Chris Lloyd pieces together a watery story using an obelisk and a piece of elm pipe

RICHMOND Market Place must be one of the most perfect townscapes in the North-East, with fine Georgian buildings ringing the cobbles that set the cars rattling. In the middle of the Market Place is Holy Trinity Church, now a museum, with a huddle of shops and cafes clinging to its skirts, while all alone on the highest point is a tall, slender obelisk pointing high to the sky.

The obelisk bears an inscription: “Rebuilt AD1771 Christopher Wayne Esq Mayor.” But it doesn’t say that it hovers above a 12,000 gallon reservoir, a large stone chamber that apparently still exists beneath the ground.

A month ago in the D&S Times, the Looking Back page touched upon Richmond’s water supply, and since then lots of people have been in touch with further information: there was a flood of calls about water.

Richmond has plenty of fresh springs bursting from the high ground to the north of the town. The difficulty has been in collecting the water and bringing it to where it was needed in the town centre.

In 1583, a pipeline of hollowed out elm trunks was created to channel the water about a mile from Aislabeck springs to a wellhead on the north side of the Market Place (about where Boots is today). These elm trunks were bored out using a hand-turned drill that looked like a giant corkscrew.

Elm was used because, unlike other wood, elm does not decompose even if it is left permanently wet. The one surviving specimen of Richmond’s elm pipe is to be seen in the Richmondshire Museum (which is now open every day except Sundays from 10.30am to 4pm until October 31).

The elm pipes were replaced by lead in 1749, and in 1771 they were connected up to the new reservoir dug out of the top of the Market Place with the obelisk marking the spot.

For centuries a market cross had stood on this site. A cross was really just a stone column which, since Roman times, had been erected in the middle of trading places to represent “the sanctity of the bargain” – a visible reminder that no one should be ripped off. Richmond’s cross was said to be the “greatest beauty of the town”. It sat high on a plinth, protected by a 6ft high richly ornamented wall – the wall had the shields of the four most important families, Fitz-Hugh, Scrope, Conyers and Neville, carved into it, and each of its corners was guarded by a splendid stone dog, sitting on its hindlegs.

There may have been some opposition in 1771 to Mayor Wayne replacing such a landmark with what was regarded as a “crude and bulging obelisk”, although it is surely regarded now as being characterfully curious. And how we’d love to see through its padlocked door into the deep chamber below…

As the town’s population grew, more water was required. In 1812, another reservoir was dug at Aislabeck, near the old racecourse, to collect the springwater. It was topped by a stone wellhead, inscribed with the name of the mayor – William Close – which is now a listed building. However, on quick drive around Hurgill Road, we couldn’t spot it and none of our correspondents could precisely point it out.

On January 12, 1836, construction of a third reservoir began on Gallowgate, to the north of the town centre. It was collecting water from the free-flowing Coalsgarth spring on Lord Dundas’ Aske estate, and it opened on May 14, 1837 – ten days before Princess Victoria’s 18th birthday and so it was named the Victoria Waterworks. Victoria’s birthday was significant because once she turned 18, she could legally inherit the throne from her ailing uncle, William IV, which she did a month later.

All of these details used to be on a large stone built into the waterworks’ wall, but the stone was destroyed in the 1960s when Alexandra Way was built across the site.

Two further reservoirs were dug, one at Westfields (1868) and another in Gallowgate (1935), but all signs of them have now been obliterated as since 1992, much of the town’s water has come from a borehole at Catterick Bridge.

Indeed, there are only two obvious reminders of Richmond’s old watery ways: the elm piping, which is at least 250 years old, in the museum and, of course, the tall, slender obelisk pointing high to the sky.

Many thanks to everyone who has been in touch about this, especially Richmond historian Jane Hatcher