Another Life: Digging deep to unearth a well of memories

The arrival of a drilling rig means a new, less appealing way of getting water on the acre

Swirl, bubble and rush: we have swapped our long bond with the stream for the mutter of an underground pump. Illustration: Michael Viney

Swirl, bubble and rush: we have swapped our long bond with the stream for the mutter of an underground pump. Illustration: Michael Viney

Sat, Jun 1, 2013, 01:00

The rig arrived straight after breakfast to squat hugely inside the gate. I cowered in the kitchen and then fled to my desk, overawed by the machine’s risen tower and the ensuing remorseless rumble and chatter of the drill.

As it chewed through yellow clay, into gravel and boulders, and down into Ordovician sandstone, sandbags were ringed to usher its rocky eruption away through the trees.

Well before lunchtime (we had feared it might be days) and a last gasp and whistle of compressed air, the gush of water was declared good and sufficient – even bountiful – at 67m below the garden path.

Thus, regretfully, with our energies now dwindling for sorties up the hill, we have swapped our long bond with the stream for the mutter of an underground pump.

From the swirl, bubble and rush of water freshly distilled from sea and sky we have switched like our neighbours to the buried pulse of percolating groundwater, squeezing darkly downhill through fissures and cracks. An artesian well does not, after all, tap into some underground secret crystal pool but is topped up continually from descending squirts and trickles in the rock.

The stream, on the other hand, gathers its beginnings from a basin of bog below the ridge. There it carves deep runnels in the peat, rehearsing an erosion that, further down the hillside, has carved wide ravines, over hundreds of years, in the assorted debris of glacial till.

One of these grassy valleys, tilting up across the road, offered us early lessons in self-sufficiency in our waterless, cisternless, Land Commission cottage.

The stream, it’s true, ducking under the bridge, emerged in a hollow it had carved across a corner of our acre: we could always climb up and down with a bucket. But, following our neighbours at that time, we turned to gravity: a one-inch pipe unfurled far up the hill and plunged into the right sort of pool at the right sort of angle, the end well wrapped in a filtering gauze and held down with a rock.

There are little pools above huge boulders that terrace the stream into mossy waterfalls and much bigger pools, scooped out by floods, below them.

Sometimes little pools can be made bigger by making a dam with a borrowed rock or two, and sods of turf torn from the bank.

The weather was always sunny, with a breeze off the islands in a bright blue sea. Lambs nuzzled their mothers, and wheatears bobbed on every rock. The stream babbled and sparkled around me. And once – I have this on record – Ethna came up the hill with hot buttered scones in a napkin, and a Thermos of hot coffee.

The days of this schoolboy construction were among the happiest of my life. But then, of course, would come the flash floods my coffee waitress had reminded me of, rolling rocks like cannonballs and smashing the dam away. A day or two afterwards the water would fall back, exposing both my folly and the dry end of the pipe.

A long drought, too, could reduce the stream to a trickle and prompt a sudden sigh from the kitchen tap. The trips up the hill required balletic leaps between the crests of grassed-over ancient lazybeds – a movement to startle the grazing ewes. A few would squat in fright, their pee scorching further brown patches in the turf.

It took many years, indeed, to find a way to wriggle the pipe around the boulder to a lodgment that never ran dry. I endured frustrations with the airlock, that fatal bubble, or column thereof, swallowed and sucked down to lodge at some stubborn undulation. “Is it there yet? . . . Well, it bloody should be!” This, before the mobile phone, could need several trips down and up again.

At times Ethna, in pity, or a forgivable fit of corrective zeal, would take over the feeding of water into the top of the pipe at just the right angle to coax more streams of bubbles up. It took patience, especially while crouching, anoraked, in the rain or, in Paul Durcan’s treasured image, “backside to the wind”.

We shall, nonetheless, miss our close, even primal relationship with the stream, so alive and chaotic yet willing to be tamed.

Even filtered and UV sterilised en route (as it later seemed wise to do), a glass of diamond-bright water, fresh from the sky and ready chilled, has been part of the privilege of “another life”.

The well adds to a national total of rather more than 100,000 and will end the emergency of such floods and droughts as the climate has up its sleeve. What its water will taste like we wait to know, when the man has come, as promised, to put in the pump.

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