasols on emerald lawns for the gentlefolk on summer days beside these new and beautiful pools. Eels were trapped for the estate or for market, and adjacent to Eelstage Pond a ram system powered by means of a pipe running from Brach Pond provided the big house with clean water from a nearby spring.

But small, fertile and relatively shallow lakes like these do not last for ever. With every flood the swollen streams dropped silt from the fields and ditches into the lakes. Leaves and twigs from the bank-side trees and shrubs fell, sank and rotted on the lake beds. In summer the water plants grew more and more abundantly, adding their layers of decomposition and enrichment. Secretly the water shallowed and the lakes began to die. While labour was plentiful and cheap, there would have been maintenance of a sort. But dredging, even with the steam machinery available later in the nineteenth century, would have been impossible without draining the lakes and no provision had been made for this. Then the dam between Manor Lake and Eelstage Pond began to give trouble. Attempts were made to block the leaks but the estate was going through hard times financially and the major work needed could not be afforded. The process of decline went on relentlessly.

All that is surmise, based on what usually happens to small on-line lakes. When I began the restoration of three of the five estate lakes, I researched their history more closely. Disappointingly, I found few references to them, though I did read or hear a few anecdotes. For example, in a local newspaper from 1895 there was a report of a hockey match on the ice of Brach Pond between an estate team and one from the local theological college. There was a return match several days later and the "unremitting care" of the ice by the estate workers was commented on.

In 1919 the estate was offered to rent, and sepia photos showed Brach Pond and Eelstage Pond in the distance, apparently devoid of trees, very different from today. The lakes then held trout and the publicity claimed that they had considerable potential for duck-shooting, though elderly local people told me that duck did not find the lakes particularly attractive until they became overgrown much later.

I interviewed a very old gentleman who lived in the gatehouse very close to Brach Pond and he told me how the "Red Devils", stationed in the area before their ill-fated mission to Arnhem in 1944, exercised their machine guns on any unfortunate ducks on the lake. He and others could remember how, as the water shallowed and warmed, it was pike and roach rather than trout that were caught. The road bridge at the top of Brach Pond was a favourite spot and from there pike up to 15lbs were taken.

The owner himself told me how in the 1950s the neglected dam of Eelstage, the lower pond, gave way and fish were gathered from lanes, ditches and fields for several days afterwards. The lake became a memory. By then Brach Pond would have been badly silted - in effect it had always acted as a silt trap for the lower lake - but there was enough water left for a man and woman to drown themselves amongst the water-logged branches in the dark pool above the bridge, a tragedy made much of in the local press.

And so by about 1955 the lower lake was dry and scrub had begun to take over. Brach Pond was no more than a bog, regularly polluted by silage and slurry effluent from the dairy farms upstream. Both ponds were waiting for someone to care for them again.

Disappointment

In the 1950s, I moved south to follow my career and to fish famous waters like the Hampshire Avon, the Somerset drains and - finally - the Dorset Stour. When the roach fishing in our part of the Stour declined, I began to look for potential carp and tench waters in the area. I came across Brach Pond in 1973. One Saturday morning, guided by an Ordnance Survey sheet as usual, I found my way to a pair of estate lakes. Sadly, what had looked blue and inviting on the map was nothing but a wet wilderness. I climbed over the decrepit metal boundary fence and walked on hopefully, trying to find open water, guided by the sound of duck in the distance. I had to keep to the hard ground to the left; the mud to my right was treacherously soft and deep, as I discovered when I nearly lost a boot in the bog. Some two hundred yards further on I reached the remains of a dam. In front of it was a pool of about a quarter of an acre - muddy, very shallow, full of fallen branches and slimy with algae. About twenty mallard quacked into the air as they saw me.

I turned right onto the dam, pushing through brambles and hawthorn bushes. Deep gullies showed where water had escaped in the past and across two of those channels steel panels had been forced into the clay in an attempt to stem the leaks. Upstream of the dam, towards the road from which I had approached, was a tangle of reedmace, scrub willow and alder, deep mud and pools of water. When I turned around to look downstream I saw a brook bordered by scrub willow meandering across a plain of head-high nettles. Once upon a time here had been the second lake. As I walked on, I saw that at the far side of the dam there was a concrete and stone spillway - about ten good paces across. It had been many years since any water had flowed over it, though. Downstream was a deep pit where past floods had eroded the clay and widened the brook bed into a pool. The gravel was littered with great lumps of concrete, remains of the original sill perhaps, and trunks and branches of fallen trees. Leaning willows crowded the banks.

Fifty years ago, here had been two fine lakes. Now, all was a wilderness. Disappointed, I made my way back through the nettles and brambles to look elsewhere for my carp and tench fishing.

An Opportunity!

One winter evening 20 years later, the phone rang. It was Alan, a contractor who had de-silted several field ponds and a couple of estate lakes for me. I had often accompanied him to advise on pond design when he was quoting for jobs so I was not surprised to get the call. This one, though, turned out to be momentous.

A local land-owner had consulted him about restoring two lakes on his estate. Would I be interested in helping and if so could I come to meet the owner on site the following Friday? From Alan's description of the place, I knew at once that this was the spot I had explored all those years ago. You can imagine how thrilled I was at the chance of being involved in bringing back to life the ruined ponds that I'd found so exciting and yet so disappointing many years ago.

I worked really hard to be convincing at the first meeting on site, explaining how I thought the job could be done, helped by Alan's practical experience. I could see at once how we could restore the lower lake, using the existing left-hand bank for the new outflow and monk. We could move the river from the centre of the area to the right-hand boundary and build a new bank of clay inside it with the new lake sitting snugly within the enclosed area. All was head-high nettles and scrub now but in my imagination it was already transformed into a splendid two-acre lake for me to stock and manage and fish more or less as I pleased - if only I could persuade the owner to give me the job. The top water, the one I had looked at in 1973 and the subject of this book, would present much more serious problems - but that could wait until later.

Sir Henry was keen to restore his heritage - it was one of his distant relatives who had built the lakes in the first place. Naturally he needed some return on the investment, but he didn't want the place crowded with anglers, with the usual problems of litter and disturbance of wild-life - exactly my own sentiments. I tried to address these concerns in the document I sent to him the following weekend and to my delight he gave me the go-ahead.

Then followed the surveys, the discussions with the National Rivers Authority - as the Environment Agency was then called; the tedious form-filling to get the necessary planning permissions from the local authority and the licences to abstract and impound; the correspondence with local conservationists; the drawing up of plans to exact standards...and so on. At last, in the late autumn of 1989, all the admin had been dealt with and machinery moved on to the site of the lower lake. The adventure had begun in earnest.