The Enduring Romance of Waterscapes


Dr Andrew McTominey, Leeds Beckett University

Water has been in the news a fair amount recently. The torrid rains of February 2020 have once again highlighted the inadequate nature of flood defences across the country. Similarly, the partial collapse of Whaley Bridge Dam, Derbyshire in December 2019 reminded us of the fallibility of Victorian engineering during times of particularly bad weather, as well as the impact that reservoirs continue to have on the communities that live around them. Perhaps a less well covered story in Britain highlighted the other end of the spectrum, a lack of water. An article in The Guardian from the beginning of December 2019 reported that the great waterfall at Victoria Falls, on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, had dried to a trickle following the worst drought to befall the area in a century. The article bore stark pictures of the falls, with small pools of water and bare rock in place of the usually gushing waters of the Zambezi River. The drought was projected to have a major impact on Victoria Falls – not in terms of ecology, although energy production downstream was predicted to be affected, but for tourism. A German student visiting the falls was disappointed with the lack of water, describing the site as consisting of ‘a few rocky stones with a little water between it’.

View of the Washburn Valley reservoirs, no date

This speaks to the aesthetic value that we attach to what could be termed waterscapes. The Cumbria Tourism newsletter for 2018 reported that 47 million people visited the Lake District in 2017, whilst other, less celebrated lakes and reservoirs remain popular sites for recreation. Whilst offering varied walking routes and other items of interest such as botany and history, the natural beauty of these areas holds a lot of cultural value for many. Of course, the word ‘natural’ is salient here, as many of these landscapes, particularly in areas of Yorkshire such as the Washburn Valley, were engineered. Prior to the construction of reservoirs by the Leeds Corporation in the 1870s, the valley was home to small industrial community and a narrow, relatively minor river that flowed into the River Wharfe near Otley. The artist J.M.W. Turner, a friend of local landowner Walter Fawkes II, often stayed at Farnley Hall and painted scenes from around the area. However, the construction of earthen-embankment reservoirs, which sank into the land and gave the reservoirs the appearance of natural lakes, gave the valley an added dimension. The area was already considered idyllic by Romantic standards, but the imposition of urban engineering created the ‘Leeds Lake District’. The cultural landscape of the Washburn Valley, then, was indelibly impacted by the construction of an urban waterworks system.

Why do these places hold such cultural currency, even into the present? It has much to do with the legacy of Romanticism and the rural idyll, and the places that we value. There is a particular image of the countryside that still holds sway within society, one that might have featured on the front of H.V. Morton’s In Search of England, one of rolling hills, solitary thatch-roofed houses and the village pub. These spaces are often set against urban areas – less in the sense of towns and cities being dirty, industrial areas in comparison to the clean open air of the countryside as in the past two centuries, but more getting away from the hustle and bustle, away from work and technology. It is interesting, then, that areas like the Washburn Valley were idealised as a result of urban engineering; the area would not look as it does now if not for the construction of municipal reservoirs, which, according to newspaper correspondents and guidebook writers, heightened the beauty and idyllic nature of the valley.

This also highlights why it is important for environmental historians to consider expressions of culture and, simultaneously, why cultural historians should look to incorporate histories of the environment. Examining cultural attitudes to the environment call help to illustrate how they are managed, engineered, or preserved. The example of Victoria Falls is a case in point – the main issue with the drought was to do with the area’s aesthetic appearance and the subsequent effect of tourism, not what drought meant in ecological terms. Considering how the cultural landscape is conceived from an environmental perspective, then, can help to illustrate what we deem to be important. Just as local communities continue to feel the impact of the nineteenth and twentieth century quest for urban water, these rural waterscapes across the world are still conceived as places of beauty, attracting hundreds of visitors. This can be seen in global sites, like Victoria Falls, just as much as in the ‘Leeds Lake District’.


Read ‘The Leeds Lake District’ in Cultural and Social History 


About the author: Andrew McTominey is a part-time lecturer at Leeds Beckett University. His PhD, completed in 2019, examined the multiple and incremental impacts of reservoir construction, built by the Leeds Corporation between 1866 and 1966, in the Washburn Valley, North Yorkshire. This included examining themes such as environmental change, urban governance, the culture landscape, leisure, and community. He is currently working on the impacts of drought in the English city during the inter-war period, particularly focused on environmental impact and the cultural links between water usage and citizenship.

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