Cool, Clear Water.

Pipe Hill Pumping Station, near Lichfield. 7th July 2013

Pipe Hill Pumping Station, near Lichfield.
7th July 2013

It’s said  – unscientifically – that Greater London’s tapwater passes through 13 bodies before it is discharged into the mighty Thames.  This I could well believe, when I first tasted it, in September 1980 as I commenced wafting through my degree course at London University. Even before my trunk could be unpacked, draped with my tangy Afghan coat, (hairy side out), and sat upon, from the neighbouring room in my Hall of Residence, a traditional Lancashire greeting rang out.

 “Dust want a brew?” said Heather, melodically.

Luckily, the dire taste of that first shared pot of tea thanks to the worn out water was no reflection on the rich and enduring future of our friendship.  That Surrey water!   It seemed so tainted with strange metropolitan savours that I had no choice but to drink draught bitter throughout term-time.  Coming home to Aldridge that Christmas, the very ordinary outpourings of our kitchen tap in Bosty Lane, supplied to us by the South Staffordshire Water Company, tasted like nectar.

Water sold to us, today’s South Staffs Water customers, is partly derived from its reservoirs at Chelmarsh in Shropshire and at Blithfield, where a beautiful expanse of baby, inland, wavelets flare it into gentle green shores that are thatched, sparsely, with some of the oldest remnants of Needwood Forest.

Water from 69 boreholes also gushes into the supply, and this is what contributes to the fine character of our South Staffordshire glassfuls of Adam’s Ale.  The product is so good, that at Elmhurst it is supplied in bulk to the bottlers and retailers of spring water based drinks. There is a particular satisfaction for us, in filling our own choice of portable water container, for virtually nothing, in the comfort of our own home. Although, when you get where you are going with it on a summer’s day’s excursion, it will have lost its refreshingly frigid allure. Some will justify the purchase a plastic bottle of water from a chiller cabinet .


1955.  Here’s Mother, in the dry and sunny summer of that year, unpacking the makings of tea and bacon sandwiches at the usual spot.  She is kneeling in the long dry grass, in a demure, poppy strewn print frock, near a now late, lamented and uncharacteristically straight stretch of the “curly” Wyrley and Essington Canal, behind South Staffordshire Water Company’s  Pipe Hill Pumping Station, just west of Lichfield. The previous year, 1954, this stretch of the Wyrley and Essington  between Ogley and Huddlesford had been closed to canal traffic.  The lack of disturbance in its reedy, weedy depths can only have been good news for  keen sportsmen like my dad. Respectable catches were occasionally documented on these week end fishing trips. Here are Mom and her friend, Betty, contriving to look astonished by a piscatorial haul, in front of the bridge carrying the Walsall Road over the canal at Pipe Hill.  The optical illusion which my dad seems to have been aiming for is somewhat spoiled by the presence of Ron’s “giant” hands in the picture.


In front of the canal bridge at Pipe Hill.
Would you go fishing without your pearls on?

One breakfast time on the canal, primus stove lit, rashers curling seductively in their bath of fat in the pan, and mugs set down, Mom realised that they had forgotten to fill a jerry can of water to boil for tea.  But there was an obvious solution to this dilemma, which did not involve the dubiously stagnant contents of the canal.  Pipe Hill’s Pumping Station’s impressive Lutyenesque facade of warm red brick, and stone mullions faces the road, away from the canal.  There was no need to trip up the grand steps to an oak door crowned by an austere Gothic arch, of dimensions which would grace any country mansion. Instead, she knocked, kettle in hand, at a rear entrance to the building, to ask for it to be filled with water. The cool interior, the magnificent labyrinth of pipes, wheels and pistons, and the still cooler flow of the water as she swallowed the crystal clear draught given her to drink there, deep in the building, that hot dusty morning, is fresh in her memory.

Pipe Hill Pumping Station in 1968 Two Horizontal Tandem Compound Pumping Engines - Hathorn Davey & Co Ltd, Leeds - 1904  & Ashton Frost & Co Ltd, Blackburn - 1915.   An image from Peter Ellis's  album of stationary engines at

Pipe Hill Pumping Station in 1968
Two Horizontal Tandem Compound Pumping Engines – Hathorn Davey & Co Ltd, Leeds – 1904
& Ashton Frost & Co Ltd, Blackburn – 1915.
An image from Peter Ellis’s album of stationary engines at

She recalled then in conversation to the man who received her at the door, and recalls now, that her father, a pipe fitter, living in Walsall, had been engaged to work on the Lichfield pumping stations before the war – sadly, one of the scant few facts that anyone will ever know about my maternal grandfather’s working life.  The old chap at Pipe Hill that day in 1955 was inclined to think that he may have recalled Edward Sheldon, my grandfather.  He was, after all, memorably tall.  And sociable.

