Monday, 21 July 2008

The mysterious water tower

I wrote this in 2003 and it became a sort of manifesto for a cause that was eventually realised as this

The mysterious water tower

by Nat Bocking

Most people today don't give water towers a moment's thought. At a glance, a water tower is a bland lump of concrete or metal. An anonymous, ubiquitous and uninteresting container, hardly a pinnacle of aesthetic or engineering achievement.

I have long held that the water towers surrounding my home in Suffolk are objects of beauty as well as vital utility. Because of its topography, (or lack of it) East Anglia has a great number of water towers of many kinds. Built between the 1850's and 1970's in a range of styles from gothic to brutalist, they are abundant in a landscape that emphasizes their form. For me they are as much icons of East Anglia as its windmills, wherries and steeples. Probably the best known and most remarkable water tower in Suffolk is the ‘House in the Clouds’ at Thorpeness, a five-storey house disguising a 30,000-gallon water tank on top of a 60 foot tower.

Though we take it for granted today, water is the very basis of civilization and was one of the first of nature's gifts to be harnessed. The invention of agriculture in the Neolithic era required an understanding of water management, distribution and storage. Waterworks are some of the oldest structures on Earth. The mysterious lines in the Nacsa desert of Peru are now thought related to water sources and the cisterns and canals are all that remains of a once great civilization there. Along with many aqueducts, the Romans built water towers in Britain. Britain's oldest surviving water tower has been dated 1160.

From an aesthetic standpoint, most water towers in Britain are thought unremarkable but there were many inspired and grandiose examples built in Victorian times. I. K. Brunel's two pre-fabricated 85m towers for the Crystal Palace in 1854 were demolished 1939 and 1940 but were an arresting feature of Paxton's marvellous pavilion. Maxwell Ayrton's 'helter-skelter' towers of the 1920's were bold experiments in concrete by the architect of Wembley stadium. In Suffolk, like most rural areas, the relative poverty and low density of the population made the development of water infrastructure too expensive for many district councils. In 1910, 64% of the rural parishes in England were without a piped supply. While large infrastructure schemes were underway in the Midlands and other industrial regions, Suffolk lagged behind. Bury St. Edmunds didn't get a mains supply until 1939. One impetus for water tower building in East Anglia came from defence with many metal towers erected for barracks and airfields during 1939-45. Legislation in 1944 provided finance to expand supply into rural areas and most water towers constructed afterwards are variations of off-the-shelf designs produced by the large civil engineering firms. The company L G Mouchel had a pattern book of some 99 designs for water towers. Spotting the siblings or variations of each design in an area can be a game.

After WW2, the constraints of costs and materials were far too great to emulate the Victorian engineers or adopt the spirit of the Festival of Britain. Water towers weren't intended to capture the public's attention and, for the sake of security of the potable water supply, very little information on their design and manufacture was given to the public. Over time, and especially after several reorganizations and the 1989 privatisation of the water companies, most of the records of who built our water towers have been lost although some county councils such as Essex have commissioned histories of their water boards.

Much of the information on our water history still remains only available to the professional engineer or persistent amateur. English Heritage has produced several internal reports on water infrastructure.

Postcript: in 2003 a book 'The Water Towers of Britain' by Barry Barton was published. This culminated seven years research by the water tower sub-panel of the Panel for Historical Engineering Works at the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Today, with rising costs of construction and maintenance and a cheaper option of constant-pressure pumping, water towers in Britain are gradually becoming redundant but instead of being demolished they are being maintained for other purposes such as bases for mobile phone masts. Given that many water towers are within residential areas, this is sometimes not without controversy (such as in Haverhill in Suffolk) and more information on a water tower's history and aesthetics might be desirable in any planning enquiry. By their own admission, English Heritage's reports "give an insufficient set of criteria for judging the relative importance of different water towers."

Once understood, water towers rarely remain uninteresting and become difficult to ignore. In rural East Anglia, water towers compete for visual attention with prominent churches and usually, being lighter in colour, they contrast vividly with their companion's ancient brick and flint. As a photographer I find the water towers in East Anglia fascinating subjects for my lens and I expect many painters and photographers have subjected them to study. They never look the same twice because their isolation in the landscape enhances the effect of reflected sunlight, turning them orange and red at dawn and dusk. A tower's visibility in the distance is markedly affected by weather and indicates levels of pollution or humidity. They are steely-grey when rain is imminent or brown when smoke or dust fills the air.

