Harnessing waterpower

With heavy storms and 6 cms of rain predicted, you’re most likely this weekend to have been thinking of flooded towns, marooned houses and spoilt travel plans. Essential for life, water can also of course destroy. Torrential rivers, tsunamis, melting icebergs and rising sea levels pose huge problems and threaten lives.

But these last two weeks I’ve been intrigued by two apparently unconnected examples of how the power of water has been harnessed to improve living conditions, grow produce or promote new industries.

The Romans were famous for their aqueducts, which were illustrated in Vitruvius’ treatise De Architectura, the only surviving book on Greco-Roman building techniques. Written between 30 – 20 BC, it was rediscovered in 1414 by the Florentine, Poggio Bracciolini; and was discussed recently in Melvyn Bragg’s In our time Radio programme (15 March 2012).

On a walking holiday in southern Turkey this month, we climbed on the hills above Patara, an important Lycian seaport c 120 BC in Roman times and had the opportunity to explore a huge aqueduct there, made up of hundreds of massive precisely shaped square stone blocks. (See top photo)

Their ‘cuff and sleeve’ design for each stone, which involved the male end of the first stone entering snugly into the female cuff end of the second stone and so on down the chain, enabled the Romans to transport via a syphon system over undulating land, huge quantities of water from the hills down to the port. (See second photo)

The surprise came this last week while I was doing some clearing at the top of the garden at The Larches.

Just over the wire fence behind the seat on the Buena Vista crag, I noticed a rounded moss covered shape on the ground.

Investigating further with a spade and brush, I discovered within a few minutes two lengths of cast iron pipe. Each one was 12½ feet by 12 inches diameter, with virtually the same cuff and sleeve design we had seen in Turkey.

I had known there had been been a pipe line from the old dam at the top of Comb Beck from sections I had seen further down the valley. This had been used for the Thornthwaite Lead Company’s mine at the bottom of the road and had been built in 1908.

Later in the 1930s when the mine was closed, the water pipe was used to power a small hydro-electric scheme for people living in Seldom Seen.

It’s fascinating to think that technologies developed by the Romans almost two millennia earlier were being used a century ago to develop new industries here in Cumbria on our doorstep.

Pity the South!

The sun may not be shining every day here in Keswick, but there’s been little rain and plenty of opportunity for us to be working on the garden and getting out on the hills. Today we had a beautiful Lakes morning with the sun rising over Latrigg against a blue sky.

A marvellous slew of colours too from the flowers and rhodedendron. It’s a joy to be out and what better place for us to have an early breakfast than on the Belvedere deck, as this morning’s photo shows.

The temperatures has not been what we would hope for near midsummer’s day, but compared to what we are seeing every night on the TV of the storms and flooding in the south of England, the North West is the destination to be heading for this summer and the coming holidays!

And if you make it up to The Larches this year, just look at the view of the Skiddaw range (below) from the Buena Vista Crag. You’re tucked away there and unseen at the top of our fellside garden; and if you don’t feel like making it to the top of the fells, you can always from the comfort of the seat travel the footpaths with a pair of binoculars!

The prodigal red squirrel

Here’s the good news! Just over two hours ago at 9.35 am I saw the red squirrel in the garden. Up on the new Buena Vista Crag, I suddenly noticed a red streak of a small animal on the path below, which leads up across the cottage lawns outside the kitchen.

“Was that really a squirrel?” I thought to myself and was tempted to hurry across to investigate further, but held back. It was a sound plan. A couple of minutes later I saw the squirrel climbing up from behind the belvedere and through into the Forestry Commission land. It slipped quickly into the forest, but was clearly visible on the initial slope where last month I had cleared a lot of old bracken and dead branches.

Why all the fuss? Well we’ve been wondering about the red squirrels, since they haven’t been eating the hazel nuts and we’ve had few recent sightings. The last visitors to have seen a red squirrel were in September 2011 when they arrived at the cottage. The previous sighting was by the Gretton family in July 2010, who saw them three times and took several photos of them. Several people have noted in the Visitors’ book that they have not seen a red squirrel.

We’ve been involved with the Forestry Commission in tracking the numbers of red squirrels in Whinlatter Forest and there appear to be about one red squirrel per hectare. So all in all this is good news for Seldom Seen. Let’s hope for some more sightings!

Our own Buena Vista Crag

Since we started the garden redesign plan in 2005 we’ve had 11 different stages. This last month we decided that we needed to complete the 12th, which had been on the drawing board for some time. 

We wanted to make accessible and safe a high point in the fellside garden which overlooks the Derwent Valley and has a view across to the Hellvelyn range from Clough Head to Stybarrow Dodd. A new path to this seating area would also open up the northern end of the garden, to create a balance to the belvedere at the southern end.

For years we have had a bench up there but it was difficult to access, felt insecure and was most often used by our cat, on the look out for mice in the long grass. By keeping well trimmed the oak trees on the slope below the bench, we knew that there would always be a grand view of the mountains (and of the mice!)

We inspected the area with Rob our landscape expert and agreed a general plan. The work had then to commence with lots of heavy stone and cement being carried up the 40 feet from the road. 

What we hadn’t envisaged was that the area chosen for the seating was actually a rocky outcrop, which over the years had been covered over with earth, grasses and moss. The presence of these underlying slate beds was of course the reason the land – where the house stands – had been originally quarried in the mid 19th century. 

As we cleared the ground on the fellside and traced the route (see photo above), we realised that by cutting out a small section of rock at the back of the seating area, we could push the seat back about a foot to create a more secure and wider platform. 

Revealing the rock face – which drops down about two metres – then provided a good base for erecting a low ‘enclosure lip’ for the seating area. See the photo below of what is now an ideal spot for a quiet read, for exploring the view or for just sitting in the sun.

For visitors who enjoy a bit of scrambling, are looking for a warm up or want to try out some new boots, our new Buena Vista Crag at The Larches will also provide a small but useful new practice area. But parents with young children need to make sure that they are properly supervised if they try out this mini climbing wall.