The Lynn and Stonnall Conservation and Historical Society’s “Discovering Stonnall” presents me with an intriguing image of a gang of workers at the Sandhills pumping station, taken when the pumps there were installed in 1935.  There is something familiar about the way that tall, lean chap is standing.  The shape of his head. And the way he is wearing his cap….. What do you think?

From "Discovering Stonnall" by the Lynn and Stonnall Conservation and Historical Society.  The installation of the pumps at Sandhills pumping station.

From “Discovering Stonnall” by the Lynn and Stonnall Conservation and Historical Society. The installation of the pumps at Sandhills pumping station.


My maternal grandfather Edward Sheldon. 1895 – 1963.

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10 Responses to Cool, Clear Water.


    I have left a comment ! That does look like the same Grandfather Sheldon… brilliant.

    Have been to Fron Goch for lunch as it was Lin’s ( Station House) birthday yesterday and we use such anniversary’s as an excuse for a girls day out !  We are all of the opinion that Ty’r Dewin is meant for you !… and then you can join us.. we are batty but amiable so I think you qualify for membership of the Bwlchderwin Belles !

    Sally bought a gingerbread man for Lois, Sam’s daughter, but his head fell off in the excessive heat. in the car .. .. the gingerbread man’s not Sam’s…. my bum sizzled in the heat absorbed into the car seat . I did all chores and mowed summerhouse lawn before picking folks up at 12 so justified in a Magnum when I got back but had to share it with an asthmatic Warren.

    Much love Ros


    • Thanks, Ros. I am not 100% convinced that you wanted to publicise your hot bottom…but I am more than pleased that everyone will know I am destined for the Welsh “Wizard’s House” – and that they will contribute generously to the fund…….

  2. Ann Cross says:

    Such a lovely nostalgic piece thank you. My Dad used to love to go fishing and we would take a picnic and tea making stuff ( I can’t remember if Mom wore her pearls!) and we certainly went to the canal at Pipe Hill a few times. There were other spots Dad liked, Abbots Bromley comes to mind, I will have to ask my brothers!
    I agree with Ros, I think that is your Grandfather, the cap is the key!

  3. Pedro says:

    Passed Chelmarsh Reservoir in June 2005…

    Followed the Staffs Water across the Severn at the water bridge at Hampton Loade (but don’t tell!)…

    Remember once the opening day of the fishing season, donkey’s years ago. Slept in a van waiting for first light. One of the lads was a butcher and he had brought an ample supply of bacon. Around 9 in the morning the bacon was cooked at the river bank, the smell attracted envious anglers from up and down the river!

    But come on Staffs, in them days the best water in the world also went across the Severn on its way to Brummagem!

    Best wishes, Peter

  4. This is wonderful. If you’ve got any more photos of the Canal, the Lichfield & Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust would love to see them

  5. Wendy Hughes says:

    Love your story! Ive been trying to write up about the history of people who worked at the Lichfield Pumping Stations as a volunteer researcher for the Lichfield Waterworks Trust Heritage Group, so was enthralled with your post. We’ve been doing a project called Voices From The Past which is exactly what you’ve touched on. Are you already connected? Would love to hear from you. My maternal Grandad worked at PipeHill pumping station too as a Stationary Engine Driver, Joseph Corbett and even further back more relations at Sandfields.
    Did you know in 2023 (150 years after the Cornish Beam engine installed at Sandfields and JohnMcClean passing) we are toying with the idea of a get together for relatives of previous employees? Would you be interested?
    Kind regards, Wendy Hughes

  6. Duncan Moore says:

    Loved this, thank you. I have been collecting old pictures of the Lichfield canal.
    Thank you so much for sharing these. Do you know of any other pictures?

  7. Hi Wendy – sorry for not replying to you. I don’t live locally now, but would be pleased to give any help or interviews.

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