The Making of Blagdon Lake
The Zoom sessions hosted by Blagdon Local History Society during the last year have proved popular, attracting new members and visitors. There was a lot of interest in the July session 'The Creation of Blagdon Lake': not surprising given the local attachment to our beautiful water-filled valley. However it is not a natural lake of course, but man made, out of the necessity to supply the nineteenth century cholera-ridden city of Bristol with more clean drinking water. The scheme to build a dam to hold back the waters of the Yeo from the east to form a vast reservoir required vision and a huge amount of man power. As well as river water the reservoir would take water from springs at Rickford and Langford. A steam powered pumping station would pump water, via pipes, south of the lake to link with another pipe line which carried Mendip water from the Chew springs to the Barrow Treatment works. The project commenced in 1889 with a proposed finish date of two years hence.
Imagine the impact on rural Blagdon with its farmed valley and footpaths or tracks to Butcombe and beyond. Almost all working age adults were employed in agriculture or general labouring with most rarely leaving the village. No buildings were compromised but a large acreage of land was bought up by the Bristol Water Company to ensure the purity of their water. Many farms were leased back to their owners or previous tenants, but of course some valuable fertile fields were lost and stock had to be sold off. There is no record of resistance, suggesting the landowners negotiated reasonable fees.
Thomas Hawksley and his son Charles of Westminster were engaged as chief engineers. They were well respected for other large construction projects including reservoirs. However when the building contractors, Pethicks of Plymouth, began excavation they were faced with a much greater task than anticipated, which caused the whole enterprise to go years over time and budget. In order to throw up a water tight dam, an earth bank with a clay core was designed, but this had to be constructed on a solid foundation, estimated to be 39 feet down. A 'puddle gutter' was excavated, eventually to a depth of 180 feet before a solid red marl strata was found, much of the digging by hand with the help of a few early steam cranes which ran on rails alongside the trench, hauling large buckets of soil to be tipped into trucks. A costly and time consuming amount of additional work.
It was said that 1000 men would be needed, probably many hundreds at any one time. Initial work was done by navvies who travelled the country working on construction projects. Our records show that many were housed in temporary huts near the dam while others lodged with local families in nearby villages. Local men, including from Bristol, also found (no doubt) welcome work. After the navvies came the more skilled masons and bricklayers whose legacy can be seen in the solid walls, bridge over the byewash, embankments, road side gutters, and the pumping station. Numbers of children in the local school rose sharply making conditions very difficult to manage in an already overcrowded building.
The Water Company wanted their prestigious project to inspire admiration and to this end included decorative buildings like the Inspection House, the gauge houses at Rickford and Langford and the tall gothic tower of the pump house. In fact, one of the factors causing delays in the completion of the dam was the shortage of stone, much of which was hauled from the Forest of Dean or Cornish granite quarries.
When construction began, the nearest railway station was at Sandford from which materials had to be hauled by heavy horses and, later, traction engines. Local unmetalled roads suffered hugely turning tracks into impassable mud. Later the Wrington Light Railway was extended to Blagdon, opening in 1901, with sidings for coal delivery right up to the pump houses. Visitors came out from Bristol in considerable numbers to marvel at the feat of engineering, the beauty of the valley and to travel up the hill to explore Mendip.
Any nineteenth century construction site was a potentially dangerous work place, resulting in many accidents and fatalities , some of which were reported in the local press, giving us an insight into working practices and any machinery used. Some very young boys were employed and sustained injuries. For a local researcher, contemporary newspapers provide much information, as did the company documents held in the Bristol Archives. Photographs, most of which are held digitally in the BLHS archive are another invaluable source. Recently Bristol Water published a book celebrating its 175 year history, in which were a couple of previously unseen photographs of the dam under construction. This can be downloaded from https://www.bristolwater.co.uk.
It can also be found here at https://www.blagdonlhs.com/bristol-water-and-blagdon-lake.
In November 1899 the valves were closed, starting the four year process of filling the lake. Finally, in December 1904 the four steam engines, two of which have been retained in the pumping station but cannot be visited at the moment, finally pumped to Barrow treatment works. Since the 1950s the pumps have run on electricity so, with no need for a tall chimney, it was reduced to the height we see today.
Now the lake is famous worldwide for its trout fishing and for sighting interesting and sometimes rare birds. (The South shore is only open to permit holders). When Bristol Water directors decided to allow fishing in 1904 they determined to run the facility like a Scottish estate, bring ghillies down from Scotland to establish a trout hatchery and to guide visitors. There is a wealth of information, stories and anecdotes about the Fishing Lake in issue 5 of 'Blagdon Life and Times'.