JANE FRYER: Village where the taps have run dry and water is scarce

JANE FRYER: Village where the taps have run dry and water is scarce

August 11, 2022

Village where the taps have run dry: JANE FRYER visits the hot and harassed residents of Northend, where water is in scarce supply as the heatwave grows

  • Picturesque village of Northend among ‘first villages to run dry in the heatwave’
  • Foyle’s War, Lewis, Miss Marple and Midsomer Murders shot in Northend
  • Thames Water trying to fix ‘technical issues’ at nearby Stokenchurch reservoir
  • Water cut off for 20 houses in the village, bottled water delivered instead 

The ridiculously pretty village of Northend – awash with tumbling roses, thatched roofs, very crisp white paintwork and a village green and pond – has been thrust into the news this week.

Not because it must surely be one of the UK’s most desirable places to live, at least for those who yearn for rural charm and the warm embrace of community.

Or because Northend – together with its neighbouring hamlets Turville and Southend on the Oxon-Buckinghamshire border – is one of the most popular TV settings, popping up in everything from Foyle’s War to Lewis, Miss Marple to Midsomer Murders.

No, it’s because this village and its hot and harassed residents have just won the dubious title of ‘first village to run dry in the heatwave’, as Thames Water claims it is trying to fix ‘technical issues’ at Stokenchurch reservoir in Buckinghamshire.

‘We can’t shower, or bathe, or wash up or flush the loo,’ says John Sturt, 42, a teacher and father of two.

Dr Gina Brown adds: ‘I wasn’t expecting when I moved here to be struggling with a basic human resource – having access to fresh water.’

A tanker from Thames Water delivers a temporary water supply to the village of Northend in Oxfordshire, where the water company is pumping water into the supply network following a technical issue at Stokenchurch Reservoir

The ridiculously pretty village of Northend – awash with tumbling roses, thatched roofs, very crisp white paintwork and a village green and pond – has been in the news this week as its hot and harassed residents have just won the dubious title of ‘first village to run dry in the heatwave’,

Northend is located in Oxfordshire in the heart of the home counties just up the M40 from High Wycombe

Farmer Peter Langford, 69, tells me he came ‘ludicrously close’ to being forced to water his entire herd of Herefordshire cattle with the emergency bottled water provided by Thames Water.

It all started on Sunday, days before the Met Office’s amber warning for extreme heat comes into effect.

The Sturts were just home, hot and filthy, from a camping weekend. Cat Yoxall, a marketing and communications manager, had returned with her teenagers from a weekend away. And radiologist Dr Brown – a couple of doors down – had been on a very long, very hot bike ride.

All rushed for the shower. All were disappointed. There was no water. Not a drop, for 68 residents from 20-odd houses, whose homes are supplied by the same Thames Water pipe. Not on Sunday night, all day Monday and most of Tuesday until, finally, a lorry arrived with bottled water and a tanker chugged up the hill. Men in hi-vis started pumping water into the system as an emergency solution.

So the tankers very noisily pump in the water, often in the middle of the night with flashing lights, and everyone breathes a sigh of relief and rushes to flush their loos and stick a wash on. ‘Then half an hour later, all the water’s gone again and we’re back to bottles,’ says Ms Yoxall.

And, in desperation, jumping in their cars to drive to the next village where the vicar has turned the vicarage bathroom into a pop-and-wash.

‘It’s not a solution, it’s a sticking plaster,’ says Mr Langford. If they all sound a bit weary, it’s hardly surprising. This has been going on for years. Ever since the heatwave of 2018.

Cat Yoxall (left), a marketing and communications manager, had returned with her teenagers from a weekend away when she found out there was no water in her home

Villager Carolyn Evans moves bottles of water delivered by Thames Water out of the sun

Back then, though, Thames Water seemed to take it a bit more seriously. It even sent a representative to check they were all OK.

There were rumours of dodgy pipes and broken valves and unresolvable water pressure issues, but when the water finally came back on, Thames Water assured residents the problem had been sorted.

It hadn’t. With the next stretch of hot weather, it was off again.

‘During the pandemic it went off several times but we gave them the benefit of the doubt because I’m sure they had bigger fish to fry,’ says John Sturt. This summer, though, has been a nightmare.

‘In the first heatwave back in July when it hit 40 degrees, I had to go to school to teach without a shower which wasn’t very nice for me or the children,’ says Mr Sturt, looking pretty sweaty.

The problem here is two-fold. It’s not just that the water is off so often no one can turn a tap on with any confidence. It’s the way they’ve been treated by Thames Water.

All tell of hours spent on hold, desperately trying to speak to someone who can help them, only to be told there’s no record of any problem. ‘I’ve been on the phone to them a LOT,’ says Mr Sturt.

‘They hung up on you daddy!’ chips in daughter Lottie, nine. ‘They did, that was 5.30am and I was getting quite frustrated,’ he agrees rather grimly. ‘I also emailed the company chairman and the CEO. But we’re just a small rural community, so they don’t care.’

Thames Water has stated that there is a ‘technical issue’. There are also ongoing problems with the water pressure, which could have something to do with the pipes. Meanwhile, reports suggest the reservoir has dried up.

A Thames Water tanker pumps water delivered by truck in to the tanks for the homes 

A view of a dried up pond in the village of Northend in Oxfordshire. The Met Office has issued an amber warning for extreme heat covering four days from Thursday to Sunday for parts of England and Wales as a new heatwave looms

But despite Thames Water’s apologies this week, still nothing concrete appears to have been done to address the long- term problem.

Which is a shame because Northend is a wonderful place. And it’s expensive. (The only property currently for sale is Royal Oak Cottage – a beautiful six-bedroom period house in an acre of grounds, with swimming pool – for £2.95million).

In fact, perhaps the only thing wrong with the village is its water supplier – which, of course, the residents can’t change, however much they want to. And however much they feel patronised, ignored, overlooked and discounted by Thames Water – which they all do.

‘It’s frustrating because you read about all the millions of litres Thames Water loses each year from leaks and we don’t have any water at all,’ says Ms Yoxall.

She’s right. While it has been busy announcing hosepipe bans for 15million customers across London, Surrey and Gloucestershire in the coming week, the company is haemorrhaging water.

By its own calculations, 24 per cent of the 2.4billion litres of water it supplies each day – around 600million litres of water a day, based on a three-year average.

So, what with all that, and the palettes of water littering the green, and the noisy pumping tankers with flashing lights keeping everyone awake at night, tempers are fraying and anxiety levels are rising. Dr Brown moved to the village nine months ago to a house with an annex for her elderly parents, aged 97 and 83.

‘It’s a really lovely place with a very supportive community, but this is a big worry,’ she says. ‘My dad’s diabetic and completely housebound so he’s totally reliant on having amenities – he’s very frail. He can’t be heading out to have a shower.’

While the bottled water is a godsend in current circumstances, everyone hates having to rely on it.

‘Flushing the loo with plastic bottles! It just feels awful. The whole village is now a sea of single use plastic. It’s just hideous,’ says Ms Yoxall.

‘And some were left in the sun so we can’t drink those because there’s some problem with bacteria and sun and plastic.’

‘Though it does mean they’re warmer for washing your hair with,’ says Suzanne Price.

The only people who don’t seem to care about the empty taps are the teenagers – after all, what’s a few days without showers for them?

But for the rest of the residents – doggedly kept on ‘hold’ by Thames Water – it must be hard to stand by as their beautiful village is fast being turned into a bone-dry, noisy, plastic-polluted mess.

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