Pond Life

The pond is still a hole in the ground. The weather’s been miserable and we both have hacking coughs we can’t seem to shift.

A week or so ago when we last worked on it, a neighbour passing by asked if we’d be puddling clay to line the pond. It’s a possibility, a nod in the direction of older methods, but labour intensive and would need some thinking about. The cost can be prohibitive too, and there’s also the aftercare to think about. The pond will need to be kept, full to the brim so that the clay never dries out and cracks around the edge. It seems, from our reading that the puddled clay technique might work for a community garden/allotment, where a number of people can be called on to work the clay, compacting it until all the air is removed forming a dense watertight material. Although, relying on voluntary help can bring its own issues. So, constructing a pond using puddled clay is probably unrealistic, but an interesting idea and it set us thinking about what is meant by a traditional technique; what its values are in a contemporary context.

As a construction technique in Western Europe puddling clay is relatively recent. In the mid 18th century, James Brindley is credited with developing the technique in the UK, the process used extensively in early canal construction.
During the same period, Catherine the Great of Russia encouraged an open door policy of immigration to Russia. Germans, particularly those suffering from religious intolerance, took advantage and colonised the Lower Volga region and other areas in Western Russia, absorbing the vernacular style of building on the Southern Russian Steppes; low-roofed, and rectangular, the houses were constructed of puddled clay amongst other materials.

The repeal of the open door policy in the late 19th century resulted in a shift to migration to the USA. In the early 1870s two GermanRussian subgroups began emigrating to America: The Volga Germans settled primarily in Kansas and Nebraska, and the Black Sea Germans located in North and South Dakota. Members of both groups, particularly Mennonites, later settled in the western Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Unlike many other ethnic cultures, German-Russians were accustomed to the harsh environment and relatively flat, treeless Great Plains landscape, which topographica lly is similar to the steppes of western Russia. Using indigenous resources in a region notorious for inadequate building materials, the settlers erected sturdy clay and stone residences, churches and outbuildings in both rural and urban areas. […] Two techniques were used for constructing load-bearing walls: puddled clay, in which clay was layered on a stone foundation, and rammed earth, in which an earthen mixture was compacted between wooden forms.

The vernacular style absorbed by German-Russians during the 18th & 19th centuries is part of much older construction traditions. In a blog outlining the History of Khwarazm, an area covering the present day regions of Usbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan in the north, to Iran and Afghanistan in the south, the writer states that as early as the 5th & 4th centuries BC The characteristic features of Khwarazmian architecture—its massive scale and sparing use of exterior ornamentation—derive from the general use of building materials made of loess clay, such as pakhsa (unfired puddled clay) and mud bricks.

In Ten Sketches of Russian Peasant Life 1916-18 published in The People of Great Russia, John Rickman, a country doctor with the Friends War Victims Relief Unit, observed that peasant huts, will be fashioned out of clay and mud, puddled together by the feet of the girls, who […] stamp and churn the slime to the accompaniment of songs until it reaches the right consistency, and then tread in straw as a binder, […] The stiff clay and straw mixture is then laid out on a smoothed piece of level ground, patted to an even thickness and cut with the edge of a spade. He describes the subsequent construction of a house using these sun-dried blocks.

It’s questionable whether such construction methods can easily sit alongside modern time-constraints, as well as the evident physical efforts needed. We’re not sure we want to develop ‘thighs of iron.’ So although puddled clay has a long history as a construction material, we think we’ll give the technique a miss. Time spent growing vegetables to eat seems a better use of our efforts.


2 thoughts on “Pond Life

  1. Thanks for your link to our puddled clay pond page. It is surprising how many people like the idea – there seems to be a folk memory of this method so this page is frequently visited.

    • Thanks Val & yes perhaps there is a folk memory, or maybe it’s a desire for what are understood as traditional methods without necessarily understanding the original context for their use & development?
      Having looked at the method, and thinking about its application in a predominantly chalk landscape, we’ve decided to use a pond liner.

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