Monumental Musings: The Fountain at Youlgrave

PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 June 2018

The old hub of the village - the romantically-named Youlgrave Fountain Photo: Ashley Franklin

The old hub of the village - the romantically-named Youlgrave Fountain Photo: Ashley Franklin

Ashley Franklin Photography

Peter Seddon drinks in details of the county’s watery past at Youlgrave’s fountain.

A big date in Youlgrave history for all to see - the opening of the water supply Photo: Peter SeddonA big date in Youlgrave history for all to see - the opening of the water supply Photo: Peter Seddon

In the ancient village of Youlgrave stands an unusual stone-built monument known to locals as ‘The Fountain’ – a lyrical moniker for what is more prosaically a historic water storage tank, or in engineering parlance the ‘Conduit Head’.

An uncommon survival in British village landscapes, it was Grade II listed in 1967, and in its modest way symbolises the independent spirit of the proud community it once served.

As the bold date and discreet plaque on its side attest, it was erected in 1829 as a collection and distribution point for Youlgrave’s first piped water supply. The precious liquid was conveyed to its central confine from springs outside the village – a great leap forward for its time.

In dispensing the essential ‘hub of life’ the conduit quickly became the hub of the village itself. People gathered daily to fill their buckets from the ‘fountain’ – in truth a single tap which to local eyes spouted forth almost magically. Access to it was given each day from 6am when the village water keeper performed the ceremonious unlocking – not a drop was to be had before.

Over the rooftops of Youlgrave Photo: Ashley FranklinOver the rooftops of Youlgrave Photo: Ashley Franklin

The 9 ft-high tank is not conventionally beautiful. Indeed the esteemed architectural observer Nikolaus Pevsner was singularly unimpressed. In the Derbyshire volume of his 1953 classic The Buildings of England he dismissed it as a ‘big plain lumpy circular conduit head’.

Arguably accurate on aesthetic grounds, but Pevsner might have been kinder to the poor thing had he only grasped its historic importance. To Youlgrave’s past generations this ‘lumpy conduit’ had proved more welcome than any gilded statue or embellished obelisk. It made life easier and safer.

Pevsner failed to acknowledge the undeniably romantic back story of this stolid sentinel – and in an age in which we now routinely take for granted ‘water on tap’ it is a story we would do well to imbibe afresh.

Prior to the great day the fountain first began to flow, the villagers had collected water the hard way – walking with empty pails into the valley, filling them from natural springs or the babbling rivers which flowed through the parish, then hauling the buckets back to their homes and businesses.

The discreet plaque on the Conduit Head gives a brief account of its origins  Photo: Peter SeddonThe discreet plaque on the Conduit Head gives a brief account of its origins Photo: Peter Seddon

Those charming river dales of Lathkill and Bradford are now popular with ramblers as idyllic beauty spots, but a daily hike for the villagers of Youlgrave was one of stark necessity, at best a tedious routine and at worst a harsh ordeal, in winter particularly. And this age-old chore of water-gathering was not without more serious hardships – for the very ‘giver of life’ perversely delivered annual visitations of death.

For generations infant and child mortality rates had been unusually high in Youlgrave during the summer months – a consequence of consuming water which had become contaminated or ‘brackish’ when the spring and river flows were diminished and toxic concentrations high. Such was the problem that the months of July and August came to be known as ‘fever season’.

That a better and more sanitised distribution method was desirable was starkly evident. But such a scheme would be a costly feat of engineering. And until the 1820s no one had exercised the will to bring about the much-needed change.

The unlikely force behind the great water initiative proved to be a local spinster in her 70s. Hannah Bowman (1758-1842) was a daughter of a well-known farming family considered one of the oldest in Derbyshire – able to trace its descent back to 1087. Her father William Bowman was an ardent Quaker and had raised his family according to that faith – the desire to do ‘good works’ and to alleviate community suffering had been implanted in Hannah’s consciousness from an early age.

The old hub of the village - the romantically-named Youlgrave Fountain Photo: Peter SeddonThe old hub of the village - the romantically-named Youlgrave Fountain Photo: Peter Seddon

By her later years Hannah had lost her parents, a sister, and three brothers. Her survival rendered her a woman of considerable means but without children. She began to ponder a lasting legacy for future generations.

In 1827 she formed the Women’s Friendly Society of Youlgrave and was soon promoting the idea that water could be conveyed by pipes to the village. The project quickly gained support and under Hannah’s guidance a subscription fund was raised. Miss Bowman gave the generous sum of £100, while further donations of £50 each came from Lord of the Manor the Duke of Rutland and Mrs Blore of Derby.

