Springs and Rams
‘We’ve become deaf to the music of underground streams, forgotten how to celebrate the sacred springs’… in this beautiful piece, writer Anne Boileau pays tribute to an ancient source of water and to the machines that worked their own magic with it.
Whalebone Spring; Peter’s Spring; Ladle Spring; Pigeon Spring… just four springs among dozens, which are marked in blue on OS Explorer Map No. 195. Dozens of others are called simply Spring and they occur along the Blackwater and close to our village.
But they’ve forgotten their names.
They may well have been sacred, dedicated to Saint Anne, or Saint Bridget, or Saint Cuthbert (Curds Hall), and in pre-Christian times would have rejoiced in Celtic names and later perhaps, when Stane Street was built straight as a railroad, superimposed upon the existing ancient little paths and tracks, the names of Roman deities.
Bradwell-juxta-Coggeshall means Broad Well and you can see the clear pond beside Holy Trinity Church. We have become deaf; we no longer hear the subterranean music of those pure mineral-rich streams that well up from the deep aquifers and run cheerfully beneath our houses, roads, churches… water music as fluent as Mahan Esfahan playing Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier on the harpsichord as he did on May 5th at Wigmore Hall.
We curse them when they rise unbidden in our basements, but isn’t it reassuring, after such a dry April, to know that our valley is peculiarly blessed with so many sources of potable water!
Springs and wells were not only cherished and celebrated; their usefulness was often enhanced by the installation of a hydraulic ram (you can see these marked also in blue H ram on the map).
They’re simple pumps that use kinetic energy and work like this (I found it demonstrated on YouTube):
The stream is captured in a pipe and a small chamber is constructed to capture the flow. Because the inlet is wider than the outlet, when flow is brisk, pressure builds up; this kinetic energy pushes open a third valve at the top and water gushes up to a higher level to fill your tank or irrigation channel (levada) or pond.
The countryside must have throbbed with the heartbeat of rams, which were invented in the 15th century – they knew a thing or two about engineering, just look at the clocks and bell foundries and armouries of that time.
Up until the 1960s, rams would still have been maintained on a regular basis, each one having its own guardian. He goes to where it’s hidden, near a ditch or under a hedge or beside a bridge, and listens: is it beating?
If not, dig down to it, unscrew it, take it apart, clear the blockages, check all valves and parts, grease well, reassemble, reinstall – then listen with satisfaction to the beating heart kerplunk kerplunk kerplunk.
Robin Greatorex remembers a man called Tim who took him to a ram in Wakes Colne and showed him how to repair and reinstall it 30 years ago.
Trevor Disley remembers playing with his friends in Ladle Meadow by Cradle House and drinking from Ladle Spring. It was delicious water but is now dissipated into the marshy land by Robins Brook.
One morning, you get out of bed, go into the bathroom and use the toilet. It flushes but does not replenish the cylinder. You turn on the tap in the basin to wash your face and it’s dry. One drip. You go out into the street and some neighbours are already there, in West Street, in East Street, in Church Street, in Stoneham Street. In Consternation Street. Have you got water? No. Nor have I. How can we make our tea? Or wash? Or cook? Or survive… with no water?
The complex computer-controlled Ely Ouse Transfer System has suffered a serious glitch; it might be sabotage, they don’t know. Whatever the cause, the system has failed. So we must take our pails and go to the village pump. But where is the village pump? Where are the ram maintenance men? Who knows about the springs? Those blessed sources of clear potable mineral-rich water? Clear, clean, pure blessed water.
We’ve become deaf to the music of underground streams, forgotten how to celebrate the sacred springs. The steady percussion of hydraulic rams, reassuring as heartbeat under the ground, has fallen silent.
One day we may need to revive them, turn to those ancient sources and learn again to honour them.