I was contacted by reader Ted Naisbitt in connection with my columns on how ancient folk living in dry areas managed to get access to drinking water. Reader Jo Bird had suggested that perhaps wells were constructed, and I wondered if prehistoric humans had the engineering know-how to be able to dig deep wells. My research revealed that indeed they did, as evidenced by a sophisticated drainage system that has been discovered at the 4th century BC settlement of Skara Brae in the Orkneys.

Accessing fresh water was a continuous battle for people living in remote communities, and Ted mentioned a hydraulic engineer called Joseph Foord who was active on the North York Moors in the 18th century. He was prompted to find out more after a visit to Thirsk Tourist Information Office (where Ted volunteers) by Coxwold resident Ken Ward who used to live by one of these water channels. Ken was keen to find out about the engineer whom it is said performed ‘miracles’ by making water seemingly run up hills.

“Prior to the 18th century the towns and villages along the southern edge of the Moors (roughly the A170) did not have access to fresh running water,” says Ted, “But just a bit further north on the other side of the tabular hills there was plenty. This engineer managed to bring fresh water to these places by surveying for and digging out narrow ‘canals’ around them often for many miles and overcoming many obstacles on the way. In places an optical illusion made it seem as if the water was running uphill.”

Ted pointed me to an article about Foord on a website called ‘Yorkshiremoors.co.uk’, and I must give credit to that website for what appears in this column, as there doesn’t seem to be a great deal online about him. I will also have a look in my dad’s archives next time I go see my mum as I’d be surprised if he hasn’t written about him. What Foord achieved is highly noteworthy, and he deserves to be remembered.

Joseph was born in 1714 in Fadmoor near Kirkbymoorside into a Society of Friends (Quaker) family and at the age of 20, when his father Matthew passed away, he inherited their farm at Skiplam Grange, along with some mills and shares in mines at Ankness between Fadmoor and Bransdale. 1744 was a momentous year for Foord, as he was also ejected from the Quakers for having fathered an illegitimate child.

Foord became an engineer and a surveyor and, having grown up on the North York Moors, was well aware of the difficulties faced by inhabitants of remote villages on top of these limestone hills. They would have to transport heavy vessels of water over rough terrain and up steep inclines, making an already tough life even more so.

In about 1747, Foord came up with the idea of constructing channels, or ‘races’, to transport water from the springs on the high moors to the dry communities. His first experimental race ran for five miles and supplied Gillamoor and Fadmoor. What was particularly unique, though, was that these two villages sat high on the hills, and the task of getting water up the hill was the problem, or so it seemed.

According to Yorkshiremoors.org “Gillamoor is about 525ft above sea level. The northern, highest, tip of the tabular hill that contains the village is at Boon Hill, about a mile and a half to the northwest. The ground at the base of Boon Hill is 650ft above sea level, and thus 125 feet higher than Gillamoor. Foord was thus able to construct a water course that could run downhill, while at the same time appearing to climb up the steep slopes below Gillamoor!”

In 1759, the water course was extended to Kirkbymoorside, then ultimately to Carlton, Newton, Pockley, Old Byland and Rievaulx, delivering precious fresh water to the residents. As he was so familiar with the geology and geography of the area, in the end, Foord was able to construct around 70 miles of water courses, some of which are still visible today, such as from Newgate Bank on the A1257 Helmsley to Stokesley road.

Foord died in January 1788 at his daughter Mary’s home in Fawdington near Thirsk. Despite never being welcomed back into the Society of Friends, he was interred as a non-member in their burial ground.

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