from the Yorkshire Post, 24 September 2005.
Joseph Foord's water races
THERE are more than 70 miles of narrow "races" on the North
York Moors, carrying water to farms and villages. They relied on nothing
more than gravity and the ingenuity of Joseph Foord (1714-1788).
Foord was a self-taught son of the soil, being variously a farmer,
collier, surveyor/agent to the squire of the Helmsley estate, water
miller, hydrologist and enclosure commissioner.
He was a wayward Quaker who was ejected from the Religious Society of
Friends because of an affair with one Sarah Pilmoor, his wife's
sister-in-law. The illicit union produced a son, Joseph Pilmoor, who
became a noted Wesleyan and was sent to America by John Wesley in 1769
to spread the word.
This could be a bothy bodice-ripper. Instead, it is a meticulous,
scholarly yet engaging detective story. Foord left no written record of
his work or his life but there are contemporary descriptions of his
water races, which at times seem to defy common sense on their
circuitous journey to farms and villages.
They were constructed between 1747 and 1768 and ran at gradients as
slight as 1:430. Gravity and precise land assessment was all Foord
needed to move water from the moorland springs to thirsty mouths. Foord
used neither pumps nor lifts. His only addition to the landscape were
aqueducts to bridge hollows and streams.
Piped water replaced the majority of Foord's waterways between 1880 and
1915, though the village of Carlton, a few miles north of Helmsley, had
a Foord supply until 1959. Today the water channels are overgrown or
Isabel McLean, from Normanby, set to work after her curiosity was
aroused by the levelling device and theodolite, used by Foord to plan
his water races. They are on show at Ryedale Folk Museum,
Hutton-le-Hole. The curator suggested she might go away and find out
something, anything about Joseph Foord. She did. Her book was a bonus.
Isabel McLean had both the time and the inclination. She also had the
mental ability and analytical agility. She is the daughter of William
Pridmore, a judge in British India (where she was born) and Belle
Pridmore, who became an archivist in London after Indian self-rule in
1947. Her father retrained and taught French at Westminster School.
Isabel read English at Hull, and took a PhD in periodicals of the 1890s
– which sounds like one of those obscure specialist subjects from
Mastermind. She married in 1966, lectured in Hull, got divorced, moved
to York in 1979 as a single mother (her son Mark and his wife have just
returned from a 30-month world cycling epic) and became a senior
lecturer in Literature at St John's College.
In 1990, she took early retirement and went to live in the countryside
to take up rural and local history interests.
Her research took her to archives held in County Hall, Northallerton.
Among the most useful were 18th century letters between Lord Fauconberg
(owner of Newburgh Priory) and his estate steward at Coxwold, discussing
Foord's water races.
They are the only ones in Britain but have a forerunner in the 16th
century levadas of Madeira and the aqueducts of the Roman Empire.
Isabel McLean's Water from the Moors: The life and works of Joseph Foord
is no light yarn. It is carefully researched and referenced. It also
includes a section on the ancestry and life of the Pilmoor family, so
there is a multiple reader appeal: local history, American religion, and
Foord's scheming to get water from the streams to the thirsty animals
and villagers, mostly on the southern edge of the North York Moors to
the east of Helmsley. A plan to take water to Scarborough on the coast
was not completed.
Foord was a man who knew how to use water. He was born in Fadmoor. His
father had been land agent on the Duncombe Park estate.
Even Foord could not make water run uphill. What he realised he could do
was assess the moor edges and valleys and the connecting slopes so that
he could encourage water to move slowly but surely along hillsides. His
workmen cut channels to carry the water. The gradient had to be gentle,
otherwise the water would run too quickly in the races and erode the
To the human eye they often appear to be taking the water uphill. Foord
used a levelling sight made in London. Allied with his profound
knowledge of the terrain and its surface geology, the level allowed
Foord to be sure that there was a downhill route available.
His races would carry water in any direction, even away from its final
destination, as long as he could be sure he could finally turn it round
to his advantage.
The longest Foord water route is 13.7 miles, taking water to farms near
Rievaulx Abbey. On the moors the water would run in simple channels cut
into the topsoil. Boulders would be chiselled to make way. Across farmed
pastures, a stone-lined channel may be necessary to resist animals. The
bed of the race was the natural soil, and fissures were packed with
gravel and sand.
Because all the land involved was owned by just a few estates the
permission was easily granted. These landowners paid Foord. For the
planning and building of a race, he charged around £14 a mile. The
landowners in turn raised the farm rents. It was cheaper than digging a
well, and delivered water to its end-user without further manual labour.
Typically, the channels are narrow enough to be stepped over. They
needed regular maintenance: damage came from animals and moles, plus the
natural fall of leaves, snow, branches, soil.
For an example of Foord's work, Isabel McLean took us to Bonfield Gill
Beck, on the 9.5 mile Nawton race, north of the A170 Thirsk-Scarborough
In this gill you realise why Isabel McLean became so fascinated by the
Here you get a good idea of how Foord worked. The beck runs south. On
its west, taking water north, is one of Foord's races, smothered in
bilberry and heather but still a visible line, which is physically
evident when you stand in it. The race is directed over a small aqueduct
(built in 1760). Parts of the stone water channels on each pier remain.
The 10-foot gap had been bridged with a wood channel, probably made from
a tree trunk. The water, now on the east side, is turned southwards into
a race cut into the moor edge. It is augmented at the aqueduct by water
travelling south in a race from the Piethorn Spring. A measurement in
1915 recorded 57,000 gallons a day from this one spring.
Towards the end of the 19th century the races were gradually replaced by
water piped from the moorland springs. Kirkbymoorside, for instance, got
its first piped water in 1883. In 1901 a second piped supply was added
but by 1906 it was unable to meet the growing demand from the lively
township. Ironically, the communities in Fadmoor and Gillamoor still had
abundant water from Foord's races. In 1912, water was so scarce in
Kirkbymoorside that it was turned off between 7pm and 6am. That winter,
water from Foord's Gillamoor race was piped into Kirkbymoorside's
supply, at the rate of 12,000 gallons a day.
Fadmoor and Gillamoor drank their spring water until 2000, when they
were tapped into water from the Ness aquifer in the Vale of Pickering.
Isabel McLean's research caught, just in time, the tail end of a
generation that had personal knowledge of Foord's original water races.
She concludes: "Today no farmer or landowner is free to do as he
(sic) pleases with the water on his land. Joseph Foord, quartering the
moors in search of springs and choosing which to utilise, is a figure of
almost untrammelled liberty: a potent symbol of a social order which was
locally organised and empowered."
Joseph Foord died on the farm of his daughter, Mary Flower, at
Fawdington, Thirsk, on January 23, 1788. He was 73 and recently back
from visiting America and possibly meeting his illegitimate son, Joseph
Pilmoor. His four legitimate sons predeceased him. His wife had died in
1779. There is no record of his descendants. He was buried in Barbeck,
near Thirsk, in what is now a chicken run. This new book is a better
epitaph for the man who brought water from the moors.
Water from the Moors, by Isabel Anne McLean (large format paperback, 188
pages, with maps and illustrations) is published by the North York Moors
National Park Authority at £17.95.