Water, Water Nowhere
A private water supply can be a downside of rural living. Joyce Brocklebank reveals how, when her source dwindles to a trickle, washing salad leaves or cleaning teeth under a flowing tap become heinous crimes
This summer’s unusually dry weather has been wonderful. Living in Cumbria we are more used to copious amounts of rainfall, so waking up day after day to sunshine streaming through the bedroom window has been a reminder of how summers used to be. But when the dry spell goes on and on I can see my husband, Ian, getting increasingly anxious and he begins to scour the weather forecasts online and on television for signs of low pressure coming in from the Atlantic. The particular reason for this is, like many households in rural areas, we have our own water supply [the nearest mains pipe being about a mile away] and running out is to be avoided at all costs. Our attitude towards the wet stuff is, therefore, very different to that of our townie friends who are on the mains.
We live about halfway up a fellside and so we get, via a neighbour’s fields, the run-off from the fell. It flows into a small stream, which is partially dammed, then, by a series of filters
Some might say that I can get rather obsessive about other people’s casual disregard for the wet stuff. I have been known to dive across the kitchen to turn off the flow if some unsuspecting visitor hasn’t fully turned off the taps
holding tanks and pipes, it gravitates to a pump in the coalhouse which forces it up to a 2,000ltr tank in the roof of the house. When the level in that tank drops below a certain point, it automatically tops up. Back in the day when there were six of us living here, a full tank could last, with extreme care, for about four days. Nowadays, with just the two of us in the house we can make it last nearly two weeks. Keeping livestock also brings its challenges; they all need access to clean water and the cattle, in particular, drink a lot of the stuff. For about 15 years we kept Dexter cattle — just a couple of cows whose progeny we reared for the freezer, but we felt like a change, so in the spring we bought three Galloway steers, who will either be sold as stores in the autumn or kept for another year or so to go for slaughter. Our two Lleyn pet lambs, bought from a neighbour to keep the grandchildren happy, also like a drink from the trough.
When we first moved to this smallholding many moons ago, one of our fields was designated a Caravan Club certificated location. The first thing we had to warn visitors about was the need to be careful with the amount of water they used. They started off looking perplexed. When we said that our water came from a stream in a neighbour’s field their looks changed to ones of horror and amazement. I admit that I became a curtain-twitcher, keeping an eagle eye on them while they were filling their plastic containers from the tap in the yard.
Some might say that I can get rather obsessive about other people’s casual disregard for the wet stuff. I have been known to dive across the kitchen to turn off the flow if some unsuspecting visitor hasn’t fully turned off the taps. Washing salad leaves or cleaning teeth under running water are regarded as heinous crimes. It is not their fault, bless ’em — it is just that they are used to an unlimited supply of clean water, never giving a thought to how it actually gets to their taps in the first place.
I really don’t know how we managed when our four now adult children were small. Now that they are all very much grown up and have flown the nest they gleefully recount to their own families stories of their ‘deprived childhoods’ and how, when they were young and no rain was forecast for a couple of weeks, they were expected to have all-over washes with a damp cloth and were told in no uncertain terms to only flush “when necessary’.
Perhaps it is fortunate that we have never been gardeners, as plants, like the rest of us, had to take their chances. Pictures on television of townies getting hot under the collar because a hosepipe ban meant that they couldn’t water their gardens or, horror of horrors, wash their cars had me hurling cushions [and worse] at the screen.
There is nothing like living in a place for understanding the quirks and intricacies involved in the day-to-day running of it, particularly when it has its own water supply. Regularly checking the tanks in the fields, changing the filters and keeping one ear on the noise of the water pump going on or off all become second nature.
I think it was during our first summer here that we completely ran out of water. We managed for a few days by importing containers of the wet stuff from kind friends, but we realised that drastic measures had to be taken. We resorted to using a huge plastic bag obtained from the then Milk Marketing Board to ferry a load of water on the back of my husband’s van. Unfortunately this didn’t go according to plan and ended in disaster when the bag full of water got out of control, rolled off the back of the van and down the hill. Of course, it was so heavy that we couldn’t do anything but watch it roll away and then empty the water out on to the parched ground. You can probably imagine the anguish and prolific use of swear words that caused.
You might think that we are in seventh heaven when news of rain-filled days are forecast. But you would be wrong. Heavy rain brings its own problems. A downpour can stir up silt and sediment in the stream which gets into the pipes and slows down the flow. We used to borrow a pump so often that in the end we decided to buy one of our own. When the flow slows down or stops altogether my husband attaches the pump to the pipe in the second holding tank. He pumps water back up into the first tank where the sediment settles, then gravity does its job and the system fills with water again.
Over the years my husband, with the aid of our indispensable local digger man, has made various improvements. He has put a bigger tank in the field, replaced yards of furred-up piping and so on, all of which has made a huge difference to the efficiency of the system. We have survived the summers since then without having to resort to more mega-sized plastic bags, thank goodness.
An Environment Agency man called a decade or so ago to ask if we wanted our water tested. Much to his amazement I declined the invitation, and we’ve never had our water tested since [we don’t legally have to as the water is for our sole use, the caravanners being long gone], so we don’t know what bugs are present. But I reckon, by now, we will have built up immunity to any nasties that might be in it and, after all, ignorance is bliss.
Living with a private water supply wouldn’t suit everyone, but after all this time we are used to it. If we ever move to somewhere on the mains with a meter life would be more predictable, but surely rather dull by comparison?
With only Joyce and Ian living at their smallholding, the tank of water in their roof can last two weeks
Ian Brocklebank’s skill sets have kept the water flowing over the years
Ian has made many improvements over the years
Joyce with her pet sheep, who consume their fair share of water
The Brocklebanks’ farm is located half way up a fellside in Cumbria