28 February 2017
Meteorological spring starts tomorrow, although the vernal equinox and the real, official first day of spring is a few weeks away yet. In the spirit of positive thinking CJ and I set out for Millers Pond this morning in search of signs of spring. It might be considered jumping the gun just a tad but we had high hopes as we set off along Spring Road.
Disappointingly, there was nothing very springlike happening on Freemantle Common, although some workmen were busy digging about next to the substation there.
“There’ll be a few houses round here without power about now,” CJ said when he saw them. “They wouldn’t be in there if the power was still on for sure.”
In the dip between the two hills there was nothing exciting on the grassy corner of Blackthorn Road. This was where I’d hoped to see crocuses but they were being shy and hiding beneath their strappy leaves.
At the top of the second hill we hit the jackpot though. The gardens here were decidedly springy. First there were camellia flowers, just beginning to open and reveal their pink gloriousness. A little further on and a forsythia Hedge was bursting with yellow.
“There was a hedge like that at the side of our house when I was little,” I told CJ. “It was always one of the first things to flower each spring and it seemed like the sign of the season change to me.”
Further still my first daffodils of the year brought splashes of gold to an otherwise dull front garden. Last year they were flowering in January. This year they’re less confused.
Just before we reached the final downward stretch before the pond we came upon a sign that winter hasn’t given up just yet. The ivy climbing up a garden wall had leaves tinged with red, beautiful but a sure sign the cold weather isn’t quite over yet.
At the top of the hill we got our first sight of the trees of Millers Pond and nearby Mayfield Park. The branches are still bare but I’m sure I could detect the fuzz of buds waiting to burst. For a moment or two I thought about going through the railway arch into Mayfield Park and perhaps taking the butterfly trail to the shore. It’s a little early for butterflies yet though and we have had enough muddy walks of late so we gave it a miss.
A Few brave celandine were sprinkled on the grass by the park sign and the blackthorn on the very edge of the park was covered in white blossom. Both seemed to be saying ‘spring is on the way.’
Spring was not our only motive for choosing Millers Pond for our walk today. This was probably a good thing because, a look along the trail around the pond told us the flowers were confined to the the cultivated gardens and the edge of the park. The other reason for our visit was another of F.G.O. Stuart’s postcards, although I knew capturing this particular scene was going to be somewhere between tough and impossible. Still, never let it be said I don’t like a challenge.
Stuart’s photograph shows a trail running beside the pond and, on the face of it, you’d think it would be simple to recreate the shot. The problem is this is not really the same pond even if it’s in more or less the same place. Back in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century this was a rural area and there was once a brickworks here where kilns were set up during the summer. A stream ran roughly where Spring Road is now and the pond was fed by another stream running from Thornhill down to Botnay Bay. In 1762, Walter Taylor, a local industrialist, expanded the junction of the two into an L shaped pond to use as a reservoir for Weston Mill, his wood mill on the Mayfield Estate, now Mayfield Park. The mill was short lived and he moved it to Woodmill in the late 1770’s but the pond remained. This was the pond Stuart photographed.
The railways arrived in the mid 1800’s and cut Mayfield Easte off from the pond although it still ran under the railway arches to feed the stream running through the estate all the way to Weston Shore. Over time the neglected pond silted up and, as the mud built up, it became two ponds, the larger being roughly where today’s pond is. The area was becoming less and less rural and houses and new roads were springing up. The much diminished pond remained, used as a skating rink in winter when it iced over and filled with newts, frogs, moorhens and even swans in spring and summer.
In the mid 1960’s the pond was drained and the streams culverted. The plan was to build more houses here to satisfy the baby boomers. Building work never started though and, by the 1970’s the plans had been abandoned, much like the poor, dried out pond. When I first came here with my school friend Pip in around 1972, this was a pond in name only. It had become a wild, overgrown place of boggy ground and dumped rubbish. eventually, in the late 1970’s the Southampton Schools Conservation Corps suggested clearing the area and creating a smaller pond for local people to use. Planning permission was granted by the council and, after much fundraising and a grant from The Nature Conservance Council, work began.
Over a period of four months the land was cleared and a JCB moved in to dig out the new pond. The streams and springs had been awaiting their chance and soon filled the newly dug hole. Slowly the natural wildlife retuned. Millers Pond was back but it wasn’t quite the same pond and this was the problem of recreating Stuart’s photograph. CJ and I walked the whole of the perimeter, looking at the image of the postcard on my phone and trying to find a likely spot. From the entrance on Spring Road where the fishing platforms bound the water’s edge, to the marshy area near Station Road we wandered with no real success.
Walking back along the trail on the far side of the pond we kept trying but, from here, there was almost no view of the water at all. As we came closer to the path that cuts across the park from Spring Road to Botany Bay we could see the water again but it was clear this was not where Stuart had stood to take his photograph, or, if it was, it had changed so much as to be unrecognisable.
A lot of photographs were taken, none of them were really right though. Soon we’d come almost full circle, back to the fishing platforms beside the main path. On the very last stretch of the trail we came to a fallen tree. This was an obstacle far easier for me to negotiate than CJ, who is much taller and had to bend almost double to get under.
Of all the photos I took only two seem to capture the feel of Stuart’s postcard and, even then, only vaguely. Recreating a photograph after more than a hundred years of a pond that is itself a recreation was always going to be a big ask. In the end I did the best I could, although I’m not sure either would be worth making into a postcard.
In the end I suppose we should be thankful Millers Pond is here at all. It was very nearly lost forever. It may be smaller than the original and not nearly as picturesque as the pond Stuart stood by with his camera all those years ago, but it’s better than a lot of modern houses, at least in my mind.
So we left the pond behind and, with one last look at the blackthorn flowers, went back to the streets and the gardens where spring was being far more cooperative. The blossom on the garden trees made me smile as we climbed the hill towards home. Hopefully the weather will soon be getting warmer and the world a little greener.
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