It is common knowledge that the Woodmill Salmon Pool predates Magna Carta, but less widely known that evidence of a fishery goes back to Saxon times.
This is perhaps unsurprising - a gentle south facing slope, where freshwater streams flow into the upper tidal reaches of an estuary, have always been a likely place for a settlement, especially if the river crossings are not too difficult. During building works for the University, evidence of a Saxon settlement was discovered to the north of Woodmill. Furthermore, local tradition has it that the medieval church of South Stoneham stands on the site of the first Saxon church in the Southampton area. The earliest historic records relate to the manor of South Stoneham with a charter dating from 990.
In a charter dated 1045, King Edward granted the land to the Old Minster at Winchester. The land was tenanted and the revenues derived from it were for the benefit of the monastery. The Domesday Record of 1086, notes two fisheries for the Manor of South Stoneham and in 1275 other records mention "a mill called Wodemilne, worth five ponds a year and a salmon fishing of the annual value of ten marks".
By 1283, the Bishop of Winchester had appropriated the manor and from this time until the early 16th century, records of annual catches of salmon can be found in the bishopric pipe rolls.
The Bishop of Winchester claimed the fishing rights not only of the salmon trap, but also the whole length of the river Itchen. In 1583, the river between Southampton and Winchester was recorded as being so rich in salmon that local people were neglecting their normal occupations to steal the salmon (Plus ca change!) Locally the Woodmill Salmon Pool is as least partially credited with the ancient statute "that commands all masters not to compel any servant or apprentice to feed upon salmon more than thrice a week".
In 1612, the manor was purchased by Edmund Clerke, who then sold it to Edmund Dummer who had a new manor house completed in 1708, reputedly designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. Paintings of the Salmon Pool around 1730 show the pool lined with ashlar stonework and a balustraded ornamental bridge over the sluice from the river Itchen. The house was evidently sited so as to have a view of the pool. Later, payments were made to Capability Brown for landscape works between 1772 and 1780.
Towards the end of the next century, Sir Samuel Montague (later Lord Swaythling) purchased the estate. He was a fishing enthusiast and presumably his main reason for settling there was to acquire the Salmon Pool. There are photographs of him fly fishing and a post card of about 1910, showing a large crowd gathered to watch the pool being netted.
In 1921, Southampton University took on South Stoneham House and the grounds north of the Salmon Pool, for use as a hall of residence. In 1948 the then Lord Swaythling disposed of the remainder of the estate apart from the Salmon Pool and grounds south of the Monks Brook. He retained the services of Cecil Arthur as river keeper, who is still remembered locally by many with wistful memories of their youth evading the attentions of Cecil's salt-filled shotgun.
When Lord Swaythling eventually disposed of this last remaining part of his estate in the early 1980's, the grounds were by then, almost totally overgrown, with only the Salmon Pool itself kept clear of encroaching vegetation. The subsequent owner started with plans for a commercial rod and net fishery and while he carried out a considerable amount of clearance work and infilling, it is debatable whether his sympathies lay with either salmon or landscape conservation.
In 1994, Hampshire County Council purchased the Salmon Pool and grounds and the site today is managed by Southampton City Council, as part of the outdoor activity centre based on the old mill building. Considerable efforts have been made in conservation and landscape improvements, with the restoration of one of the lakes and the construction of a number of well-used otter holts. Indeed the grounds remain haven for wildlife, with nesting kingfishers and thriving populations of water vole and various species of bat.
The Woodmill fishery remains an important feature of the river, although as with other fisheries, the decline in salmon numbers is worrying. Fortunately at Woodmill in recent years, this has been at least partially offset by good catches of sea trout.
The white water in the Salmon Pool has also proved an attraction to canoeists. Recent years have provided an opportunity to show how both anglers and canoeists can enjoy their respective sports without conflict.
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Scotland TD5 7TB
Tel: 01573 470612
Fax: 01573 470259