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  • phildunn641

Water works

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

Occasionally, when she was still working for London Metropolitan Archives, my wife would tell me of some item or items of packaging that had been assessed as obsolete for their requirements and were being offered for re-use elsewhere and wonder if I might have some use for them. Often this was prefaced with, "I'll have to carry them home from work so you can't have too many". One such offering was a set of wooden boxes that had been used to store magic lantern slides which were being moved to more suitable, modern storage. My allocation, based on what my wife could carry was two.

The boxes are 38 cm long, 9.5 cm tall and 10.5 cm deep, with a hinged lid and brass clasps to keep them securely shut. The inside of the box has grooved slots where up to 50 glass slides would once have been inserted. Both boxes have a rectangular label on top and a circular label on one of the ends. One is labeled 51 - 100 and the other 351 - 400.

Inside the lids of both boxes are reproduced, hand-written lists of the original contents. The list on one of the boxes is easily removed and below is an empty list table stamped with M. W. B. 20 OCT 1915 STATISTICAL and THE STATISTICAL OFFICER, Metropolitan Water Board, Savoy Court, STRAND W.C.

Since acquiring the boxes, I've used them to store bits and pieces and I've taken them from home to my studio, when I had one at university, and now they are once more back at my flat. They have had a minor role in a couple of installations. For my sound installation, In Times of Ferment, they served simply as a mechanism to keep the technical kit (a Raspberry Pi and a 6 channel sound card) together and off the floor. It was only after exhibiting this and discussing the boxes and the original indices with visitors during the exhibition that it occurred to me to create a new index for one of the boxes describing the "ingredients" of the sounds that were part of the installation.

In Times of Ferment II

In a subsequent work, No Coercion, where I was projecting 35mm slides I used the boxes as a low platform on which to sit the Kodak slide projector. I don't think anyone realised the significance of the boxes on which the projector stood - that they once stored a much earlier form of slide.

I've re-instated the original content indices in both boxes as a starting point for something new, something where the boxes are the star of the show, not just a handy receptacle or a makeshift plinth. I'm not yet sure what this something will be, let's just see it as the start of a journey.

Originally, each box appears to have contained 50 glass slides belonging to the Metropolitan Water Board. One box has slides indexed from 51 to 100 and the other 351 to 400. All the slides have individual titles except for slides 365 to 400 which are all a repeat of slide 364. The slide titles are intriguing, not just on account of the content, but also from them not appearing to be in any particular order. So slides 70 to 75 are, respectively: Filtered effluent bacteria; Myddleton's glory; Spores; Annual supply statistics; Battersea resv. construction and Battersea engine room. I know that the original slides still exist and that I could view them all at London Metropolitan Archives and I expect also online, but I find it much more interesting to imagine, or even invent what could or should be on the slides. Also at a time when the water companies in the UK are under such public scrutiny, I can't help but think that there is a contemporary story to be told in slides with title such as Rugby hospital bacteria, Proteus from effluent, Bacteria in Lee effluent and Anthrax.

Many of the slides mention sites and activities in the Lea valley: 56 and 57 Lee diversion ceremony; 58 Walthamstow Racecourse resv.; 59 Lee diversion at Chingford; 60 & 61 Lee side channel & aqueduct; 62 Walthamstow resv. connection; 63 Chingford resv. flange couplings; 64 to 66 Chingford resv. construction; 78 Walthamstow resv. flooded; 82 Walthamstow reservoir; 90 Maynard reservoir; 93 Racecourse resv. meter house; 95 Walthamstow valve house and 96 Old reservoir at Walthamstow.

As the Lea Valley is easily accessible from my home in North London, I decided to take a walk along the parts of it to see what was there to be seen. Following the Go Jauntly Lea Valley Walking Guide I headed to Ponders End to join the Lea Navigation towpath at the Chingford reservoirs hoping to tick off slides 59 and 63 to 65, by being able to say that I'd at least observed the Chingford reservoirs.

