Fetching Water, Then and Now

Pump It Up
(water pump next to the Pieterskerk)

Jack and Jill went up a hill
to fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown
and Jill came tumbling after.

Now admittedly, there’s little risk of falling down hills here in Utrecht, but if Jack and Jill had been sent to fetch a pail of water, they might have been more likely to fall into a canal. In the middle ages, many homes had their own well or pump from which they got their water, but it was often contaminated by leaking cesspools. The water was often so awful that people preferred to get water from the canals, despite the fact that the canals themselves were often dumping grounds for all sorts of filth and waste.

Fortunately, by the late 1700s/early 1800s, they were able to drill deeper and get fresher water that was better protected. Along the way, these public pumps began to take on a more permanent appearance, as the pumps were encased in stone structures and featured large iron handles and bronze spouts that were highly decorated, often with fanciful animal heads. The tops of the pump structures often had some sort of lamp, as well.

Head in a Head
(detail of the water pump on Breedstraat with the decorative spout)

At one point in the late 1800s, Utrecht had more than 6000 pumps, with 60 of them being public pumps. Today, there are only a handful of old pumps still to be seen around town, and they’re all simply for show now.

One of the most attractive of the water pumps still to be seen is the one at Mariaplaats (a copy of the original). It has a beautiful lion’s head for a spout and sits in a small square shaded by trees. Historically, this pump location was one of the most famous, as well. The water from it was of such good quality that it was shipped to Amsterdam where it was sold by the barrel.

Maria Waterpomp

Shades of Green
(photos of St. Maria Pomp, built in 1844)

Yesterday I wrote about the new water pumps that have been installed around town offering free tap water. They may be useful and a good idea, but they lack the charm of their older counterparts. Many of today’s pumps are located near parks, whereas most of the pumps from the 1800s that remain are located near churches. Changing times, changing needs.

There used to be a grand pump in the middle of Neude, one of the big squares in the center of town, but it was finally removed in 1932. It features multiple lanterns and must have been a bright spot for gathering in the evening. You can see an old postcard image of it here, although the image must have been reversed when the card was printed, as the Domtoren and some of the buildings in front still remain, but should most definitely be on the other side of the picture!

The next time you’re in Utrecht and you see one of these old pumps, take a moment to be grateful for fresh, clean, tasty water that requires little more than an easy shift of a handle, rather than a trek with buckets in hand and a full-body workout. But also be thankful that these interesting pieces of history haven’t been lost and forgotten.

Buurkerk Waterpomp
(classically inspired water pump outside the Buurkerk)
Geertekerk Waterpomp
(Geertekerk water pump)
Breedstraat Waterpomp
(Breedstraat water pump on a Saturday morning amidst the ancient, outdoor fabric market)

Tap Water Challenge

Water in Janskerkhof
The latest TEDxUtrecht took place this week and it seems that one of the discussions was about ways to encourage Utrechters to turn to tap water instead of bottled water. Not only is tap water the cheaper option, but it’s also better for the environment, since you don’t end up with all those plastic bottles. Considering the fact that plastic recycling isn’t the easiest form of recycling here, it seems particularly relevant.

The Utrecht Tap Water Challenge, organized by TEDxUtrecht and supported by the Join the Pipe foundation, Vitens, and the city of Utrecht, wants locals to get involved and come up with ways to encourage others to choose tap water. The winning idea will win a prize and have the opportunity to see their idea implemented. The deadline is 30 November 2012.

Water in Neude

A number of free water points have been established in locations around the city and other locations are being considered. If you’re out and about and have a reusable water container or some other sort of cup, you can always fill up, rather than spend €1 for a plastic bottle of water. In a pinch, you can go really green and use your own hand, of course! There’s one at Janskerkhof, Park Lepelenburg, Neude, Griftpark, and Marco Poloplantsoen.

Drink WaterPerhaps you’re like I used to be and have some unpleasant associations with tap water, whether it’s smelly, tastes bad, or comes with a warning as it did years ago when I lived in New Orleans. I used Britta filters and bottled water like many people and continued to do so when I first moved here, simply out of habit. Then I tasted the tap water here. It’s actually really nice! Utrecht has a reputation for the quality of its water. In fact, the water we get from our tap is the same spring water that gets bottled by brands like Sourcy.

Not everyone has access to quality tap water, but it’s worth trying from time to time, rather than simply buying bottled or shelling out for all of those filters. The irony is that we do have such great water in Utrecht, but it’s very hard to actually get tap water in restaurants here. They’ll bring you a bottle of still water, instead, as there’s no profit to be made off tap water. Perhaps that should be my suggestion for the competition: encouraging restaurants to provide tap water on request.

If you want more information about the contest, check the Gemeente’s website or visit the TEDxUtrecht idea site where you can submit your ideas. (Editor’s Note 1/8/13: contest has finished)