Life before the reservoirs retold in picturesque valley

What was West End village; now under Thruscross reservoir
What was West End village; now under Thruscross reservoir
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Bodies have been exhumed from the graveyard and a church tower looms ominously amidst the trees that lead down to the reservoir below. This may draw a picture reminiscent of an opening scene from Midsomer Murders but the reality is that Detective Barnaby isn’t needed here and the bones that have been dug up are those that had to be moved before building work could commence on the Washburn Heritage Centre that opened three years ago in Fewston.

A long, winding route from Fewston Reservoir leads to the church of St Michael & St Lawrence, built in 1697, where ten years ago a plan was hatched to provide better facilities that would help with the activities held there.

Sally Robinson, the chairperson of the heritage centre’s management committee tells of how the initial idea led to one of Yorkshire’s newest attractions that saw 11,000 visitors last year: “At the time the only facility available was a cold water tap. There was no kitchen or toilets and a need to at least provide those for people who were coming to art exhibitions and musical events held in the church. I don’t think anyone anticipated anything quite as grand as we have now.

“What emerged, when a group was formed to come up with an extension to the church, was a far larger plan. Our thoughts turned to the thousands of visitors that come to the Washburn Valley every year, how there was nothing to tell them about this beautiful area and what it used to be like prior to the reservoirs and since they were built.”

Grants were obtained from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the European LEADER fund.

“Our programme now encompasses a wide variety of heritage-related themes from looking back at the Washburn Valley Show that ran from 1906-1973 to the hostelries, churches and chapels in the area, farming and of course water given the proliferation of reservoirs that stretch for 16 miles. We’re also interested in exploring further the people who lived here centuries ago such as a chap called Robert Collier whose parents worked at Blubberhouses Mill. He became a well-known rector in America.

“There are over 100 listed buildings in the valley area and we’ve been able to shed more light on why they were there. Naturalists are particularly fascinated by the wide range of wildlife habitats, from moorland to pastoral. We also run a history project that has seen us interview over 50 elderly residents who have long associations with the valley and produced six films with Leeds Trinity University.”

Tom Cox’s parents moved to Blubberhouses in 1939 just following his birth and he spent his whole childhood playing in the area. He’s now a warden at the centre.

“We lived in a house called High Apprentices on Hardisty Hill. In those days during the summer holidays boys like me would leave home after breakfast and not come back in until 7.30pm. We got to know the valley and the people in the houses would feed you if you just turned up unannounced. I used to like going up the valley where West End Dam now starts because if you played up on the hillside you had enormous rocks that had been there since the valley had been formed. We would spend an afternoon playing as though we were living in a cave.

“When I heard of what was happening here I came along armed with a wad of postcard photographs that must have been taken in the 1920s and included the magnificent Skaife Hall, which has long since been demolished. It was a wonderful building. Others showed Blubberhouses Bridge and also Blubberhouses Post Office before they all went.”

Tom remembers the days when he worked for Leeds Corporation Waterworks. The reservoirs of the Washburn Valley were built during the latter part of the 19th century to provide water for Leeds. It was an age before health and safety was as prevalent as it is today otherwise he wouldn’t have taken receipt of a potentially lethal weapon so easily.

“One role I had was to fell all the trees around West End Reservoir. We were all presented with chainsaws, just like that. No training, no helmets, no ear protectors, we were given a can of petrol and shown how to mix two-stroke and off we went.”

Thruscross Reservoir was the last to be built and began being used in 1966. The demolished remains of the church can be seen during heavy drought conditions. When the churchyard was excavated for building work to start, the remains of bodies buried in the 17th and 18th centuries were exhumed. Work has since been conducted on five named individuals with the consent of relatives.

“We met with the living descendants and they’ve been very happy with the progress being made into finding out more about how they lived, including such detail as the diet of their ancestors,” says Sally.

The scraping of calcified plaque off the back of the teeth and DNA evidence have been useful clues. Blood traces from some of the bodies suggest they suffered from as-yet-unidentified disease.

“The work undertaken has blown us away and we’re hoping to gain additional funding to launch another exhibition and a short film about what life was like through the eyes of these named individuals.”

Thousands of heritage items

Washburn Heritage Centre is open on Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays from 11am to 4.30pm from April to October, and Sundays and Bank Holidays from November to March.

Rachel Bachelor, the centre’s co-ordinator, tells of the latest heritage work: “We’re about to launch the Washburn Valley Archive which will be of particular interest to those who want to check out ancestors and family history. It already contains over 4,000 items and is bound to be popular with those who have a connection here.

“This year’s Heritage Centre themes are valley crafts, sport and archaeology. Our 80-plus volunteers ensure that our visitors learn much more about this wonderful place where we live.”