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Beneath the Surface: Phil Eccles on the hidden depths of Pendle Reservoirs

Interview by Jayne Ashe

Our reservoirs are firm sites in our landscape – we walk past them, are warned not to swim in them, notice when their levels drop in a drought – but rarely do we think about how the water in the reservoirs finds its way into our taps. A piece of Victorian engineering which has had to deal, like the rest of us, with changes in technology. The reservoirs around the hill, Churn Clough, Ogden and Black Moss are well known to us and provide popular fishing spots and walking routes. Phil Eccles knows more about reservoirs than most. Now retired, he worked for the Water Board (now United Utilities) for 30 years.

You worked for the water board company, when it was North West Water Authority, North West Water Limited and United Utilities for 30 years – but I am guessing not all that time was spent in Pendle?

No I was lucky enough to work all over the North West, and covered a large area for some of that time. My work in Pendle was really just a snapshot, but I was mainly there in the late 1980’s – but I was involved with Churn Clough, Barley, as well as the reservoirs in Burnley, and the small tanks (Service Reservoirs) on and around Pendle which used to feed the smaller areas, Downham, Rimmington etc.

© Jayne Ashe

What was your role at the reservoirs?

I started with the water board as an instrument mechanic, which then turned into an instrument engineer and then a field service engineer.  Later in my career with North West Water, I started doing some work in Pendle commissioning a Chlorine alarm at all the old works – i.e. Barley, Churn Clough, Cant Clough, Laneshaw Bridge, Coldwell , Mitchell’s House  and Hurst Wood. The works in Pendle were quite archaic, and telemetry was basic using dial alarm units such as Radle and Dialtone. As the company became more responsible for meeting certain parameters they needed a better alarm system. At Barley, once the operator had left for the day, the works was unmanned and it was only if there was a power failure or general plant alarm then the dial alarm unit would dial through to someone’s house and they would have to go back to work. So I commissioned telemetry units and chlorine analysers and connected them to the telemetry so there was a chlorine alarm raised in the event of a Chlorine Failure or Gas Leak. The technology in East Lancashire only really started to develop in the 80’s.

So engineers were also on call then for the reservoirs I guess? In case an alarm went off? What would happen if an alarm did go off?

I was on standby one and off for 20 years or so. If you were on standby you had to answer the call – and the calls could vary from plant alarms, intruder alarms, fire alarms etc. If an alarm went off I would go in and sort it out.

People don’t always understand the dangers of swimming in reservoirs.

No, people don’t understand that even on a very hot day reservoirs are very cold. The water in reservoirs and lakes at certain times of the year turns over due to thermal stratification and ambient temperature, and so very cold water from the bottom layer can appear near the surface and so it is always cold. I was involved with the aftermath of drownings of people and animals. For example dogs can succumb to the cold water as well as humans.

© Jayne Ashe

I guess many people don’t really give much thought into reservoirs at all – but they sound like very complex systems. 

Most people forget that they only see half the picture. The impounded reservoirs, which we call the raw water storage reservoirs, are the ones you can see. But then underground you have the service reservoirs, which hold the treated water. Reservoirs can be influenced by many things, particularly drought or heavy rainfall. Heavy rainfall effects water quality, as does excess water runoff from the hills and the peatlands. One of the things that opened my eyes when I was working for the water board is how people turn on the taps and take it for granted, or flush the toilet and take it for granted, they have little knowledge about the complexity of what goes on in the supply and treatment of drinking water and the removal and treatment of waste water.

But the systems have changed as the technology has developed.

Would your job still exist now as it did back then, or have improvements in technology made roles redundant?

It is more of a technical role now, but a field service engineer still needs to be able to understand the technology and what to do on the ground, because things do still go wrong. Instruments used to include more recorders, which measured more statistics. There used to be reservoir keepers living at each reservoir who would go out and take recordings and measurements every day – but that doesn’t happen any more because it is too labour intensive and now it’s all done automatically so it can be picked up and registered at headquarters.

On Churn Clough there would have been a Lea recorder measuring the inflow to the reservoir, and at Barley you would have had a Lea recorder measuring the washer water and then another one measuring the plants outlet flow. Some of these recorders are obsolete now, because they couldn’t cope with adapting with modern technology, but most of them are still left in the landscape, as relics almost.

Phil talked me through images of some of the old treatment works, as well as showing me his old text books.

© Jayne Ashe

How did you get started working with these instruments?

I was an apprentice at Courtaulds Ltd at Red Scar Works, Preston, the first instrument mechanic apprentice they took on. Prior to that electricians and fitters would be trained up to take on instrumentation. I used the text books at college – it was very complicated stuff! I worked there for 12 years before moving to North West Water Authority, but as I mentioned I worked all over and my time in Pendle was only a snapshot. It was a great career, a great company to work for!

I had to remember lots of formulas, there were various different recorders and measurements which we had to note. Luckily when I was out in the field I could use my Psion Organiser, which was like a pocket computer to store formulas and numbers – I still have the Churn Clough measurements saved on there!

I know there have been other major changes with reservoir works – and you managed to have a tour around Ridgling in Barley the other week? Was that not in use when you left?

Yes, one of the main problems was that a lot of the older plants couldn’t comply the stricter water quality regulations and so had to be scrapped. Barley and some of the other sites in East Lancashire couldn’t keep up. Barley was a double stage pressure filter works and could not comply with water quality parameters. Other sites were only single stage pressure filter works. The new works in the area are all three stage treatment works which now comply with all the water quality regulations.

Ridgling is the new works which has replaced the old Barley works. I went for a tour last Monday, because it is the only one I haven’t seen. I went to one of the very first meetings about the new works, standing in for a colleague who was unavailable at the time, so I was not involved any further after that, and since then I have retired. I am very grateful to United Utilities for allowing me to look round the works at Ridgling. It’s high up on the hillside, yet it’s still fed by gravity from Ogden reservoir, but they have to pump now on a low lift system into Ridgling service reservoir. They’ve made a good job of it and it’s very much in keeping with the landscape.

The other reservoir in Barley – Black Moss – is now only used in an emergency.

And what about Churn Clough in Sabden?

They also had to close the works down at Churn Clough because it couldn’t comply with water quality regulations. The old Pendle tank, a steel Braithwaite tank, which was at Churn Clough was shut down and removed as well. In the 90s when there was a dry spell over in Ogden, pipers were laid overland which meant the water could be lifted from Churn Clough into Ogden. There is a pumping station there now, however, so they can pump it into Ogden if needed. There’s also a new service reservoir at Churn Clough – but you wouldn’t notice it because it is underground. Sabden now gets its water pumped back from Cavaliers service reservoir, which is just further toward Padiham.

So it seems to me like the main structure of a reservoir is still very much the same as the original Victorian idea – yet we have had to adapt technology around them because of all the changes and modernisation.

Well we are still living with the Victorian engineering – they are over 150 years old some of them, and to build new reservoirs now would be difficult. It does raise the question – how long are these reservoirs designed to last? They have had to alter a lot of them, the spillways for example, because they wouldn’t cope with the predicted rainfall, so yes they are being changed to adapt – but the principles are still the same as they have always been.

Now the technology has made it a lot less labour intensive, and treatment works are all monitored at the United Utilities headquarters in Warrington.

United Utilities manage all of the reservoirs around Pendle Hill, and there are a variety of walks focused around the reservoirs and surrounding landscape. Please remember that reservoirs are not for swimming in, even on a hot day. Reservoirs are beautiful, but deadly. www.unitedutilities.com

© Graham Cooper

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