Country houses for sale

Sandy Mitchell: Digging a lake

The previous owner of our house only had the place for a year or so, but he was a man of energy and zeal. He never actually moved into the property, but nonetheless he cleared the wild woods, re-fenced the fields, added myriad five-bar gates and stiles, and lastly constructed a fine swimming pool. Some would say that he was eccentric, too: he left the house itself to continue its long, head-first dive into total dereliction.

Similarly, the first mark I made on the property when we bought it two-and-a-half years ago was to dig a small lake in the woods. Eccentric? Me? My wife thought so. ‘Do you really have to?’ she asked, turning to the look at the rotting house with all its building works still to begin. I cannot quite explain my logic?maybe it’s a man thing?but deep in my soul, I sensed that whatever happened to the house when the builders began, my new lake hidden in the woods would always be a solace.

To be scrupulously truthful, I also wanted it for shooting. So last winter, with the building works reaching the point where we could finally spend a night in the house, I sat shivering on the sloping bank of the lake with my shotgun in hand, hoping a duck would flit by. No bird showed, but many outings later, at last there came a golden moment when, with a film of ice congealing around the edge of the lake, a mallard drake whistled over the tops of the oaks. For a tantalising moment, he swerved downwards towards the surface then, at the first twitch of my barrels, he was up and gone. He never came back.

But there was always the fishing season to look forward to, and then the lake would at last prove its worth to the doubters. So, at the end of April, with dark-brown water lapping the very top lip of the overflow after weeks of rain, I was twitching with excitement. ‘Any day now, we can order our first small batch of trout,’ I said to my wife. She smiled tightly.

Within a week of the rains ending, the water level had dropped by 2ft. It kept on and on shrinking, until one day in July, when I went to check the level last, I found a fallow doe standing among the forest of nettles now covering the dry bed. She had a quizzical look on her pretty face as if to say: ‘I am sure I can remember seeing a lake around here somewhere.’

So, I recently called in three different lake-building firms to advise. The first recommended using a ‘sheep’s-foot puddler’, a heavy roller operated by remote control that trundles back and forth over the entire bed of the lake, compacting the surface and sealing it.

‘No,’ insisted the man from the next company. ‘What you need is to coat the bed thickly in new blue clay. We’ll use 200-ton trucks to ship it in, and we’ll need to create an access track?’ China’s Three Gorges Dam has nothing on his grand engineering scheme.

The third option, and the most pricey, is to line the lake with a thick plastic sheet back-filled with clay to protect it from punctures. Foolproof, promised the man.

No doubt if I turned to my wife to help me pick the best of the three options, she would turn to look at the dovecote/cart shed, where there is still much work to do, and point out reasonably that I have a fourth option? do nothing. But good sense hasn’t stopped me yet. It’s a man thing.