Fleet Pond is a biological Site of Special Scientific Interest in Fleet in Hampshire. It is also a Local Nature Reserve. Located on the northern edge of the town of Fleet in northeastern Hampshire, the 'pond', at 21 hectares (52 acres), is Hampshire's largest freshwater lake. The Reserve’s reed beds, marshes, heathland and woodland provide sanctuary for a rich and diverse community of animal and plant life, including many that are no longer to be found in an ordered, farmed countryside.
The total area of the Reserve is 141 acres (0.57 km2) of which 118 acres (0.48 km2) is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). This applies to the wetlands, the lake and the dry heathland.
The Origins and History of Fleet Pond
The earliest written records relating to the Fleet district are of the later Saxon period. Our first glimpses of life in the 10th century reveal settlement and agriculture well established and organised. Aldershot, Farnborough, Yateley and Crondall each have Saxon origins, whilst, closer to Fleet, Bramshot and Broomhurst are Saxon place names.
It is probable that, by the time of the Norman Conquest, lands to the north of Fleet Pond were already farmed. Heathlands arose in prehistory as a consequence of Bronze Age farming activities and thus the great heathland commons of Hawley, Aldershot etc., were already ancient a thousand years ago. The system of commoning may itself have had beginnings in prehistory
Fleet itself is an Old English (Saxon) term, fleot or fleote, referring in some sense, not clearly understood, to a stream. The available evidence points to a place where a stream enters or leaves a larger body of water or marshland, but, of Fleet, contemporary Saxon records are silent. We only know that it fell within a gift of a large expanse of land bequeathed to the Old Monastery at Winchester in 940 AD, which included all of what is now Crookham and Hawley.
The Domesday survey is equally silent and the first clear reference to Fleet does not come until 1313, followed by a more detailed mention in 1324 when “the great fishery (of) Fleet Ponds” is referred to in the Rolls of Account of Crondall Manor. By this time, there seems to have been a thriving fishery of considerable importance and two ponds.
Many bishopric ponds were created in the second half of the 12th century, thus Fleet Pond could have been in existence by 1200. An existing watercourse would have been dammed to build up a head of water and it has been conjectured that the combined surface area of the two ponds exceeded 200 acres (0.81 km2). The fishery was supervised and managed locally, probably from the two farms recorded at Fleet. These were situated to the north of the present pond, in an area of more fertile land between barren heathland commons. Indeed, the evidence points to the location of the historical Fleet lying to the north of the modern town, in Hawley Parish.
Later medieval references to Fleet Ponds are few, but include further expenses for nets, boats and repairs to the bridge there. There seems to have been some kind of causeway dividing the two ponds, which possibly carried a road of some importance, given the oft repeated requirement to keep it in good condition.
In 1491, a new arrangement was instigated. The Prior at Winchester began to lease Fleet Ponds and the pastures there to a tenant at Fleet Farm, at an annual rent of 23 shillings and 4 pence plus “a hundred of the fishes, pike, tenches, perches, bream and roaches, to he carried and delivered (to Winchester) in a good and fresh state”. The tenants were required to maintain the bridge at their own expense, except that the Lord Prior would provide the timber. There is a hint in this exception that woodland may not have been plentiful on Fleet Farm.
The location of the second pond has bred two opposing theories, the one placing it to the north of the surviving pond, on what is now Ancell’s Park, the other proposing south as more probable, and citing the name “Pondtail” as supporting evidence. The problem with this is that the present Pondtail is another example of a migrating place name, which was indeed situated at the “tail” of the present Fleet Pond.
What is known with certainty is the fate which befell the lost pond. A document dated 1567 records: “the head of which said pond is now by a great storm and fall of water, utterly broken and carried away”. A great inundation had apparently carried away the dam and the necessary repairs would require “great expenses of money, waste of timber and other charges, to make a new head to maintain the said pond as it has been theretofore”. Damage, if any, to the other pond and to the bridge is not recorded. A licence was issued “to ditch and fence in, enclose and convert the said pond into meadow, pasture or otherwise.”
From 1491 onwards the ponds, the pasture of Fleet and the fishery had been closely tied to the farms of Fleet (probably including the mill, which local tradition dates to the medieval period, though there is no firm evidence of this). The field patterns of Fleet Farm were, before their recent destruction for housing, of a post medieval type, whereas the field patterns of Bramshot Farm to the east are very characteristic of the medieval period. They undoubtedly had a separate history to Bramshot, though whether they replaced earlier fields or came into being as a result of the enclosure of the lost pond must remain a matter of speculation.
