Abbeystead is a small, sleepy hamlet on the western edge of the Forest of Bowland area of Outstanding National Beauty, rarely visited apart from as a jumping off point for walks amongst the surrounding fells and rivers. With a settlement in the area dating back to the Norman Conquest and deriving its name from the home of a small order of Catholic Cistercian monks situated in the area during the 12th Century, for most of its history it has remained largely overlooked and unknown. However, a tragic accident in 1984 means that the name of Abbeystead is now well-known to many.
The Abbeystead valve house was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1980, widely celebrated as an incredible feat of engineering. The multi-million pound scheme by the North West Water Authority (NWWA) allowed the transfer of water from the River Lune, running through Lancaster (around eight miles north west of Abbeystead) through to the River Wyre. Transferring up to 280 million litres of water a day, the new infrastructure was designed to meet the forecast increase in water demand across South Lancashire.
In early 1984, the nearby village of St Michael’s on Wyre experienced significant and persistent flooding. The pumping activity at Abbeystead was widely attributed by residents as a major contributing factor, significantly increasing the amount of water in the Wyre drainage basin. In response, the NWWA organised a tour of the facility for concerned villagers, hoping to alleviate concerns that the valve house was responsible for the flooding. On the 23rd May 1984, 36 residents arrived at the site for a tour and demonstration of the pumping facility. Accompanied by eight NWWA personnel, the visit commenced with an underground tour that would showcase the site’s system of valves at work.
Before the day of the tour, a drought across Lancashire meant that the pumping station had been dormant for 17 days. Unknown to the NWWA, during that time underground deposits of methane, originating from a coal seam nearly a mile below the pipeline, had steadily seeped into the empty water pipes.
With no water in the pipes, the visitors stood waiting as the system was switched on and, to the surprise of engineers, nothing happened. The fatal decision was made to turn on a set of reserve valves. During that process, a spark ignited the methane that had accumulated in the pipes, triggering an explosion so severe that the concrete roof beams of the underground chamber, weighing a collective 75 tonnes, were blown upwards through the soil above them before the chamber collapsed back in on itself. Eight visitors were killed immediately, while 28 others were severely injured. Ambulances carried the injured to hospitals in both Lancaster and Preston. Ultimately, eight more died from their injuries.
In the hours following the disaster, stories of individual tragedy began to emerge. A twelve year old visiting the facility with his parents was amongst those killed in the initial explosion. Two of those to succumb to their injuries were identified as a couple who had been due to travel away on holiday but had delayed their departure to take part in the visit due to their intense concern regarding the flooding in St Michael’s. Some victims had been blown into surrounding fields by the blast, as well as one man who had landed in the car park and was subsequently crushed by a car flipped over by the force of the explosion. One survivor landed on a wall outside, her clothes having been scorched off.
Following the disaster, the Health and Safety Administration quickly established the cause of the explosion as a buildup of methane gas in the pipes. However, they failed to attribute blame for the accident, and the survivors and families faced a protracted legal battle. Ultimately, Lancaster Crown Court apportioned blame primarily to the designers of the system, Binnie and Partners, while also finding the NWWA and the builders of the facility liable. NWWA and the builders were cleared on appeal, and blame was laid solely at the door of the designers. After a subsequent appeal failed, Binnie and Partners settled with the survivors out of court for a fee thought to be around £2.5 million.