Finding water supplies with a twig

IN a recent article on the development of Weston's water supply I told how some local councillors, to test their theory that there was not water to be found at

IN a recent article on the development of Weston's water supply I told how some local councillors, to test their theory that there was not water to be found at a borehole the council made on Banwell Moor, took a local water diviner, 'Cough John' to the site secretly by night.I have since met a friend who said: "Do you really believe in all that nonsense about divining water supplies with a twig?" My answer was that I certainly do, because to some I have the power myself! Moreover, the evidence that water supplies can and have been found with the aid of a twig is beyond question.Dowsers, as they are known, have plied their skill down the centuries in divining not only water supplies, but also the presence of minerals. The earliest known allusion to the art in this country is in a mine-surveyor's manuscript dated 1430. Nearly a century later pious Martin Luther was so mystified by it that he denounced it as "one of the arts that break the First Commandment".When he wrote the first edition of his Mines of Mendip nearly 40 years ago, J W Gough referred to the great faith put in divining by miners of old."Nowadays", he stated, "this instrument is commonly associated with water-finding, for which its efficacy not only is firmly believed in by all Mendip people, but seems to stand the test of practice; but in the old mining days it was used as much for locating mineral veins as for discovering water, and it has, in fact, been shown conclusively that divining for metals, was historically, prior to divining for water."I have a fascinating little book called The Divining Rod that tells the history of 'John Mullins, Waterworks Engineers, Bath'. This firm founded its fortune on the fact that John Mullins, who died in 1897, discovered accidentally that he had the power to divine water. So had several of his sons and a daughter. By means of the divining rod, this firm located thousands of springs of water that are today supplying towns and villages. They even found a supply substantial enough at the time for J S Fry and Sons' factory at Somerdale.Messrs Mullins were at one time called in to assist Axbridge Rural District Council in their water supply problem. They found a site on the council's own land that they promised would yield a minimum of 50,000 gallons a day at the cost of £500. Later, when this spring was tapped, it gave 150,000 gallons a day.I discovered that I, too, had limited water divining powers when, as a reporter, I attended the opening of Weston Airport in 1936. The Weston to Cardiff air ferry became one of the busiest internal lines in the country, and in view of the special link with Cardiff the city was represented at the opening by a civic party. There was a reception at the Grand Atlantic hotel, and when we gathered in the foyer Sir Illtyd Thomas, the chairman of the Cardiff Airport committee, produced a divining twig. He had divining power and he had been using it to divine water as the Cardiff party flew over the Bristol Channel!He was demonstrating the twig's use for metal divining by placing a half-crown under a foot. The twig was passed around but did not react with anyone until I took over. It became live in my hands and twisted towards the half-crown under my foot.I was the only diviner discovery in the party and Sir Illtyd gave me the twig as a souvenir. He told me that one person in 10 is said to have a certain degree of this power. With me it is not strong enough to be of any practical use, but I have not practised it enough to see what I can get out of it. I have known a twig react very violently at spots where there has obviously been an underground spring of some magnitude. A Y-shaped hazel twig is normally used by diviners.Old 'Cough John', the Worle expert, once said that divining was very exhausting. I support this view. When I discovered that I too, could divine and was eager to try out my powers, I found that half-an-hour's divining left me feeling as though all my strength had been drained from me.Many years ago my brother, Ronald Bailey, the author of Mendip Lore, interviewed 'Cough John' at his "old grey cottage, with tiny windows, low-ceilinged rooms, and russet-tiled roof, at Spring Hill, Worle"He described 'Cough John', whose surname was Osmond, as "about 77 years old, with a rugged, rustic face, and white growth of untrimmed moustache sprouting from his upper lip. He was frail and bent like a Millet peasant, walked with a shambling gait, and was never seen without a long, gnarled stick which he had cut from a hedge. In his coat pocket he always carried a Y-shaped hazel twig, the simple tool of his unusual art."My brother wrote that there was nothing of the trickster or showman about Osmond. "I have been a water diviner all my life," 'Cough John' told him, "and my father was the same. So were my grandfather and great-grandfather, it