Dew Ponds: Folk Memory or Green Nostalgia?

There’s a thin layer of chalky soil covering the base of the hole in the ground that will soon be our pond. It won’t take much clearing and anyway I need to dig a little deeper before we think about lining it. We considered and discounted puddled clay. It’s seen as a traditional alternative, with its rich reference in folk memory. Stories resonate, have currency for a reason; contemporary environmental anxieties, reflected in the desire to create green spaces that offer a glimpse into an imagined past, a return to Eden without the commodification. We are no different, we have our HortusLudi, our garden of delight, our retreat, that also happens to generally meet our vegetable needs.

These strands, environmental anxiety, green capitalism, and whatever else lies between, throw into relief real concerns over exploitation of natural resources, and loss of habitat, with allotments, domestic gardens, and ponds, acknowledged as increasingly important to wildlife. These green spaces are intermediate enough to make us think they are nature and not simply embellishments or enhancements of it, and it’s easy to understand, in this context, how ‘tradition’ becomes attractive, a brooding over the past as if it harboured some secret message or inspiration.

It’s over twenty years since we moved to Brighton. The boys were young then, and we’d walk on the Downs most weekends. We’d just taken on the allotment too, and it was neglected during those years.
Dew ponds are a prominent feature of the Downs, and were favoured resting places during our rambles. The boys were fascinated by the life of the ponds, wanted to know, ‘How come the pond’s always full? Why are they called dew ponds, is that how they’re filled?’ Question after question tumbling over each other with barely the space to answer before the next one was voiced.

Although most dew ponds appear to date from the 19th. & early 20th. centuries, the Parliamentary Enclosures during mid 18th to mid 19th. centuries are suggested as a cause for many of the upland ponds. The naturalist Gilbert White wrote about them in the 18th. century, and there is evidence of earlier ponds, one recorded in a Saxon Charter of 825 at Oxenmere on Milk Hill, in Wiltshire. Whether it would, or should, be described as a dew pond is unclear, but there was certainly a desire amongst archaeologists and antiquarians, based on thin evidence, to locate dew ponds in a remoter past. What was commonly known as a cloud pond, or mist pond, at least on the Sussex Downs, is first named as a dew pond, by the Rev. J. Clutterbuck, in an 1865 essay on Water Supply.
In the broader context of improving supply to rural areas, he raises questions about the nature of the sustained supply of water to dew ponds, while acknowledging the need for further investigation. He also commented on an established industry: These ponds are constructed by persons of experience and skill. […] There cost varies from 30-50 shiliings. Dew pond making was definitely a business.

As late as 1922, in an article published in the Wiltshire Gazette, the Rev. Edward Glanfield reflected on the decline of the industry. Drawing on the oral testimonies of two elderly master dew pond makers and their assistants, in his parish, he writes, Up to ten years ago the dew pond makers started upon their work about the 12th of September, and they toured the country for a period of six or seven months, […] six to fifteen ponds, […] in a season of winter and spring […] They travelled throughout Wiltshire and Hampshire, and occasionally into Somersetshire arid Berkshire, and even into Kent. […] The dew pond maker with three assistants at 18s. a week, would require about four weeks to make a pond 22 yards […] square. Providing all his own tools and appliances he would charge about £40 for the work. His central concern was to record disappearing skills, attributed partly to the greatly increased cost of the making of the ponds, and partly to the fact that they have been superseded by the windmill pumping water from wells.
While the Rev. Glanfield was primarily concerned to record a vanishing process, antiquarians and archaeologists continued to be fascinated with theories associated with water supply to upland ponds. In April 1909, Edward A. Martin, in a paper given to the Research Committee of The Royal Geographical Society, outlined observations and experiments he conducted to support the theory that many downland ponds were dew ponds; that is they were replenished principally from dew. The following year he read a second paper concluding: Rain is undoubtedly the all-important replenisher of these, as of all ponds, which are not fed by springs. It is almost with a feeling of regret that I abandon the theory of dew-filled ponds.
To conduct his research Martin and his family rented one of the Clayton Windmills, on the Downs above Brighton, during the summers of 1908-10. The windmills aren’t too far from one of the ponds we used to stop at on our rambles, a pond that would have been familiar to him. Funded by the Royal Society, I have lately had under my special observation a tract of downland in Sussex […] from Devil’s Dyke to Plumpton, and in this area are included some excellent ponds. It’s an area we often walked, and still do, passing ponds he knew.

We walk a vastly different landscape to the one Edward Martin would have known. The old chalk grassland he walked accounted for 40-50% of the eastern Downs. Beginning with the Dig for Victory campaign in 1941, and continuing into the 1950s, large tracts of grassland were ploughed up for arable farming. It’s estimated that only 3-4% of that old chalk grassland still survives.

Downs path [2]

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