There was a bit of subtle irony at work this autumn. I discovered the existence of a number of well-established apple trees dotted around the hallowed fields of Bradlaugh Fields. Some fellow dog walkers had known about their existence for years, but, "'Ent never sin apples as big before," and that's probably why I spotted them, that and the fact that the mild autumn stretched right into (and now) beyond November, so there was still plenty of totally usable fruit, on the trees, well into October, when a lot of leaves had departed for worm food. Not really what you'd expect considering all the doom and gloom that has been hanging over Northampton's premier urban parkland.
What I found ironic is this is the first full year that Bradlaugh Fields has been denied the brooks which have run through it for centuries and the first full year when the four ponds have been all but dry. You see, last spring there was a breach and the walls of an old water main burst flooding some high points of the area and subsequently totally saturating all the ground below it. February 2014 was filthy; so filthy that people created new paths throughout the park's differing landscapes, because the old ones were now dangerous or impassable.
It was at this point that Anglia Water Authority stepped in and an entire ecological history was destroyed; the habitat and subsequent wildlife that lived and thrived there was about to be systematically wiped out.
The dramatic effect on the marshlands and waterways all across the hundreds of acres of Bradlaugh Fields was so fast, so devastating that it mobilised all kinds of people, including local Tory MP Michael Ellis, who, initially, worked very hard and set people with the task of discovering the causes and how to fix it. However, like so many others, he seems to have forgotten about this oasis of calm in a busy town - some things have happened, but nothing like what was promised and the catalogue of mistakes by AWA is quite dramatic and arguably makes them more than culpable.
Much of what I learned over the past few months, as the ponds levels dropped and then dwindled and then dried up altogether, is anecdotal, or at least I thought it was. People telling me there had been streams running through this land long before there was a golf course, which had eventually been donated to Northampton town as a nature reserve and parkland, could have been classed as having no basis in truth, because there's no one left alive who was around before this was even a golf course - except there are records.
For people familiar with Northampton, Bradlaugh Fields is the great swathe of land that separates the east side of town from Kingsthorpe and stretches all the way to Moulton Park. It is the reason why there is no cross town road between Kingsthorpe and the eastern side of town. At its narrowest it is less than 300 metres from the end of Spinney Hill Road on Parklands and Birkdale Close on Links View, but if you want to get from one of those roads to the other by car it would be a minimum of three miles drive. It is a strangely isolated place, stuck in the middle of everything.
When the ponds began drying up it was right at the start of the amphibian breeding seasons and the press's attention was drawn to it because of the impending deaths of thousands of frogs and toads. However, things were to get a little more strange before they tried to improve. At the back end of 2013, just before the leak that changed the geography of the place was discovered, I found yet another part of Bradlaugh Fields I had been largely unaware of; a path called, by the Bective locals, 'The Luvvy' because it was the place that young couples went to smooch during the first half of the 20th century.
Back in the day it was a proper pathway between Bective (the part of Kingsthorpe around Eastern Avenue) and Moulton village; long before the school, the University of Northampton (and park campus) or the industrial estate existed. It even has an NBC signpost decaying along it and there was once a style halfway up it - you can tell as the foundations are still in place. At the bottom of this old path is the Caddy Pond, so called because it was at the furthest reach of the then golf course, presumably a place frequented by caddies. This is important because this pond, which no longer exists might hold the key to what went wrong or maybe who is to blame.
When this first happened and the AWA 'fixed' the problem, there was a youngish woman who took it upon herself to replenish the Caddy pond by using channelled rainwater from The Luvvy. The Caddy pond had been serviced by one of three brooks running from Moulton via historical drainage patterns and the aquifer (geological land situated beyond the area that holds a large amount of sitting water) - the type of ground towards Moulton is different from that in this region of Northampton and the Moulton aquifer is responsible for the springs which created the three brooks which had run through the land since at least the 17th century.
Now, the first of these brooks - the Parklands Branch - was diverted back in the 1950s because it went directly through the middle of the ground that eventually was owned by Northampton School for Girls. This diversion might be a key point in the presumption that the brooks were mainly bolstered by tap water leaking from the mains because old people remember drainage work being done up there and sewers were laid prior to completion of Moulton Park and the surrounding housing estates. Anecdotal evidence suggests this area was plentiful in spring water.
