Thursday, 3 January 2013

Visitor Experiences

Many thanks to Anne Farmer for this article written after a visit to the museum on New Years Day! Enjoy!

Water, water everywhere

Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the ancient Mariner’, containing this famous line, has been on our collective minds recently.

Much of Somerset started 2013 under the stuff (water) so it was almost de rigueur to pay a visit on New Year’s day to Westonzoyland Pumping Station Museum, off the still-flooded A361. The Pumping Station was, as the aficionados say, ‘Under Steam’, and the star of the show was the original Easton Amos Land Drainage Machine, which used to pump water off the flooded levels at a rate of 100 tons a minute.

Power for this and a the hugely diverse range of other engines is provided by another monster, the woodfired Marshall Portable Boiler – though it didn’t seem all that portable to me with a thirty-foot chimney belching black smoke and devouring great lumps of timber in its fiery furnace.

This was the first pumping station built on the Somerset Levels in 1831, to lift water from the Moors and Levels into the River Parrett and ultimately into the sea. Flooding is endemic to the area, as natural drainage is impeded by a belt of clay to the North, and the high tides of the Bristol Channel.

The monks of Glastonbury Abbey had dug rhynes in the thirteenth century, but their work ceased with the dissolution of the monasteries. Modern attempts to tame the water date from an 1830 Act of Parliament setting up the drainage district of Othery, Middlezoy and Westonzoyland.

Eventually the banks of the Parrett were raised and in 1951 the Easton Amos was retired in favour of a modern diesel-powered pump situated across the rhyne. The buildings and machinery were saved from dereliction by the Westonzoyland Engine Trust formed in 1977.

There was much else on display too, manned by a marvellous body of volunteers in what seems to be the uniform – interesting hats (more bowlers than you ever see in the City now) waistcoats and neckerchiefs ( preferably worn with a rascally smudge of soot on the cheek). I loved the forge, where the last blacksmith worked until 1955, leaving beautifully arranged tools on the wall as if he’d just popped out for a cuppa.

The human scale of the enterprise is also evident in the ‘Leaning Loo’, now public but formerly the domain of the station attendant. Soft ground has resulted in giving ‘a whole new meaning to the term “listed building”!’( Thanks to the brochure for that one!) You don’t have to be a qualified engineer (or ever to have possessed a meccano set) to appreciate all this local colour and enthusiasm.

But as a reminder that amid this History there is a clear and present problem, half a mile upstream were huge temporary pumps that are currently whooshing thousands of gallons of floodwater into the River Parrett at Burrowbridge. It is an awesome sight, and a reminder that often the forces of Nature often seem to gain the upper hand. Our current difficulties are set firmly in their historical context by a visit to the pumping station, which is open every Sunday afternoon, and In Steam on the first Sunday of the month from April to November, and most Bank Holidays. One more thought - When does the Drought start?

Anne Farmer

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