Disused Underground Victorian Reservoir

The Story Behind the Photo – Disused Underground Victorian Reservoir

For once I’m glad I checked Facebook… In late 2013 another photographer had posted a photograph that grabbed my attention straight away. It was somewhere underground, it was dark, it had brick arches and it looked like it hadn’t been used in a very long time. It looked amazing.

It was located in Clayton-Le-Woods, a village in Lancashire not far from Wigan where I now live.

The story behind this photo is a sad one. I read that the reservoir was only open to the public for a limited time and that a week from when I saw the photograph it was due to be filled in and a housing development built over it.  English Heritage had twice refused for the reservoir to be considered for listing and ultimately protected. As one of the last known examples of this type I find that quite shocking. There are plenty of listed buildings given that protected status that many I’m sure wouldn’t agree with, but that subject id for a different day.

The developer stated that the reservoir was open to the public at 9am. I got there half an hour before just in case I could get in on my own. It was a cold, wet Monday morning and by the time a site worker came at 10am a large queue had formed, including a class full of rather underwhelmed kids…

The reservoir was accessed through an old borehole drilled years ago for emergency access. It was smaller than the cavernous space I expected but just as wonderful, dark and macabre. Like something straight out of a horror film. The red and white tape restricting access to an area at the back looked like a police cordon. I half expected Jigsaw’s puppet, Billy to come slowly wheeling out on his tricycle. It had damp walls, water dripping from the vaulted ceilings and about half an inch of water in places. An old pump looked like a cannon salvaged from the Mary Rose after it was raised in 1982. I remember watching that on telly at school. That sounds so long ago now it makes me feel ancient.

I don’t want to get too geeky on these blogs but to get a decent photo in low light situations you need a camera capable of taking long exposures, and particularly if you want to get most of your photo in focus with a large depth of field. I’d recommend an aperture setting of around f10. I’d also personally always recommend switching to manual mode (for everything, not just long exposures). Your ISO levels will be dictated by these settings if, like most cameras your maximum shutter speed is 30 seconds unless you use a timer / remote release or bulb mode where you can extend that time. In any form of photography without flash the general rule of thumb on needing a tripod is divide your focal length (the fixed lens or zoom length) by 100 and that should be your maximum shutter speed for holding a camera by hand (e.g. a 50mm lens should have a maximum shutter speed of 1/50th second). If this shutter speed proves too slow use a tripod or find something rock steady to put your camera on. Any slight movement will cause blur and movement in your final photo which nobody wants.

The camera was set up on the tripod in a spot where the arches all lined up in diagonal patterns. I was chuffed with the composition. Then another photographer came up and started chatting about settings. All I wanted to do was take the shot but he was stood in front of the flipping camera! I should have been abrupt and told him to move. Not that I suspected sabotage or a dirty trick campaign. Surely not in photography…

By the time he walked off the reservoir was half full of people and school children wondering around in hi vis vests and torches. One couple had set up deck chairs (I kid you not). Lights and hi-vis material do not mix with a long exposure photograph, unless you want to create some deliberate lighting effects which I definitely didn’t at the time.

I had been in that hole for 6 hours before I managed to get a 30 second exposure without a torch / light trail, vis vest or person in the shot. My feet were soaking and I was freezing cold. The site worker told me if I wasn’t out in a  couple of minutes I’d have to spend the night in there. While I did think that it might have its advantages I didn’t fancy spending a night with Jigsaw, Damian from Friday 13th or Freddy Krueger et al.

I left through the borehole, looked back and felt very sad that in a week or so’s time those beautiful, damp brick arches and vaulted ceilings would be gone forever and only the photographs taken in that couple of weeks’ reprieve would be the evidence it ever existed.
Victorian underground reservoir - Clayton-Le-Woods, Lancashire

Camera – Canon 60D

Lens – EF-s 17-55 f2.8 at 18mm

Shutter Speed – 30 seconds

Aperture – f22

ISO – 2,000