Keeping fish: Building a world-class aquarium, choosing what to put in it — and getting them to swim into your arms

Keeping fish at your home can bring a great sense of serenity — but did you know that fish can become tame, and swim right up to your arms? Katy Birchall found out more.

There’s something mesmerising about ornamental fish. In a busy, chaotic and fast-paced world, time spent observing these colourful creatures gliding gracefully through the water can drown out the noise, encourage a sense of wonder and engender a much-needed moment of serenity.

‘It’s the movement of their tails and fins, so gentle and elegant,’ muses Shirley Deterding as she recalls the specimens she kept in the lakes of her former residence, the Kelling Hall estate in Norfolk. ‘We had all these gorgeous carp and different varieties of goldfish and some of them were enormous and very old, with lovely feathery tails.

‘They used to eat right out of my hand — they’d see me coming and rush to the side of the lake to be fed. They’re beautiful and calming to watch — such a joy. If you’re feeling stressed or miserable, they pick you up.’

Ornamental fish come in all shapes and sizes and it can be difficult to choose the right one for you — there are freshwater varieties, such as the popular goldfish and koi, which are coldwater fish; freshwater tropical fish, which include tetras, gouramis and guppies; and marine saltwater fish, such as lionfish, puffers and clownfish.

For Anne Marie Thiel, the decision was made for her when, on moving into a new house in Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire almost 20 years ago, she discovered young koi and goldfish in a small ornamental pond already dug into the garden.

‘I had no idea what I was going to do with all these fish and they were getting bigger and bigger,’ she laughs.

‘We bit the bullet in 2006 and decided to build a pond to rehouse them. I went from a tiny pond of 300 gallons of water to a 4,000-gallon tank.’

Anne Marie Thiel's fish pond in Henley. 'We went from a tiny pond of 300 gallons to a 4,000-gallon tank.'

Anne Marie Thiel’s fish pond in Henley. ‘We went from a tiny pond of 300 gallons to a 4,000-gallon tank.’ Credit: Samantha Goodluck

Raised above ground, with a built-in window, a viewing deck and surrounded by luscious green plants, Mrs Thiel’s pondis now the tranquil haven for 13 huge and vibrantly colourful koi.

‘As soon as I walk out of the back door, they come to gather at the window,’ she enthuses. ‘When I feed them, I can see the personalities come through. The less aggressive fish will let the others eat first, so I make sure I throw food to them, too.

‘They’re more interactive than you might think,’ Mrs Thiel says. ‘I had a beautiful fish, which was my favourite. When she got ill, I leant over the side of the pond and she came swimming over, right into my arms. It was very moving. Who knew that a fish would do that?’

The varieties of koi found in her pond lend themselves to endearing nicknames, such as the big, orange chagoi, whose mouth dramatically extends to suck up his food — ‘I’ve named him Hoover’ — and a mesmerising, metallic-white platinum ogon, which has two perfectly placed orange dots over each eye: ‘That’s Endora, named after the mother in the television show Bewitched, who wore all that heavy eye make-up.’

Unsurprisingly, Mrs Thiel often finds guests drawn towards her koi pond: ‘You’ll see them wander to the bench and sit down to watch the fish go by. It’s very peaceful.’

The captivating and rewarding nature of fishkeeping has ensured the passionate safeguarding of a hobby that dates back centuries through numerous cultures. Fishponds were popular during the Roman Empire and the Ancient Chinese established the practice of keeping goldfish for decorative purposes, the ruling classes taking great pleasure in showcasing their fine specimens swimming about in ceramic bowls.

An inhabitant of Anne Marie Thiel's fish pond in Henley.

An inhabitant of Anne Marie Thiel’s fish pond in Henley. Credit: Samantha Goodluck

Brought to Europe in the 17th century, ornamental fish were the focus of great fascination and, with the development of glass tanks in the 1800s, aquariums became a popular centrepiece in fashionable Victorian households.