In America water towers enjoy a great degree of public appreciation. In rural areas water towers are usually most obvious manifestation of a communities' existence and often record a town's name to identify it from far away. Sometimes they are themed as symbols of the local industry such as a tin of sweetcorn, a coffee pot or a peach, declaring that this place is more than just a dot on a map but special for something. Artists have long recognised the water tower as an American icon. An early modernist, Charles DeMuth painted many water towers and grain silos, his 1930 'Water Tower' was a favourite of his friend Georgia O'Keffe. Artists continue to be inspired by water infrastructure. British sculptor Rachel Whiteread constructed an 'invisible' water tower atop a New York art museum for her first American public commission.

Many of Britain's water towers have a place in engineering history. According to an internal English Heritage report; "the water industry in England was of the greatest international importance during the industrial revolution....many of the solutions adopted in Europe and America were first devised in English towns." One of Southwold's two towers is listed by English Heritage as a rare example of an early wind-pumped tower. Its larger companion a few feet away is a multi-legged tower of a more widespread design. A more modern tower at Horstead in Norfolk is a remarkably bold revision of the usual form and East Anglia has many towers it can claim as the tallest, biggest or oldest working.

Starting with the Roman remains of a tower unearthed at Pakenham, East Anglia's water towers have evolved from brick boxes to utilitarian circular tanks on legs to the slender, soaring 'wine glass' form of recent years. Each tower reveals influence of the aesthetics of their time with touches of modernism or Art Deco or more Victorian decorations. Much information can be divined from looking carefully at a tower; its features can be categorised to identify its probable age and siblings. Just a brief study of the towers around me in Suffolk reveals a timeline of technical innovations. Although many municipal towers in Suffolk were built to pattern designs, each as subtle variations in the details. A master's degree thesis presented in 2007 posited that the distinctive style seen in Suffolk was the work of one architect, as yet unidentified.

When I talk to people living near water towers, they reveal positive emotional attachments to 'their' water towers. Towers are cited as mental landmarks and often acquire affectionate local nicknames such as "The Chessman", "The Castle" or "The Flying Saucer." Poet Laureate Andrew Motion composed a poem about a water tower near his childhood home on the Essex/Suffolk border. He told the BBC "I drive past this tower now and remember making it the target for my walks as a teenager growing up. Whenever I see it, I have a sense that I am re-encountering my young self."

The reliability of gravity over pumps means that water towers will never be dispensed with entirely. Water tower research and development continues in places such as the Middle East where Kuwait's water towers are the very symbol of the developing country. Yet, despite the importance in our history and culture, my research into the towers in Suffolk leads me to the conclusion that detailed information on their history and use is practicably unobtainable.

Simple questions as to when a particular tower was built and by whom are not easily answered. I have asked the Essex & Suffolk and East Anglian water companies as well as the County Records Office for information about the towers around me in the Blyth Valley and all have replied that nothing is held in their files. With the help of the Institute of Civil Engineers and English Heritage, I was pointed to some reference sources and I have read some academic papers on water towers but what material is available is buried in distant archives. Despite the great number of iconic water towers in East Anglia, to my knowledge, little has been done in the past to exploit their historical, cultural or commercial value.

The time for Britain's water towers to be placed alongside our wealth of heritage sites has come. Public interest is growing in once anonymous civil engineering works. Restoration of Sir Joseph Bazalgette's Crossness Pumping Station in East London is underway, pumping stations at Kew Bridge and Cambridge have become heritage sites and proposals for a museum of sanitation are being considered. Water towers are the most conspicuous structures in our water supply and disposal network but our water infrastructure is largely undeveloped for its heritage value. East Anglia's redundant water towers have enormous potential for tourism, education and recreation purposes which could benefit the economy and add value to existing facilities.

The public's interest in other forms of water engineering indicates the need for a water tower guide book. This in itself demands the preservation of a rapidly dwindling stock of historical data on the water supply. People want to know more about water towers and regional tourism bodies and commercial publishers and media should seize the opportunity to fulfil the demand for knowledge.

To contemplate a water tower is to witness mankind's responsible harnessing of the gifts of nature. The United Nations General Assembly in resolution 55/196 proclaimed the year 2003 as the International Year of Freshwater. The resolution encourages governments to increase awareness of the importance of sustainable freshwater use, management and protection. As water towers in themselves don't pollute or squander natural resources but enable the use of them wisely to sustain life, shouldn't they be venerated as monuments to mankind's earthly progress?

© Nat Bocking

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