Matthew Parris

In my other life, I’m a water engineer

19 August 2017

9:00 AM

19 August 2017

9:00 AM

Friends arrived last week to find me in a mudhole, inside a cave-like tunnel into the hill, fiddling around with our spring-fed water supply. Hearing their car, I slithered out to greet them, covered in slime like a monster from the deep. It would be natural to say this took them by surprise. It did not. They know me.

Since infancy I’ve loved playing with water. Every river I could dam, every channel I could dig, every pond I could drain or fill, every stream I could divert, every castle wall I could build against the encroaching tide, seemed to point to a promising career as a water engineer. Sadly I showed no talent for any of this; and, later, the maths bored me. I just loved digging, damming and diverting: a master of my little water world.

Maybe that’s why when I bought a house in rural Derbyshire, I fell at once for a place called Spout. Our home is by a constant spring on the side of a hill, where the work that had detained me as guests arrived was part of my decades-long project to turn our property into something that in my imagination is a minor English Alhambra. Our spring water provides our domestic supply, but so much more. One branch flows into a huge 10ft-long, tadpole-teeming granite trough, the overflow tinkling on to another trough lower down, whose overflow then joins another branch which feeds a pond, a stone fountain I bought in Colombia (this roadside impulse purchase cost more to transport than to buy), a swimming pool, a pond, and a sunken bathtub. A third branch I still haven’t got right: it’s supposed to tumble into another trough but only works in winter: I’m contemplating a booster-feed from a side spring.

Ah the potency of water! What is it about human beings and the watery miracle that’s so much a central element of life that we and every language I know really have only one word for it?

I’ve just returned from a morning spent inspecting the ambitious restoration of The Crescent in Buxton in the Derbyshire Peak District. This elegant and lofty 18th-century stone crescent once housed two hotels and will finally be a single and grand hotel. Facing it is the Buxton Opera House, designed by Frank Matcham at the very beginning of the 20th century. The opera, The Crescent, the hotels, the Buxton Festival — the whole tourist economy there — exist only because, beneath the lot, numerous hot springs from 3,000-5,000 feet below well up, their water said to have spent 500 years sinking from the surface down into Earth’s hot crust, then rising again.


The Romans built baths here to capture the water — baths now buried beneath The Crescent. William Cavendish, fifth Duke of Devonshire, then decided to make Buxton the Bath of the North, and built The Crescent. Georgians, Victorians and Edwardians came to take the waters — and finally came Nestlé, to take the water in a more literal sense. Thus Buxton Water.

And as my hosts took me round the rebuilding and refurbishment works and explained their plans for a magnificent hotel, I listened politely and hugely admired their big, brave and costly venture… but my imagination was down in those buried Roman baths, in the marble well from which 19th-century ladies were ladled the health-giving water, in the skein of pipes that must lie beneath this ground, and in the dark fissures in our planet’s crust where no light has penetrated, and scalding water pushes and hisses its labyrinthine way to the surface.

If only we had a hot spring at Spout House!

My mind went back to the Ethiopian side of the Danekil Depression in the Horn of Africa, where we stood in wonder and in a kind of horror, beside a bubbling expanse of the most brilliant yellow I’ll ever see, streaked with livid orange and red. Scalding hot water forced sulphur and iron out on to a smoking, hellish wasteland, and Earth bled red and yellow.

And back further, to my childhood, and a small Cypriot village on the slopes of the Trodos mountains on a scorching day. The heat, the glare, the smell of pine, the screech of cicadas — and the almost celestial sound of cool, clear water rushing down a little stone channel constructed by the roadside to irrigate the almond and pomegranate trees. I was five years old. I resolved then to design and construct water channels of my own one day.

Five years later, I made a start in the garden of my Uncle Graeme’s colonial bungalow in Lilongwe in Nyasaland, now Malawi. Every afternoon came a huge rainstorm after lunch. The garden sloped. By the time my holiday was over, a network of small, interconnecting channels fanned out across the top of the land and converged into bigger channels, and finally a single channel, collecting the rainwater for… for what? There was no earthly need for what was, for a small boy, this major project. But after lunch I’d rush out into the heat and wait to be drenched as the storm broke, watching the red muddy water rising in each channel, alert for any breaching of my mud walls.

Why does fire fascinate? Why does water draw the eye and spur the imagination? Why does the howl of the wind unsettle and the kiss of the sun lift our spirits? Surely these elements of life itself have carved their reflections into our animal brains so that, though the black man may have no need of more sun and the white man no need of more rain, both alike feel the thrill.

Back now anyway, after writing this, to my principal blue PVC pipe. A new spring has appeared in the driveway. A metre down, has this pipe been ruptured? I have spade, I have pick, and I cannot wait to dig my way to the answer.

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