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The Boating Lake; past, present and future


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Recent past - as the years wore on, a lack of proactive maintenance meant that its fabric deteriorated, and the costs of restoration, coupled to an arson attack which damaged many of the boats that were used on it and Health and Safety concerns meant that use as a boating lake ceased and for several years the site sat derelict. with only a few inches of rainfall accumulating in it.

In 2012-2013, The Environment agency were carrying out flood alleviation works on the City Golf Course and their plans to use excavated clay to build a flood barrier were thwarted by very heavy winter rains which saturated the soil and made it unsuitable. The clay was temporarily placed into the empty boating lake and a planning application submitted to leave it there and create a “wild flower meadow” on it

Origins - the boating lake has been a feature on the Sports Centre from its earliest days - it is shown in the plan published in Sir Sidney Kimber’s memoirs, “Thirty Eight Years of Public Life in Southampton”, albeit with a slightly different (and more pleasing) outline than it presently has.

The boating lake was a popular family attraction at the Sports Centre for many years, contributing to Sir Sidney Kimber’s vision of the Centre as a “happy valley” and as “an outdoor sports and recreation centre……… for the use of thousands of both sexes, young and old, robust and frail, rich and poor, for the provision of all known outdoor games, which centre is bound to promote health, enjoyment and happiness to untold numbers…..” .

The Environment Agency was only required to make good the damage that it  had caused (more…)and to return the boating lake to the state in which it found it - i.e. cracked and leaking. They cleaned out the lake, repaired the holes that they had drilled in the lake bed, replaced dislodged perimeter capping stones and replaced part of the path around the NW side of the lake. The old paving slabs have been donated to FoSSC to create “dry stone wall” habitats on Fairway 2.

What could be done?

An adventure playground -  like at St. James’ Park?

An outdoor gym?

Restore the boating lake, maybe for  junior kayaking and paddle boarding?

A skate / skateboard / scooter / bmx park and track suitable for all ages and abilities?

 A paddling / splash pool like at Hilsea Lido?

A wildlife pond?

Images thanks to Portsmouth City Council and the Friends of St James’ Park

The clay was removed in December 2013 but before the boating lake could be properly cleaned to remove the last traces, the terrible, wet winter of 2013-2014 set in. Rainwater stirred up the remaining clay which settled into the cracks and holes in the concrete and temporarily plugged them, allowing the lake to refill. Although the Environment Agency were scheduled to return early in 2014 to repair the damage which they had done, FoSSC and the City Ecologists, lobbied Council to temporarily postpone the repairs and leave the lake full of water until the end of the 2014 amphibian breeding season (More….).

Tadpoles were seen in the lake in 2014 but we have been told that at least some of the spawn was introduced. Sadly, is unlikely that many of this brood made it to maturity; with no cover, many of the young were likely to have been eaten by the gulls and ducks. Of those which developed enough to attempt to escape up the concrete wall, many then didn’t survive the long trek across the scorching hot tarmac and paving to cover.

We expected to find a few but actually found several hundred young newts (click on picture for larger view). These were fully grown juveniles, which should have moved away onto land long time ago. We suspect that they couldn’t climb the concrete walls and so had remained trapped. They were relocated to suitable damp and densely vegetated sites on the golf course. Curiously, we also found a small number of much more immature efts (newt tadpoles) - some still with external gills and no limbs. These were re-homed in local ponds. We found no toads and very few (and tiny) frogs.

newt rescue small.png

Over the course of the hot, dry summer of 2014, the water level progressively dropped and, as the breeding season should have been long finished, the decision was made to drain the boating lake as a prelude to remedial work by the Environment Agency to repair the damage that its contractors had done. After consultation with FoSSC and the City Ecologists, the plug was pulled (literally) on Tuesday 5th August (a big thanks to groundsmen Ken and Darren for their help, interest and consideration). FoSSC were present then and the following morning to rescue and re-home any stranded amphibians.

FoSSC has always maintained that the boating lake was far from ideal as an amphibian breeding site and the 2014 data seemed to bear this out. This is why we have been working to create a series of  4 permanent ponds, bog gardens and associated habitats, specifically designed for amphibians, close by on Fairway 2 of  the golf  course. The first pond was completed in spring 2014 and rapidly adopted by toads and newts (both of  which bred there, it was too late for any frogs). The remaining ponds were dug over 2015 ready for the 2016 breeding season.

The contractors  involved in the 2014 remedial works commented to us that the concrete skin of the pond bottom was far thinner than they expected it to be, and far thinner than it would be allowed to be if the pond was built today. Those works  were never going to make the lake watertight. With the sides  and bed cracked and leaning in as they do, the lake is probably beyond repair and any concept of restoration as a boating lake would require a complete rebuild - we have consulted external professional concrete pond restorers and that was their view.

 Future - Nothing has yet been decided and various possibilities have been suggested for the boating lake site (see panel on RHS). FoSSC is helping to investigate these ideas; exploring their feasibility, construction costs, running costs and desirability. All of the schemes will involve significant capital expenditure and no funding is yet available. The Sports Centre Improvement Plan and feasibility studies will guide possible decisions. A decision has been made to keep the lake drained for the time being for health and safety reasons and because FoSSC’s work on Fairway 2 has provided alternative habitat for amphibians.

In spring 2016, a significant amount of misinformation was being circulated on social media concerning amphibians on the Sports Centre. In order to address that and to attempt to promote an open, honest and evidence-based debate, FoSSC wrote and published a series of briefing notes.

Setting the Record Straight #1 - concerning SCC’s information on amphibians on the Sports Centre (read)

Setting the Record Straight #2- concerning FoSSC survey data for amphibians on the Sports Centre 2015-2016 (read)

Setting the Record Straight #3 - concerning requirements for general amphibian breeding ponds (read)

Setting the Record Straight #4 - concerning requirements for toad breeding ponds (read)

Setting the Record Straight #5 - concerning SCC’s biodiversity obligations and our Fairway 2 scheme (read)

Setting the Record Straight #6 - concerning the physical condition of the boating lake and what it would cost to rebuild and operate (read)

Setting the Record Straight #7 - concerning the validity of the 2015 public consultations on the draft Sports Centre Improvement Plan (read)

These briefing notes attracted over 1,900 social media hits and hopefully provided food for thought.