They are a feature of our East Anglian landscapes but how are water towers built, and why do we need them? Christine E Jackson explains
There are two kinds of landmark that stand vigil over our county landscape – church towers and water towers. However, while many church towers are centuries old, their water equivalents date from the 20th century. Because the landscape is either flat or gently undulating, they are visible for miles in all directions around them. From a distance the distinctive geometric shape is clearly silhouetted
On closer inspection, it becomes clear that the water tank is either octagonal, hexagonal or cylindrical, all being supported on columns. The columns may be slender or sturdy for they are calculated to support the weight of the tank plus water whatever the weather and wind strength. Access from the ground may be through a central core support, sometimes with windows in it to provide some light for men climbing the stairs. A ladder against the central pillar provides access to the top level. Access to the tank is necessary because the tank needs to be emptied and cleaned approximately every five years.
Our flat landscape is the reason towers have been built to store water. They are a feature of the low-lying counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Bedfordshire and Lincolnshire. Counties situated in hill country have reservoirs on high ground from which the water flows naturally down to the towns and villages on lower ground. The towers were costly to construct, consequently the design capacity rarely exceeded the equivalent of one day’s supply of water for local houses – usually between 20,000 and 50,000 gallons. Some are much larger when supplying towns such as Woodbridge that has a 150,000 gallon tank. (The tanks were calculated to hold a certain number of gallons. To convert to litres multiply by 4.546).
In the 1930s water was being piped to individual properties for the first time. Before then, wells and village pumps were the source of everyone’s water supply. The piped water necessitated large storage of water in reservoirs, but for properties on higher ground than the reservoir, water towers were needed to hold the water at a level where it could flow down to them. Pressure pumps lifted the water from a reservoir into the tank on the top of a tower built of bricks, so if you see a brick water tower it probably pre-dates the Second World War. Post 1945 the towers were built of concrete.
(left) Rushmere near Ipswich, a more elegant water tower (centre) A more conventional water tower at Gazeley (right) The tower at Bradfield St Clare
In Suffolk there are approximately 50 water towers, with different architectural and structural designs. They are well designed by engineers but because they were constructed in brutal concrete, they cannot be regarded as objects of beauty, except when seen from a distance. Then, their pleasing geometrical shapes add to the interest of the skyline.
They are always worth a second look, because they are rarely duplicated, each being of a unique design and differing in size according to the capacity of waterstorage required. Some attempts to soften the stark concrete have been made by painting them in different colours.
Why does the county have water stored in towers? It is to guarantee water pressure. The gallons held on high are used when demand increases on the storage below, at teatime or during advertisement breaks in popular television programmes.
This is re-filled from a ground level reservoir via a pumping station, e.g. at Stone Lodge a concrete reservoir underneath a grassy mound contains 40 million gallons of water. This is used to pump into the water tower to supply homes on higher ground while the reservoir water supplies water direct to houses on lower ground.
A tower’s height measurement is given as TWL (top water level) and BWL (bottom water level). Usually the distance between the two is approximately 10 feet. The overall height varies between 100 feet and 200 feet. Stowmarket, Eye, and Saxmunham towers, all pre-1948 buildings are over 200 feet, most built post 1958 are also over 200 feet. The highest, nearly 300 feet, e.g. Middlewood Green at 285 feet with 250,000 gallons, catered for the greatest capacities.
In East Suffolk a number of similar water towers were built in the 1950s – Barking in 1957; Blythborough and Dennington in 1953, and West Road, Ipswich in 1952. In the west, the highest number of water tanks being built occurred in the 1960s and 1970s and had the most inventive designs, taking inspiration from wine glasses (Boyton Hall, near Withersfield).
The outstanding, most elegant Suffolk construction that is truly impressive is called the Rushmere Water Tower, built in 1992-4. The overall height of the reinforced concrete (designed in metres) is 137.76 feet (42 metres), the tank is 32.8 feet (10 metres) high and 32.47 feet (9.9 metres) in overall diameter, lined with resin and with a capacity of 250,470 gallons (1,138,500 litres). The effort to make this a notable structure with care and attention to elevations and surfaces was then spoilt by allowing space on top of the water tank to be leased to owners of communications companies.
This new use for water towers was found when the tops sprouted aerials for mobile phone companies, BBC and television stations, local taxis, the police and the fire brigade.
Redundant water towers in Suffolk have been taken over by farmers for local use for their fields, dismantled (as Oulton Broad near Lowestoft in 1991) or sold to renovate for homes, such as one at Culford. The “House in the Clouds” at Thorpeness is Suffolk’s most famous redundant water tower that held 72,000 gallons. It was originally built as a house with a water tower on top in 1923 and was converted into a five storey, six-bedroomed house in 1968. This, and the Ipswich Park Road tower dating from 1924, are among the oldest built in the county.
Under the Local Government Act of 1972 the water supply and drainage responsibility of all local authorities within the East Anglian region were merged to become Anglian Water. The cost of building a water tower was always high, being some £30,000 in the 1950s and rising steadily each succeeding decade.
Now, the days of building water towers may be numbered because variable speed pumps, running continuously throughout the day and night, maintain water pressure and are cheaper.
The view from the top of any one of the Suffolk water towers is spectacular. Sometimes visitors are allowed to visit a tower and climb to the top.
Often, there is also a clear view of one or more other water towers. Mundane these utilitarian towers may be, but they are interesting and impressive parts of our landscape wherever you go in Suffolk.
Christine E Jackson is an author, writer and local historian.