Monday, April 12, 2021
HomeNewsNotes from the sticks: The drowned village

Notes from the sticks: The drowned village

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THERE is something not quite right about reservoirs which wildlife seems to recognise. Perhaps it is the changing water level which presumably makes it impossible for vegetation to take hold round the edge, and results in barren banks when the water is low.

You can see the effect in this picture of Stocks reservoir, a few miles from us in Lancashire.

Whether or not it is the banks that deter water birds I don’t know, but there are fewer than you would expect on a body of water this size, apart from cormorants attracted by the trout with which the lake is stocked for anglers, and the inevitable flocks of gulls. Apparently many types of wildfowl and waders call in during migration providing the water is low, but on my visits the overwhelming impression has been of lifelessness. This picture seems to convey it.

To me there is also a melancholy air about the place. I wonder if this is because building the reservoir necessitated drowning a village. There is a brief account of it here with some great old pictures.

Around 1910 it was realised that a reservoir was needed to supply water to the area round Blackpool, then a growing and thriving resort. The chosen site was the upper Hodder valley, known as Dalehead, where the village of Stocks in Bowland was situated.

The village consisted of scattered farms and homes. It had a school, a pub first called the New Inn and later the Travellers Rest, a blacksmith, a shop, a church and a graveyard.

In 1912 Parliamentary legislation was passed allowing for construction of the reservoir, road diversions, and the exhumation of bodies from the graveyard. From then on the Fylde Water Board acquired the land in the area, either by direct negotiation with the owners or by compulsory purchase. The Board eventually bought approximately 9,750 acres at a cost of £150,000. After the Great War, the legislation was renewed in 1919 and according to the Dalehead website (which has a lot more detail and old photographs) it was only at this point that the villagers (who would all have lived in property rented from landowners) found out that they were to be evicted and their valley flooded. This came about after the rector of nearby Slaidburn by chance read a Parliamentary report in the Times. The villagers had no money to oppose the plans so they just had to move away.

Work began on the dam to form the reservoir in 1921 and lasted 11 years. It involved diverting the Hodder through a culvert, creating a temporary village for 500 workers, many of Irish origin, and building a railway system to link the site with the main line.

Construction was tough work. The first job was to dig down to rock, then make a trench and fill it with 11,876 cubic yards of concrete. To form the waterproof heart of the dam 69,842 cubic yards of clay dug from nearby fields was laid in layers by hand and ‘puddled’ or trodden in by the navvies in thigh-length boots working constantly in water pumped into the trench to make the clay workable. The dam embankment was formed of 732,000 cubic yards of earth, most of it excavated from within the reservoir.

During 1927 150 bodies were exhumed from the graveyard of St James’ Church and reburied in a new graveyard on higher land half a mile away. In accordance with tradition the exhumations took place at ‘dead of night’ between midnight and 4am. The Dalehead website says the workers involved ‘were well fortified with rum, but the work was carried out with great decorum and respect for the dead’. Thirty bodies could not be identified and were placed together in a mass grave.

The last service at the village church was on May 24, 1936. Afterwards the building was dismantled and re-erected in smaller form beside the graveyard.

Strangely, I can’t find out when they started filling the reservoir with water or how long it took, but the official opening was performed by Prince George on July 5, 1932. You can see pictures here. The site of the old church was never flooded and is now a car park.

One day we met a group of men doing maintenance on the dam and associated structure.

I can’t remember the exact description of their expertise but it was to do with working in confined spaces. My idea of hell. They had several vans, one of which contained toilets and hygiene facilities – a necessity for working in remote areas which had never occurred to me.

There is an eight-mile walk all round the reservoir, and it is very pleasant. I cannot wholly enjoy it though.

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The mallard power struggles continue. It is fascinating to have a white drake because all the rest look identical to my eye. Last week Whitey was top dog but this week he is No 3 in the pecking order with two standard drakes having bested him. The changing hierarchy seems to be worked out by regular fighting. They don’t have much weaponry beyond their beaks but they can be quite vicious with a lot of feather-pulling and attempted drowning. The females have mainly disappeared so I suppose they are nesting although it is still perishing cold. When they come to the stream for a quick wash and brush-up, and to grab a snack, they have to run the gauntlet of drakes which want to mate with them, and they don’t bother with chat-up lines – a nasty business.

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At the end of January I wrote about the emerging butterbur plants (Petasites albus) in nearby woodland. It’s taken them a while to get going with cold weather ever since, but they are showing movement now. These are photos from five weeks ago and yesterday:

These are the close-ups from then and now. 

No sign yet of the big leaves to come.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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