2 February 2016
As this wet, muddy winter has drawn on I’ve found myself pining for my long woodland walks, missing places like Tickleford Gully, West End Copse, and Shoreburs Greenway. Street walking might throw up some interesting history but a couple of tramps on the Common didn’t really cut it compared to walking through the woods. On Tuesday I decided to take a wander down to Millers Pond for a semi woodland fix.
Straight away I could see walking the greenway would be out of the question. Even the grass beside the pond was a quagmire. Just getting to the viewing platform was a slippery slidy business. The water lilies were beginning to pop up on the pond surface and the bare trees cast some interesting reflections but the pond ducks were absent, as were the fishermen. Maybe it was too muddy for fishing.
When I was young I often walked this way with my friend Pip and her dog Dino. Back then it was a much wilder area, or that’s how I remember it. These days it’s one of my go to short walks being just a couple of miles from home and I come here often. Even in a familiar place though there are new things to find and, fairly recently, I learned there were some wartime barrage balloon tethering blocks near the pond. As I wouldn’t be able to walk the muddy greenway, I thought I’d see if I could find them.
I knew there were some concrete blocks near the railway arches at the bottom of Spring Road but they seemed too close to the bridge to be used for barrage balloons. Still, it was worth wandering over to have a look. The blocks were there but I was fairly sure they were more modern in origin. I took some pictures anyway and then made my way back to the pond.
For a while I stood looking at the water trying to remember what it was I’d actually read about the barrage balloon tether. If I’d been sensible I’d have had a look before I left home but I wasn’t really thinking about it then. I seemed to remember something about them being on the field where the horses are let out to graze so I set off along the path.
There were no horses grazing on the field today but I stood on the edge of the path looking around for anything that might possibly be the balloon tethers. The only things there were the two concrete structures I’d thought might be part of a wartime bunker the first time I noticed them. On closer inspection they’d turned out to be odd looking drains and I’d been disappointed but, with my newfound knowledge about the barrage balloons, I began to wonder if I’d dismissed them too quickly.
The only way to be sure was to walk across the muddy grass. When I got to them I still couldn’t tell if these were just drains or if they were the tethers. There didn’t seem to be anything the balloons could be tied to and the metal drain covers made me think I might be on the wrong track. Even so, there were no other concrete structures around, so I took a photo anyway and set off through the mud back towards the path.
It turns out I was right to take the photo because these crumbling concrete drains were actually the balloon tethers. They are also drainage hatches but, during the war, they were seen as a handy place to tether the barrage balloons. For anyone not familiar with barrage balloons, they were large torpedo shaped balloons tethered on strong metal cables, either to a sturdy structure on the ground, a vehicle or a ship. They were used to stop enemy aircraft flying low over the city and force them into the range of the anti aircraft guns. The planes were forced to fly above them to avoid either colliding with them or getting entangled in the cables. Some also had explosive charges. Of course, this didn’t always work and often the balloons would be shot down.
Tramping back across the grass through the sticky mud reminded me that this area was once a brickworks, making use of the sticky clay that was making walking so difficult for me. In the late ninteenth and early twentieth century this was a largely rural area and in the summer the men would build kilns and dig the clay while the young lads would help get it ready, knocking the air out. The landscape would have been very different back then but at least the mud would have served some purpose other than to make me slip and slide.
At least, when I got back to the pond, the path around it was relatively mud free so I decided to walk the perimeter. The ducks had woken up by this time and my presence on the bank had attracted their attention. They obviously thought I was there to feed them and came ploughing across the water towards me. Unfortunately, I’d left the swan and duck food at home on the kitchen table so they wasted their energy.
The land to the east of the pond is mostly trees bounded by the fields and the paved path to the south. This woodland once stretched over several acres with a marshy area fed by a stream running roughly where Spring Road is now and a pond to the east beside Botany Bay fed by a stream from Thornhill. In 1762, industrialist Walter Taylor, used this natural feature and built an L shaped pond as a resevoir to feed Weston Mill, his Mayfield Estate wood mill. The pond was known as Weston Pond and then Mill House Pond, but the mill was short lived. Taylor moved it to Woodmill in the late 1770’s.
When the railways came in the mid 1800’s, the railway bridge cut across the land between the Mayfield Estate and Mill House Pond. The pond, much decreased in size after the demise of the mill, now passed under the railway arches into the stream running through the valley towards Weston Shore. Gradually the pond silted up and split into two parts, the larger on the edge of Spring Road. Slowly houses encroached on the edges on the pond along Spring Road, Station Road and Botany Bay Road, leaving the pond as a small oasis of greenery beside the railway line. By the 1930’s the locals were making good use of the old mill pond. In winter, when it iced over, there would be ice skating, in summer pony riding. The pond was filled with newts and frogs, wild flowers grew along its banks and swans and moorhens swam on the clear water.
Nothing much changed for fifty years. Over time the pond had silted up further and, by the late 1950’s the locals, who’d once enjoyed it began to complain of smells. The council, who were looking for a new landfill site and somewhere to house the exploding post war population, saw this as an opportunity. They drew up plans for development. There would be hundreds of new houses, high rise flats, a shopping centre and a library. It looked as if Millers Pond would be lost forever.
By the mid 1960’s the pond had been drained and the streams culverted. The wheels of the council grind slowly and, in the early 1970’s when Pip first Took me to Millers Pond, I was puzzled. As far as I could see there was no pond just a wild, overgrown area, boggy in places and fairly unloved. Nothing else had been done. In the drought of 1976 even the marsh land dried up and the place was strewn with rubbish and used by fly tippers.
By the late 1970’s it was clear the development was never going to happen. The baby boom of the 1950’s and 60’s had ended and the plans were abandoned. The Southampton Schools Conservation Corps stepped in and suggested excavating the mud, cleaning the area up and creating a smaller version of the old pond. The Nature Conservance Council, now English Heritage, offered a grant for seventy five percent of the work and the Schools Conservation Corps raised the remainder. The council jumped at the chance to rid themselves of an eyesore and approved planning permission.
It took just four months to cut down the willow that had taken over the pond and, with the aid of a JCB, dig out the new pond. In no time the local springs and streams had filled the hole. Within a year aquatic plants had taken hold and dormant seeds had germinated along the pond margins. Once again moorhens nested. In the mid 1980’s fish were introduced and a new problem cropped up. Fishermen colonised the banks, crushing the natural vegetation and pulling out the oxygenating weeds. English Nature suggested restricting access to half the pond to preserve the natural flora and fauna. Fishing platforms were built, extra marginal plants were added and native species of tree planted to form a thicket but access was never really restricted and the wildflowers never quite came back.
The northern edge of the pond, bordering Station Road, is mostly marshy, filled with reeds and water iris. Behind the trees is a small grassy area and a building belonging to the Sholing Valley Study Centre, a voluntary group, who have been managing the site since 1998. In 2011 it became a local nature reserve. It would be nice to think that one day the wild flowers and the pond weed will return to their former glory but, from what I have seen on my walks, the fishermen are still the predominant fauna in the area.
Wondering where all the fishermen had gone today, I wandered along the path that follows the West Bank of the pond. It felt odd to have the place to myself apart from a few ducks. Regardless of the issue of the wildflowers and the pond weed the changes that have taken place since I first walked this path have been a huge improvement. Now if they could just tempt the swans back…
It may not have been a proper woodland walk but, as I walked back past the Millers Pond pub and onto the quiet streets of Sholing, it felt as if I’d got away from the city, if only for a short while.
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