COUNTRYSIDE NOTES – WATER

H20 is one of the few chemical formulas I remember from my schooldays. How easily we take water for granted but it really is the most amazing substance. It’s what keeps us alive but it can also kill us. Consisting of one part oxygen and two parts hydrogen it freezes solid and becomes ice below a certain temperature. Originating from the sky it mostly falls as rain but also forms into snow, fog, dew and clouds. Water covers 71% of the earth’s surface, 96% of which is in the form of salt water in seas and oceans. Only 2:5% is fresh water in lakes and rivers but most is ice. Water boils at 100C (212F) but this is only at sea level; there is a wide discrepancy in temperatures according to elevation for instance at the top of Mount Everest it boils at 68C (154F). We always think of drinking water as being the most important use but for countless centuries it was also a vital means of travel and transportation both across oceans and along inland waterways. In the 18th and early 19th centuries a network of canals was constructed but unfortunately no sooner had they been built than railways came along and took over much of the trade. Ways of harnessing power to work mills from fast flowing water were invented and the Victorians made great use of the combination of fire and water to make steam for powering a variety of enormous machines. Water is used as a coolant and conversely for heating, much of it in industry. We dilute or dissolve various substances in it, we use it for cooking and washing and we put fires out with it. But it can also be the carrier of many diseases. In normal conditions we are unlikely to survive more than five days without water. Not so long ago household water in this country was wound up by hand in buckets from wells or collected from streams. In Victorian times water towers were built in towns to provide a constant, safe supply of water. Some were solid square buildings while others were huge elevated bowls. There is an excellent example of one on the south-west side of Swaffham where the waterworks opened in September 1867. Reservoirs are the principal method of storing surface water collected from a large catchment area; it may also be pumped from underground aquifers. A lot is used for irrigating crops grown in the sandy Breckland soil. Locally water is extracted from the river Nar at Marham and river Wissey at Stoke Ferry. Because it has permeated through limestone it is ‘hard’ but it is ‘soft’ in areas of solid rock such as Cumbria and the Scottish Highlands. Now we are spoilt because it is piped straight into our houses and we rarely give it a thought. When you next turn on a tap or flush the loo just think for a moment how incredible and vital water is.

 

 

 

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