Water for the public

WE TAKE IT FOR GRANTED that when you turn on a tap in your bathroom or kitchen, fresh water will flow. And when, usually for maintenance purposes, the mains water supply is turned off temporarily, we can be truly inconvenienced. There are still many parts of the world where piped water is not available to domestic users, but the UK is no longer one of these.

During a recent (May 2023) trip to Lavenham in Suffolk, my wife noticed something next to a pavement. It was a now obsolete bit of plumbing, which has been preserved to demonstrate that even as late as 1936, the small town did not have a public piped water supply for its dwellers. I suppose that before that date, the people had to rely on springs and wells.

The object that can be found on the east side of Church Street, south of Water Street, is a public standpipe. A notice near it explained that piped water came to Lavenham in 1936 to 1937. Several standpipes were erected to give the public access to the water. At that time, people had to collect water from the standpipes and take it to where they required it. However, they did not yet have the luxury of having taps that supplied water in their own homes. The standpipe, which we saw, is now non-functional, but is one of nine such items still to be found in Lavenham.

Lavenham is full of small reminders of how different life was many centuries ago. The standpipe is a small souvenir that makes us realise how different life was less than 100 years ago.

Water from on high

WHEN THE PORTUGUESE first landed in Madeira in the 15th century, the area that they settled – the southeast corner of the island – it was not well watered. Using slave labour, they constructed a series of irrigation channels to bring water from the mountains to the drier area, where they later planted valuable crops such as sugar cane. These channels that snake their way gradually downhill along the mountainsides are called ‘levadas’. The construction of these channels continued into the early 20th century, when they were built by Salazar’s political prisoners.

Today, the levadas continue to carry water and are well maintained. Paths run alongside each levada. Walking along them is a popular pursuit for tourist. Some of the paths are quite hazardous, and there are guided tours to shepherd groups of walkers safely along these waterside pathways.

We do not enjoy group tours. So, we had to find a levada that is not too hazardous and was easily accessible from Funchal. I homed in on the Levada dos Tornos, which passes under the hilltop village of Curral dos Romeiros – the terminal of bus number 29.

When we reached Curral, we asked the bus driver about the levada. He suggested where we proposed to walk was not good for us. We returned downhill in his bus, and he dropped us off at a staircase that led up toa section of the Levada dos Tornos, which he told us was not too narrow and led to a tea house.

We had a pleasant 3 mile walk along the levada, which wound its way gently downhill. All along the rout, lizards darted across the footpath as we approached them. Our way was lined with flowers and trees, many of them eucalyptus. Short stretches of the levada were shaded by bushes and trees. Other stretches provided views down wooded valleys. Sometimes, the port of Funchal could be seen far away and far below us. Most of the pathway was without hazards, but short lengths of it ran alongside sheer drops. Eventually, we reached the compound of the Jasmine Tea House, which caters for British tastes (cakes, scones, etc.) We did not have time to sample its wares because we did not want to miss the next bus (route 47) back to central Funchal.

Although we walked along a tame stretch of levada, we were able to gain an impression of Madeira’s remarkable network of irrigation channels.

Before we began carrying personal water supplies

LONG BEFORE LONDONERS began the current fashion of carrying bottle of water wherever they go, the city’s inhabitants had to rely on water sources such as hand-operated street pumps. Although there are still a few functioning public drinking fountains in London, there are no usable pumps to be found. However, a few of them have been kept as historic monuments. One of these is located on the north pavement of Cornhill, a few yards east of the Royal Exchange building.

The pump, which is now kept looking like new – except that it no longer works – was set-up in 1799. On one of its four sides, the manufacturers, Phillips & Hopwood (“Engine Makers”), have included the information that the pump was paid for by the Bank of England, the East India Company, Fire Offices (i.e., insurance companies), and the “bankers and traders of the Ward of Cornhill”. The inscription on this side of the pump also mentions that the it was erected above a well that had been discovered and enlarged.

