THE 120th anniversary of the opening of the iconic Thirlmere Aqueduct was marked this week. It is well known as an extraordinary feat of engineering that provides a vital source of 'corporation pop' that slakes the thirst of the people of Manchester and, in more recent years, Bolton. However, it is responsible for much more than water transportation. Reporter Patrick Christys takes a look at its amazing legacy.

Exactly 120 years ago water emerged from a monument in Manchester's Albert Square to rapturous applause - but this was no ordinary opening ceremony.

After a decade of work, the Thirlmere Aqueduct was complete and the first drops of water began their 95.9 mile route to what was, at the time, England's second largest city.

It was the first aqueduct of its kind in the North West and, still running today after just one large-scale repair operation, it is a breathtaking feat of human engineering.

Every day 220 million litres of water flow from Thirlmere into Manchester using nothing more than the power of gravity.

The Gazette spoke to John Butcher, United Utilities' regional supplies manager and self-styled aqueduct anorak.

He said: "The difference in height between Thirlmere and Manchester is half the size of Blackpool Tower and that is all you need to move a quarter of a million tonnes of water a day."

The water travels along a steady downwards gradient, falling 20 inches for every mile covered.

Constructed before modern pump equipment was even dreamed of, the water travels at walking pace and takes about 32 hours to complete its journey.

But Thirlmere Aqueduct is more than just a magnificent engineering feat - without it, the Industrial Revolution would would never have happened and the controversy surrounding its construction gave birth to environmentalism.

Manchester Corporation realised the city urgently needed water.

It was growing industrially and, coupled with mass immigration, was drying up.

The canny Corporation decided it wanted to syphon water out of Thirlmere but knew if the plans were announced the price of land would sky rocket, making it an expensive venture.

The corporation decided not to announce its plans and instead they employed people, like a local butcher in Keswick, to try and buy the land surrounding the water and along the route for a cheaper price.

These people were called 'special commissioners', but they got short shrift from the locals.

"The locals weren't daft," said Mr Butcher. "They saw straight through this plan right away and made it very difficult for the Manchester Corporation to buy the land."

But buy the land it did and this caused outrage among the local community, giving birth to the Thirlmere Defence Association - the first environmental group in England.

"They were so well organised," said Mr Butcher. "They had the national press on their side, William Wordsworth's son and even John Ruskin. Ruskin actually delivered some very emotive speeches saying that he hoped Manchester drowned in the waters they were trying to steal from the Lake District. He also said Manchester was 'stealing the clouds from Helvellyn'."

So strong was their opposition that the plans went through Parliament 11 times before it was finally given Royal Assent by Queen Victoria on May 23, 1879.

Work did not start on the aqueduct until 1886 because there were a series of 'wet years'.

It was not until a series of droughts and 80,000 Mancunians died from water-borne diseases that construction began.

Even though the Thirlmere Defence Association had failed in its bid to stop the aqueduct, it managed to secure a Parliamentary rule that every town in the Lake District through which the aqueduct travelled on route to Manchester could use its water.

As a result, to this day only half of the water that leaves Thirlmere actually makes it out of the Lake District.

Hundreds of men were drafted in to build the aqueduct and almost all of them were from Ireland and Liverpool - a shanti town at White Moss was set up to house many of the workers.

But this brought its own problems as the two groups of construction workers did not exactly get along.

Their dislike for one another came to a head at what came to be known as The Battle of Lupton.

The Irish builders had taken up residence at the Plough Inn while the Liverpudlians were drinking at a nearby pub called The Nook when a fight broke out.

"They all had a right go at each other and a police officer on a push bike had to be dispatched from Kendal to sort it all out!" said MR Butcher.

Despite their differences, the two work forces managed to construct something that remained fully functioning and unchanged for 100 years.

When it reached its century, the aqueduct was given a thorough check-up but Mr Butcher and his team discovered that there was very little wrong with it.

Six years ago United Utilities spent £25 million refurbishing the aqueduct 'to make sure it was good for another 100 years'.

Back in 1894 it only cost £80,000 to build the whole thing.

"You can't even buy a Range Rover for that today," laments Mr Butcher.