Well, well, well

I live in East Anglia, the driest region in the country with an average of only 18-22 inches rainfall per year, and moreover I live on the east side of Breckland in the driest part of all. Right in the very middle of the bulge into the North sea I am sheltered from the south westerly winds that bring most rain and also far from the moist sea winds coming off the East coast. Without exception during the growing season water is in short supply. True the last couple of years we have had plenty of winter rain and even a little during summer but there is never enough.

An average growing crop needs at least an inch of rain a week and nine years out of ten this never comes when most required. Of course in the years before hose pipe bans I could be profligate and use the mains supply but I never liked doing this as it seemed wasteful to pour drinking quality water with chlorine in it onto my organic crops. And it is cold old stuff straight out of the tap. None the less by experimenting with copious amounts, particularly with trench irrigation, I assured myself that nothing we can do can improve yields better than simply adding more moisture to the soil during the growing season.

With water metering on the horizon and the desire for self sufficiency where practical I tried to store more rain water and recycled all my grey water. Indeed I guttered almost everything and accumulated a multitude of diverse water butts with syphons linking them all together. But even my best efforts could not store enough to do more than supply my plants under cover. There just was never enough to use on fruit, flowers or on vegetables in the open ground.

In my last garden I was fortunate enough to uncover an old well and I had it in mind that as mine was an old site in the middle of a village it may also once have had a well. During a drought and hosepipe ban I found out that if you had your own well you could use up to 12,000 gallons a day for your own private use irrespective of any hosepipe bans (apparently it may be that you are not allowed to use a hosepipe even though you are entitled to use the water!-but you may use a hosepipe during a ban for hygiene and health purposes such as hosing out a hen hut or dog kennel)

On checking local maps and records I discovered that almost every house in my village had wells, indeed next door on one side had three! Unfortunately it seemed possible from the position of one of the latter it had been on my property originally but had gone with past re-arrangement and cutting up of the site. Still not to be undaunted I looked at all the old photographs and plans anew and one spot seemed particularly interesting. On the north side of one of the old outsheds had been a circular depression filled with nettles. Looking at the site it seemed possible this might have been a well.

I was reworking this area anyway, the shed had been pulled down before it fell, and the spot seemed perfect for a herb garden I was planning. Moreover as I was planning on a raised herb bed to get some warm slopes I could use the spoil from unpacking this old well. So I had the idea of situating the herb garden around this well using it as a central feature. Work commenced, the area was cleared of plant growth and a dark circle was revealed under the top soil together with a few old red bricks.

These bricks however did not make a nice circle as I had hoped but seemed to be more rectilinear. Indeed instead of being the top courses of a well lining they seemed to be more of a filling. I continued to excavate the lovely dark soil coming out of the well which had an admixture of inter-war rubbish along with more bricks. Then I hit a layer of something dark and peat like. I was puzzled as my village is on the edge of a drained fen with fifty feet of peat in it but I was on the other side, on river silt over clay. What was a peat layer doing down five or six feet deep below the level at which clay started.

Then I found the shoe. True a very old shoe but still a shoe, and rather likely by the remains of a brolly handle with it a Victorian one. At first it did not dawn on me but then as I kept digging the hole I was re-excavating it panned out and I was digging soiled and stained but otherwise virgin clay. With a sinking feeling I realised that this was not a well but a khasi pit, a hole dug to receive odure dropped in from a wee shed above. A pit that had obviously become redundant and been filled with junk and soil over the years and most definitely not a well.

I had dug a hole four feet across and five feet deep and all I had to show for it was some rich soil for the flower beds (too rich for the herbs and I was dubious now about possible health implications). Exhausted I gave up and left off the job to think about what to do with my folly. But the next day the hole had water in it, several inches and it had not rained and this was the middle of summer. It was obviously working as a ground water sump and the water level was not out of sight even in that dry season. This surprised me as my neighbour's wells all went down much deeper and their water levels were far lower. Presumably these were sunk and lined to reach pure water and not just the surface leachings. Still for my plants impure ground water would do fine.

I did not dare dig much deeper without lining this hole to prevent the sides crumbling so digging stopped for awhile and I watched the water in the hole rise again each day as I bucketed it out. The raising of the herb bed sides enabled me to lower the area around the mouth of the hole by another foot and to pave the surface with concrete. I planted up the herb bed and every so often dug my hole a little deeper. An extra foot or so was really worthwhile as I could take a bucketful of water almost every time I passed, but I had to get deeper if I was to get enough.

The problem was I was seriously worried about the sides collapsing on me while I was digging, quite rightly so! And the walls also needed lining as the water was eroding them away so the hole was getting wider and threatened to undermine the path around it. It had to be lined. There were several alternatives considered from proper brickwork and concrete through to glass fibre reinforced resin but the cheapest and simplest was to cut the top and bottom out of a heavy duty 500gallon plastic drum. The resulting rigid cylinder was dropped into the hole and the gap all round filled with coarse gravel.

This worked well and the gravel filtered the water oozing in so it was clearer but still in insufficient quantities. However I now had a fairly safe hole to dig in and was happy to start going down deeper. Of course as I did then I also had to lift the spoil up higher and soon it needed two people; one to dig and one to haul out the bucket and barrow away the clay. It's surprising how much spoil you have to get rid of! The next problem was that water now filled in the hole more quickly and as I descended inch by inch it trickled in faster and faster. Still soft wet soil is easier to dig than hard clay so a little was done each day. The water conveniently softening the bottom layer as work stopped each night.

In a surprisingly long time (sic) I had dug down another four or five feet and now this deeper hole could fill up overnight with ease even in late summer. Because of the difficulty of digging in an enclosed space and the danger of collapse I was now unwilling to go deeper and it seemed as if there would be plenty of water on a once daily basis if not continuously available. So I lined the hole with three drums from washing machines with their bottoms cut out. These were made of perforated stainless steel so let the water in but held back the gravel and broken stone which was packed between them and the walls. I also remembered to put a pipe in so that I could later pump the water up instead of drawing it with a bucket.

I was happy the well as it now deserved to be called was working properly, every morning I could draw out fifty to a hundred gallons of water and about half as much again by the evening. But it was hard work, I got an old fashioned hand pump but this was also hard work. So I went and got an electric pump, I feel guilty but maybe soon it will be solar powered. Anyway this was much easier and instead of pumping the water straight into the watering can or onto the plants I arranged to pump it into my biggest water tank.

The reason was simple; as with the mains water I found the water from my well was cold. By standing it in a water butt before use it was given time to warm up a bit. It also was mixed with rainwater from the roof gutters so instead of being saturated with lime and salts from the ground it became diluted by the rain which was probably a bit acid! Then by using my network of syphons the water could be used anywhere else in my garden.

And it's still not enough. Although I can pump the well twice a day it is only enough for all the many plants in pots and under cover that have been acquired over the years. My vegetables still have to go thirsty, I really cannot face digging another such hole to irrigate them as well.

in box

Please, please, please do not try this at home. This article is for historical purposes and not a suggestion or invitation for anyone else to be as foolish. Digging holes in the ground is dangerous and people are too often killed in the process. If you want a deep hole hire a professional.