Meldon Reservoir - Part 1

Introduction to the protracted struggle to prevent construction of Dartmoor's Meldon reservoir

Exploiting Dartmoor's water resources

clearing the leat after the blizzard of March 1891 (R Burnard)
In the photograph by Robert Burnard[10] a labourer is seen clearing ice and snow from Drake's Leat on March 14th 1891, four days after the blizzard.

With abundant rainfall soaked up by its upland mires, Dartmoor provides a convenient repository of gravity-fed water for the coastal population centres of Devon. Indeed, Dartmoor was the source of one the first public water delivery systems in the country: Drake's Leat, a 17 mile channel from a weir on the Meavy near Sheepstor running across Roborough Down, began supplying water to the citizens of Plymouth in 1591. This leat, augmented by the longer Devonport leat completed in the 1790s, were to serve Plymouth's water needs for three hundred years. By the 1880s the leats were proving inadequate due to excessive leakage, and were prone to blockage by impacted snow and ice as after the great blizzard of 1891.

It was agreed that Plymouth needed to be supplied by a large impounding reservoir situated on the moor from which water would be piped to Roborough reservoir to the north of the city. The location for the reservoir became a bone of contention leading to the so-called "Battle of the Sites" between Headweir on the Meavy at a point where the leat was drawn from the river and Harter Brook, 2½ miles up the Meavy Valley. This dispute rumbled on for several years. In the end, Headweir won the day, and Burrator Reservoir became operational in 1894. The dam was raised and widened in 1928 to increase the yield to 10 million gallons per day.

Burrator Dam
Burrator Dam

Fernworthy Reservoir
Fernworthy Reservoir

The first impounding Dartmoor reservoirs had been built earlier in the south-eastern fringes to supply the expanding coastal resort of Torquay; the first of these was Tottiford, completed in 1861, and the nearby Kennick reservoir dates from 1884. Paignton was the next town to claim its share of Dartmoor's bountiful waters with the damming of Venford Brook on Holne Moor in 1907 to form Venford reservoir. Torquay had its supply augmented that year by a third reservoir near Tottiford, and yet again when permission was granted in 1934 for a dam at Fernworthy. Building work was interrupted there by the outbreak of World War II, but it was completed by 1942.

The immediate postwar years saw changes in the administration of Devon's water resources. The existing localized water suppliers were amalgamated to create public Water Boards which in 1973 became part of the South West Water Authority covering the whole of South-West England.

The next Dartmoor reservoir to be approved was created by the building of a dam across the River Avon in South Dartmoor in a project managed by the newly formed South Devon Water Board. A certain amount of controversy surrounded the choice of site once again, but this was nothing like the furore that broke out when Meldon was chosen. The Avon Dam was first mooted in 1948 before the inauguration of the Water Board, and an enquiry into the draft Water Order was held the following year to which, anomalously, the planning authority had not been invited. This came to light too late to prevent government approval in 1950, the year before Dartmoor was granted National Park status. Arguments continued about the precise location of the dam, with particular concerns raised about the fate of the many antiquities in the area. Work finally began in 1954 and the reservoir began supplying the communities of South Devon in 1957.

The battle to save the Meldon Gorge

The granting of National Park status to Dartmoor in 1951 heightened expectations that schemes to harness its resources that had an adverse impact on the landscape would be blocked in future. When the North Devon Water Board announced in 1962 that a new reservoir was required for its southern division, and disclosed that their favoured location for a dam was within the park on the West Okement at Meldon there were immediate objections from the planning authority and amenity organizations, both local and national. In the vanguard was the Dartmoor Preservation Association(DPA), founded in the 1880s initially to combat unlawful enclosure of common land, it soon expanded its remit to include protection of Dartmoor's landscape and antiquities from intrusive and destructive development. The moor had become more accessible with the opening of new railway lines through the towns on the perimeter, and it had become a popular destination for the intrepid tourist for the first time.

Before outlining the twists and turns in the protracted campaign to block the building of the Meldon Dam, the next section attempts to give a visual impression of the charm of the Meldon valley, illustrating why the proposal to 'drown' it became a cause célèbre to many despite the beautiful upper reaches of the valley being unaffected by the damming of the river.

The distinctive scenic features of The West Okement
Rocky Valley, West Okement River
An early 20th century postcard showing a waterfall at Rocky Valley on the West Okement (formerly Ockment)

The West Okement tumbling down the upper valley.
The West Okement approaching Vellake Corner
Further down the valley the scene is more tranquil; here in a dry summer the river is reduced to little more than a gentle stream that turns northwards as it passes Vellake Corner.

