How Did That Happen? I Just Bought a Late Soviet Era Water Tower in Latvia.

Last Friday was my birthday and some weeks back, a colleague had suggested doing something fun for the day and the thought grew on me. Indeed, I thought I would treat myself to a rare day out of the office – but what to do? Whatever I did one requirement was that there should be an element of ‘daft fun’ to the day.

Some of the options I considered were:

1.       Learn to parachute / skydive that day? (that would be fun, and full of adrenaline) – a high candidate and catching up with good friend Richard recently I was regaled with stories and his approaching 500th jump.

2.       Would I spend the day in the Radio Room of HMS Belfast? (Fun, and a great day & most rewarding not only working the radio but also teaching and enthusing the next generation about Morse code etc. )

3.       Visit the British Library – something I’d been meaning to do for some time to investigate the resources available, acquaint myself and spend the day contemplating, learning and writing etc.

4.       Spend the day at London Hackspace. I don’t get there half (or 1%) as much as I’d like. Great friendly and creative atmosphere where things get pulled apart, hacked, and made better etc. Many new skills to learn and plenty willing to share their mastery of said skills with others. A veritable trove for the autodidact with an engineering bent.

5.        Just spend the day catching up on sleep and being gloriously slothful for a day.

…. But then whilst browsing the web, and looking out of interest at the state of the Latvian property market (as you do), I came across an advert for forthcoming auctions from the Latvian Privatisation Agency which caught my eye. This specific ad was for a water tower in the district of Jurmala (translates to Seaside), which is about 20 minutes outside Riga and consists of connected villages and towns along with about 30km of unspoilt beach on the shore of the Baltic Sea.

For those that may not know, whilst was born and raised in England, I’m also half Latvian by birth on my mother’s side and have an interest and fascination with the country. I have spent a number of very enjoyable holidays in Latvia since university days, and have witnessed much of the rapid progression that has come since the country’s independence post communism. It is hard to describe but Latvia, with its people and countryside have a great draw for me. In particular I have a thing for slightly overgrown wild Latvian meadows, which I consider to be one of the greatest things of beauty on God’s earth. In Latvia the pace of life is a little slower than the UK and the seasons have clear definition. In winter there is snow, in summer there is sun and yes; this is probably a rose tinted oversimplification.

Since working in the city of London and particularly starting a family, we’ve not been over for quite some time. Last time I went the currency was the Lat, now it is the Euro etc.  From time to time I browse the web and look at Latvian property (real estate) web sites to day dream about a nice farm in Latvia and leaving the rat race behind. Approx 150 years ago everything in our lives would have come from within about 20 miles of where you were living and I find that the idea of a return to a more basic existence has a certain ‘grass is always greener’ appeal. Fresh air, healthy and hard manual work, and enjoying the fruits of your labour etc. Reality however would likely be very different, and besides; after 5 minutes of browsing a task is complete and there is more work to do.

The particular object of the water tower caught my attention though. It was not unique, but a good example of late soviet architecture, where form and function are equally celebrated. Who doesn’t like a good tower or folly?

The water tower was listed as 40m high with a capacity 40 cubic metres of water. Alongside the tower itself, its attendant guard house (basically an insulated shed in poor condition) and the small plot of land where it stood, and it was to be sold by auction on 20th May. I had a read on the particulars, which stated that the property was poorly served technically (no electricity, drainage, gas or – bizarrely for a water tower no water supply either!), and that the guard shed was in poor condition. The tower did appear basically sound though – having been built in approx. 1980 of steel reinforced concrete - they are built to last, and designed to support the weight of the water at the top which is one tonne per cubic metre.

I had a look at the location on Google Earth and StreetView which are very useful tools. These showed the tower, and the location clearly. The setting at the side of the lake was obviously photographed in summer as there are plenty of locals enjoying the environs of the adjoining small lake, and it is very scenic indeed. Slightly down from the water tower also next to the lake were the ruins (mostly intact) of an old mill (windmill?), which dated from the 18th century.  I was obviously interested and found myself looking over the particulars. The documents described the best suggested use of the land as to add to an adjoining property, and I wondered if Grand Designs had reached the Baltic yet.

