More precisely, everything I can find out about Shire Oak Reservoir.
When I was a teenager, I used to pass the unassuming green embankment by the lights at Shire Oak without much thought. Everybody knew that there was a reservoir there, behind the railings; everyone also ‘knew’ that the reservoir had been built, cracked after it was completed, and was never used. As far as it went, that was all I knew; I never explored the site as a kid, and never really considered it. That was until 2006, when I became aware that South Staffordshire Water had asked for outline planning permission to demolish the structure and replace it with housing, which, after no little brouhaha, they gained. The site is currently up for sale – but activity seems to have taken place there recently, with brush cutting and evidence of digging or drilling. Before the structure disappeared, I decided to find out a bit about it and record it for the reference of others.
Some of the information I have comes from sifting through the supporting documents submitted along with the planning application. Walsall Council places all this stuff online for all to peruse, and is to be commended for doing so, albeit from a sometimes cranky server and interface that seems to suffer moodiness that can only be attributed to some kind of cyber-PMT.
First of all, where is the reservoir? Check Google Maps, below, it’s the large rectangular grey structure below the crossroads.
This screenshot is viewing from the north, using Multimap’s Birds Eye View:
In essence, it’s a large, concrete and brick tank built on the peak of Shire Oak Hill. I don’t know the exact engineering function, but can speculate that its’ purpose was to act as a header tank for the locality. There’s a pumping station down in the valley at Springhill (called ‘Sandhills’ by SSWW), which one would assume pumped water up the hill to this reservoir, from where it would be supplied with a good head of pressure to homes and businesses in the locality. Similar structures exist at other high points – at Barr Beacon for instance, and there seem to be smaller ones at Gentleshaw and Tutbury. All of these were built by the remarkable enterprise that is South Staffordshire Waterworks Company, a private concern founded in 1853. This company, still in private ownership today, left its’ mark throughout the area in the numerous beautifully elegant pumping stations it commissioned, and in the care it showed for both customers and workforce – a potted history can be found here.
The online publication ‘A History of South Staffordshire Waterworks 1853 – 1989’ by Brian J. Williams and Johann Van Leerzem, has this to say about Shire Oak Reservoir:
‘Shire Oak Reservoir.
In connection with the latter station, H. Lovatt of Wolverhampton was contracted to build a service reservoir at Shire Oak, Walsall, on three acres of ground purchased from Thomas Marlow and his Trustees at a cost of £464.’
‘This reservoir, original capacity four and a quarter million gallons, was constructed as an open receptacle during 1896-1897 and brought into service in May 1897. The floor consisted of mass concrete on gravel foundations, the walls, also of mass concrete, having vertical water faces and being stepped on the back. Both floor and walls were faced with blue brick. A substantial earth embankment gave support to the walls. In January 1900, cracks, which rendered the reservoir quite useless, developed in the bottom, the movement being due to subsidence consequent upon the working of the colliery at Walsall Wood. Subsidence continued to take place for some time. Certain reconstruction work, to ensure water tightness, was carried out in 1924 by W.H. Davey and Company, together with the installation of a reinforced concrete cover. Shire Oak Reservoir was taken out of use in 1938, despite a two and a half inch concrete lining being added to the walls to prolong its life.
Today the reservoir stands empty but still owned by the Company.’
So the rumours were true – the cracks did happen, and the reservoir has spent the best part of a century unused and empty. But what of the site now? The first time I investigated the reservoir was a snowy day in 2006 – I was out with the camera and wanted a good viewpoint. Having studied it in Google Earth, I thought that if I could easily get on to the embankment from the nature reserve – at that time there seemed to be a well worn track in the scrub from the southerly corner – then I could get an excellent panorama from the northern tip of the reservoir. Upon trudging up to the reserve, I found the site very well secured; old, sharp iron railings and dense hawthorn thickets stopped me in my tracks. Any gap in the fence had been carefully stopped up from inside by the use of wood, old railings and cut branches – I was to leave without success, but the ongoing planning fuss made me want to go back. I finally got round to it two weeks ago, popping into the park by bike to find the site still too secure for casual entry. I took a poor photo through the fence, returning last weekend on foot, wearing more suitable clothing. I won’t detail where I got in, as I was certainly trespassing and the decaying state of the structure roof would suggest that it’s not safe to be there – so I don’t advise anyone else to try. Mindful of being overlooked by residents of nearby houses, I scouted round the south edge of the compound near the bricked-up access doorway. I took these photos:
The roof has been cordoned off at some recent juncture; the posts sporting wind-shredded polythene tape can be seen around the perimeter of the roof, and they look fairly recent. Dotting the roof are the original cast iron air vents and rotting, rusted access hatches, welded shut. One seems to have had concrete cast over it to seal it shut. At several points, there are freshly disturbed patches of soil and surveyor’s marker pegs. There were piles of cut scrub at the bottom of the southern embankment, and I noticed vehicle tyre tracks in one of the patches of earth. In short, someone has been working here, taking measurements and possibly drilling or taking some kind of soil sample. Perhaps plans are being laid for the final removal of this relic of an earlier, more socially-concerned time.
Whist trawling the documentation on the council planning site, I came across an environmental report into the possibility of rare species living in the vicinity – it’s actually fascinating, and can be found here (PDF file, Adobe Reader required). Despite the rather jarring error – the authors place the site in Staffordshire rather than the West Midlands – there is some really good stuff in there, including some rather wonderful, but grainy photos which I include below. In short, the site is home to nothing of note, except possibly the odd toad which was rescued and has probably now been squished on the Lichfield Road…
Other material located on the Walsall Council planning site pertaining to the application to redevelop the site includes various site plans through time in one handy, download and keep PDF (Edit 10th November 2009: file has been removed by the planning department). They show the existing land owned by Thomas Marloin 1895, and how a small amount of land was given to the council in 1925 to enable the widening of the Shire Oak junction.
Returning to modern times, an outline application has been granted. It’s reference is 06/2209/OL/E9, and can be viewed here by entering the reference in the search box – it’s a fairly unremarkable close of mixed housing types, but the application is just a fishing exercise to see if a full proposal would be accepted – the main concern being the traffic junction required to access the new development. Predictably, the local residents protested and the local councillors became very energised about the whole thing. There are several posts related to the topic on Councillor Mike Flower’s blog, the comments on which can be quite enlightening – this one in particular, where the concern seems to be more about living in proximity to social housing. Ooh, the outrage… and before you ask, yes I do, so there. Still, you’ve got to give Mr. Lennon credit for being honest.
I don’t particularly oppose any development at the reservoir. It’s an interesting construction, with a fascinating history, but is serves no purpose. On the whole, I’d rather brownfield sites like this be developed than ones in the greenbelt, or heaven forbid, on school playing fields. I’ve no doubt the site can be developed sensitively, and any work won’t have any significant impact on the park nearby. One thing is sure, however; when the come to demolish it, I’ll be there with my camera.