I am a child of drought. Growing up in the Great American West, I was taught to turn off the water when you brush your teeth. If it’s yellow, let it mellow/if it’s brown flush it down. Only turn your sprinklers on at night. Plug the bathtub when you take a shower and re-use the water for plants. The desert was normal, the desert was home, and the drought only got worse over the years.
The conservation of water was inculcated as a moral good. Bad people had golf courses in Arizona, built water parks in Las Vegas, and planted watermelon in the Valley. That guy who washes his car in July? The worst.
This has been reflected in most places I’ve done archaeology. I’ve worked in Jordan, where we showered with two litres of water, where the mighty River Jordan is a waller. I’ve worked in Turkey, where intensive agriculture is lowering the water table and threatening the deeply buried archaeological remains. I work in Qatar, where the little groundwater available is saline.
I had no idea how normal this was for me until, of course, I moved to England. I’ve been mystified over the usual things–weather talk, how to order rounds at the pub, the two different goddamn taps for hot and cold water, but the water culture (?) habits (?) ethic (?) mores (?) is probably the most altogether foreign.
Run your tap for a few minutes before getting a drink. Why? Lots of pipes in England are still made out of lead. Have a bath. Why not have two? The water to your house isn’t metered, after all. Low-flush toilets? Are you joking? Most of the infrastructure in England is made to get rid of water! There are bogs on top of hillsides! That last one was a particular surprise, as my hiking boots and socks disappeared into the sludge. Not to mention the recent floods here in York. There is constantly, urgently, too much water.
It is easy to start seeing the endless water in all aspects of life. England’s early control of the seas. The criss-crossed canals, striping the countryside. Towns perched across the Ouse, Thames, Cam, Avon, Irwell. Not to mention the endless social reshuffling of water in the form of tea and beer. Hot water runs through our radiators and I’m currently cradling a hot water bottle in my lap as I type away in this Victorian terraced house. Most of the terraced houses suffer from damp problems, so you have to leave the windows open in the wintertime, even with your heat on. It’s nearly impossible to dry clothes, and hardly anyone has tumble dryers. There are special cupboards for drying towels.
Waterfat, like in Herbert’s Dune. Water as a taken-for-granted. Water as thoughtless power. It’s tempting to think about it that way until the Ouse & the Foss take out half of your favorite medieval city. Water as uncontested force. Water as relentless difficulty.
Yet what is sitting outside of all of the flower shops, in this country where you can grow almost anything besides tomatoes? Rows and rows of cactus. They’re popular here, and nobody even seems to have a sense of humor about it.
6 thoughts on “English Water Rites”
and the irony will be… a water hose pipe in those few pressure days of summer…. ;O)…. hence the cactus…
precious (french spellchecker)
Beautifully written, a pleasure to read. As always.
This made me giggle thinking about all these english things that a lot of people I know do, Especially the running the tap to prevent lead poisioning. Did you know it was actually Illegal for some time in england to have a combined tap, due to bad water presure which resulted in backflow and stagnated water and for this reason the cold tap was required to have it’s own fresh water feed so drinking water would not be contaminated.
I really enjoyed reading this.
No one told me about the lead pipes…But I have noticed I can no longer use “its raining” as an excuse to stay in and read like I did in the US, since it rains a least once a day.