‘Ponds in rural France are beautifully maintained but no longer used’

Columnist Peter Wyeth laments that these large, impressive sites, once the fresh-aired setting for family picnics, barbecues and fun, now fail to attract people

Countryside ponds, once popular spots for family picnics, now seem empty and unused

During our last walk in Indre, we passed eight ponds.

These were not small ponds but up to 100 metres long and often broadly square in shape.

They were always fenced, gated and locked, often with a hut and a jetty projecting from the banks.

A few were unkempt or abandoned, but most were very well kept, some lined with stone, and many with smartly-trimmed grass around the edges.

‘Redolent of a family and friends-centred rural France’

Weeping willows offered shade for picnic tables and benches, and added to the sense that these ponds would be an attractive place for the family to barbecue, do some fishing, and lounge around the water as spring turns into the long summer.

They were all in fairly remote locations, usually with only a rough track offering access to them.

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The odd thing is, although we walk this way regularly with our dog, we have never seen one of these impressive ponds in use.

A programme on ‘The Ghost Ponds of France’ could be a pitch for the Arte channel if I get round to it, but otherwise it remains another of those small mysteries of living in France.

While not quite Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, they are redolent of a family and friends-centred rural France that is perhaps disappearing? Extended family and pals invited to fish, paddle, picnic, with big bottles of rough wine and plenty of children running around.

An arduous creation

I think of all the work that must have gone into creating these oases of relaxation, far from other houses, let alone towns or villages.

First, removing all the soil, perhaps in the days when tractors were still a luxury. Then lining the pond, sometimes with stone as the posh ones, at least, are.

Next: cultivating the grass around the edge, planting the weeping willows, building a wooden or more substantial shed, with barbecue under cover. A big project, certainly, and now seemingly deserted and hardly, if ever, used.

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Fishing still a popular pastime

What has brought this situation about? It is not as though fishing is unpopular.

In Paris, for example, there is a growing trend among youngsters for ‘urban fishing’ along the banks of the Seine. When one of the pioneers died in a car crash, hundreds turned out for his burial at the prestigious Père-Lachaise cemetery.

And in the heart of the Poitou-Charentes region, the recently opened Pescalis – a huge international fishing centre inspired by an American model and one of a kind in Europe – welcomes visitors year-round with 100 hectares of ponds.

Meanwhile, in La France profonde, ponds lie unvisited – beautifully maintained but, from what we have seen here in the Berry, no longer an attraction.

Are they just a receding memory of a past when fishing in your own pond combined fresh air and fun?

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