Today, the fishkeeping community is wonderfully diverse and extensive, ranging from a household’s first goldfish tank to charming countryside garden ponds and spectacular, luxury aquariums that are designed by specialist architects. (The latter option is a favourite among footballers, pop stars and Mayfair restaurants.)

One of the most famous privately owned aquariums in the world belongs to David Saxby, the managing director of D-D The Aquarium Solution. Considered a masterpiece by enthusiasts across the globe — a quick internet search of his name produces numerous gushing articles and fishkeeping forums overrun with fans hailing his creation — the aquarium, built into his London home, contains not only hundreds of different ornamental fish, but also strikingly colourful corals.

It’s truly breathtaking.

‘It’s been a journey to get here — I’ve had to learn a lot over the years,’ Mr Saxby smiles modestly. ‘That’s the beauty of the hobby: it’s not only having the corals and the fish, but learning the method, too. The secret of this tank is the water quality and the ability to mimic the sea. You’re not really keeping fish or corals — you’re keeping water.’

He was eight years old when his parents gave him two goldfish and his interest was sparked. There are too many varieties in his current tank to list, but a small selection includes bright yellow tangs, rabbitfish, angelfish, beautiful blue damselfish, a mystery wrasse and I even spot a ‘Nemo’ or two.

‘It’s impossible to tell you how many fish I have in there, as it’s rather difficult to count them,’ he laments. ‘I spend most evenings sitting here in front of the tank, watching them all. I’m completely drawn to it.’

David Saxby’s world- famous private aquarium, containing exotic fish and coral.

David Saxby’s aquarium. ‘You’re not really keeping fish — you’re keeping water.’ ©Richard Cannon / Country Life

Mr Saxby is, however, quick to point out that having this fish tank hasn’t been all plain sailing. Along with the complex technical aspects of installing it, there was the question of securing his wife’s approval.

‘When I brought up the size of the aquarium, she said “Absolutely not”,’ he recalls. ‘It was only when I suggested that I bought the flat next door, so we’d have the bigger space, that she agreed.

‘She didn’t see the tank while it was being constructed and, when it was finished, before any of the water was in, I brought her in to see it and she went completely crazy. I told her to wait until it was finished and, thankfully, here we are.’

Like anything worthwhile, keeping ornamental fish isn’t without its challenges. Creating the correct environment for the variety of fish you own is essential and maintaining it is time-consuming and can be costly. Marine fish tanks require expensive equipment; outdoor freshwater ponds come with the risk of predators.

Mrs Deterding returned from a weekend away to find the carp at Kelling Hall eaten or destroyed by otters — ‘it was heartbreaking’ — and Mrs Thiel has a pergola over her koi pond to keep the herons at bay. ‘It’s been a tough, long road of understanding how the fish operate and how to keep and protect a healthy pond. I’ve lost plenty along the way,’ Mrs Thiel admits. ‘You can’t take it lightly; the fish can live for a long time, so you need to be dedicated.’

She stresses the importance of knowing the experts in the industry to guide you through the process, rather than turning to unreliable advice on the internet, and the benefits of sourcing your fish from the right places, such as Cuttlebrook Koi Farm in Oxfordshire, one of few in the UK.

‘Our fish haven’t had to endure a stressful journey from Japan and they haven’t mixed with koi from other sources, so aren’t exposed to any diseases that can affect them,’ explains Lisa Davis, who runs Cuttlebrook with her husband, Mark. ‘Customers can visit our farm and see for themselves the healthy and caring environment that their koi come from.

‘Even after the fish we have bred leave us and go to their new homes, we provide support, however long ago it was thatthe client bought them.’

Whatever the obstacles, keeping ornamental fish is extremely rewarding when you get it right, Mrs Thiel concludes warmly. ‘On a summer’s day, I go up on the deck, put my feet up and watch my fish swimming before having a nap. And, thanks to the cover over the pond, I can do that when it’s raining, too.