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.

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