Friday, 3 February 2012

Good Water's Worth

I've had a shower, done the washing up and now sit here with a welcome cup of tea. There's always plenty of good water in the tap. No need to pump it or carry it home. But once clean drinking water was not so plentiful. Although medieval towns were built beside rivers, the water soon became polluted and unpalatable....

...though you could always buy beer from the pub!

I was reminded of this when I stopped to take a photo of something which I, along with most of the population of Cambridge, have also come take for granted. This rather ornate feature stands on the corner of Lensfield Road and Trumpington Street; it has a little plaque to remind you of its former importance.

In 1614, it says, the University and the Town worked together to have a supply of running water brought into the centre of town. A watercourse was constructed from springs near Great Shelford. The monument above now marks the end of the watercourse (the water travels in culverts for the remainder of its journey), but it once stood in the market square where it served as a public fountain from which townspeople could carry their water.

One of the chief benefactors was Thomas Hobson, the carrier, and the stream became known as Hobson's Conduit or Brook. You may well have heard of Hobson before in the phrase "Hobson's choice", for he also hired out horses, but insisted on a strict rotation system to keep the horses fresh; you had to have the horse that was next in line, so "Hobson's choice" meant no choice at all!

Although the Conduit is no longer needed to supply water it brings a little taste of nature right next to one of the main roads into the modern city.

Some of the water makes its way into runnels beside Trumpington Street, a source of great wonder to me when I was four years old!

But there was an even older conduit, dating from 1325 which supplied water to the town and colleges. You can still see a tap just outside the Great Gate of Trinity College. A sign says that the water's not fit for drinking but that's just what it was used for for centuries. The water is still used for the fountain in Trinity College (below).

But it was the gift of another fountain, to King's College, that caused the greatest improvement in water quality. The college authorities were put in a difficult position by this gift because there was not an adequate supply of water to power the fountain; it was for this reason that Provost Okes and Dr Whewell set about founding a water company. The supply of water for the town to drink was a useful but unintentional bi-product of their scheme.

As for the water in the river - even the local Moorhens prefer to drink coffee!

Take care.


  1. Interesting and fun post. I like how you finished it.

  2. Great post, John. Lots of history as well as super photos. I was reminded of a talk by a naturalist who had worked in Central America. He said he had gotten very tired of brushing his teeth using beer!

  3. Another of your great educational posts, John. People in areas like yours and mine don't give a thought to where their water comes from. But, for people in arid parts of the USA like west Texas, the continuing drought means that water supply is headline news every day.

  4. Lovely reflections in your first photograph John and yes, water is not to be taken for granted. Nice spotting the eye-catching emerald-headed duck paddling about. Your ancient 1325 history re the conduit, amazing when our country is so young in comparison. A most stately fountain in Kings College grounds.

  5. I agree with Wayfarin' Stranger--great post. Though all the images are nice, the last image is great. For us Americans, what profession is a "carrier"?

  6. What an interesting post and then then ending was very funny! I never knew moorhens liked coffee!

  7. Love that photo of the moorhand drinking the coffee John. Hope it doesn't become addicted.

  8. Wonderful post, John... isn't it interesting how we take SO much for granted in our modern lives! Clean water, such a blessing, isn't it? Love that last shot, you made me chuckle... Come on over and enter it in 'Weekly Top Shot.' We're on Week #16, I'd love to see you share with me and my readers! Here's this weeks' link:

  9. I was familiar with the word 'runnels' although it is seldom, if ever, used in the US. Your photo gives the term a specificity I wouldn't have thought about--here water run-off is contained in 'gutters.'
    I do wonder about the behavior of a moorhen high on caffeine!

  10. “Till taught by pain, Men really know not what good water's worth;
    If you had been in Turkey or in Spain, Or with a famish'd boat's-crew had your berth,
    Or in the desert heard the camel's bell,
    You'd wish yourself where Truth is--in a well.”
    Lord Byron (George Gordon Noel Byron)

    Thanks for your comments.
    Carrier - the modern equivalent would be a haulage company plus a parcel post service. Runnels is a rather outdated word here too since such channels are not constructed any more. Gutters in the UK are more often the things which collect water from the roof, though the other meaning is not unknown.

  11. Such an interesting post and it's great that you can still see so much that dates from centuries ago. I was quite surprised that the University and the Town worked together. I've always understood that Town and Gown didn't get along very well in those days. I really must spend some time in Cambridg on one of my East Anglia visits.

  12. I learned a lot here, John. Thanks for the great post. And now I've seen a moorhen; what does the moorcock look like? I'll have to go look it up.

  13. Rowan: yes, it is unusual for the University and the town to co-operate in this way.
    Sue: If you look up moorcock you will get confused. A male moorhen is called a moorhen too and looks much the same as the female. Moorcock, on the other hand, is another name for the Black Grouse - an entirely different bird.

  14. Thank you for this educational post with lovely photography as always, John. I must be thankful that I can use water as much as I need and drink directly from the tap. River water is no-no for our drinking, but how about animals and birds? Anyway, the ending is funny.

  15. Wonderfully instructive and entertaining post again, John. Fancy old Hobson having his name go down in history like that - Hobson's choice!

  16. Water! Many humans in civilized countries don't understand how precious water is, I'm afraid. Interesting post. I - like the moorhen - am drinking coffee at the moment. :)


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