How a chance meeting led to the restoration of a much-loved Island landmark

By Simon Richardson

One of the more heart-warming stories to feature in the local media of late has been the superb restoration of the Groudle Glen Water Wheel. It may seem a relatively small event in the great scheme of things, but it at least puts the brakes on a process of decline that has seen so many of our treasured landmarks disappear over the last few decades.

The wheel and its adjoining building played a memorable role in my childhood. Groudle Glen was our playground and for a time the wheel hut was our secret place. It was easy to climb onto the wheel and jump in through the open window. Even then – around half a century ago – it was already in serious decline. 

Far from hastening its decline we did our best to preserve it – cleaning it up inside and stopping the water from coming through the window and holes in the roof!

Now, many years on, the wheel and the adjoining hut are restored to their former glory. The back-story to the restoration owes everything to a chance meeting at Government House between Garff MHK Martyn Perkins and Martin Vorster, the boss of Laxey based MMD (Mining Research Developments). The company, which manufactures large scale mining equipment that’s used around the globe, has its international HQ in the former Pipe Factory on Laxey quayside.

Photo Left to right: Chris Pearson, Martyn Perkins, Martin Vorster.

Martyn and Martin both have a mechanical engineering background in common, and during their chat the Groudle Water Wheel came up. The rest, as they say, is history.

Martyn and his MHK colleague Daphne Caine were both keen to see the wheel restored, but the omens were not good. An earlier survey by Pete Geddes and the Manx Mines Research Group painted a sorry picture. The girders holding the wheel and its workings to the rock face were badly corroded. They also discovered that the phosphor bronze bearings had been removed. In short, the whole structure was hanging by a thread and in danger of being swept away down the river at any time.

Martyn Perkins and Daphne Cain approached Onchan Commissioners, the owners the wheel, to see if the local authority could help to restore the landmark, but to no avail.  Funds weren’t available for such a significant project, and the Commissioners didn’t feel they could burden the district’s ratepayers. Years earlier Commissioner, Karen Corkill had made strenuous efforts to persuade the authority to back a restoration scheme, but had also been unsuccessful. 

The amount of work required and the difficult location of the wheel within the glen meant that any restoration project would be extremely difficult and technically challenging.

However, all was not lost.The plight of the wheel had struck an instant chord with Martin Vorster, and the seed of an idea had been planted during his chat with Martyn Perkins.

Mr Vorster was looking at ideas to provide a fitting memorial to the founders of MMD, Ann and Alan Potts. Working closely with the Potts family, they decided that a project to restore the Groudle Water Wheel would be the perfect tribute.

MMD is a particularly philanthropic company, which has committed much time and money to important projects. Among the more high-profile was the design of a machine for the recovery and removal of land mines. The equipment has been used in Africa and has saved many lives.

With the original water wheel and adjoining wheelhouse beyond repair plans were drawn up for a replacement to mirror the original structure. 

Expert help was sought from Peter Kelly of the Victorian Society, who explained that the old building was not in its original form. It had been changed significantly in order for an episode of the popular TV drama, ’Lovejoy’ to be filmed. As a result the plans for the new structure had to be amended to accurately reflect the original design.

The demolition of the old Wheel, which dated back to 1896, was subsequently carried out and the Island’s largest crane – known as ‘The Big Stick’ – was used to lift the remains from the bottom of the glen. 

The mechanical workings were retained and sent to MMD’s workshops in Derbyshire, with the aim of restoring as much of them as possible but replacing elements that were beyond repair with replica stainless steel copies. The painstaking process was completed, successfully, and the working heart of the wheel was returned to the Island for installation in the new building.

The difficult process of re-building the glen’s famous landmark was completed recently and culminated with an opening ceremony performed by the Lt Governor on October 30th. Whilst the new wheel won’t supply water to a nearby hotel as its predecessor had done, it will certainly enhance the experience of walking through one of the Island’s loveliest glens for generations to come.