Local man Benjamin Staley offered his services as surveyor on favourable terms, devising a scheme to convey water through 1,100 yards of 2 inch diameter cast-iron pipes to the 1,500 gallon capacity conduit. It would be built in Youlgrave’s market place on the site of its ancient Saxon cross. Edward Twyford constructed the gritstone tank for £31 10 shillings, and the entire scheme was completed at a cost of £252 13 shillings and tenpence halfpenny.

At its opening in July 1829 the Derbyshire Courier voiced its approval in florid prose: ‘The inhabitants of Youlgrave are rejoicing from at last having their anxious wishes realised by a salubrious spring of soft water being conducted to the village cross, where it now forms a beautiful radiated fountain discharging upwards of 10,000 gallons in 24 hours. The spring is as pellucid as crystal, almost equal in purity to distilled water. The cistern fills up overnight and residents pay an annual charge of sixpence to use the splendid new facility’.

The old hub of the village - the romantically-named Youlgrave Fountain Photo: Ashley FranklinThe old hub of the village - the romantically-named Youlgrave Fountain Photo: Ashley Franklin

It is a far cry from the modern utility companies which now purvey our water – but the system worked, and therein hangs another tale. In order to run the facility the Youlgrave Waterworks Company was formed and is still going to this very day, since 1996 a limited company run by 12 volunteer directors for the sole benefit of the community.

As such Youlgrave washes, drinks, and attends to its ablutions without reliance on any large corporate entity – it remains one of only a handful of villages in Britain entirely served by its own private water supply. Countless improvements have been made over the years – the ‘fountain’ now a symbolic relic of its original function, and the annual charge just a little more than sixpence!

But Youlgrave householders and businesses are not complaining. When the ‘Beast from the East’ freeze wreaked havoc early this year, the village was isolated by deep snow – but not for a moment did the private water supply falter. In stark contrast a number of Derbyshire villages had no water supply for days on end – so while beleaguered water company executives were given a torrid time, Youlgrave Waterworks Ltd continued to deliver the goods.

It is a humbling reminder of how fortunate we are as a ‘developed’ nation to have fresh water piped into our homes – water is an essential commodity, but its ready supply remains a privilege not a right, one even today denied to countless communities around the world. For those still visiting wells or filling containers from untreated water courses, even the rudimentary Youlgrave scheme of 1829 would be considered as life-changing now as it was then.

The annual summer Well Dressing events held around Derbyshire are a reminder of how thankful our forebears were for the ‘unbidden miracle’ of fresh water. The origins of blessing water sources with sacrificial offerings may be lost in antiquity, but the principle remains – the modern equivalent a survival of the Pagan practice of ‘thanking the Gods’ for their eternal gift of the ‘hub of life’.

Youlgrave’s annual Well Dressing festival is one of the foremost in Derbyshire. At the end of June ‘water outlets’ or ‘taps’ around the village will be skilfully decorated with floral tributes. It is appropriate that the Conduit Head itself features prominently, since it directly sparked a revival of the ancient well-dressing custom that at the time of its construction had all but lapsed.

At the 1829 opening there was some floral embellishment, but by the early 1860s the Derbyshire Courier lamented that ‘the old custom has discontinued over the last 20 years’. But that changed markedly in 1869 when Youlgrave Waterworks implemented major ‘essential improvements’ as the system showed its age – pipes were upgraded, further sources added, more homes given their own internal supply, and for those less privileged ten ‘public taps’ were provided around the village.

This was the cue for a ‘grand fountain re-opening’. Great festivities ensued amidst a lavish revival of the Youlgrave well-dressing custom which has continued ever since. This was soon echoed in suitably competitive spirit by other Derbyshire villages. There has been no looking back – Derbyshire Well Dressings are universally known as a key feature in the folkloric calendar.

When Hannah Bowman died aged 84 on 25th July 1842 the Derbyshire Courier recorded that ‘the village of Youlgrave was thrown into gloom by the death of this venerable lady’.

There is nothing gloomy about Youlgrave today – a vibrant village full of character. The ‘lumpy conduit’ which failed to move Nikolaus Pevsner is resplendently restored and much photographed by visitors. And on a housing development built in 2015 is a fitting tribute – Hannah Bowman Way. The public-spirited farmer’s daughter both achieved and deserved her legacy.

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