I should have researched more thoroughly in advance and not relied on assumptions and simple non-relief maps. Despite living in a flat (in relative terms) city for over 30 years, the topology of urban reservoirs is still somewhat alien to me. I'm used to encountering reservoirs among hills where they are formed from naturally occurring lochs, or dammed valleys that can be overlooked from footpaths and easily approached. So it was with some disappointment and a degree of embarrassment that I looked upon the rising, and fenced off, banks of King George's Reservoir and the William Girling Reservoir with no way of seeing their contents unless I trespassed.

Peering through a fence to the banks of King George's Reservoir

I walked along the main road that bisects the reservoir system hoping to find some form of public access, but even the entrance gates to the King George V Reservoir Sailing Club were firmly padlocked. I'd just have to work with what I had, or could find that might help me to refill my boxes of no slides. Was that my plan - just refill the boxes? It felt like a long slog back from the locked Sailing Club Entrance to the Lee Navigation towpath that I was planning to follow. It was one of the few hot and sunny August days this year and there was little shade on the narrow pavement squeezed between the high perimeter fence of the Thames Water land and the busy A110.

Chingford Reservoir Construction (slides 64 to 66)

I walked south along the towpath towards the Walthamstow wetlands - themselves former reservoirs - with the banking of the William Girling reservoir taunting me on my left, both hiding and securing its 16.5 billion litres of water. Above me and on both sides of the canal, huge pylons looped electricity along the same path towards central London. I suppose it's obvious, but I'd had not previously thought, that such a channel of public utility should continue to serve as a conduit when the land is already in public ownership (or perhaps not and that bears further investigation.)

Looping power

I was hoping at some point that the walk would join the River Lea and that I'd be able to see at some point the River Lea diversion. Among the slides in my boxes was a River Lea diversion ceremony - I wanted to conduct my own diversion ceremony for the record. And while I'm here talking about the River Lea and walking along the River Lee Navigation, I'll just clarify that the River Lea and Lea Valley are 'L', 'e', 'a', but because the act of parliament that established the River Lee Navigation spelled it thus, the Navigation is 'L', 'e', 'e' and accordingly appears as such on Ordnance Survey maps.

I passed beneath the A406 under a bridge I've driven over hundreds of times negotiating the various slipways that merge and branch just along this stretch. It took some time to pass beneath as this is a particularly wide spot incorporating 12 lanes of traffic and I spent a few minutes experiencing some thrill of being a hidden pedestrian about to be crushed by the rumbling underbelly of concrete and steel above.

Rumbling underbelly of the A406

Beyond the A406 and past industrial buildings on both sides there was once again green space and the River Lea started to run alongside the the Navigation having, up to this point in the walk, been diverted along the opposite side of the Willian Girling Reservoir. However, I encountered four separate water courses and I was unsure which was river, diversion, or canal. I've subsequently looked at maps and identified that the river Lea was split into two steams and between them was the Lee Flood Relief channel (note Lee again rather than Lea).

Also here, the towpath was joined by another pathway via a footbridge over the canal which led into Tottenham marshes. I left the towpath to explore whether this path would follow the river and lead me directly to the reservoirs at Walthamstow, but was disappointed to find the route simply led back to the towpath and that there was no direct entrance to the Wetlands from the north.

My goal now (I needed to have one) was to get to the Wathamstow Wetlands, properly encounter the River Lea where I could perform a diversion ceremony (slides 56 and 57), photograph some of the Walthamstow reservoirs (slides 62, 78, 82, 90, 95 and 96) and photograph the land on which the racecourse reservoir (slides 58 and 93) stood, and go to the toilet - I was now several hours into my walk.

After a couple of more meanderings, a walk through the new housing development at Hale Wharf and the Paddock Community Nature Park, I arrived at the wetlands. Here, just beyond the the carpark, I had my first clear view of what I was sure was the River Lea. I had not really come prepared to perform my own diversion ceremony and I was hot, tired and desperately need to get to a toilet so my diversion consisted of me filming myself creating a mild diversion by calling out "Look! A kingfisher". Seeing a kingfisher had been on my mind throughout, but despite all the shaded overhanging branches and the obvious presence of fish - there were plenty of herons - I had not seen one, and still hadn't despite my diversionary cry.

