Alnwick and District Local History Society

The new season of 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. Until 1797 only the rich could afford to be connected to a supply for one day per week. After this, the Newcastle Fire Office took over, but there was little investment: water was delivered by carts. 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 1960s. In 1966 a Government report was published on the need for more water for the North East.

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 influential. The working party formed to consider the problem worked well 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 high rainfall, a flat-bottomed valley with a narrow neck, a good supply of clay, 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.

An inquiry was held in 1972 and the Kielder scheme was recommended. Kielder was in Geoffrey Rippon’s constituency, and he was Minister for the Environment. He ordered that the River Irthing scheme be re-examined.

At the new inquiry, the behaviour of the industrial witnesses 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.

The scheme went ahead, construction work commencing in 1975. It was opened by the Queen in May, 1982.

On the basis of the figures provided, it was expected that Kielder would be able to meet demand until 2001. In the event, industrial needs are minimal and there has been a decline in population.

Kielder is under-used, but served a useful purpose in supplying water as far south as York in the 1990s when there was drought. It has flushed out pollution spills, though perhaps its main function now is in the leisure industry. This is a major employer and has invigorated this remote area. Kielder will keep us supplied with water until at least 2050.

The next meeting of the society will be on October 27, at 7.30pm, at Bailiffgate Museum, (doors open at 7pm), when Andrew Griffin will talk about WT Stead, of Embleton