Michael Blakstad, for Meon Matters

In the Middle Ages, most fish came from the sea and were salted or cured; eating fish was regarded as a penance, hence the Church’s ban on eating meat on Fridays or during Lent. Fresh fish were a delicacy, bred in ponds owned by nobility or royalty and reserved for special occasions.

The Bishops of Winchester maintained a handful of vivaria, ponds designed for keeping pike, perch, bream, roach and pike. Some were large, like Frensham Great Pond which covered 100 acres. East Meon’s were much smaller and were probably a series of ponds, one at Fishponds and another at Giant’s Cottage, both in Oxenbourne, and two others at the source of the River Meon and at Lower Farm. We know there were fishponds in East Meon because the Pipe Roll of 1208/9 records a ‘new pond’ built by order of the Bishop, Peter de Roches; another in 1231 records that the vivarium was ‘broken’ (drained) and five feet of mud dug out; in 1244, ten men spent forty days carrying mud away on stretchers and twenve wheelbarrows; Master Nicholas, the Bishop’s fisherman, supervised the operation.

Layout of vivarium at Fishponds.

Vivaria were carefully designed and managed. They were located near the source of a stream or river where the water is purer: Fishponds feeds a tributary stream which flows into the Meon. Because they had frequently to be cleared of the silt from the fields, a bypass stream allowed the water to flow during the operation. The fish were then stored in a servatorium, a smaller pond; wattle hurdles or sluices prevented the fish from escaping. The water level at Fishponds today is lower than the original, which would have come up to the level of the road, and centuries of silt has filled much of the area originally under water. Our map shows the probably extent of the medieval pond.

Seine fishing

When a royal visit or an important feast day approached, fishermen from the coast would often be imported to help with the catch, for which a long seine net was taken out by boat then brought back in an arc to the shore. Most episcopal ponds were within a day’s journey by cart to the Bishop’s palace at Wolvesey; the fish were wrapped in wet grass and carried alive in sacks so that they were fresh for the feast.

In 1240, Henry III commanded that the ponds at Alresford, Bishop’s Walthham and Menes be fished without delay, the pike salted and the others put in pane (paste) and sent to Westminster for the Christmas celebrations. It can be assumed that noone who lived in East Meon ever tasted fresh fish.