By Harry Mottram: Last year South West Water dropped a bombshell piece of news – they had put together a business case to build a second reservoir in the Cheddar Valley. In 2018 the original plans to construct it to the south of the existing one were finally dropped after Ofwat said it relied too heavily on being financed by massive hikes in consumer bills. Instead, they opted for a pipeline to link up the Res with the Barrow Tanks near Bristol – the line buried beneath part of the Strawberry Line and the Shute Shelve Tunnel.

From South West Water’s proposals

The news in 2023 came via a piece in The New Civil Engineer magazine written by Greg Pitcher last year. He reported: “South West Water will invest £2.8bn to upgrade a third of water treatment works in Devon and Cornwall, reduce leakage to less than 10%, create a water grid to ensure all strategic reservoirs are connected and invest in large reservoirs starting with Cheddar 2 in Bristol.

“Water companies have set out plans to almost double their spending on the network during asset management period (AMP) 8, 2025 to 2030. The utilities filed their business plans to regulator Ofwat on Monday 2 October, asking for permission to hike customer bills to allow them to invest a combined £96bn in 2025-30. If approved, these proposals will see a raft of infrastructure projects carried out in AMP8 to improve the reliability of clean water supplies and reduce sewage spills into rivers and seas. Sector body Water UK said utilities had asked for approval to build 10 reservoirs as well to use cutting-edge technology and nature-based solutions to slash wastewater overflows.”

This is a graphic from the 2013 plans


With the on-off-on project back on the utilities’ agenda South West Water has confirmed it hopes to have the new reservoir in operation by 2033 – some 96 years after the first one was opened just before WW2. Back then the it was constructed mainly by men with picks and shovels. A steam digger was brought in along with a branch line from the Cheddar Valley Railway to bring in materials to the site. Built as a saucer shape and relatively shallow it was state of the art at the time – with a second one planned to go along side – hence the straight side on the Axbridge side meaning it has the shape of a giant strawberry. The plan for the second Reservoir in 2013 was changed as the land to the west of the Res had since had a refuse tip built – now a grassed over field – and properties had been built that would have been in the way and it was finally abandoned on money grounds.

New homes such as the ones off Houlgate Way are increasing the demand for water

Since then hundreds more homes have been built – and are being built – with a growing demand for water – both domestically and commercially – with no sign that population growth in the area will plateau. However with even more congestion on the local roads and no major overhaul in the transport network there are questions raised over how the new reservoir will be built. It is apparently to be slightly smaller in area than the existing one but deeper and if it is like the design proposed in 2013 it will feature environmental and leisure adaptions to encourage wildlife and water based activities – the main photo is from the 2013 plans.

New road

When the new pylons were constructed linking Hinkley Point to Avonmouth a temporary road was built across the Mendips for the contractors. With such a major project like Cheddar Res 2 it would seem likely a temporary road would need to be built from the A38 up the valley to the site near Gypsy Lane off Helliers Lane. Hundreds of trees and miles of hedgerows would have to be taken out to allow the digging of the reservoir – all done by modern earth removal plant equipment with large amounts taken away by truck. Greater volumes of lorries along New Road in Cheddar would seem unviable since that road – the A371 – is already very busy. And the road from Wedmore is restricted for some HGVs.

Cheddar Reservoir 2 would be a major infrastructure project on a scale not seen in the valley since the 1930s. It will boost local trade, increase employment and secure water resources for future generations. Will it go ahead? With a general election this year nothing is certain but Ofwat will publish a draft determination for the project by June. This will be consulted on before final determinations are set in late 2024 but it does seem highly likely judging by David Black’s comments last year for Ofwat.


David Black, chief executive at the regulator, said: “The water industry needs to deliver a step change in investment and performance to clean up our rivers and seas, while also helping to ensure that we can meet the challenge of climate change. Company business plans are an important first step in the price review process. Ofwat’s role is to forensically scrutinise their proposals, to ensure any increase in bills is justified, efficient and delivers significant improvements in river and bathing water quality. We will assess how companies are helping customers to afford any bill increase. As we work through the business plans we will continue to monitor companies’ performance, hold them to account for delivering improvements and push them to build meaningful plans to change.”

Susan Davy

The CEO of South West Water Susan Davy has also spoken this year of investment and water resilience and the demand for clean drinking water suggesting the project will be a priority. However water firms have had a PR problem in recent months over pollution. She was pressured into giving up a bonus on top of her £400K plus pay packet due to the poor record of the firm in sewage leaks into rivers – an issue that has not gone away. Incidently the government is making it mandatory for all water companies to provide public data about the frequency and duration of storm overflow discharges in near real-time by 2025.

A reminder that last year Bristol Water transferred to South West Water for £565 million through ‘an approved transfer scheme under Schedule 2 of the Water Industry Act 1991.’ This means the property, rights and liabilities of Bristol Water Plc transfers to South West Water as if it had always been the owner – so despite the signs Cheddar Reservoir is now in the portfolio of South West Water which is largely based in Devon and Cornwall and is owned by the Pennon Group.

Building Cheddar reservoir in the 1930s

Construction gets under way

Below are photos of work in progress of the first reservoir built in the 1930s. This write up came to the Strawberry Line Times along with the photos which were sent to me as a record of the work undertaken back in the day.

Hi-tech: one of the steam cranes used in the building work

This one reveals what was at the time state-of-the-art construction equipment – a rather wobbly railway and a mobile crane. How things have changed in the building industry. The company gave this insight into those long lost days when 400 men were employed to excavate the reservoir:

Filling up: the workers finishing the sides of the Reservoir

Cheddar has been a key part of our supply ‘grid’ for nearly 100 years. In 1914, it was decided to take water from Cheddar to increase supplies to Bristol. In early 1922 the dams and intake in the Gorge next to the Cliff Hotel were built and a pipeline laid to a pumping station in Lower New Road. Eventually, though, a reservoir was needed to make better use of water from the springs.

Steam power: the construction site had its own railway siding from the Strawberry Line to deliver materials

Work began in April 1933, with an estimated total cost of £450,000. The Company had actually wanted to build a much larger reservoir, or a second one as well, but funds did not allow. Work was suspended from October 1935 to March 1936 owing to incessant rain and the reservoir was commissioned in 1938. There is no record of an official opening. Over 400 men were employed on the site, with wooden huts provided for accommodation near the tower on the Axbridge side. As many of the ‘navvies’ were Irish Catholics, they had their own priest.

View over the reservoir in the making

Raw manpower, horses, steam shovels and cranes were used to build the reservoir, with scant regard for health and safety! A branch of the Axbridge – Cheddar railway was built across the fields behind the sailing club to bring in materials. Bits of the machinery used in construction are buried around the reservoir, including, allegedly, a complete railway engine near the playing fields although this is thought to be an urban myth.

One story that was tree was the Old Angel pub in Axbridge Square was a favourite drinking den of the workers – back when the town also had The George Inn and the Lamb Inn on the Square as well.

Axbridge News is edited by Harry Mottram for his own interest and those of residents.

Harry is a freelance journalist. Follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube etc