The Dewpond on the Height.
“Our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs,
Bare slopes where chasing shadows skim …
We have no waters to delight
Our broad and brookless vales—
Only the dewpond on the height
Unfed, that never fails”
— Rudyard Kipling
Just off the beaten track of Wigmoreash Drove, not far from the beech hangar, is a dewpond. The high chalk ridgeway rises in a long, smooth curve between two villages and is a remote place of open downland and dark night skies. On a good day, the views are far reaching and panoramic. On a good day, the pond is a mazy jewel set between the vertebrae of the whaleback. Today is not a good weather day. We have come, our two families, from either side the hill, to restore the ancient dewpond. And we are wreathed in cloud.
Romantic and mysterious, dewponds are the only source of water up here. There are no springs, rivers or natural ponds. Rainwater sheds quickly off the smooth-domed hills, or percolates slowly through their chalk to refill aquifers that run the chalkstreams in the valleys far below. For a place that was once the sea, it is exceedingly dry.
The idea and construction of dewponds is as old (if not older) as the hill fort and long barrow that sit upon the same ridge. With no apparent source of water, they rarely, if ever, dry out.
The top of the lonely path that skews up Gallows Down and past the pond, has long been a place for summer picnics, driven to by pony and trap. The beeches, perhaps 200 years old, are scarred with initials, dates and memorials. It is difficult to know how long ago Wigmoreash pond was made, but 341 years to the week that we are in it, its name changed to Murderer’s Pool. Adulterous lovers from either side the hill apparently murdered wife and child, leaving the bodies in the pond. The two were sentenced to hang in Winchester Gaol. Their bodies brought home and hung from a double gibbet, built for the purpose on the no-man’s land between the two parishes, on top of the ancient long barrow.
Pioneer willow, ash and thorns have grown up in the centre of the pond, threatening to suck it dry and crack the bowl of it. James Sadler from Combe gets in with chest waders to cut the trees down, and we haul them out, creating a bund around it for now, that will serve as a season’s nesting place for birds. It is cold, wet work, but a privilege. Care has to be taken not to break the chalk pan – but it holds water and is sound.
Gangs of dewpond makers would travel the country through winter and spring. It would take four men four weeks to make a pond that might last 100 years. A wide, shallow lens, just 3ft deep in the centre, was dug out and layered in thick straw then crushed chalk. A cart and horses would be driven through and over the final layer of chalk, crushing it to a fine powder. Water would be added until it became a thick cream, which was smoothed into a porcelain saucer and left to harden. The dewpond makers from the deserted village of Imber would make as many as 15 a year. Before filling naturally, their surface would ‘shine like glass’. The filling of them and their mysterious retention of water even during droughts, has long been debated.
The insulating straw is said to create a thermos effect and initiate dewfall above the surface of the pond. Appropriately for today, they are also known as mist or cloud ponds; their creation – especially near a key overhanging tree, distilled water from the very air, year round. It is considered now, that the shallow bowls simply hold rainwater: yet the shepherd testifies that water is replenished by morning – though the night is dry.
When we are finished, we bump along the drove in the back of the Land rover, splashing through milky puddles. The gibbet appears then disappears through shifting mist and sheep cling to the gorze like low, wet clouds. The creaking of gate hinges that are no longer there and the tinkling of sheep bells turn out to be the whistles of red kites, brought low by the weather, and goldfinches chiming through the docks. But the sonorous cronks and knocks of wood on wood come unmistakably from the ravens; judging, passing comment, passing sentence.
Days later, after a sudden storm, we go back up to the dewpond. The view and tranquillity of the place is restored. The pond is fenced for its preservation and is a wonderful resource for birds. Next to it, a trough and bowser provide water for sheep. Buds on the cut trees have burst, the sap still rising. The soft grey fur of pussy willow catkins, in their halo of yellow pollen, are pale, lit matches.
In evening sunlight, the little disc reflects back, clear-eyed and brilliant: a lens, a satellite, a mirror to the sky. And when cloud dulls the surface, it is a fallen moon. Skylarks sing upwards and yellowhammers flit between thorns. Then for a moment, a rainbow arcs right over the hill like a banner, its middle lost in cloud, an end in each village.