On Saturday (earlier this month) a brief window of bright sunny weather opened in the morning, so we jumped through it and headed out to Brede – the restored steam engines at the old Waterworks only operate on the first Saturday of each month and on bank holidays. As the first Saturday of March is coming up, Hastings Battleaxe recommends a visit.
We had a slightly interesting journey to get there – the Brede Valley was flooded, and the road by the river was about a foot deep. Some drivers are such fools, the way they surge through floods at high speed – not only will they swamp themselves, but they risk swamping other cars also.
The Waterworks, and the modern treatment plant beside it, are in an isolated and beautiful position in the Brede valley. Originally, coal to fuel the engines was brought by barge up the river and then carried to the works on a little steam railway. However, the wells were sunk in the wrong place – the underground supplies of water turned out to be inadequate. The ‘Giants’ of Brede – the steam engines, are just fabulous. The oldest and most beautiful engine was made by Tangye’s of Birmingham in 1904.
Originally, there were two of them, and their job was to pump water up from the aquifers around 200 feet below the surface, and then drive the water up a further 500 feet and six miles to holding reservoirs in Ore and at Baldslow for distribution to Hastings. The huge engine is in flawless condition, and is still working perfectly after over a hundred years and a long working life – it was superseded by electric pumps in 1964. I could not help reflecting, briefly, on the tragic decline of Birmingham heavy engineering industry. Formerly, the much derided inhabitants of ‘Benefits Street’ would have had a hard, but dignified, working life labouring to make wonderful things such as that engine.
There is another, slightly more modern (1939) but equally huge steam engine that has an engine house all to itself. You could go down underneath the engine and stand below the massive revolving 12 ton fly-wheel and see the piston things rising and falling disturbingly close to your head. These days, the engines only run at about a quarter of their former operating speed. Despite their vast size, their gentle churning and hissing was soothing and hypnotic to listen to and to watch. Currently, they are powered by compressed air. We gave money towards the building of a new boiler house to bring steam back.
As mentioned before when we went on the Kent and East Sussex Railway back in the summer, Battleaxe is fascinated by old engines. Don’t ask me why. Perhaps its genetic. As usual, most of the engine admirers there today were men. In addition to the big engines, there were lots of other smaller pumps and engines working away that had been brought from other waterworks around East Sussex. The outfit is entirely run by volunteers. You could get coffee, and of course – cake. We were impressed, particularly as it is free to go in.
Outside, there was another treat – a big nuclear bunker to wander round. This one would have housed the heads of the utility companies in the South-East. All the fixtures and fittings were still in place. Philosopher and I reflected on the craziness of the thinking back then. There would be these bunkers with groups of big-wigs in, but what were they supposed to do? All the workers would still be outside, presumably unprotected. I suppose they had to plan something, but it was, in practice, pretty meaningless.
We drove back up to Brede and had a look at the church. There were lovely snowdrops in the churchyard, and the view down across the flooded valley was like the Lake District. It is a nice old church, with another Brede ‘Giant’ inside – the tomb of Sir Goddard Oxenbridge, who died in 1541 and was apparently seven feet tall. However, the effigy of him on the top of the tomb was only about half that size. The organist was practising his hymns. ‘O Sacred Head Sore Wounded’, for Easter, presumably. One of my favourites: ‘What sorrow mars thy grandeur? Can death thy bloom deflower’ etc. It was nice to hear it even with a few mistakes and rheumatic organ wheezes.
Republished with the kind permission of Stephanie Gaunt. Battleaxe moved from Birmingham to Hastings in November 2011, with her husband, the Philosopher. They now live overlooking the sea in the Clive Vale area of the town. Formerly a consultant working in social housing, she is now a part-time writer. Building a new life in this quirky, historic and diverse corner of East Sussex. Battleaxe raves, rants – and recommends!
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