In the early decades of the fourteenth century, the Diocese of Winchester profited from a prolonged period of good weather and earned immense income from a combination of the produce of lands farmed in demesne and of rents and tithes paid by tenant farmers. In addition to the two manors of East Meon, Bishop Peter des Roches (1204 – 1236) held over fifty manors and boroughs scattered across six southern counties’ their revenues meant he could enjoy luxuries appropriate to the highest nobility”. It was probably under Bishop des Roches that All Saints Church was expanded to include the Lady Chapel and the South Aisle. He also invested in two luxuries in East Meon for himself and his guests: vivaria, in which fresh fish were bred, and a deer park.
Fresh fish was a delicacy in the Middle Ages, bred in special ponds called vivaria exclusively for nobility and royalty. Medieval christians were obliged to eat dried and salted sea fish as a penance every Friday and in Lent.
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.
The Lower Pond which has survived at Fishponds in Oxenbourne was probably only part of the vivarium in which the fish were bred; it probably also included today’s ‘top pond’. The water would have come up to the level of the road, top picture; centuries of silt have filled much of the area originally under water. Our map shows the probable extent of the medieval pond, located near the source of the stream formed by water draining off fields to the north-east of this map; it then feeds a tributary into the River Meon. Because vivaria 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.
Fishermen from the sea coast helped with the catch, for which a long seine net was taken out by boat into the pond and brought back in an arc to the shore. Most episcopal ponds were within a day’s journey by cart from the bishop’s palace at Wolvesey; fish were wrapped in wet grass and carried alive in sacks so that they were fresh for eating. The vivarium was ‘broken’ (drained) in 1231, when five feet of mud had to be dug out; in 1244, ten men spent forty days carrying mud away on stretchers and twelve wheelbarrows. Master Nicholas, the Bishop’s fisherman, came to East Meon to supervise the operation.
In 1240, Henry III commanded that the ponds at Alresford, Bishop’s Waltham and Menes were to be fished without delay, the pike salted and others put in pane (paste) and sent to Westminster in time for Christmas celebrations.