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Finding a water supply for Plymouth has always posed a dilemma. It was first resolved in 1585 through the construction of the Plymouth Leat - a six foot trench which ran for 18 miles between the River Meavy and the growing settlement at Plymouth. Sir Francis Drake, then mayor of Plymouth, is credited with leading the construction of this leat, including getting permission from parliament for its construction. This project took 4 months to complete and brought a supply of clean, clear, moorland water into the very heart of the town. In 1871, it was lined with granite in an effort to reduce seepage and improve the flow.
Drakes's Leat

Drake's Leat - an annual inspection

The granite lining can be clearly seen. While the attention of Plymouth's councillors and officials in the background is diverted,, what looks suspiciously like a bit of seine fishing- salmon? trout? is going on in the foreground - why else would the workman in the centre be carrying such a handy little basket?

Courtesy of Steve Johnson


By the 19th century,, the leat had become an ancient monument which simply could not keep up with the demands of such a rapidly-developing place as Plymouth with its dockyards. matters came to a head in 1891 when the "Great Storm" brought all of Devon to a standstill for several days. The open leat was inundated by a dense fall of snow - so dense that water in the leat could not flow under its weight during all those days.  Plymouth Corporation were alarmed at the speed and thoroughness of their loss of water supply to the City and realised they had to take action.


Once again, surveyors and water engineers were sent up up to Dartmoor to seek a solution. It was quickly realised that the area around Walkhampton and Sheepstor could be used to form a water- storage basin which could serve the City. It was sparsely populated and the underlying geology was perfect for water collection. Hart Tor was, at first, the preferred choice, but as the search continued, Burrator came to be seen as a far better choice, with its adjacent stone quarries.


Two different types of dam were built across the Burrator Gorge. The larger dam had a 67 foot fall - the smaller, in the form of an embankment now called the Sheepstor Dam,  used the natural contours of the land so that a low ridge only 10 foot high was created by the addition of clay - also readily to hand. An existing road at Sheepstor bridge was diverted to run along the top of Burrator Dam.


Construction begins

Construction begins at Burrator

All the stone blocks were cut on site and

sourced from the little quarry just glimpsed top right

Courtesy of Steve Johnson


from the rear of the Dam, the work to raise the level by 10 feet can clearly be seen

 From the rear of the Burrator Dam, the work to raise the potential water level which was completed in the 1920s. can be clearly seen

© Richard J. Brine


It was to be some years after the laying of the foundation stone before the project was officially opened. And all that time, a little steam crane ran to and fro long its short length of track, moving blocks of stone as they were cut from the face of the quarry on the adjacent hillside. This massive engineering undertaking relied on a relatively small number of men using traditional manual skills and dogged persistance, with very little in the way of technology .


Construction of the larger dam at Burrator

Construction work on the larger Dam

The steam crane can be seen running on its trackway

Courtesy of Steve Johnson


Plaque commemorating completion of the first stage of the work

 Plaque commemorating completion of the first stage of the work

The plaque records the start of the task in 1892

and the completion of Stage 1 on 21 September 1898.

© Richard J. Brine


Even in 1898, work at the reservoir was not completed. Before work had begun, Edward Sandeman, the Borough Water Engineer, had made calculations as to how much water was actually required by a City as large as Plymouth. For centuries, the old leat had carried more than 5 million gallons a day. The initial stage of of Burrator increased the output to 668 million gallons which Sandeman decided (correctly) would still be insufficient.

The next stage began in  the slump of the 1920s when money was used from an unemployment relief programme financed by the government to enlarge the capacity to 1026 gallons by raising the large Burrator Dam and the smaller Sheepstor dam by 10 feet.

To create an alternate road route into Sheepstor while the route over Burrator Dam was interrupted by this work, a temporary suspension bridge was erected, traces of which can still be glimpsed today in the woodland around the lake.


Burrator nears completion

Not yet filled with water, Burrator, in its first stage, nears completion

The temporary village occupied by construction workers can be glimpsed beyond the dam on the left

Source unknown - but acknowledged


Every reservoir created by submerging a valley has its tales of submerged churches with bells in towers which can sometimes be heard ringing under the water but not so in this flooded valley.


For reasons of water purity all farming had to be stopped within an area defined as the water catchment area. But previously, this had not been a populous area and in the end only a few roofless buildings disappeared below the water, along with a couple of muddy lanes and a section of the original Plymouth Leat - some ruined buildings can still be glimpsed around the shores of the lake. A building loss, which would probably not be permitted today, was that of Longstone Manor, the home of the Scudamore family which dated from the Middle Ages. By marriage, this had become the home of the Elford family, still remembered for their association with the name of nearby Yelverton (formerly known as "Ye Elford Town"). This is now a range of roofless, deserted buildings safely out of the water on the shores of the Reservoir.


Today, Burrator, surrounded by its tree plantations, has the appearance of a Swiss lake - a rather odd thing to find in the midst of the wild country of Dartmoor - but very popular with the citizens of Plymouth who come in droves every weekend to walk or cycle around it.


Burrator Dam in 2011

Burrator Dam in 2011 which carries the road to Sheepstor on its top


© Richard J. Brine


A distant view of Burrator Reservoir and the village of Sheepstor

A distant view of Burrator Reservoir and the village of Sheepstor in 2002

© Richard J. Brine




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