During the 1800s boomtime of mill creation in Oldham, there was an increasing demand for clean drinking water for the population that were moving into the town to find work. Oldham Corporation bought up land in the Piethorne valley with the intention of constructing a large reservoir and piping the water to the residents over eight miles away. By the time the project was complete, not one but six reservoirs would be constructed in all.
The Construction of Piethorne
As was normal with this kind of endeavour, farmland in the catchment area of the valley was bought up, residents moved out and their farmhouses were demolished. Of the fourteen farms, only one was left standing. Each of the six reservoirs was named after a vanished farm.
The construction of Piethorne began in 1858 and was done by teams of navvies. It was lined with clay which the workers ‘puddled’ to make it waterproof by stamping it with their feet. Within ten years, the reservoir was completed and could hold 344 million gallons of water, enough to fill seven million bath tubs. It was discovered fairly early on that the water was very acidic, coming off peat soil which overlay sandstone bedrock. The acidity could have been very damaging for the cast iron water pipes that would transport the water to Oldham. An early treatment for this was to add lime. Accordingly, a Lime House was constructed (which can still be seen today) and lime was shovelled into the water as it flowed past before reaching the reservoir.
Further Reservoirs are Added
Piethorne Reservoir was fed by Piethorne Brook and Cold Greave Brook, but it was soon discovered that these delivered a lot of silt into it. To prevent this happening, another reservoir was constructed slightly higher up from Piethorne. This was Hanging Lees, a ‘settling’ reservoir where the sediment could be sifted out. Norman Hill Reservoir was also added above Piethorne and fed water to it via an impressive stone cascade. Kitcliffe Reservoir was constructed below Piethorne.
This may have been the end of the project as far as Oldham Corporation was concerned, but the creation of Piethorne had caused problems for the residents of the valley and the local mills. The residents relied on Piethorne Brook for drinking water and the mills needed the brook as a power source, but the construction of the reservoirs had severely impeded the brook’s flow. A complaint was lodged with the government, and a decision was made to build Ogden as a ‘compensation reservoir’ to provide water to the locals and the factories.
The final reservoir to be added to the complex was Rooden. The catchment order of the six reservoirs from highest to lowest starts with Rooden. This feeds Hanging Lees. Both Hanging Lees and Norman Hill feed Piethorne. In turn, Piethorne feeds into Kitcliffe. Finally, Ogden is the lowest of the reservoirs in the chain.
Follow this Walking Route to See the Sites
Park at Ogden Resevoir car park, or in the lane that runs up to it. There is a map in the car park of the reservoirs (reproduced above). Then follow the lane uphill ignoring Ogden for now (we will come back to it at the end of the route). Leaving the car park you will pass an old mill on your immediate right. Head up the road and in the valley below you can see Kitcliffe Farm, the only one that was not demolished at the time of the building of the reservoirs. The next feature on our trail is the large water treatment works. Once you passed this you will reach the edge of Piethorne Reservoir. Note the blue gate with the reservoirs name and date on. There are a whole series of these around the valley, some of which also depict the wildlife of the area.
As we get to the top of Piethorne, we can see Hanging Lees Reservoir, with its superb fish decorated blue gate and the date 1870. Follow the path round and downhill and head towards the Lime House. Just before you reach it, you will see what looks like a small arched bridge, inserted into the ground. This is actually an overflow channel through which water can be diverted to different reservoirs if too much is entering Piethorne too quickly.
The Limehouse is an impressively preserved building. Note the tile roof decoration. Here the lime would be stored, which would then be shovelled into the water to reduce its acidity. From here you can see the impressive stone cascade that brings water down from Norman Hill Reservoir to Piethorne.
Look for the woodland on your left. This is Old House Plantation, and the trees are a little stunted from the prevailing winds. Head through this and then out to open fields, following the track. In the valley below you get good views of Kitcliffe Reservoir. After some time you will reach a series of ruins on a steep slope. This is the remains of Rag Hole Farm. The Travis family lived here and as well as grazing cattle they grew wheat, barley and rye.
From here you can follow the elaborate stone path down the hill to come out at Ogden Reservoir, a compensation reservoir for the locals and factories of the area. Ogden has another impressive stone cascade. Follow the path to return back to the car park.
There is a wealth of history in the landscape, dating from the earliest times onwards. A five inch Bronze Age spearhead has been discovered in the vicinity. Before the industrial revolution, a packhorse route brought wool in from Yorkshire. This was called Rapes Highway (named after Rapes Hill) and ran close to Kitcliffe Farm. The mass of drystone walls in the area were constructed during the 1800s enclosures acts, often using the labour of demobbed soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars. Today, the land and reservoirs are managed by United Utilities, who have initiated tree planting on some of the slopes to reduce water flow into the reservoirs during heavy downpours and to stabilise the soil.
Site visited by A. Bowden and A. Shepherd (Rochdale correspondent) 2020
The area is open access. Park at Ogden Reservoir car park for free, or on Ogden Lane.
See the United Utilities website here.
Nearby, just a drive away
Piethorne Valley Walk No.2: Binns- Bluebell Wood- Piethorne (1987) Rochdale M.B.C. Leaflet available from Littleborough Coach House