For town dwellers with taps connected to the mains it is impossible most of the time to understand the countryman’s preoccupation with water. Yet, with the current, seemingly endless drought, they may soon think differently.
If the countryman has a well he will watch it like a hawk, endlessly checking the level, watching the sky for rain, recalling with neighbours infamous droughts and the pattern of precipitation throughout each and every year. Some might think him obsessed. In very dry country areas, water is almost a form of currency, with water-rich villagers looking at less fortunate neighbours with a mixture of pity and scorn. Most people in towns think of prolonged periods of rain as an irritation. The countryman, however, looks on such downpours philosophically, saying, ‘Ah, good for the well!’
Collecting water is one of the most ancient jobs known to man. Buckets and yokes were used in prehistoric times and were still being used by the Victorians. Going to the stream was a daily task for cottagers. In the illustrations from our Victorian Picture Library we see girls dipping a bucket and jug. They probably had to make several journeys a day to the well or stream, and more on washing day.
Going for water was considered ‘ooman’s work’ (woman’s work). Flora Thompson, in Lark Rise to Candleford recounts how many villagers felt that if a woman made her husband go for water it was a ‘sin and a shame’. One reason for this view could be that it was believed that the women enjoyed going for water because it gave them the opportunity to meet with their friends. While they queued they could indulge in a bout of good old-fashioned gossip. The task might have been onerous, but at least it had its compensations.
It has been pointed out how curious it was that Jack and Jill went up a hill to fetch a pail of water. Most wells lie on low ground, and it was the job of the skilled water-diviner to find a reliable source. This age-old technique employs nothing more than a forked stick, and has not been superseded by modern technology. Everyone hired the diviner, even those who were sceptical about the realms of the unknown and the spiritual. Wells could be a hundred feet deep, others mere scratchings in the ground. Every country area had its own unique geology, and the depth and amount of water differed significantly over a patch of ground a hundred yards wide. If a well did start to run dry and the owner brought in the well-digger, it could lead to serious disputes: nothing incensed a villager more than the belief that his neighbour was stealing his water by diverting the underground streams.
Turning on a tap hardly offers us the time or opportunity to think. Yet turning the handle of an old windlass or working the pump can lead us into a quiet world of meditation and reflection. Some would go further and say that having a well encourages the philosophical frame of mind. Rider Haggard, writer and farmer, reported that when he was digging out a deep, disused well in his native Norfolk he came upon sea sand and thousands of shells lining the bottom. It led him to reflect on the distant origins of man and the planet, and how ‘in some dim age the sea once rolled’ a hundred feet below the present level of the earth.
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