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Coombe Conduit

IN OUR busy modern world, we take the availability of clean, fresh water for granted in this country. We turn on the tap and there it is - ready to use. But centuries ago, the delivery of water for everyday use required a good deal of effort and thought.

And nowhere is that more apparent than in a little-known edifice close to Kingston - the Coombe Conduit.

For 350 years, the structure provided fresh water to Hampton Court Palace and was one of three conduit heads used for the purpose, the other two being Gallows Conduit and Ivy Conduit.

Although there are differences of opinion about the precise dates of the construction of the water supply system, it is generally thought to have been begun around 1529 when Henry VIII took up residency in the great palace.

Coombe Conduit, which is located off Coombe Lane West close to the junction with Lord Chancellor Walk, is built on the site of a fresh water spring and consists of two buildings, an upper and lower chamber, approximately 80 feet apart and connected by an underground tunnel which some historians believe may have acted as an overflow chamber.

Water from the spring flowed into a tank in the upper chamber and it was then drawn into a tank in the lower chamber via a length of lead piping. Sediment was allowed to settle in the lower chamber before the water was passed into the main conduit connected to Hampton Court.

The total length of the piping was about 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometres) and the lead pipe used was extremely strong and heavy duty - the pipes were 3 inches in diameter and half an inch thick. The system was designed with a fall of 129 feet (39.3 metres) which provided enough water pressure to supply running water to rooms on the second floor of Henry's palace. That was a considerable improvement on previous similar systems such as the one put in place at Eltham Palace.

In the 17th century, a second tank was created in the upper conduit house - above the level of the Tudor original - which further increased the water pressure available.

Coombe Conduit continued to provide water to Hampton Court until 1876 by which time the supply had become intermittent and other means of providing water to properties in the area were becoming commonplace.

In 1896, the conduit houses and lead piping were sold to the Duke of Cambridge on whose land they then stood, although four years later the Crown formally relinquished all rights over the pipes.

The upper conduit house suffered damage during the Second World War when, in 1943, an elm tree, weakened by high-explosive bombs, fell across the west and north walls, bringing down the remains of the roof, the two masonry gables and parts of the remainder of the walls. This damage was partly repaired under the War Damage Act and further restored in 1956.

In the 1970s, the area was developed residentially, and Coombe Conduit was enclosed within the garden of 28 Lord Chancellor Walk.

The building is now under the protection of English Heritage and is open to the public between 2pm-4pm every second Sunday from April to October. It is also open on Heritage Open Days weekend. Entry is free.

For more information, visit the website at

www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/coombe-conduit.

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