Deep lessons from a relic of the Raj: Mike Price finds an exemplary aid project - in the Chilterns

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This year is the 130th anniversary of a rural water- supply project, financed by a foreign donor but constructed entirely by local people. The donor also paid for accommodation for maintenance staff and ensured a continuing income to help pay for wages and upkeep. The project, a village well, is an example of Anglo- Indian bilateral aid. The twist to this tale is that the aid came from India to Britain, and the well stands in the Oxfordshire village of Stoke Row.

It came about because Edward Reade, the son of an Oxfordshire squire, was Lieutenant-Governor of the North-West Province of India. He struck up a friendship with the Maharajah of Benares and, one day, he and the maharajah were discussing the problems of water supply in India. Reade explained that the villagers near his home in the Chilterns also had problems; the permeable chalk that forms the hills does not support surface water, and the water table beneath the higher parts of the hills is so deep that digging wells by hand was a formidable task.

Some years later, the maharajah wanted to make a gesture of friendship to the people of England, and - under the guidance of Reade - decided to finance the digging of a well at Stoke Row. Work started on 10 March 1863 and the well was completed the following year. It is more than 100m (over 300ft) deep, and is topped with an elaborate canopy of cast iron, which, despite its oriental appearance, was actually made in nearby Wallingford.

But what made the maharajah's well such a successful contrast to the efforts of modern aid agencies is that he provided not just the well and well- head, but a house for the well- keeper, and a cherry orchard whose produce would be sold to provide an income for maintenance. The well continued to serve the needs of the villagers until a piped supply began to replace it. The last recorded use was in 1939, and it then slowly fell into disrepair until 1979, when a four-year programme of renovation began. This cost some pounds 20,000, compared with an initial cost of about pounds 400 for the well and machinery and of about pounds 75 for the warden's cottage - an indication of the problems of inflation which are the undoing of many aid projects. The cherry trees, now more then a century old themselves, no longer produce an income, though the orchard is still an attractive recreational area for the village.

The refurbished well is still there, with a warden in residence. Now, it is little more than a tourist attraction but it served its purpose for 75 years, and was then abandoned, not because it failed, but because the community no longer needed it. How many modern aid projects will be able to boast as much? And how many, in the year 2100, will be held in sufficiently high regard by their recipient communities that they will be renovated for future generations to see?

The author is senior lecturer in hydrogeology at the University of Reading.