September 2015 – The History of Kielder Water

The new season of the Alnwick and District Local History Society got off to a cracking start with a talk on the history of the Kielder Water reservoir by David Archbold, who has worked in the water industry for many years.

Water demand rose rapidly with the Industrial Revolution in Victorian times.  Up until 1797, only the rich could afford to be connected to a water supply, for one day per week!  After this, the Newcastle Fire Office took over, but there was little investment: water was delivered by carts.  The cholera epidemics led to the establishment of water companies by local councils.

The development of the post-war ICI works and steel manufacture on Teesside led to the construction of three new reservoirs at Selset, Balderhead and Cow Green, in the 1960’s to keep up with demand.  In 1966, a government report was published on the pressing need for more water for the north-east region.

At that time water supply was fragmented.  There were local Water Boards and Water Companies, and the newly formed Northumbrian River Authority (NRA) was also highly influential.  Against expectation, the working party formed to consider the problem worked well together, and a number of schemes were considered.  The prime mover in favour of a large long-lasting scheme was Urban Burston, a member of the Sunderland and South Shields Water Company, and two such schemes were short-listed.  Kielder was favoured over the more expensive River Irthing scheme.

This was because there was: a high rainfall; a flat-bottomed valley with a narrow neck; a good supply of clay in the valley bottom; no known archaeological remains; the area had already been damaged by forestry; and the population was small and sparse.

It would also be possible to control the flow of water in the River Tyne.  The great flood of 1771 destroyed all the Tyne bridges except Corbidge.  Recent floods have been caused by torrential rainfall, combined with pre-existing high river levels and various local factors.

An enquiry was held in 1972, and the Kielder scheme was recommended.  Unfortunately, Kielder was in Geoffrey Rippon’s constituency, and he was Minister for the Environment.  He compromised and ordered that the River Irthing scheme to be re-examined.  At the new enquiry, the behaviour of the industrial witnesses from Teesside was odd: the man from ICI did not turn up, and the British Steel representative left before he could be cross-examined.  Their expansion plans, on which the high water estimates were grounded, were based on a chimera, and no doubt they did not wish to say so.  So the scheme went ahead, construction work commencing in 1975, and it was opened by the Queen in May 1982.

On the basis of the figures provided by the government report, it was expected that Kielder would be able to meet demand up until 2001!  In the event, industrial needs are minimal, and there has been a decline in population. The scheme has been called a “white elephant”.  But this is with hindsight.  Kielder is under-used, but served a useful purpose in supplying water as far south as York in the 1990’s when there was severe drought.  It has flushed out pollution spills, though perhaps its main function now is in the new leisure “industry”. This is a major employer and has invigorated this very remote area.  And Kielder will keep us supplied with water till at least 2050!

The next meeting of the Society will be on 27th October at 7.30pm at Bailiffgate Museum (doors open at 7pm), when Andrew Griffin will be talking about W T Stead of Embleton.