has been in the family for generations. There were fifteen in my family, but I was the only one besides father who could work the rod."He added that by this means he could always tell the presence of water, silver, copper, lead, iron, and so forth, and its depth from the surface. Even more remarkable was his contention that he could detect by the feel of the twig.But I must finish the story of Weston's water supply. The great pioneer in establishing the town supply was David Gill, one of the old Town Commissioners. In his old age he wrote a long manuscript which he described as Reminiscences of Weston and its Water Supply. In it he tells that the private company which started the local supply bought the Ashcombe spring and the land surrounding in 1847 for £400. They built the Montpelier reservoir, but Weston people were inclined to regard water as something for which they should not pay, and it was a long time before connections to the piped supply became general. Westonians preferred to use rainwater or their wells.It was not until laws were passed aimed at protecting public health that the Weston water undertaking began to thrive. A plot of land was bought from the Pigott Estate on Worlebury hill and here a galvanised-iron-covered reservoir was erected 36 feet above sea level to serve the hill district.Whereat's Weston Guide of 1855 recommended a visit to the reservoir as one of the attractions of Weston! It stated: "Let us now proceed to inspect the reservoir on the hill above us. It is covered with sundry arches of corrugated iron, so that no impurities can be thrown into its capacious basin; neither, on the other hand, may curious eyes peer into its pellucid contents ... the water is forced up by means of a powerful steam engine, which will fill it in about half-an-hour."David Gill records that after the town took over the service it became necessary to sink another well about 30 feet from the old Ashcombe spring. A new shaft was run down to hard rock and the rock was bored, charged and fired. There followed a great inrush of water, which all but filled up the well, although it was 23 feet deep and 12 feet across. According to Gill the water thus struck was from a quite different source, there being a difference of three degrees of hardness between the two."When it is borne in mind," said Gill, "that this bounteous supply comes from a hole in the solid rock 20 feet below the surface, and that it has never shown any sign of failure during a period of more than 20 years - through serious droughts - to say the least, it is remarkable. Its main source is believed by scientists to be a long way from hereabouts, which is fully sustained by statistics during a long series of years."In 1847 the Town Commissioners bought 40 acres around the Milton pumping station, at a cost of £10,000, to prevent the land being built upon, or otherwise used in a way that might prejudice the purity of the water supply, And that was how we came to have Ashcombe Park!The Ashcombe supply eventually became inadequate for Weston's need. Although Weston bought the Banwell pond spring in 1915 it was not until 1924 that the softer Banwell water was flowing through Weston's taps, providing one to six million gallons a day.But even this was to prove insufficient for growing Weston. Under the act by which it obtained possession of the Banwell spring, Weston had to allow up to 750,000 gallons a day flow down the Banwell River for agricultural purposes. In order that as demands increased Weston could take more of the Banwell supply, it was agreed with the West Mendip Drainage Board that they could reduce the flow from the spring down the Banwell River, and instead pump some of the water back into the rhyne system to serve the needs of agriculture.But later Weston again had to look further afield for more water as its water needs rose to a peak summertime demand of just over two million gallons a day. In 1949 arrangements were made with the Bristol Water Works Company to tap their main from the Cheddar Lake at Sidcot and bring the supply of untreated water thus gained up to Banwell hill where reservoir and treatment works were installed. Water consumption is still rising.Unfortunately, under the re-grouping scheme ordered by the Government it was necessary for Weston Borough Council to sell its supply to the Bristol company. The objective of this Government scheme was the nationwide integration of water supplies to avoid shortages. The aim is a good one, but local consumers and the council did not anticipate the staggering increase in the charges for the supply that have been made since it passed from local control. No one questions the efficiency of the Bristol company's service, but if the Weston and Axbridge district authorities could have foreseen what was going to happen, they would no doubt have fought hard to retain control of their undertakings.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on April 26, 1968


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