Pilot's legacy is towering achievement: Peter Dunn reports on a DIY conversion project that saved an important piece of industrial history

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HARRY WEST has always had an eye for nice old buildings that other people have finished with and want to pull down. Years ago, as director of the Greater London Arts Association, he showed local authorities how to convert banana warehouses into film studios.

In 1976, newly-retired as a recreational teacher, the wartime Hurricane fighter pilot saw a 47ft- tall castellated Victorian water tower for sale in Leigh Woods, Bristol.

The stone tower, with its commanding views, had been built in 1868, four years after Brunel's Clifton suspension bridge crossing the nearby Avon Gorge. Its owners, the Bristol Waterworks Company, had put it on the market with planning permission for demolition and replacement by a block of flats.

'I told them knocking it down would be a crime against humanity,' Mr West said.

The building was not listed, but even though Woodspring District Council tried to do so, there was little enthusiasm at the time for preserving industrial architecture and the Department of the Environment ruled that it was of local, not national, interest.

Mr West said: 'In fact it was one of the first towers of its kind in Britain. It was built to provide water for the Cadburys and Wills and their retainers, including two gigantic family Victorian houses for the Wills. So it's in this exclusive gentlemen's residential area and as water towers go, it's posh.'

Mr West sank his life savings into a five-room conversion job that respected the old tower's history. He removed 35 tons of stone by hand to create windows for living rooms, bathrooms and a big third-floor guest room.

'I tried to keep the concept of a tower so you walk through the front door and up the building with open-plan stairs,' he said.

'I retained all the industrial features like the 30ft pipe which delivered water to the people of Leigh Woods and is now a chimney for my wood-burning stove.'

The original 25ft-square water tank, built by Bristol Wagon Works in 1867 and weighing 300 tons when full, is still in place surrounded by a gallery.

Now aged 72, and with his eyesight failing, Mr West has decided the time has come to pass on his personal act of conservation to a younger generation.

After 22 years inside the tower's 4ft-thick walls, he has put the old tower on the market for offers in excess of pounds 245,000.

Suffering from glaucoma and soon no longer able to drive, he wants to move to Bristol to be able to continue his latest career as a teacher of ballroom dancing.

'I've got to move on, to do new things as I've always done, to travel,' he said. 'But I'll miss the old tower. It's got my heart and soul in it now.'

(Photograph omitted)

Comments