The Civic Society Column with David Winpenny

Scar House reservoir, Upper Nidderdale, completed in 1936. (Copyright - David Winpenny)
Scar House reservoir, Upper Nidderdale, completed in 1936. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Something around 60% of your body consists of water. About 70% of the earth’s surface is covered in water.

If it were possible to put all the earth’s water into a single sphere (not just liquid water in oceans, seas, lakes, pools, rivers streams and the rest, but also water locked frozen in glaciers and icecaps and ‘free’ water in clouds and vapours), the sphere would be 860 miles in diameter and would have a volume of about 332,500,000 cubic miles.

Building the dam at Gouthwaite Reservoir.

Building the dam at Gouthwaite Reservoir.

In the United Kingdom we nearly always have plenty of water – sometimes, when it floods, too much. Our climate is generous to us in terms of this basic necessity of life.

Other nations, of course, suffer from a severe lack of water, and are much less profligate with its use than we are. From the earliest times, human beings have sought to conserve and store water as much as they can.

We know that more than five millennia ago farmers in the Arabian peninsula were protecting water supplies in the craters of extinct volcanoes to ensure the irrigation of their crops. At much the same time there appeared the first-known purpose-built reservoir, constructed at Girnar in India’s Gujarat state.

There were artificial lakes dug as reservoirs in Greece in the 5th century BC.

West Houses Farm disappears below the rising waters of Angram Reservoir. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

West Houses Farm disappears below the rising waters of Angram Reservoir. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

A parallel development was the introduction of storage tanks – again this seems to have been pioneered in India, though there are arguments that the Siloam Tunnel taking water to storage tanks beneath the old city of Jerusalem may be as old as the 8th century BC and constructed by King Hezekiah when the city was threatened by the Assyrians.

By the time we get to the 11th century AD the building of reservoirs and tanks was more common, particularly in countries where water was precious.

In 12th-century Sri Lanka the king Parākramabāhu I constructed reservoirs, instructing his workmen, ‘Do not let a drop of water seep into the ocean without benefiting mankind’.

In the UK, water supply was throughout the ages mostly the concern of local people – the local rivers or streams, the local lake or loch, the line of springs below an escarpment, were all harnessed to supply water. Wells were dug and, eventually, pumps were installed.

This was fine for smaller places, but bigger cities needed more. An early attempt to supply water to London was the construction between 1609 and 1613 of what was called the New River to bring fresh water from Hertfordshire to the capital. Local waterworks companies were set up in London and elsewhere, to help the supply.

In York, the medieval Lendal Tower was the site of a pump to lift water from the River Ouse to a piped supply in the city as early as 1616.

In 1677 the Tower was leased for 500 years to the York Waterworks Company – a concern eventually taken over by Yorkshire Water only in 1999.

When the industrial revolution came, industry required much larger volumes of water and as new industrial towns grew into large cities, water became a more pressing problem. This was solved eventually with the provision of more reservoirs and the connecting infrastructure.

Some of the reservoirs were small and near the cities they served, but in the late 19th century and into the 20th the distances between reservoirs and cities (more particularly English cities) became greater.

This was because the cities tended to be in the drier parts of the country, and rainfall was harvested in the wetter north and west.

The topography of the more mountainous land lent itself to the creation of new reservoirs.

An early example is Lake Vyrnwy in Powys; its stone-built dam was constructed in the 1880s – the first of its kind in the world. The reservoir, which can hold 59,700,000 cubic meters (or 13,100,000,000 gallons) of water, was to supply water to Liverpool. From 1893 six dams were built and reservoirs created in the Elan Valley in mid-Wales to supply water to Birmingham.

Nearer to Ripon, the three reservoirs of Upper Nidderdale – Angram, Scar House and Gouthwaite – were built to supply the needs of Bradford (and Ripon) for water. Gouthwaite was the first to be completed, in 1901; Angram was finished in 1919, and Scar House, the largest, only in 1936.

The construction of the dams for these reservoirs was a mammoth undertaking; settlements for the workers, complete with churches and, eventually, at the now-vanished Scar Village, a cinema, were created, and railway lines served the works.

Drowning the valleys with millions of tons of water was not without opposition, especially from landowners and farmers who not only lost their acres but in some cases their buildings as the waters rose; the remains of West Houses farm, for example, now lie beneath Angram Reservoir.

And when reservoirs were built they were seen as a desecration of the natural environment and, often, as an prime example the might of the cities riding roughshod over the quiet of the countryside.

These days our reservoirs are leisure attractions; go to the Nidderdale reservoirs, or to the reservoirs at Fewston and Swinsty in the Washburn Valley, and you will find their car parks full and the paths around them thronged with walkers.

In the Lake District, many of the visitors will not be able to differentiate between the natural lakes and the reservoirs, like Haweswater.

Lake Vyrnwy is now considered to be the most beautiful lake in Wales.

This is all a far cry from the desperate needs of the parched communities of the Middle East; perhaps we take water too much for granted, and don’t think enough about the value of our reservoirs.

It’s maybe something to ponder next time you turn on the tap and clean, safe, fresh water gushes out.