Saving an ancient Suffolk pond

Inspired by the writings of Roger Deakin, who lived in a neighbouring village in Suffolk, we have been reclaiming an ancient pond in our garden. Our main objective was to restore it for wildlife and plants, but we also intended to swim in it, as Roger Deakin did regularly in his moat in Mellis, which he described so compellingly in his books and radio broadcasts.

Our pond was probably a moat, too, formed from ancient clay workings used to build the house. (See geology and history blog). Unlike Roger Deakin’s, which he described as long and narrow and 11 feet deep, ours was choked to the brim with muddy silt from the leaves of the ash trees and willows that overhang it, and had spread out into shallow boggy areas where generations of cattle and multitudes of ducks had trampled down the banks. Rushes were advancing rapidly, and the pond was well on the way to a new life as a bog. These posts tell the story of how we beat the encroaching slime – and saved many thousands of pounds – by renovating the pond ourselves, discovering along the way a much simpler, cheaper and more enjoyable DIY job than the experts had said.

And here’s the result, a year later: Georgia swimming on a warm August day in the cool waters of a reinvigorated pond.


Why we did it

The pond was a wonderful sight in spring, brimming with clean water, surrounded by waving reeds and home to a dozen ducks and ducklings, a family of moorhens and large numbers of frogs. It was big for a garden pond, the size of a couple of tennis courts.

Spring – water

But the spring appearance, after a winter of rain and snow, was an illusion. There was hardly any water in it. By August each year its size became a serious drawback, because it dried to an unpleasant smelly mass of black ooze, with a decayed tree trunk sticking through the surface, and trails of green slime as decoration.

Autumn – mist and mud after the trial dig

The pond was also dangerous. The mud at one end was 1.3 metres deep, the consistency of treacle, and could trap an animal or a person falling into the water, like a hidden quicksand lurking below the surface. In the days when it was a farm pond, a solid iron post was installed to haul out cows that fell in. The post is still there, but not the block and tackle it would have needed to pull someone to the bank.

We decided soon after we arrived in 2007 that the pond needed a thorough cleaning, not only to make it attractive throughout the year but also to make it safer. For children above toddler age, we thought clean water would be safer than glutinous mud that would prevent even an attempt to swim. Toddlers, of course, are not safe alone near any pond.

When we took possession, the pond was heading for what soon would have been the final stage in a long life. Reed Mace, often mistaken for bullrush because of its dark brown truncheon-shaped seedhead, was advancing across the muddy surface at a pace that would have covered the whole area in a few years, a process that would eventually have filled the pond with a mass of roots and then returned it to dry land.

Some pond experts take the view that, for the benefit of wildlife, a pond should be left to complete this natural cycle. It is certainly true that many natural ponds eventually disappear. A local BT linesman said that when excavating to set up a telephone pole he sometimes found a layer of hard white clay about six feet down, with peat above it, evidence of an ancient pond on a clay base that had long ago filled in.

A farm pond is different, especially one that may have been a moat: deliberate neglect seems to us to be destructive, not of habitat, but of an ancient tradition that has kept the pond viable for century after century, in this case at least 400 years and probably much more. We wanted to keep up that tradition.

There was a shock to come. The labour and materials cost of commissioning a fully professional job, including dealing with the silt and reinforcing the banks afterwards, was horrendous. The most impressive of the firms we approached quoted just under £18,000 for the work, including VAT. Another well known firm made clear that their prices would be in the same ballpark, but didn’t get round to a written estimate. (Perhaps they guessed we were not in their league). A specialist a few miles away said a similar job had cost £12,000 but demanded £300 up front for a survey before he would quote us a fixed price.

Worse still, the firms we talked to said that a potentially high extra cost would be disposal of the waste if it could not be dumped in the garden. They all advised us to find a neighbouring farmer to take it, which would add transport costs and probably a fee to the farmer. In case we couldn’t find a friendly farmer, we were quoted £16 a ton to remove the silt by truck to a conventional dump (2011 price), plus an initial £250 for a mandatory analysis to check for dangerous chemicals. There was at least 175 cubic metres of silt in the pond, and it probably weighed more than 300 tonnes. That is a lot of lorry loads.

So we decided to clean the pond ourselves. It cost less than £2,000.

Getting closer to the deep mud

The work programme started slowly in August 2011, to get flabby muscles used to heavy manual labour, with an hour of digging on the first day, two hours daily for a week, and a gradual build up that only reached 5 or 6 hours a day after a month. Anything else is risky if you are used to working at a desk and take suddenly to heavy lifting and shovelling, and it is equally important to have an exercise warm up each day before starting. Paced like this, the project spread over 3 months, with a mechanical digger used for half a day at the end, to ensure we could finish before winter.

The cottage and the pond from which its clay walls came. Water will rise to the bottom of the higher line of timbers.

We have written up the project because we want to leave a document with our house explaining the latest stage in the history of what has turned out to be a very ancient pond, intimately connected with the origins of the two mediaeval buildings next to it, since the clay to build them seems almost certain to have been dug from the pond half a millennium ago. This is explained in the post on the pond’s geology and history.

The other posts go into a great deal of detail, probably far too much unless you are one of that tiny handful of people each year who are wondering what to do with their silted up ponds. But the notes have been put here in full because they might just help somebody else embark on the reclamation of a pond.

Spoil was dumped round the pond, narrowing it.

By May 2012, the pond was full again to within a few centimetres of its winter overflow, creatures had returned already in surprising numbers and wild plants were re-establishing themselves on the new banks built from silt. By August, only the tops of the new timbers holding back the banks showed that so much work had been done, and the pond was well on the way to recovery.

Roger Deakin swam in a moat in which plants, insects and water creatures thrived. As well as the detail of how we carried out the project, this blog reports on the wildlife as it returned and the wild plants and new plantings round the pond.

Full details including costing are in the earliest posts. Later posts are about pond maintenance.

The pond in August 2012
A pile of mud ....
A pile of mud in spring 2012 ….
becomes a pond-side glade
becomes a pond-side glade a year later

2 thoughts on “Saving an ancient Suffolk pond”

  1. Refurbishing old house and pond

    Deat Christine and Peter,

    Exceptionnal projects, thank you for letting us have a glance at them through pictures and well documented texts.


    Jean-Jacques and Danielle

  2. just reading the story leaves me feeling knackered – but also very impressed. you must come over and review our pond at naughton before the spring. do you accept good beer in lieu of consultancy fees? P could direct operations from a very comfortable lutyens garden seat under the 500-year-old oak tree while C and J enjoy the stove in the shepherd’s hut. beats refurbing houses in n1…..

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