Oh, For Life On The River

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The Independent Online

When I moved away from London and the bright lights of the West End, in favour of the west end of Wiltshire and the bright stars at night, I encountered several things I thought were long dead and gone but were actually still thriving. One of them was river bathing. I was familiar, from old, black-and-white Victorian photographs, with the nostalgic sight of village lads diving into big fat Victorian rivers, and thought it was long gone, so I wasn't quite prepared for the sight of whole communities decamping to spots on the river, such as Tellisford, where someone has suspended a rope from an overhanging tree and tied a tyre to it so adventurous youths can swing way out over the river, then fall with a mighty splash and a cheer.

When I moved away from London and the bright lights of the West End, in favour of the west end of Wiltshire and the bright stars at night, I encountered several things I thought were long dead and gone but were actually still thriving. One of them was river bathing. I was familiar, from old, black-and-white Victorian photographs, with the nostalgic sight of village lads diving into big fat Victorian rivers, and thought it was long gone, so I wasn't quite prepared for the sight of whole communities decamping to spots on the river, such as Tellisford, where someone has suspended a rope from an overhanging tree and tied a tyre to it so adventurous youths can swing way out over the river, then fall with a mighty splash and a cheer.

There used to be a mill there. You know that, because of the weir, creating the mill stream, and coincidentally damming up the river enough to make a pool worth swimming in. The mill is long gone but the bathing pool lives on, and there are other places on the Rivers Frome and Avon near here where a vanished mill has left a plausible swimming place. The nearest to Bath on the River Avon is a place called Warleigh Weir, which, when I was first taken there, was thronged with Bath people picnicking, swimming, splashing, showing off and doing all the things people did in more innocent ages.

To get to Warleigh Weir, you have to leave the main road above the river, come across the canal, walk across the railway (quite legally) and through a field to the weir, but if you look to the left as you cross the railway you see a squat little building which, did you but know it, contains one of the most marvellous relics of the 19th-century industrial revolution, the Claverton Pumping Station.

What it was designed to do was quite simple: to get water from the River Avon up into the canal, because the Kennet and Avon Canal was and is always leaking water, and a canal needs all the water it can get. It might have been quite simple in the early 1800s to install a steam engine to do this, but the chief engineer of the new canal, John Rennie, had a better or at least simpler idea: to use the motive power of the river to drive the machinery to pump the water uphill to the canal.

And that's what he did. He manufactured a huge water wheel, which is driven by the river and drives another huge wheel next door, which is geared to overhead rocking beams, which are connected via a Watt linkage to the pump rods that go up and down, incessantly pumping water up the canal... You can tell from the way I describe it that I have no real idea of the technology involved, only that I am amazed to see a whole set of engines working without use of petrol, gas, electricity or clockwork spring, powered only by water.

The vast water wheel (25-feet wide! three times as high as a man!) is alone worth the price of admission, all those wooden paddles constantly rising, falling, dripping, flailing, roaring around like panic-stricken passengers on a fairground carousel that will never stop to let them off, and the sound is satisfyingly magnified by the wheel being roofed and walled in, unlike most out-in-the-open waterwheels. Further inside, it's the silence of the moving parts that is equally impressive, the overhead beams rising and falling, the wooden teeth of the gear wheels always meeting each other in exactly the right spot....

"They're calibrated to within a thou, you know," said the volunteer in my ear the last time I went. The whole thing depends on volunteers. In fact, the whole thing was rebuilt by volunteers, because 30 years ago it was all derelict and rotting away, and now it is a gleaming state-of-the-art thing. State-of-the-1800s-art, admittedly, but still an extraordinary thing to witness on the rare occasions on which it is actually open and pumping. Very rare. Only a few days a year. This Sunday and Monday are two. 23 June and 27 and 28 July are three others, as I noted down the last time I made a pilgrimage there. Just thought I'd share it with you. I'd hate to have died without seeing the Claverton Pumping Station in action.

And here's a hint. As you stand watching the mighty water wheel, say to the volunteer next to you: "Does it slow down if the river speed gets slower?" and he will say, "Ah, now people think the speed of the water runs the wheel, but they're wrong, it's the WEIGHT of the water, you see, the way it works is this..." and you will soon find yourself more over-informed than you thought possible.

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