GEOLOGY | OXFORDSHIRE | INTERESTING LOCATIONS
Ishree Pershad Naryan Singh
The Maharaja of Benares
National Grid Reference: SU 679 58 840 77
Stoke Row is a village near the crest of the Oxfordshire Chilterns. In its centre you’ll find an out-of-place oriental gem, of the same Indo-Saracenic architectural lineage as Brighton’s famed Royal Pavilion, albeit on a diminutive scale. This homage to Varanasi conjures up the very essence of one of the seven most holy cities of Hinduism - you can almost smell the sandalwood and incense. The ornate onion-domed pavilion, complete with gilded spear finial and adorned with a chujja at its base, shelters a windlass crowned with a gilded cast-iron elephant (supplied by R.J. and H. Wilder of Wallingford).
Digging the well started in 1863 and construction took a year. The well was dug to the depth of 112 metres with 1.2 m diameter. The well shaft plus the fabrication and erection of the pavilion cost £353 13/- 7d (three hundred and fifty-three pounds, thirteen shillings and seven pence), that's £45,000 at current prices. The well was opened in May 1864. The windlass and associated ironmongery cost an additional £39 10/- ¾d (thirty-nine pounds, ten shillings and three farthings). The superstructure and winding gear were added in 1870.
The story of the Maharaja’s Well is wrapped up in the fused history and culture of northern India and this part of the Chilterns. However, its purpose and location are geologically determined...
Portrait © The Crown Collection
Edward Anderdon Reade, the lieutenant governor of the North Western Provinces for the British East India Company, piqued the imagination of The Maharaja of Benares with tales of the ongoing daily domestic drudgery of parishioners of Ipsden (which included Stoke Row) especially in drought years. In particular the story of how, as a child, he had been foraging for cherries near the hamlet of Stoke Row, when he came across an urchin child who had been whipped by his mother for drinking the last drops of water stored in the household at the height of an unusually severe drought. The young Reade protested on behalf of the child, but was summarily admonished by the irate villager and was threatened with a beating himself.
One of Reade's many acts during his tenure of office in India was to sink a well in 1831 to aid a local community in Azimurgh. On his return to England in 1860, he asked his friend, the Maharajah of Benares, to ensure that the well remained available to the public. The Maharaja honoured his friend's wishes. Following the Indian Mutiny, he recalled Reade's stories of his home in the Chilterns and bequeathed the funds for the construction of the well together with the landscaping around it and the planting of a nearby cherry orchard (to fund its maintenance for the future).
Why was Stoke Row particularly vulnerable to droughts?
The Chiltern Hills are formed by an outcrop of chalk, a fine white limestone that was deposited during the Cretaceous Period. A key feature of chalk is that it is very porous. Rainwater that falls on the hills quickly infiltrates the rock, leaving no trace on the surface in the form of natural ponds and streams.
This said, there are some places, high on the Chilterns, where ponding of surface water does occur naturally. This is where the clays and flints of the Lambeth Group crop out. This geological formation is a sequence of vertically and laterally variable material. In this area it consists mainly of clay, silty clay and cherts. Runoff to the Chalk immediately infiltrates and disappears from the surface. The clay material in this formation, unlike the chalk, is impermeable to rainwater. Instead, rainwater water runs off the surface and can pond in hollows. Stoke Row, like many other Chiltern settlements, was established near one of these Lambeth Group deposits for two reasons; firstly, access to ponded water, and secondly, clay is a great material for construction. The pits where the clay was substantially removed also created reservoirs for more water. However, population growth made this source of surface water unsustainable both in terms of supply and potability. Demand gradually exceeded water supply, particularly in hot, dry spells.
The water that infiltrates the Chalk is stored within the rock because chalk acts like a giant sponge. In the 19th Century knowledge of geology was accumulating and likewise understanding of the behaviour of groundwaters was improving. Settlements on the Chilterns started to dig deep wells down through the White Chalk Formation into the Grey Chalk Formation where the water table tended to sit. The free-draining nature of the Chalk, underlain by sands and clays, results in a water table that perches not far above the mean level of the local rivers. In the case of Stoke Row the water table is nearly 100 metres deep in the Chalk, relative to the mean surface level of the Thames. The River Thames breaches the Chilterns 10 kilometres south of the village at the Goring Gap. This meant that the well required for a sustainable supply of fresh water needed to be at least 112 metres deep.
The well served the hamlet for nearly 70 years, before mains water was introduced last century.