In praise of ponds, the water havens that ‘teem with life as fantastic as anything in science-fiction’

A chance reading of George Orwell brought John Lewis-Stempel to the realisation that he'd neglected his own ponds. He explains how he has been inspired to change that.

They were always there, so I took them for granted. My one excuse is that their humility was their own enemy. They were at the back of the landscape, the corner of the mind, unlike the (money-making) meadow I ‘hayed’, the wood I ran pigs in, the arable field I harvested, the hillside on which the sheep clung. Such is the blind preoccupation of the farming life.

I was brought up short at Paddington station’s WHSmith, where I grabbed George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air, his 1939 novel in which suburban insurance salesman George Bowling tries to recapture his youth in Lower Binfield, with its tranquil fishponds.

In Coming Up for Air, ponds are the defining image of childhood. Of England, too. Looking back to his boyhood fishing the cowy, carpy ponds at Mill Farm and Binfield House, Bowling (a thinly fictionalised Orwell) sees clearly everything that was right about a childhood in Nature and everything that’s wrong about the modern adulthood alienated from Nature:

‘I wondered why it is that we’re all such bloody fools. Why don’t people, instead of the idiocies they do spend their time on, just walk round looking at things? That pool, for instance — all the stuff that’s in it. Newts, water-snails, water-beetles, caddis-flies, leeches, and God knows how many other things that you can only see with a microscope. The mystery of their lives, down there under water.’

An under-rated Nature writer, Orwell.

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Anyway, as I read Coming Up for Air — a significantly aquatic title — on the 5.22pm from Paddington, I revisited in my mind the ponds of my own childhood: the lily-and-goldfish pond my father made (and into which my cousin Benji fell, stealing the limelight at my 5th birthday party), the ponds at The Quarry, the cow pond in front of my grandparents’ house, the duck pond by the Castle Green in Hereford.

Then, all the ponds I’d ever known cascaded into my memory: Kilpeck moat, the dew pond above our old cottage at Abbeydore, the pond by the bandstand on Clapham Common, the mires on the top of the Black Mountain, the pond I made with the mini-digger on our farm in the Black Mountains, the kitchen sink, the terracotta birdbath from my sister-in-law for our wedding present.

A froglet on Duckweed in a garden pond in Seaford, Sussex.

A froglet on Duckweed in a garden pond in Seaford, Sussex.

That terracotta birdbath poses a crucial question: what is a pond? There are official explications. According to the Freshwater Habitats Trust, a pond is a small area of shallow (generally less than 6½ft), still, fresh water less than 330ft across.

Of course, it’s never enough to define natural phenomena in technical terms or in numbers. It’s never enough. A pond is a place of still water; the surface of a pond might be ruffled, or corrugated, but it will never be wavy. A pond is a place in which fallen leaves will circle like toy yachts because of wind rather than current

‘Our native landscape is as much a work of human art as an act of God’

Thus, after reading Coming Up for Air, I thought I should give something back to ponds, by writing about them. By putting them in full view, I could, perhaps, make good my lifetime of careless assumption. Hence my writing of Still Water. After two years’ study, I, at least, define ponds by their birdlife. The moorhen is a pond bird; its relative the coot a lake bird. The moorhen, suspicious of large bodies of water, heads for the edge cover when threatened; the coot lurches for open water.

In the life-cycle of the human, the pond has meaning at particular stages. It’s most of all a place of childhood, as Orwell noted, and as Edward Thomas also knew. ‘A pond needs nothing else except boys like us to make the best of it,’ Thomas wrote in his autobiographical novel The Happy Go-Lucky Morgans.

After childhood, one walks away from the pond, venturing up dramatic mountains, along dangerous rivers. One returns to the pond as a parent — to feed the ducks, to go pond ‘dipping’ with the eternal aids of a net and jam jar. This is pond-loving by proxy.

