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Widecombe History Group Talk August 2000

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Widecombe History Group Talk on the Leats and Waterways on Dartmoor


Talk by Len Copley - Leats and Waterways on Dartmoor

A most interesting and fascinating talk was given by Len Copley on this subject and it is amazing just how many man made leats and waterways there are on Dartmoor.

Len mentioned a few mainly on the western side of the moors with particular reference to Drake’s Leat and the Devonport Leat, however he commenced by looking at Birch Tor, Vitifer and Golden Dagger Mines. The leat to feed those mines was about 7 to 8 miles long. Water was taken from The Great Varracombe Brook and the North Teign River. A similar leat was taken from the East Dart below Sandy Hole, and the two leats joined near Grey Wethers in the Fernworthy area and passed below The Warren House Inn. Photographs of the sluice-gates and leats were shown to the meeting and one immediately realised that there are many such remains on the moors if you know what to look for.

In the Plym Valley there are remains of blowing houses on the Drizzlecombe Brook and by studying these leats in that area it can be seen that the same water was used several times before being returned to the rivers.

Sir Frances Drake, Mayor of Plymouth in 1593, decided that there was an increased need for drinking water for the city, so he had a leat, known now as Drake’s Leat, built at the cost of £300, £150 to build and £150 as compensation to landowners across whose land it had to be cut. He himself owned six mills that were to be driven by this water supply and at Millbay he had another mill which was getting silted up, with this increased water supply this silt was washed away, thus avoiding the necessity for him to pay to have this cleared.

In c1790 Devonport Leat was constructed, running from the West Dart near Wistman’s Wood to Devonport, some 24 miles or so, also collecting water from the Cowsic and Blackabrook on the way.

The excellent photography showed not only the leats but also all the associated constructed items, spillways that allowed the surplus water to run off in time of heavy rainfall, and many other interesting structures. Wherever you walk on the moors there is always something unexpected to see. One such example are the engraved stones placed in the Cowsic Valley by Reverend Bray of Tavistock, some with the names of well known writers like Shakespeare, Milton etc, this was done in the 1800’s. On some of these leats can be found ‘sheep leaps’, two stones jutting out from either bank but not completely touching, sheep wanting to cross the leat could use these by jumping across the gap, thus allowing the sheep to graze both sides of the waterway, there are also examples of stones, like narrow ‘clapper bridges’ over some leats said to permit rabbits to cross, this is where leats run through ‘Warrens’, no doubt this was negotiated with the landowners across whose ground the leats needed to run. It has to be remembered that leats passed through private property so the farmer or landowner needed a means of permitting his stock to graze both sides of the leat.

The Devonport Leat goes underground for about one quarter of a mile near Nun’s Cross Farm. Other leats sometimes need to cross or pass over existing rivers and streams, it is amazing how these early engineers overcame these obstacles without the modern technological aids that modern engineers have at their disposal.

Some leats have steps and at one point there was a porcelain image of a lady’s head built into the side of a leat, some consider it to be of an Indian with an elaborate headstyle. How it came to be there is open for debate, was it placed there by prisoners working on the maintenance of the leat, or by the engineers themselves?

Peter Hirst had a plaster cast made of it by Tom Gant. A few years ago the original was smashed by vandals but Peter’s cast allowed a copy to be made and it has been reinstated, this time in polyester resin!

In 1895 Burrator Reservoir was constructed, and each year there is a celebration held at the reservoir to commemorate the event by a party known as the ‘Fishing Feast’ There is a toast to Sir Frances:- "May his descendants never want for wine as long as Plymouth never wants for water".

One of the many ‘Logan or Rocking Stones’ on Dartmoor is The Black Tor Logan Stone, alas this does not now rock, and nearby there are some steel caps that were placed over boreholes used to test the quality of the underlying bedrock when the site for Burrator Dam was being selected.

In 1920’s it was decided to increase the capacity of Burrator Reservoir, and the height of the dam was increased by about 10 feet.

Len Copley had a most interesting selection of old photographs showing both stages of the work being undertaken. The launder constructed to carry the water past the original building work, the Sheepstor Dam built to hold back the increased water level and a medal struck to celebrate the event. You need to see and hear his talk to realise all that took place.

They included the ruins of Langstone Manor, part of whose grounds were submerged as a result of that work, the apple crush and part of the millstone, all part of the Manor’s equipment, the winnowing platform or windstrews, even a photograph of a team of men threshing the corn, using a thresh-all, or ‘dreshel’ as we Devonians would say!. These are wonderful pictures of our heritage and past social history. Also shown were the workshops where the stonework was carried out. A suspension bridge was built across to Sheepstor when the dam was raised and the struts are still visible on the Sheepstor side of the dam.

Talking of Sheepstor led to discussion of Sir James Brooke, The White Rajah of Sarawak, whose tomb can be seen in Sheepstor Churchyard. Near the church can be seen the old ‘Bull Baiting Ring’, and the interesting theory that it was believed at that time that beef from a baited animal was far superior to meat from an unbaited beast for flavour and tenderness, was this due to the adrenaline having a tenderising effect, one can only wonder?

Returning to the reservoir there is a generator below the dam producing electricity from the compensation water, (that is the water that has by law to keep flowing into the river when constructions of this nature have been erected). After 1976 the associated Dousland treatment works supplied water to Tavistock. Wheal Betsy and other mines between Okehampton and Tavistock were mentioned, where lead and silver also copper, tin and arsenic were mined. Water taken from the Tavy by the Reddiford and Hill Brook leats served 18 different mines in the area. These leats were used from 1932 onwards for a Hydro-electric scheme at Mary Tavy, which is still in use today, run by The South West Water Authority, generating electricity for the national grid, a similar scheme is in action at Chagford, where a mill leat was converted to produce electricity for the town at a very early date and that too now supplies the grid.

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