The leasing arrangement for Fleet Farm, pasture, fishery and ponds (the plural was never amended) continued for some 350 years. A renewal of the lease, dated 1833, covers Fleet Ponds, the fishery thereof, the pasture, several other parcels of land, houses, farm buildings, mills, mill ponds, streams and watercourses. At that time, Fleet Pond was 45.1 hectares (111 acres).
Some years earlier, in 1817, the ancient rights of common were extinguished by the Enclose Act for Hawley Common. This included all of the heathland to the north-east, east and south-east of Fleet Pond. Enclosure of Crookham Common followed in 1834, covering a great deal of open country west and south of the Pond. With Enclosure, the grazing of commoners’ stock and other ancient practices, such as peat digging, came to an end and the commons were divided up amongst the gentry to develop as they saw fit.
Opportunity was not far behind. On 7 April 1836, the London and Southampton Railway Company purchased, for £50, “the Fleet Mill Pond and certain allotments of wasteland belonging to Fleet Farm”, from the Dean and Chapter of Winchester. Allotments were heathland. Without the legal protection afforded to common lands, the surrounding land was ripe for development and a new settlement, taking its name from the Pond, began to grow.
The Pond itself, meanwhile, became a part of the new military estate based at Aldershot and was under the jurisdiction of the army from 1854 until 1972. Within years of the opening of the new railway, it had attracted the curiosity of another army, the many Victorian naturalists. References to its flora, in particular, are frequent in natural history journals of the last century. Herbarium sheets, dating from this era, are located at the Natural History Museum in Kensington, and also at Reading, Oxford and undoubtedly elsewhere.
The pond was drained during World War Two as it is closely situated next to a mainline railway. It was drained to prevent Nazi war planes using it as a marker from which to navigate their way to London. The fame thus bestowed upon Fleet Pond led, in 1951, to it becoming one of the first Sites of Special Scientific Interest to be notified in Hampshire. The reasons for the designation were the importance of the lake to waterfowl, the rich aquatic and heathland flora and the extensive area. The SSSI was reaffirmed in 1984 under the provisions of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, but covering the smaller area of 48 hectares (120 acres), of which the open water itself accounts for 21 hectares (52 acres). (By 1984, Fleet Little Pond had lost its ecological interest and The Flash and been filled in. The Flash is now the Business Park by Fleet Station).
In 1972, the then Fleet Urban District Council purchased the Pond, together with adjacent heathland and woodland, from the Ministry of Defence. The Fleet Pond Society was founded four years later (April 1976) and, at the Society’s suggestion, the land was declared a Local Nature Reserve in 1977. The Society was responsible for completing the footpath circuit of the pond, including installation of the Brookly Bridge and Carnival Bridge. Volunteers from the Society began selective management of the habitats of the Reserve in 1983, initially with advice from the Hampshire Wildlife Trust. This has continued through to the present day and now the Society's volunteers work in conjunction with Hart Council's Countryside Service. The relationship continues, strengthening a good working relationship between the local authority and the voluntary sector.
The three recommended walks, marked by colour-coded posts, introduce you to a selection of wildlife habitats. Please keep to the well-used paths.
Short Walk (Red Markers) - 1 km The red route will take you along woodland paths past the Dry Heath and one of the two open heathland areas. The route visits Boathouse Corner with its fishing jetty, designed for wheelchair use, and the Picnic Site with a good view of the lake, the fringing reedbed and the open marsh. Please note that the section of path between Boathouse Corner and the Picnic Site is a woodland walk with many tree roots to trip the unwary.
Medium Walk (Yellow Markers) - 3 km This route takes a full circuit of the lake. The northern and western footpaths are suitable for wheelchairs and children carriers in all but the wettest weather. Excellent views of the lake can be had from the northern and north-western footpaths and from the Chestnut Grove landing stage. The path crosses Brookly Stream, one of the two feeder streams into the lake. The oldest section of Fleet Pond's woodlands, at Sandhills, has good specimens of oak and Scots pine. A carpet of bluebells appears in early spring. Coldstream Glade attracts butterflies, bees and other insects and Sandy Bay is a popular spot, with informal seats and good views. At Sandy Bay the Gelvert Stream enters the lake. Near Westover Road access point you will pass through an open glade where on warm, sunny days you can smell the pungent aroma of bog myrtle.