Ponds are both naturally occurring — such as the ‘pingos’ of East Anglia, scoops sculpted by the dying of glaciers — and artificial. In the British countryside, it’s Man’s pond that predominates, because, once upon an agricultural time, the pond was the centre of rural life — the place where the stock drank, fish were farmed, the wooden wheels of the cart were hydrated to avoid splitting and watercress grown. In 1880, there were about 800,000 ponds in England and Wales or 14 ponds per square mile.

Our native landscape is as much a work of human art as an act of God. The ponds we made gave the land its watery eyes, the moorhen its bath, the heron its killing ground, the fox its drinking bowl, the frog its breeding place.

‘The pond: a place of strange creatures and the mysteries of amphibian metamorphosis’

We gave ourselves a place for reflection, a source of tranquillity. Have you ever stopped by an out-of-the-way country pond, watched the pattern of the ripples made by rising fish, falling leaves or a harrowing wind? Such ‘water marks’ are, as Henry Thoreau remarked in Walden, ‘lines of beauty’.

Then there’s that unseen universe below the surface, teeming with creatures, as Orwell knew, as fantastic as anything in science-fiction. The other day, I went ‘pond-dipping’ with my daughter, Freda — one scoop of the net brought us a newt straight out of Jurassic Park, a raft spider and a Notonecta galuca, a backswimmer.

This scarab-shaped bug hangs from the surface film, loitering, until it detects the vibrations of prey moving about. Then, it dives down at speed, using its oar-like back legs for propulsion, clutches the prey with its forelegs and stabs it with its rostrum, before injecting a toxic juice to paralyse and liquefy, much as spiders do. The backswimmer takes a leisurely while sucking out the ‘soupy’ innards of its victim. The beast can live for nearly a year.

There was also a horse leech, sinister and elastic like a brown rubber band. A dip in a pond with a net is the original lucky dip. The first frog’s spawn had been laid among the tresses of watery grass, in dotty balls.

The pond: a place of strange creatures and the mysteries of amphibian metamorphosis.

The Great Crested or Warty Newt is a feature of British ponds.

The Great Crested or Warty Newt is a feature of British ponds.

Each season at the pond has its own fascinations. Winter is stark minimalism, the glass-perfection of pure ice, the sleep that’s a kind of half-death of frogs down deep in the ooze hibernating. Spring is the carnival of lust that is toad mating, matched by the bosomy display of the first pondside flowers, the marsh marigolds. Summer is verdancy and forgetfulness, the flight of brilliant dragonflies, great galleon clouds, the perfume of watermint.

Autumn is Skitty the moorhen’s second brood, the tumbling of the local rooks across the pond like clothes in a washing machine and when the mud-rim of the pond is imprinted daily by the outsize triangular footprints of Big Bird, the grey heron, as she seeks to put on fat for winter. That mud rim, before winter’s full rain fills the pond, reports the feet of every visitor: snipe, wild duck, vole and attendant vixen.

Orwell was right about ponds: you could spend a lifetime watching them, 10 lifetimes, and still you wouldn’t have got to the end even of that one pool. And, all the while, the sort of feeling of wonder, the peculiar flame inside you. It’s the only thing worth having.

What we made, we have taken away. We have ‘lost’ about half a million ponds in the past century. Although there are still some 470,000 in the British countryside, 80% are polluted by chemicals and degraded by lack of maintenance.

Ponds, by and large, need human care. They are slow suicides. By the procession of ‘succession’, they fill with soil, leaf litter and detritus to become scrub.

Humans assist that suicide with ways other than chemicals: by ploughing them in, by covering them over with houses. Every house we build is a mausoleum for the birds and animals that lived there before.

Nature needs its ponds. They support two-thirds of all freshwater species, including the common frog, common toad, teal, common great diving beetle, pond olive mayfly, blue-tailed damselfly, broad-leaved pondweed, great crested newt, pillwort and medicinal leech. In Britain, more than 100 priority species are associated with ponds.

It’s the ultimate degrading folly, of course, to degrade the pond. We came from the primordial pond. Pond life: it’s the highest form of landscape life.

John Lewis-Stempel is the author of ‘Still Water: The Deep Life of the Pond’, published by Penguin Books (£14.99)