SPEAKING of rituals . . . the practice of fetching water from the well is ingrained in our culture and subconscious. There was a time when we referred to gossip as “parish pump” talk or “village pump” talk, implying it was gathered by people – usually women, apparently – going about their daily chores in the days before water was piped into our homes. The modern equivalent is “talk around the water-cooler”, which continues the tradition almost seamlessly. In the interests of balance, I will add that the latter practice is embraced mostly by men . . .
When it comes to water, Spain is a complicated place. Towns and villages are on mains supply, and mains water is perfectly good to drink. Out in the countryside, things become a little more haphazard. Some houses have their own spring water piped directly to taps or storage tanks, and this water is as pure as it gets.
Our supply, like many houses in rural Andalucia, comes from the local acequia (pronounced athekia). Acequias are irrigation channels bringing melt-water from the mountains. The first of these were built by the Romans and Moors to irrigate their crops. The network is now extremely complex and extensive, but it seems to work.
Now the trouble with acequia water is it’s not fit for consumption. Sure, it flows from your mixer taps – hot or cold – and washes your pots and fills your Beko WM 6100 front-loader just like the stuff from the Pennine valleys. But it has not been filtered or purified. And goats have probably peed in it – or worse. And it has languished in your own private storage tank with the Spanish sun on it for several weeks, allowing all sorts of microbes to thrive.
So we set out from England in the knowledge we have to purchase our own drinking water in order to survive. This is not a problem. Drinking water is inexpensive in Spain. We’re talking about 40p for a five-litre bottle – unlike in Britain where it falls from the sky regularly and costs more than a quid for a fifth of that quantity.
Then when we arrived at our rented house we learnt that in the neighbouring town of Lanjaron, which is three kilometres along the road, there are fountains where the locals fill their bottles for free. Not only that, but Lanjaron is a famous spa town, and its waters are pure and invigorating.
Blimey. This is like Moses striking the rock with his staff. Free spa water and as much as we can carry. It would never happen in Harrogate.
So this morning we set out for Lanjaron with our empty containers and replenish our supplies from the two fuentes at the entrance to town. This is not an onerous task. This is what we humans have been doing since we learnt to walk upright. It’s an activity that is as old as society itself, and forms one of the blocks upon which our language and culture are founded.
Parish-pump gossip. Talk around the water-cooler. The fountain of life. The fountain of knowledge. The fountain of youth. Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pale of water. Ding-dong bell, pussy’s in the well. Bring a Little Water Sylvie. The Well Below the Valley. The Women at the Pump.
And it goes back into pre-history, this culture, this fascination surrounding natural springs and silver fountains, to the holy wells of the Celts and the tradition of well-dressing.
So we fill our containers with pure Lanjaron water. And a council wagon draws up and workmen clamber out to fill their bottles, too. And a car stops and the driver replenishes his bottles while his wife chats on her mobile phone. It’s all part of daily life. Water from the well. Humans doing what they have always done and somehow staying in touch with something intangible.
There’s something to think about when you fill your kettle.