Long Route (Blue Markers) - 4 km This follows the yellow route but extends to include Brookly Wood and Wood Lane Heath. Brookly Wood was once a private garden and contains some of the reserve's best beech trees. There are also 'exotics' here, such as bamboo, rhododendron and laurels. The footpath through Brookly Wood is narrow and can be very muddy in winter. Wood Lane Heath is a moist heath. Late July and August are the best times to see the heather in flower. The footpath skirts the heath and is informal but firm.
Overall, the wildlife in Fleet Pond is truly significant and a habitat to many animals as well.
Fleet Pond Society
Fleet Pond Society was formed in 1976 as a result of the concerns of local people at the deteriorating condition of the Fleet Pond nature reserve. Two public meetings were convened to discuss the future of the reserve and it was agreed to constitute Fleet Pond Society to address the numerous concerns.
The first task was to complete a circular path around the lake. This was done by a large band of dedicated volunteers in 1978. The two bridges across the outflow and across Brookly Stream were positioned by volunteers. The bridges were provided at cost by a local company. The volunteers then constructed the boat launch jetty at Chestnut Grove. This required significant labour as the cement-filled sandbags had to be hand filled, transported to the lake edge by wheelbarrow and positioned by hand into water almost one metre deep.
A timber bridge was installed across the Gelvert Stream to complete the circuit.
In 1983 the Society changed emphasis to address the deteriorating 'natural' habitat diversity. A conservation volunteer force was organised and a regular programme of conservation tasks set up. The objective of these tasks is to maintain the diverse range of habitat types that makes Fleet Pond a unique sanctuary for wildlife. Rarely does one site contain such a wide diversity. Open water, reedbeds, marshland, heathland and wet and dry woodlands all support specialised plants and animals, many of which are becoming rare in Hampshire.
The volunteers can only work on the wildlife sensitive sites between September and March. Other tasks are organised for April to June. These will include 'rustic' fences to protect sensitive habitat from trampling or disturbance and providing informal seating for visitors.
Conservation tasks are held on the second Sunday of every month from September through to June. The holiday months of July and August are a rest period for the volunteers, but occasionally a special task will be organised to address any problems. The volunteers might be called upon, for example, to help the rangers with tidying up after a rubbish tipping incident. Special tasks can be arranged for local youth groups and community groups.
Fleet Pond is in trouble as accumulated silt has become a real threat to the life of the pond. Natural England, the statutory body responsible for the monitoring of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI’s), has declared: “The condition of the Pond continues to deteriorate. There is little aquatic vegetation in the Pond or on the margins. Geese continue to graze around the edges of the Pond reducing the extent and quality of reed. High levels of suspended silt and algae are reducing water quality.” It would be a substantial setback if the Pond lost its protective SSSI status.
Anglers report that “Fishing has deteriorated due to shallow water and turbidity”. Wildlife listed in the Biodiversity Action Plan as being in need of protection include the Reed Warbler, Reed Bunting, Miner Bee, Marsh Cinquefoil and some of the rarer beetles and wetland invertebrates. Even some of our more common species have shown reductions in numbers and an area like Fleet Pond is essential as a safe feeding, roosting and breeding area. Bats (five species recorded), Song Thrush, House Martin, Water Rail, and various dragonflies and damselflies are becoming rarer countrywide and so an area like Fleet Pond is vital to provide a safe breeding environment.
Natural England has reiterated that the existing situation is not acceptable. It is an essential element of the recovery of Fleet Pond’s SSSI status that the inflow of silt is significantly reduced before measures can be taken to address what can be done to remove the accumulated volumes. Natural England has agreed that the measures in place on the Defence Estates are adequate. Measures are now needed to address the inflow of detritus silt. A silt survey in 2000 indicated that silt covering the bed of Fleet Pond was between 2 metres and 3 metres deep.
The Clearwater Campaign has been launched to restore Fleet Pond with a programme designed to create a healthy amenity for wildlife and people that serves the needs of the community now and for the foreseeable future. Fleet Pond Society, Hart District Council, Natural England, the Environment Agency, Fleet News & Mail and other interested parties are working together to plan and implement this restoration project. The Clearwater Campaign intends to raise awareness and funds by drawing on government and non-governmental sources wherever possible, although one body alone will not be able to fund, what is, a substantial restoration programme.
Of equal importance is the support of the local community from businesses and residents. This is a very popular local amenity and deserves to be kept in the best possible condition with a balanced and sustainable ecology.