The mystery of the hidden pond

15 August 2017

Sometimes the places you think you know really well have little surprises up their sleeves for you. Today’s walk, the first real walk for a while due to a major redecorating project which I’ll tell you all about another time, was a perfect example of this. Cutbush Lane has been a regular walking route for me since I was in my teens. It was one of the ways I used to walk to the White Swan pub back in the days when I quite liked a drink. In fact I often walked along there going to the pub and coming home again, slightly the worse for wear, in the dark because I knew it so well I didn’t really need to see where I was going. 

In recent years I’ve walked up and down the lane plenty too. It’s the way I go when I’m going to the garden centre or Hobbycraft and I often use it as part of a circular river walk. You’d think then, there wouldn’t be any surprises along there for me. As it turns out, you’d be wrong.

A few days ago I got a message from another blogger, Martin from Southampton Orbital. He is walking the boundary of Southampton and was after some information about the boundary stones. When I checked out his blog I was surprised to hear him talk about a hidden pond off Cutbush Lane. Of course I had to go and have a look for myself the first chance I got. That chance came today. CJ was as curious as I was and wasn’t going to let me go exploring on my own.

From the information on Martin’s blog and a fair bit of looking at maps, I had a rough idea where to start the hunt for the pond. We took the quickest route to the place where Cutbush Lane turns sharply, heading up hill towards West End Road one way and towards Mansbridge Road the other. There’s a school on the corner and some fairly modern houses opposite. Beside the houses is a cutway. It looks like an access path for the back gardens of Coachmans Copse and I’d never paid it the slightest attention before for that reason.

We set off along the cutway feeling less than hopeful. It didn’t look the kind of place there would be a pond, or anything else insterestung come to that. There were a few blackberries amongst the shrubbery and trees but, other than that, all we found were more new houses and a huge electricity sub station. It looked like we might be on a wild goose chase, or at least looking in the wrong place.

Past the houses there was another access lane bisecting the one we were on. It didn’t look as if there was anything along it apart from back gardens and a parked van. Our lane carried on behind the gardens. It was narrow but paved and hemmed in on either side by trees, overgrown shrubs and metal fences. We kept going, feeling less and less confident of finding a pond.

Pretty soon we could see the what looked like other end of the lane, along with grass and houses. Everything between us and them was fenced. There was a kind of dell filled with trees and brambles to our left but there didn’t seem to be any way into it and no sign of a pond. This land was originally part of the Manor of Townhill owned by Sir William Paulet. Mostly farmland, it was locally known as Townhill Farm. In 1787 Nathanial Middleton turned the farmhouse into a private home and the estate became known as Townhill Park. Perhaps this little dell was a remnant of that farmland, left wild because it was too difficult to plough?

We carried on towards the end of the lane, with me peering hopefully through the fence every few steps and being disappointed.
“If we haven’t found the pond by the time we get to the end of here, we’ll have to think again,” I said as we approached the end of the lane. “Maybe there’s another path we’ve somehow missed, or perhaps we should have turned by that parked van?”
At this point we could see houses and cars ahead beyond an area of freshly mown grass. In Martin’s blog there was a photograph of a sign post and a pond surrounded by trees so I was sure this grassy area wasn’t what we were looking for. By now I was getting more and more convinced we’d somehow gone wrong. Then, just before we emerged into the sunshine at the end of the lane, I spotted water through the fence. It looked very much like a pond.

A few steps further and there was the sign I’d seen in Martin’s blog, along with a handy bench to sit on.
“I can’t believe this was here all the time and you didn’t know about it,” CJ said.
“I can’t believe I’ve walked past this path so many times and never thought to see where it went,” I said. “It looked so much like a service path I never thought it led anywhere. It just goes to show you shouldn’t dismiss a footpath just because it looks like it doesn’t go anywhere interesting. Now I’m wondering how many other places like this are hidden away?”

Feeling rather pleased with ourselves for solving the mystery of the hidden pond, we walked under the sign and along the narrow trail. At this point I was thinking we’d be able to walk right around the pond and maybe even get into the shady dell we’d seen through the fence. Those thoughts lasted all of two minutes. The trail took us to a rickety fence that looked as if it might have been a bridge and then petered out. Ahead there was nothing but impenetrable undergrowth with no way through.

The pond was tiny but quite beautiful so we couldn’t  bring ourselves to be disappointed. It was a lovely little oasis in the middle of the houses, surrounded by trees with an island of lily pads in the centre. We stood, trying to pretend we couldn’t still see the benches we’d walked past moments before, watching dragonflies flitting about above the water just out of range of my camera and a little coot who appeared from beneath the trailing branches of a large willow tree.

Over the years the Townhill estate changed hands several times, at one time it belonged to the Gater family, who owned Gaters Mill, then to Samuel Montagu, the first Baron Swaythling. The Montague family had the gardens at Townhill Park laid out by Gertrude Jekyll and lived there until the mid 1940’s. In 1948 almost three hundred acres were sold to Southampton Borough Council and turned into the suburb of Townhil Park and the Manor House became a school. Today it is the Gregg School and Gertrude Jekyll’s gardens can still be seen on open days. Was this pretty little pond once part of her design I wondered?

Whatever it’s origins, we both agreed this was a magical place, hidden in plain sight in the middle of the city. We were reluctant to leave, but leave we must, so we took the short walk back under the sign and out onto the little green. With one last look at the twisted trunk of the old willow tree we turned to go.

We could have turned back towards Cutbush Lane but I was curious where the other end of the lane would take us. The fence to our right almost certainly belonged to the Gregg School and the houses we could see ahead were definitely  somewhere in Townhill Park but I couldn’t quite get my bearings. We walked towards them, stopping every now and then to look at bright red haws and juicy blackberries growing through the metal bars. CJ spent rather a long time trying to take a photograph of a spider.

Sadly there were no more surprises ahead, we ended up back amongst the modern houses and traffic on Meggason Avenue, near Hillgrove Road where the buses turn around. In the end our quest to find the hidden pond had been far easier than either of us had envisioned. Almost too easy. We’d set out expecting a long search, maybe with a little getting lost. Finding it so quickly left us feeling oddly cheated out of an adventure. Now all that was left was deciding which route to take home. Did we keep going forwards to Riverside Park and Woodmill or turn and head back along Cutbush Lane towards Mansbridge?

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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

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