The AWA did suggest originally that the water main might have been damaged at this point, meaning that for over 50 years they were replenishing the streams and ponds throughout Bradlaugh Fields, but geological and historical evidence suggests this might not be a believable excuse because admission of malpractice could cost them a lot of money. In fact, the Anglia Water Authority have been particularly shady at times regarding this. The woman who took it on herself to save the Caddy Pond was warned off by two AWA workers and told that what she was doing was against the law - that she wasn't allowed to dig a channel to allow rainwater to help keep the pond level up! Plus, in reports the AWA suggests the 'leak' might have happened 30 years ago, which is a contradiction to their original assumption.
It was the imminent death of frogs and toads that brought the entire mess to the wider public attention. The local paper - The Chronicle & Echo - covered the story; the local MP got involved and the AWA admitted some culpability and agreed to try and salvage a bad situation, but everything they did proved either to be inadequate or a waste of money. There was also a strong suggestion they were attempting to take the credit for the water ways throughout the park...
You have to look back a lot further than 1895 when Bradlaugh Fields was simply farm land, owned by the man who lived in the solitary old house on the relatively new Links View estate. When it was sold to build the golf course it was done so because areas were marshy, other areas were used to quarry for limestone, sandstone and even coal, which proved to be a fruitless search and large areas had brooks and ponds dotted throughout meaning it was only usable for grazing. The golf course was built using the lands natural contours and utilising the water features 60 years before the sewers were laid for Moulton Park Industrial and the Parklands housing estate. Photographic evidence of the old golf course shows a number of water features and some people I have spoken to who have lived around the area, said before 1987 when the lands were mooted as housing developments, there were as many as 8 - EIGHT - ponds covering all of Bradlaugh Fields (see below).
The historical relevance of these branch streams that eventually feed into the more substantial Walbeck Brook is that they prove that the area was one of natural springs and of historical drainage patterns; the college report does not appear to directly accuse Anglia Water of lying and allows an entire appendix (4) to be given over to the 'unusual nature' and plans to rectify the - understated - damage to the local ecology. It also makes a point of highlighting the water authority's insistence that the ponds throughout Bradlaugh Fields had been topped up by a slow leak - the same leak that was fixed in the late winter of 2014. Anglia Water is accepting responsibility that a leak of their own possible creation was the reason for the creation of an entire unique habitat and they claim this has been the case for just 30 years.
There's no historical evidence to suggest any work was carried out in Bradlaugh Fields at any point during the 1980s; the last recorded work done there was when the infrastructure for Moulton Park Industrial Estate was laid and the houses that make up the Aintree Road part of Parklands were built. The suggestion that the leak happened in the region of 30 years ago seems to be based on a comment made by AWA and nothing else and as stated there is very historical evidence to suggest up to eight ponds in 1987.
Unfortunately, there is also no actual physical evidence to back up the anecdotal evidence of the draining of three ponds on the Fulford Drive edge of the park. However in 2010, Northants Nature Trust and the NBC were involved in some extensive flood defence work on the ponds around the community barn area during a facelift. Dams, block paved sluice ways and an extensive building project to allow the main Fulford Drive pond to overflow into the main drain network. This work, which cost over £50,000 at the time, also required the removal of the pond on the other side of the path from Fulford - a pond often used by kids during the summer because it was shallow, but also had a wooden pier built at the edge - however it was removed to prevent houses and gardens from flooding. The other building work in 2010 involved the re-digging (or dredging) of the connecting channel between the two ponds by the barn and the Fulford pond.
The work that was carried out had been approved and authorised and would have been done with the Anglia Water Authority's co-operation, possibly even their help.
The point here is if the Bradlaugh Fields ponds had been supplemented by tap water for between 30 and 60 years, we're talking literally millions and millions of gallons of water - enough water to constantly replenish, at the very least, five ponds for 30 years and as many as eight ponds for 60. I'm thinking this kind of wastage would have registered somewhere? Michael Ellis MP felt the same way and made it clear to AWA that he didn't believe them and asked them to look into it further - http://www.michaelellis.co.uk/news/bradlaugh-fields-update - but this was May of 2014 and we're heading into 2016 and there has been very little done since.
