There is something about a dumpling, as Mr Honey has often had cause to observe, that brings out the good in a man, and it was not four days ago that the truth of this apothegm was brought home to me. I was enjoying a stew at the long benches of a working man’s club in Sheffield. Once the resting place no doubt of many thousands of fabricators in steel and silver who made their living in that beautiful city. Professor W of East Anglia reached across me to spoon himself a dumpling from the pot, which happened at that time to sit before my place at the table. As he did so, he asked – perhaps it was the dumpling that put it into his mind – whether I had ever come across any record of Capability Brown, gardener and agent of anonymous alteration, puddling the clay base of his lakes. It is always assumed that he did – one can barely turn on the television without seeing a flock of disturbed sheep driven slowly by dogs to and fro through the mud in some re-enactment of what is expected to have been a familiar and oft-repeated process of packing down the clay base of a pond to make it waterproof. I had to say that I had never found such a record. Though Brown may have demanded clay to seal his lakes, the method he adopted in doing so is seldom discussed.
Then Steffie Shields’ marvellous book, to which my evenings have been recently and largely devoted, and which deals so largely on Brown’s waterworks, came to hand. First referring to Stephen Switzer’s advice that a ‘pond must be 8 inches thick clayed’ she goes on to cite evidence from Ashburnham that ‘pudlers’ walked farm oxen up and down, again and again, to seal the clay. That more or less wraps it up, does it not?
But I shall return to a fuller consideration of the work of the splendid Shields – and meanwhile puddling – puddling indeed! I have determined to put the question to Mr Honey himself. He has a country place after all, and if he knows nothing of puddling, he might truthfully claim an acquaintance with pudding, which is only one slim letter away from the subject, and – indeed – no further from a dumpling than an alderman’s girth.