Bradford’s Upper Nidderdale Reservoirs

John Bromley

In early September 2022 – after weeks of hot weather and drought conditions – as fate would have it I chose a very wet day to travel from Shipley via Otley through ‘reservoir country’ – in search of Bradford’s stone monuments to water. Passing Fewston and Swinsty, and then Thruscross, all in the Washburn valley, I encountered thick mist over bleak moorland before entering Nidderdale, my destination.  

Map of John’s Route

Dropping down precipitous Greenhow Hill into Pateley Bridge, then along narrow winding roads with looming trees dripping heavily, I chanced upon a brown sign for Scar House reservoir. After several miles the road snakes along Gouthwaite Reservoir and from occasional glimpses through trees it seemed surprisingly full. This was the first of the three Upper Nidderdale reservoirs, completed in 1901 as ‘a compensation reservoir’ to supply water to the industries and households of Nidderdale that would, otherwise, suffer from water being taken away to satisfy the increasing needs of the Bradford area. This is the first of my monuments.

After passing through Lofthouse I turned onto the Yorkshire Water’s minor road towards Scar House. The road climbed steadily northwards and then westwards, eventually giving sight of the reservoir, looking grey and forbidding. I parked and stared out at the wet surroundings and contemplated getting out of the car just as a cloud burst began lashing it. I sat awhile until the fusillade faded into lighter rain, eventually venturing outside to get into my waterproofs and boots.

Scar House dam roadway (John Bromley)

Togged-up I headed in the direction of the massive dam wall and its roadway, carefully getting my iPad out of the rucksack to take photographs of the impressive castellated stone towers that guard the entrance to my second monument. Each tower carries a plaque – one to the date of the start of construction in 1921 and the second to the completion in 1936. I am full of admiration for the exceptional stonework. Our forebears did not spare expense!

Still in rain I ventured between the sturdy walls to the centre of the dam where there is another impressive tower above the overflow spillway. The dry conditions of previous weeks meant that the spillway was carrying no water. Looking westwards into the mist, I risked a photo of the diminished water level in the reservoir itself. Later, I was pleased with the dramatic result.

Scar House: John Bromley
Scar House overspill channel: John Bromley

Even on such a wet day there were other visitors. Some people might have taken the walk that goes around Scar House then crosses the dam wall of Angram reservoir, my third monument. Angram lies below the heights of Great Whernside, a main source of the water into the Upper Nidderdale reservoirs. On the return leg the walk passes the overgrown foundations of Scar village, created to accommodate the workers and their families, including a school, a church, a hospital and many other structures. In the damp surroundings it felt dramatic below the looming hillsides, the source of vast quantities of stone needed for the reservoirs. In the best traditions of human ingenuity, the valley also had its own light railway to support the building works and the needs of the village residents.

Still in light rain I was relieved to return to the shelter of the car. Back in Pateley Bridge heavy rain again kept me in the car, before I made a dash to the Nidderdale Museum housed in the former Victorian workhouse. I was not only delighted to be in the warmth and out of the rain but the museum held another treat, a detailed video film covering the construction of the three Upper Nidderdale reservoirs. I was surprised to learn how Bradford Corporation allocated a budget of over £2,000,000 for the construction of Scar House and that in 1936 it was Europe’s deepest reservoir. I was also impressed that the tasty water that I consume every day travels 32 miles from Upper Nidderdale to Bradford, via aqueducts, through some 6 miles of tunnels and other support structures.

Hillside quarry, steam crane and stone-filled wagons: Permission of Nidderdale Museum

Amongst the museum’s display panels are several with awesome photographs of the construction of the Upper Nidderdale reservoirs. As well as the emerging skeletons of the dams I was amazed at the images of men in minimal protective work clothing manoeuvring huge slabs of stone into position and undertaking other arduous tasks. I hope that the workers who at that time looked into the camera lens felt pride in their efforts.

The continuing service of these three reservoirs, after nearly 100 years, is testimony to foresight, engineering and craft skills, and endurance, to which I remain in awe.