In the autumn of 2014 into last winter, workmen began converting the pond which was situated directly opposite the barn into a kind of dew pond overflow mash-up. Using rainwater collected from the barn roof and kind of banking on the historical drainage information (which they've ignored unless it suits them), despite ignoring its dates in relation to the ponds and their depths, it was hoped that with a special liner and a clay base they could salvage ONE of the ponds. They did, after a fashion, although it is now an almost heavily fortified 'pond', dogs are not allowed in it and the quality of the water is no better than a puddle that has sat stagnating for six months. The pond that once fed this one was to have been transformed into a 'wet meadow' and the other pond - the one that had had £50k of work done to it five years earlier, was to be transformed into some kind of water garden utilising its supposed (former) propensity for flooding. The truth is only one of the four remaining ponds have had any water since the spring of 2014 - the Caddy Pond - and that was through the same process as the pond by the barn but without AWA's authorisation. In fact, Anglia Water has done very little and it appears to have become a case of out of sight out of mind. They weren't even aware when the disaster was first brought to their attention that the Caddy pond even existed.
Then in the research for this article I discovered that in 2012, NBC put a concrete dam in place along the East-West Ditch to slow down the increasing flow of water that was causing flooding issues on the leading edge of the Eastern Avenue and by the allotments (situated adjacent to Kingsthorpe Community College - formerly Kingsthorpe Upper School). Up to this point, the overflow from the Caddy Pond would run down the dividing line of shrubs between Bective and the park before going underground and re-emerging halfway down Kingsthorpe Golf Course and eventually joining the Walbeck Brook. The path of these branches are visible even now on Google Maps, by tracing the old course of these branch streams over the new map. It is also possible that at some point in the months that led up to the need for the dam to be put in, the water mains at the top of Aintree Road might have broken, adding to the water table.
However, one drawback to that theory is the amount of rain we had in 2012 - the wettest on record. It is quite possible that simply the amount of water that fell from the sky could have caused the problems. This theory is corroborated by the fact that in 2013, after work by the Friends of Bradlaugh Fields to rejuvenate the Caddy Pond it dried up temporarily for the first time in living memory - it was no longer being topped up by the East-West Ditch.
There is also another key point about the Caddy Pond and the Luvvy. The latter has two drain covers along its route, yet they are nowhere near any buildings or settlements and we're talking industrial drains not your bog standard ones in the street and they've been there for a while, yet it has only been in the last few years that the bottom of the Luvvy had began to flood after any heavy rain. Before this any excess water ended up in the pond, but now it wasn't draining away at all or there wasn't anything to drain away...
As stated earlier, when AWA agreed to try and solve the problem they were not aware of the existence of the Caddy Pond or the marsh area that had been created in 2012 to alleviate drainage and prevent some homes from the potential of being flooded out; or so they appear because there was no mention of the pond at any point during consultation, yet they must have been consulted about the dam or been aware of the flooding issues in the spring and early summer of 2012.
Another pertinent anecdotal offering was from an employee of Northants Nature Trust who had told me back in the spring of last year that there were stories going back two hundred years regarding the marsh areas in the Scrub Field and more importantly, back in the 18th century when someone thought there was coal seams under that area of Bradlaugh Fields, shafts were sunk, but they filled up with water; and where Moulton was built on sandstone, this part of the town was built on less solid foundations. Also, no coal was found. The point is in the 1780s this was a boggy marsh, but at the end of 2015 it is pretty much arable land.
One of the key areas of the Scrub Field (known by many locals as 'The Rabbit Field') is the path that runs down from Holton's Lane (which runs from Aintree Road to Boughton Green Road between Kingsthorpe Community College and the University of Northampton) between the American Football Field and the main scrub field; about halfway down there used to be a hidden marsh pond, surrounded by willow, reeds and well-established water plants. I have walked this particular path for 15 years and until last year it had only been dryish once - 2011 - and usually, even at the height of summer it was only passable with Wellingtons. The marsh pond was the product of an area, considerably further away from the burst water main than other parts of the park. Further away still, on the other side of the fence, was a very old, almost impenetrable area that divided the American football field from the Scrub field; so effective was the barrier it is the only part of the area not to have a safety fence around it.
Within 6 months of the drain's repair this area of the Scrub field was as dry as a bone; the multitude of frogs, toads and newts - not known by most people and ignored by the paper because people were unaware - that died was horrendous and there's still evidence of the amphibious carnage 18 months later and rare and important species were suddenly under threat. On part of the scrub fields there grows a very rare orchid, it actually flowered there for the first time in nearly a decade in 2013 - the conditions must have been right - and attracted enthusiasts, horticulturists and photographers from far afield and now instead of a loamy soil that it thrived on, the ground is so dry you'd imagine Mediterranean plants to flourish now.
There is also - and this is based on my own anecdotal observations rather than anything scientific - evidence to me that other areas - related to Bradlaugh Fields - might now be getting more water than previously. No more so than a small 'pond' that has formed at the lowest point of the hills and dales area, about 100 feet from the Bankside entrance - it has dried up a couple of times, but two years ago it wasn't even there.