Plenty of herons

At least here in the wetlands, unlike at Chingford, I could climb the banks and see into the reservoirs. I walked a path with the East Warwick Reservoir to my right and enjoyed watching a common tern hover and repeatedly dive into the water. This reservoir does not appear on an 1896 Ordnance Survey map that I consulted after my walk while all the others to the south of Ferry Lane, including the Racecourse Reservoir which no longer exists, do. A later map, the 1915 edition, shows all the reservoirs. So I'm choosing to believe that side 78 Walthamstow resv. flooded, refers specifically to this reservoir being filled as that would have happened within the period from which the slides date. Although it could also have been the Lockwood reservoir, also constructed between the production of both maps and which sits in the system or reservoirs to the north of Ferry Lane. I followed the path alongside the reservoir to the southernmost point where access is permitted. From here I assumed I was overlooking the site of the Racecourse reservoir that was drained in the 1960s, but I was misdirected from having consulted a map on which I had not realised the Warwick Reservoirs were absent and I should have been looking Southeast rather than just South.

Even when I climbed the Coppermill Tower an Italianate building that was part of former copper works I failed to look in the right direction to see the filter beds of the huge water treatment works that occupies the site of the former reservoir.

Leaving the Coppermill tower I took an alternative route back to the Wetlands entrance heading between reservoir number 1 and reservoirs number 2 and 3. Just as the path reaches the reservoirs there was a brick built octagonal well. Around it, just outside four opposing faces, stood pairs of winding wheels and within the well below 4 tunnels entered, or exited. From its position it appeared that this would at a minimum connect reservoirs number 1 and number 3 and the coppermill stream so for me this was a good as I was going to get for slide 62, Walthamstow resv. connection - although it may actually be the remains of an old valve house, slide 95, (or is that just the same thing?). What had attracted me to look at this was the colour of the water it contained. A bright green algae had covered the surface and in the bright sunlight contrasted with deep shadows it was the greenest of greens.

Greenest of greens

I was done of the day and about to head home when I saw a little egret in the shallow water of the reservoir opposite the valve house. There was a hide close by and I popped in there to get a closer look. Someone entered the hide behind me and went down to the other end. After a minute he started gesticulating at me encouraging me to join him at the end of the hide he was at. Not being a regular birder, I was worried that I'd committed some dreadful birding faux pas, but followed his lead to find that he wanted to draw my attention to kingfishers, two or three of them, that were flitting about and diving from bushes just opposite the hide. They were difficult to see, the sunlight was flickering through thick vegetation and parts of the pool into which they were diving were in relative darkness. It was only possible to find them when they moved and there would be a flash of blue or an echo of rose gold and a shake of some leaves. With my camera on full zoom I was just able pick out some more detail. After a few minutes watching from inside the hide i went back outside to a gap in the bushes just by the reservoir side. I though I'd lost sight of them completely, but one flew to an exposed branch just in front of me, stationary for just long enough for me to take a photograph. Something from the day that was nothing to do with my boxes of no slides.

Look! A kingfisher!

Topographically, I feel I've covered a quarter of the slides - taking into account that slides numbered 364 to 400 are all a repeat of Manufacture of coal gas. The other locations mentioned with any regularity are Hampton (5 slides), Kempton (3), Battersea (3), Kew (3) and Staines (3). I may make some further research trips, but by far, the most interesting slides remaining, barring the first, have no topographical reference: 69 Rugby Hospital bacteria; 70 Filtered effluent bacteria; 72 Spores; 86 Bacillus subtilis; 87 Bacillus meseutericuc; 357 Dead anthrax; 358 Vibrio; 359 Fever 1, Strepto 3; 360 B. mycoides; 361 Proteus from effluent; 362 Bacteria in lee effluent; and 363 Anthrax. Oh and there's also, of course, 71 Myddleton's glory.

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