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Dewponds and High Meres

/images/fere-mere-in-winter.jpgThe Peak District is divided into two principle zones, The Dark Peak and The White Peak and it is roughly a half-and-half split; Dark in the North; White in the South.  The distinction is all about rock types, with The Dark Peak being made mostly of tough gritstone, while The White is limestone.  You can see the abrupt change as you journey South of Eyam; brown dry-stone walls and barns give way to ash-grey ones and, of course the difference in rock types produces a different kind of landscape.

/images/taddington-high-mere.jpgThe South portion of the region is where the classic Derbyshire Dales appear, together with numerous caverns, for limestone is easily eaten away by water (and heaven knows there is always plenty of that falling from the sky!)  After heavy rain, springs magically appear from hillsides in what seemed like dry valleys.  Whole rivers can emerge suddenly from caves, such as the river Lathkill, which in the winter months issues directly from the mouth of a cave, in the dale just below Monyash.

And then, just as suddenly, everything dries up.  Even in wet summers, open stretches of water become very scarce, as the limestone draws away all moisture like a thirsty sponge.  Streams in many dales disappear completely, leaving behind rocky beds more reminiscent of a Mediterranean landscape.  In a part of the country where livestock farming is predominant, and through which packhorse trails wound their way for centuries, this lack of standing water was clearly a problem.

Parts of The White Peak were blessed.  Monyash, whose name my mean “many waters,” possessed a number of natural ponds - locally known as “meres”.  The retreating ice-age glaciers, after “scalping” the top off the limestone plateau, left a few deposits of clay behind and these held water.  Recently, most of these natural meres have been lost, but Monyash still retains one fine example in the middle of the village - “Frere Mere”, while above the village of Taddington, not far away, Taddington High Mere has recently been restored.  At nearly 400 metres above sea level, it is very high and a magical spot to visit, planted with bullrushes, marsh marigolds and other native plants that attract a host of other fascinating creatures, such as dragonflies and frogs.  While it is no longer used as a watering hole, it is easy to imagine flocks of sheep being driven here, or teams of packhorses and their drivers taking a welcome break.  It really does have the feel of being a Peak District oasis.

/images/walled-dewpond-above-lathkill.jpgBut these natural meres are very rare.  Elsewhere, centuries back, local farmers created artificial waterholes known as “dewponds”.  This ancient name is shrouded with mystery, as it seemed that people actually did believe that the ponds were renewed every night by the dew; but then “dew” was also used to mean “mist” or “drizzle”, so they were not necessarily so wide of the mark.  Dewponds can be found scattered right across The White Peak - just look for very small blue circles on your White Peak OS map and you can easily track down some examples.  Sadly, many have fallen in to disuse and have taken their accompanying wildlife with them, but here and there efforts have been made by Natural England and The National Trust to restore them.  Some fine examples can be seen around the upper part of Lathkill Dale, for example.

/images/toadspawn-fere-dale.jpgThey look like nothing from a distance, just a wooden ring of fencing, but go and take a closer look, especially in Spring and you will be amazed at the amount of easy-to-view activity.  The ponds are an important home for great crested newts (very rare across so much of England) and they can be seen rising up from the weeds at the bottom where they spawn.  Frog and toad spawn abound near the surface; toad spawn is the stuff in long strings, woven between plant stems and appears about a fortnight after the frog spawn .  As Spring heads towards summer, of course, the tadpoles of both species emerge and develop; herons and other predators start to take a keen interest.   For even greater enjoyment, take a guide book on pond life with you;  it is truly extraordinary how much wildlife is attracted to even a very modest stretch of undisturbed water and you might even be inspired to start something similar in your own garden, if space allows.  You will be doing the natural world a great favour.

Simon Corble