Discovering quite a bit more about Nora


This post comes with an introduction as it is a guest post. I also just had to say something about Nora. You see for those of us of a certain age from England the name Nora makes us think of the wonderful Kathy Staff in hair curlers and wrinkled stockings, and I knew my guest blogger would never mention that! He is writing about Noras in Portugal and, as you have probably already worked out from the picture above, here a Nora is something quite different. Many of you who regularly visit the Algarve will have seen them, and for those of you who have been reading this blog for a while you will be aware it was more than a year since you were promised a post about Noras. Well here it finally is, and, like the one on windmills, written by my fabulous husband.

In an area of low rainfall such as the Algarve, the type of agriculture is determined very largely by the ability to irrigate the land. Smallholding near OlhãoIrrigation determines not only the varieties of crops which can be grown, but as a direct result the commercial value of the land. Traditionally, fifteen acres of good, irrigated land would have constituted prosperity for an Algarvian farmer; but nearly fifty acres would be required if the land could not be irrigated.

With erratic and low rainfall (most months it is less than two or three inches) it is necessary to devise some method of extracting water from the ground, shallow wells being ancient and numerous. Before the coming of the modern submersible pump the water was usually raised by picôtas or noras.A picture of a shaduf in Romania

The picôta is a bucket suspended by rope from a long arm, which is pivoted on a post fixed in the ground. The bucket is dipped into the well, and the arm then raised, and the full bucket emptied, much in the manner of a crane. We have never seen one of these devices in the Algarve, but they are still widely used in the middle-east.

The nora is an altogether more sophisticated device, consisting of an endless chain of buckets carried around the circumference of a vertical wheel which is positioned directly over the well.

The lower end of the bucket chain is submerged in the well and is lifted up by a simple gearing mechanism powered by a donkey or mule. Successive full buckets of water are lifted and emptied into a water channel, whence it can be carried either directly to the fields or to a storage tank.

The sophistication of the mechanism varies considerably. In earlier times the gears used to transmit power from the horizontal motion of the donkey to the rotary motion of the wheel were largely constructed of wood, (although our knowledge of these has been gained only from photographs) and the donkey walked around the circumference of the well. In the majority of remaining examples that we have seen, the gearing is made of cast iron, and is set up a little distance away from the well, the motion being transferred to the well head by a long shaft (eixo horizontal ); the donkey in this case walking around a separate plinth.

It would be interesting to find out where the various parts of the machinery were made; the pattern of wheels seems similar, but the style of gearing varies a little. Were they manufactured in each locality by the local foundry or were they made by a few firms who specialised in this? Were there local specialists who built noras, or was it considered a normal construction task? Until my Portuguese is good enough to do the requisite research these will remain open questions for me! Unless of course anyone reading this can help us out? If you do know or know someone who does please leave a comment below.

When the use of donkeys and mules for other agricultural purposes began to fade, probably in the mid -1950’s to the 1960’s, the noras were motorised by the use of small portable petrol or diesel engines, the drive being transmitted to the eixo horizontal by pulleys and reduction gearing. Some Algarvian reminiscences of this period refer to the constant noise of small motors running through the warm nights as farmers tried to keep their water tanks topped up. From there of course it was but a short path to use of electric pumps, which have superseded the noras entirely (although as a few of the photographs highlight occasionally the old wells are still used as the source of water).

As the jumble of photographs highlight noras come in all sizes, obviously depending on the amount of water required or available, and the depth of the well. A very deep well would necessitate more power to raise the water, and some we have seen are impressive pieces of work. The route the water flows after leaving the nora is also of interest, but this will form the subject of another blog!

Author: Mr B

An antiquarian bookseller who enjoys spending English winters birding and drinking red wine in Portugal. Also interested in the history of the places we visit, hence the very occasional technical post on Delights of the Algarve.

8 thoughts

  1. Great coverage of an interesting subject from Robert, Becky 🙂 Sorry I can’t help with the question. Aly and Dave are usually reliable for information?

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