It is hard to visualise what a 40m high object looks like. A quick search on the Interweb reveals that. for comparison; 40m is the height of roughly a 12 storey building, the same height as the US space shuttle vertical on the launch pad, and a tad taller than the height of the statue of Christ that looks over Rio de Janeiro (when pedestal included), about the same as 9 stacked double decker busses, and 5 m less than the height of the statue of liberty. Quite high then.

Not for any particular reason or purpose, I thought ‘who would not want a tower like that in a beautiful lakeside (albeit post industrial behind) location close to the sea?’ The auction process required advance registration and expression of interest in a particular auction listing. So out of interest, I registered my interest. Thinking about the auction process, I didn’t rate my chances though. I know how people get carried away in ebay auctions (been there), and also that water towers have many purposes in the latter day world – including for use as telecoms towers for the mobile phone networks etc.

Thus I felt that the probability of actually winning an auction against bidders with unlimited pockets would be somewhere from low to nill. In fact, thinking about it rationally (before you say it, you are probably thinking that the concepts of rational thought and 40m high late soviet era water towers is an oxymoron and I’d wholeheartedly agree), I’d not really be able to bid at all, as with family, living etc. it’s hard to justify splashing out money you don’t have on what is effectively a folly. I was curious though. I considered that it would be interesting to see how the auction process worked for future opportunities down the line, and who would end up the owner of this fine tower? So – the auction being set for the day of my birthday, and the prospect of a slow day in Riga also appealing in and of itself,  I booked the flight out.

Ryanair do a flight from the UK to Latvia which leaves at about 06:50 uk time,which takes about 2.5 hours and arrives thus at Riga International Airport (RIX) at approx. 11am local time (timezone +2 from UK time).  There is a return flight that leaves RIX at 21:30 in the evening, and thus a day trip to Latvia is entirely practical and thanks for to Ryanair economic also (Fares start at about £35 one way) – just a very early start to the day considering you have to get up and get to the airport in good time before the flight.

So I’d booked the day out of the office from work – got everything urgent done and let people know that I’d be away for the day, and then set off bright and early on my trip. I say I’d let everyone know I’d be away for the day, and that I had, diary filled in, colleagues mailed, and set Out of Office, but I didn’t say where I was going. I guess sometimes I’m rather shy about things, and considered that if I told people where I was going and what I was planning to do, I’d likely be poo pooed, and ribbed for it – ie ‘you’re going to fly 1000 miles to watch someone buy a water tower? Isn’t that a bit daft?’ – well, yes it probably would be. The plan was also to enjoy a pleasant day in Riga besides this, which would be one aspect to the day but only one small part of it. I’ve known friends to do similar things when going for driving tests to avoid the unwelcome pressure of ‘did you fail again, isn’t that X times now?’ etc. And I admit it was daft in the first place so didn’t really need others to tell me what I already knew.

Arriving in Riga at the end of a pretty smooth flight, Riga was bathed in sunshine and a pleasant place to be. As I was in for the day only, I was thankful not to have any luggage and only my work laptop bag with chargers for phone etc. On arrival I found that there had been some issues overnight with one of our upstream Internet connections which are redundant, but maintenance with one provider had had knock on effects with our routers, which was thankfully quickly resolved by a colleague Matthew in the office. Murphy’s law does dictate that the day you’re out of the office things like this happen but great to know everything in good hands.

From Riga Airport, you can catch the bus to town for EUR 2, which is not quite as quick as a cab, but as I was in no rush, and just there to enjoy myself for the day, that’s what I did and headed into town. I had a wonder around the old town, via Doma Laukum (Dome Square) etc. all was quite as a I remember it but with some evolutionary changes as you’d expect. Progress is progress, but I still think that KFC, Starbucks and McDonalds & now Pizza Hut are a little out of place in Riga alongside the more traditional shops and hostelries.    From the old town I wondered through the park by the National Opera House (Latvia has a very strong opera), enjoying the sun, the walking and the air. When you don’t have 101 things on your to do list and bustle to get things done, time itself feels more relaxed.