On another side of the pump, that facing south, there is a brief history of the well. It was first dug before 1282 when Henry Wallis (aka Henry le Walleis; died 1302), thrice Mayor of London, built a “House of Correction” on the spot. This was a prison for “night walkers” and was known as “The Tun”. Stow writing his “Survey of London” in 1598, noted that the prison was built of stone and (preserving Stow’s spelling) we learn:
“In the yeare 1298. certaine principall Citizens of London, brake vp this prison called the Tunne, and tooke out certain prisoners for the which they were sharply punished by long imprisonment, & great fines, as in another place I haue shewed.
In the yeare 1401. this prison house called the Tunne was made a Cesterne for sweete water conueyed by pipes of Leade frõ the towne of Tyborne, and was from thence forth called the conduite vpon Cornhill: Conduite vpõ Cornhill.Then was the wall planked ouer, and a strong prison made of Timber, called a Cage, with a payre of stockes set vpon it, on the top of which Cage was placed a Pillory for the punishment of Bakers offending in the Assise of Breade: for Millers stealeing of Corne at the Mill: and for baudes Cage, stockes and pillorie vpon Cornhill.and scolds &c.”

By the time the pump was set-up, the prison had long since gone (? demolished). How and why the well was rediscovered, I cannot say, but it was, and its water became accessible by using the pump. The top of the pump serves as an advertisement. At the top of each of the four sides of the pump, there are symbols, which people would have recognised as being the trademarks of four insurance companies in existence at the time that it was established. Back in the 18th and early 19th centuries, firefighting services were provided by the insurance companies. The trademarks of insurance companies were placed on buildings so that firefighters of each insurance company could recognise which houses had paid for policies that made them eligible to be saved by the firemen.

Today, firefighting is no longer provided by insurance companies, and water is no longer available from public pumps. So, it is not surprising to see many people wandering around London with their own supplies of drinking water – in plastic bottles and other containers. What does surprise me is that when I was younger, in the 1960s and 1970s, one hardly ever saw people carrying their own drinking water. Now, it is quite common to see people sipping from their personal water carriers. Have people become thirstier recently, or what is it that makes them feel that they should never be without a portable supply of potable water?

Imperfect symmetry

St James Park, London

What is it that attracts us to reflections in stretches of water such as lakes, rivers, and ponds?

When the water surface is completely still, the reflection is almost, if not completely, perfect. This is fascinating but not as exciting as when the water surface is not smooth. In this case, the reflection is not perfect; it is usually distorted in an interesting way. And because the water is not still, the reflection changes constantly, making it more interesting than when the water surface is smooth and mirror-like.

Why is it that I like these imperfect reflections? I wish I could tell you.

Industrial action and a library

The Madras Gymkhana Club library was not devoid of interest. To enter it, one has to climb over a tall step. This is designed to protect the library when rainfall causes flooding of the Club’s grounds which are on low lying land close to the Adyar River estuary.

Another interesting feature was pinned to the shirt of one of the library staff. It was a rectangular plastic badge with a hammer and sickle on both of its sides. One side had words in Tamil, and the other in English. These words explain to the reader that there was a grievance between the staff and their employers, The Club. The problem about which the employees were protesting concerned pay. Seeing these badges of protest reminded me of a visit to Nizam’s restaurant in Kolkata a few years ago. There, the waiters were wearing similar badges, some in Bengali, some in Hindi, and others in English.

As for the library, it seemed well stocked with books and journals. Several old books were being sold, and there were three that I could not resist!

I have been gongoozling at London’s Little Venice today

I HAVE LEARNED a new word today. It can be used as both a noun and as a verb. The noun is ‘gongoozler’ and the verb is ‘to gongoozle’. I came across it used as a verb on an information panel by the south side of the water basin at Paddington’s Little Venice, where the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal enlarges to become a pond, from which the Regents Canal commences.

The word gongoozle might possibly derive from two words of Lincolnshire dialect: ‘gawn’ and ‘gooze’. Both these words mean to stare or gape. A ‘gawn’ can also mean a small freight-carrying boat such as a canal narrowboat.

Gongoozling usually refers to watching boats. And this is what we did today as we ambled lazily along the Paddington Arm and the shore of Little Venice. With the sun shining and a pleasant air temperature (about 21 degrees Celsius), this was an enjoyable way of passing time on a Sunday morning.