A focal point for the thirsty?
Many of us will remember the days before plastic became the scourge it is today. Neighbourhoods were not littered with discarded plastic bottles. Today, it is thought one million plastic bottles of water are bought every minute around the globe.
Fifty years ago, thirsty Peterborians wouldn’t have been able to reach for a plastic water bottle to quench their thirst. Nor would they have needed to. Instead we would happily have taken a drink from one of the city’s public drinking fountains.
Public drinking fountains fell out of fashion when plastic came along, but it seems they may be about to enjoy a renaissance. This year, 20 new public water fountains have been unveiled in Lon- don.
They have proved so popular that plans are afoot to install a further hundred or so. The need to reduce plastic waste has led many councils to give serious thought to how they supply public drinking water.
Drinking fountains date back to Roman times when they were considered a civic status symbol, and a sign of a thriving town. London’s first water drinking fountain was built on Holborn Viaduct in 1859 and remains in situ to this day. At its peak it was used by 7,000 people daily. Built by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association, it was to be: “The only agency for providing free supplies of water for man and beast in the streets of London.”
Soon drinking fountains appeared in other towns and cities, popping up outside pubs to discourage the drinking of alcohol as a thirstquencher, or in churchyards as a demonstration that the church wanted to help the poor.
Peterborough has never been a city to lag behind. In 1874, the Gates Memorial was unveiled in what is now Cathedral Square. It was built to commemorate Henry Pearson Gates, the first Mayor of Peterborough. Like many public fountains it was wonderfully ornate, a resplendent statue incorporating several spouts. It can still be seen in Bishop’s Road Gardens where it has been located since 1967.
Over the past 40 years, public drinking fountains have largely disappeared thanks to the marketing of bottled water and lack of investment by local authorities. There have also inevitably been concerns about risks to public health, although improved design has made fountains safer to drink from, the main source of contamination being from the knobs and buttons on fountains rather than from the spouts themselves.
In 2010, fountains returned to Cathedral Square in the form of ornamental jets that rise up from the ground, a project that cost the city council £6million – and you can’t even drink from them!
The benefits of access to free, clean water in city centres are enormous. Children can have water instead of sugary drinks, older people can avoid dehydration, runners and cyclists can rehydrate without having to carry plastic bottles, and fountains can have lower outlets for children and wheelchair users.
Just imagine: Cathedral Square could become a focal point for the thirsty once more.