On the plane on the way over, I had a read of my PDF download from the night before of the ‘Riga in Your Pocket’ guide to the town where they have good reviews of where to go and where to avoid for a visitor or expat in Latvia. I stopped at a small Latvian Café  - ‘Cafe22’ where the food looked good and the wifi was free. Lunch was an excellent beetroot compote and then a Latvian pancake type dish which was also delicious and costing a very reasonable EUR 4.1 including a bottle of water.

After this was close to time to visit the Latvian Privatisation Agency in their building just down from the national art museum. I was not too sure how this would work with language etc. as I can order a beer and stop a taxi in Latvian, but not much else. Thankfully (and to my slight shame) many if not most Latvians speak excellent English.

There is an oft over used phrase ‘you have to be in it to win it’ – which to my mind equates to advertising for things like the national lottery, of which you have about 1 in 14 million chances of winning, so may as well read ‘you’re almost certainly not going to win it’…. But in this case it seems I struck lucky as it turns out that in fact I was the only person who had registered an interest in the water tower, and that the board of the Latvian Privatisation Agency had written a letter to this effect two days earlier but not bothered posting it as it would not get to the UK in time. As the only interested party, the building was effectively mine. Barring a small matter of payment – a grand total of EUR 5.17 had to be paid for taxes. Helpfully and to make paperwork less of an issue; the Latvian privatisation agency had paid this on my behalf to the district authority in Jurmala, and that I could repay them in 30 days, but no, they could not accept cash now. The staff were delightful, efficient, and answered a host of questions such as might be asked by a naïve first time buyer of Latvian Water Towers.   It turns out that this was also their first time privatising a water tower, and they were curious to see who would be interested in this. I’m pretty sure I’m down as the ‘mad Englishman’, which is likely true. Gift horse & mouth etc. so with a few signatures the water tower was basically mine. I do still have to file a document with the Land Registry, and pay another EUR 7 or so in fees for that, but that would not be possible the same day, as many state institutions work a short day on Friday (I did say that the pace of life is a little different in Latvia and no bad thing).

 So – wow – I guess I just bought a water tower sight unseen. How cool is that? What to do with it, what state is it in etc. ? I’d not actually particularly thought of those questions until then, as I didn’t really believe it myself until this point. Next, there was only one thing to be done – I resolved to skip my trip to the art museum and took a taxi to the tower. The Tower was down as being in Jurmala, which is the district (just) but more accurately is in an area called Sloka, which is a short way on from the main tourist centre of Majori / Jurmala town centre. Nicola and I had taken the train to Sloka years ago and walked to the campsite there where we stayed in simple huts on a fun holiday doing lots of walking on the beach etc. The area is quite wooded and not so densely populated, so you are a long walking distance from the hub of activity and thus at the more tranquil end of the sands. The water tower was (is) inland from the sea somewhat, but in view of the river Lielupe and next to the lake. I’ve never been to Ibiza, but I understand that there is the party side, and then the rest of the island which is actually quite beautiful and unspoilt. So it is with Sloka.

The taxi was a luxury, but the trains can be infrequent and I was keen to behold the tower and see what I’d just let myself in for.

In the property market they say that much is about ‘location, location & location’ and I think the location of the tower is pretty good, but judge for yourself and see what you think, as we’ll run through some photos below:

The tower itself:

Here is the tower. 40m high and holds 40 Cubic Metres (40,000 litres) of water which would weight 40 metric tonnes. Looks in need of a bit of a trim of the bushes at the bottom and a lick of paint at the top.

