Case History - 1
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Extracts from "The Lost Gardens of Heligan"

Some weeks previously, John Nelson, Orlando and Julie had explored a valley to the west of the gardens, in search of a little rectangle marked on the OS map with the word 'RAM' beside it. They had found a curious three-sided wall of stone in the middle of some beautiful, mature woodland. Thinking that was all there was to see, they had come home.

Charles Doble arrived, immensely tall and enthusiastic, in a massive American combat jeep. We scrambled down into the valley, which was about a mile from the gardens, and over some forbidding walls into a boggy area. There we found the odd three-sided wall the others had described.

Display of RAM pumps in the Gardens Pumps under repair in situ
Photos by Julian Stephens © Heligan Gardens Ltd

The long narrow walls should have enclosed the access steps down to the RAM chamber, but they were filled to ground level with mud. Charles pointed excitedly and said: 'Eighteen feet down, you will find a doorway into a little room, and in there you will find three RAM pumps: a two-inch, a three-inch and a five-inch. They are capable of pumping nine and a half gallons of water a minute, to a height of three hundred feet, over a distance of a mile and a half, using only the water power provided by the stream which feeds them.'

We were deeply impressed. We decided to explore further, using a map which Rob Poole had brought with him. This indicated that we were at the merging point of two valleys, each containing a stream. As we headed north we came upon a tiny arch-fronted building with a domed roof. Alongside it was a trough. 'This is the catch pit,' said Charles. 'The streams are dammed further up the valleys above us on both sides, and their overflows are directed here, down four-inch ceramic pipes. The water is channelled from there down individual pipes, called drive pipes, which are directly connected to the back of each hydraulic RAM pump. The angle of fall on the drive pipes has to be a minimum of fourty-five degrees, to deliver the power to the pumps. There are three levers inside the catch pit, each working a simple on/off valve for a drive pipe, thus giving maximum control on the RAMs you have in use at any one time. For every nine gallons that go down the pipe, one gallon is pumped. The other eight provide the power and then disperse into the stream.'

Even if the story hadn't been so fascinating, we would still have needed large amounts of water for the garden and the system seemed ideal regardless of its historical interest. To cut a long story short, we managed to obtain some funding from the Countryside Commission to help with the restoration of the RAMs.

The main problem was that the stream which ran alongside the house had broken its banks and filled the house with mud which had seeped in under the walls. First the banks of the stream were restored. Then the stairwell had to be painstakingly dug out by hand, bucket by back-breaking bucket. Sure enough, the little slate steps revealed themselves, one at a time, until, eighteen feet underground, they stopped at a doorway leading to the RAM chamber - which was filled to the brim with stinking mud. Until the mass of mud was removed, the work had to be carried out in almost pitch darkness, because there was so little room. Eventually, amid much excitement, the team felt the RAMs under their hands. Charles Doble's son, Ben, cleared the drains from the RAM house back to the leat some way downstream, to stop it flooding. It would be 1994 before the dams were rebuilt and relined, the drive pipes renewed and the RAMs overhauled. The restoration being completed by the company that had built the original system in 1880. Unbelievably, the RAM spares were still available.

The one-inch supply pipe from the RAMs led back up to the gardens and fed a 40,000-gallon stone and brick built reservoir. This had supplied all the water needs of Heligan house and the staff cottages, as well as those of the garden itself.

When the RAMs were installed, Orlando and Julie returned from Devon to start them up with due ceremony. There was a rush of water and the slow thump began. Up at the top of the garden, a party waited for some minutes before the first dirty water began to appear in the reservoir; and when it ran clean, we opened a bottle or two in celebration. It is difficult to describe to outsiders how good it felt. It was primative and private, almost tribal. We now had our own independent water supply - the lifeblood for our garden.



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