I have also discovered today there was a 'Ninth' pond; if you look at the picture, at the bottom left, where it goes to a point. Directly below the second 'o' in 'Food' is another small pond, no more than about 20 feet across at its widest; this was there for about 20 years until it dried up in 2013. Back in 1986, the ex-pond - marked as the furthest left on the picture - might have been three inter-connected ponds prior to the building of the bungalow that is situated at the end of that part of Fulford Drive.
The existence of all this factual and anecdotal evidence suggests that the area has been serviced with a plentiful supply of water, mainly from the historical drainage patterns, for over 200 years. Old maps and aerial photographs show evidence of ponds and streams long before AWA's claims and it appears at some point in 2012, perhaps as a direct result of the large amount of rain we had, that a fault in the water main situated at the top of Aintree Road appeared adding to the water table to saturation point.
However, while Anglia Water ascertain that they feel the water main has been 'topping up' the streams and ponds for the last 30 years, the above paragraph states there is evidence to suggest this is total fabrication, especially as AWA gives no time frame or timetable for their '30 years' reason. What is more likely is that on fixing the damaged water main the course of the Parklands Branch was diverted, possibly downwards. But this area of the park campus and Moulton Park is responsible for the source of all three Walbeck branch streams - Parklands, Kingsthorpe and Eastfield and there is a suggestion that the amount of water that flows into Eastfield Park has dropped by almost a third over the last two years and the Kingsthorpe Branch - which all evidence suggests was the original feeder stream for the Caddy Pond - which is the last of the branch streams to join the Walbeck hasn't dropped - this means whatever work AWA did it diverted the water away from Bradlaugh Fields, probably deep under Northampton.
More anecdotal evidence of malpractice or at least obfuscation surfaced over the weekend. A man who I've known for a few years, as a fellow dog walker, a guy called John, was one of the groundskeepers on the old golf course and he claims that during the 45 years he's been coming to Bradlaugh Fields either as a worker or using the park for recreation, the streams and ponds had never changed - some years they were high, some years they were low - which fits in with the historical drainage patterns perfectly - and when he started work at the golf course in 1970, all of the water features, meadows and general topography of the area were the same as it was in 2013, but with less trees and more golf features.
A good friend of mine who grew up on Bective clearly remembers the Caddy Pond as being a place to go searching for frogs and toads when he was a small boy; he also remembers using the Luvvy on a daily basis - before there was an American football field next to it - and this was 50 years ago. He remembers that the golf course had numerous water features.
In conclusion; whatever the Anglia Water Authority did in 2014 it has irrevocably changed the geography and habitat of Bradlaugh Fields. They claim the waterways throughout the park were probably as a result of their own negligence, but this is clearly wrong - and on so many levels. What is also clear from public correspondence is that AWA failed to treat this protected land with the respect it deserved and caused an alarming amount of damage that needed to be repaired by third parties. It is perfectly understandable why AWA believe they were responsible for the park's water features, yet considering the evidence it makes little or no sense, unless the objective was - they knew it was going to cost them, so they opted for the cheapest outcome; an admission and a promise to make things as good as possible. This has not materialised either.
The change in everything about Bradlaugh Fields is remarkable; it no longer sustains water birds, amphibians and the local wildlife has been decimated because of the change in habitat - many of the insects and small mammals and fish that were food are no longer there, forcing native species to die off or move to try and find more suitable landscape. Streams and brooks which had been there for centuries are just like abandoned trenches now and the former ponds have become places to collect unwanted detritus, rubbish and litter.
The main problem now appears to be AWA's refusal to return to the scene of their crime. Emails sent to them have not been answered (why should they, I'm not a journalist any longer?) and it is no longer in the thoughts of the local MP or even the Friends of Bradlaugh Fields, who, it seems, have rolled over and acquiesced and have accepted the findings without much of a fight.
There is an independent report that was conducted by Dr Vic Smith, a former lecturer at the University of Northampton, his conclusions are here: - http://www.bradlaughfieldsandbarn.co.uk/uploads/3/6/3/0/3630943/bradlaugh_fields_-_university_study_report.pdf and this corroborates a lot of my theories, especially about historical drainage patterns.
On the surface it appears that there has been little damage done; but walk around the park and you will see evidence of neglect, of ignorance and of a major supplier having reneged on its duty of care and allowed for a fabulously diverse area of land to be changed forever for the worst.