Detail of the lower half. You can see the the scale a little more effectively here (or get an idea) as the guardhouse (basically an insulated shed) can be seen to the right, and other former industiral buildings behinds which are between two and three stories high themselves. The guardhouse was last manned in 2002 from the papers inside, and has a desk, an armchair, and a print of Lenin on the wall ahead of you. It is quite amazing that despite only being help closed by a bent nail, that everything is in tact inside. The tower itdelf has an open entrance currently, but no known accidents in the last 14 years which is probably due to it being fairly obvious that it is to be treated with respect. Health and safety probably dictate that early actions should be a door, fence and a warning sign at least.

View of the top half of tower. The paint is usefully about the same colour as the rust, but fresh paint is called for at sometime which will be fun on the trapese. The steel water containers can be climbed down into via internal ladders from the top, though these have yet to be explored. The water bearing steel containers balance on a small concrete step so that centre of gravity transmits down the tower walls whilst looking ever so slightly improbable.

The view of the lake from the bottom of the tower.

Seperate view from the bottom of the lake. If you look at Google StreetView for the area you'll see people enjoyin the lake in summer and apparently people enjoy diving in it also. Navigate a little down the road and you can see the remains of the old windmill also.

Immeditely inside the tower if you look down you see water. I don't know why but this surprised me somewhat. Whereas you'd logically think that a water tower should contain water, somehow I didn't expect it at the bottom. It could be that this goes down for a few inches (having gathered and been held here) or much further (coming from source) - to investigate further.  

In this photo, you can see the ground level platform to start the climb to the top. To the right is the big water pipe that goes to the top, which either takes water up or down. At the bottom of the picture you can see some of the welded joins in the steel reinforcements in the concrete.

This is the view inside the tower looking up. There are a series of steel ladders going up, and platforms between the levels. I'm not sure what grade of steel was used for this part, but it is all fairly chunky and bar the visible corrosion relatively solid. To climb to the top you just go up up via about 5/6 platforms. Climbing to the top is certainly good exercise!

Ever wondered what the inside of a soviet water tower looks like from the top looking down into it? If so then this is your lucky day and the answer is (at least partly) in the picture below. Helpfully there is a ladder to descend the depths of the inside of the tanks. Given that I did not know the state of corrosion on the ladder bar the first bar which looked quite shiny, I decided that best not to venture down for now lest I languished at the bottom of the tank forever if a step broke. Resolution to investigate further later with caution and a harness secured somewhere solid at the top.

The good stuff: the above is part of the view from the top of the tower. What a view. The road and lake are in front, and you can see the river Lielupe in the background behind the trees.

Further to the left you can see the ruins of the old windmill on the banks of the lake.

Another view from the top - apparently the lake is popular for diving amongst other activities in the summer.

For scale - taxi and people walking along below.

Further round nearby fields, houses, industrial and small holding units.

To the rear of the tower are a number of post industrial units. The site used to be one complex for logistics and other operations before before the end of the communist regime from what I understand.

A short video also panning from the top.


So that's the tower for now.

I should have taken some more pictures and more of the guardhouse at the bottom etc.

So next questions include:

  • What should be done with the tower?
  • What's the best way to tell your wife you've just bought an ex Soviet Water Tower in Latvia? Answer: Have a very lovely and understanding wife who understands people can do daft things sometimes (or all the time) & immediately stepped forward as tower Health and Safety officer having since having listed about 47 ways the tower could kill you :-)
  • What would the rest of the family think?
  • Who is the best and most competitive insurer for Latvian Water Towers?
  • Would this make the ultimate AirBnB?
  • As a keen ham, what type of Yagi antenna would you best put up top?


These would have to wait for now though as I only had limited time and also had a keen sense of self preservation in not wanting to push things too much as to limits and risks.

Returning to Riga I visited the old central market, cooled my heels a while and picked up some finest Laima chocolates etc. to take back for home and office before taking the bus back to the airport for the return flight.

I was thinking of having a T-Shirt made:

It might say: 'I went for a day trip to Riga and all I got was this late soviet period 40m high steel reinforced concrete water tower with observation platform by a lake with views of the river Lielupe and the Latvian Countryside, complete with guardhouse (shed) with an armchair, desk and proudly displayed print of Lenin.' :-)

To be continued...