The burbling and gurgling of the waters of the upper West Okement as it cascades down the winding channel carved between the surrounding hills is a pleasure to hear and to behold.

This extract from a traveller's journal published in 1830 describes the surrounding scenery:

The valley inclining almost to a ravine, the river enters by a winding channel at the foot of Black Tor, which closes the view in a southerly direction. An extensive range of hill, dark with heath, occupies the opposite side of the valley, while a third mountain meets it below. The whole impression arises from the combined effect of depth and height, unassisted by any of those circumstances of extent, variety, or colouring, which naturally bestow interest on mountain landscapes. The scene is in fact one seldom met with, even among the Dartmoor hills, abounding as they do with prospects of grandeur and solemn beauty, and a beholder only, can fully appreciate the solitary and desert magnificence of the view presented in the glen of the West Ockment at this spot.[1]
Southern end of Meldon reservoir at Vellake Corner
Looking towards Vellake Corner and the southern end of the reservoir - taken in September 2014 when the reservoir was low.

The West Okement valley upstream from here remains as beautiful as ever, undefiled by the the Meldon Dam that impounds the waters of the river downstream.

The meandering course of the river through the valley floor now flooded by the reservoir is seen in this 1946 Ordnance Survey map. Another feature in this map that is long gone is the railway line west of Meldon Viaduct that was lifted in 1968.
Meldon Gorge before reservoir
The West Okement river seen winding its way down the Meldon valley before the construction of the Meldon Dam

Cover of the DPA booklet The Meldon Story
The cover of the DPA booklet The Meldon Story showing
the view upstream towards Homerton Hill in 1967.

The emotional reaction to the building of the dam by its opponents gave the impression that the whole valley had been devastated, whereas in reality it was only the valley floor or gorge as far as Vellake Corner that was lost to posterity. This cri de couer is from first page of the Dartmoor Preservation Association's 62 page booklet The Meldon Story, published not long after the reservoir was filled:

... Now a giant dam blocks Meldon Gorge, and the valley has been drowned under the still, dead waters of a reservoir. To those who knew it so well, the destruction of Meldon's magnificent natural beauty seemed as cruel a blow as the murder of a friend. [3, p1]

Despite its partisan stance, this text is a valuable source of detailed information on the thwarted attempts to block this project from its inception in 1962 until construction work began in 1970.

Meldon Reservoir looking south towards Homerton Hill in 2014

The OS Map shows the Meldon reservoir and West Okement river. "Danger Area" marks the boundary of the army firing range to which access is denied when red warning flags are raised. Dragging the map to the east will eventually show Taw Marsh, the subject of the first section in Part 2 of this feature.


Dartmoor A New Study edited by Crispin Gill, 3rd Impression, David & Charles, 1983. See the section headed Water Supplies in Chapter 9, Exploitation, by John Somers Cocks, pp.261-267.
The Meldon Story, Dartmoor Preservation Association - Publication Number 7, 1973.
The Book of Belstone by Chris and Marion Walpole, private publication, 2002.
High Dartmoor Land and People by Eric Hemery, Robert Hale, 1983.
The Diaries of a Cabinet Minister by Richard Crossman, Volume One, Hamish Hamilton and Jonathan Cape, 1975.
The following works are relevant to the opening section of this article, covering the history of Plymouth's water supply including the leats and the construction of Burrator reservoir.
Water from the Moor by David Hawkins, Devon Books, 1987.
This is a copiously illustrated history of the Plymouth, Stonehouse, and Devonport leats that also has a section on the siting of Burrator reservoir and details of its construction.
History of Plymouth from the Earliest Time to the Present, by R N Worth, 2nd Edition, Plymouth, 1890.
Worth was an active participant in the Burrator "Battle of the Sites" in his role as secretary of the Water Rights Association, a pressure group set up to safeguard the interests of Plymouth water users while protecting Dartmoor from what the association regarded as inappropriate developments. Pages 429-456 of this book cover the history of the town's water supply; the link takes you to the pages relating to Burrator.
Plymouth and Devonport: in Times of War and Peace by H F Whitfield, Plymouth, 1900.
Whitfield was also engaged in the "Battle of the Sites", being editor of the Plymouth newspaper The Western Daily Mercury at the time. The link takes you to a page headed "Plymouth Water: Through the Courts to Burrator: 1833-1899".
Robert Burnard's Dartmoor Pictorial Records, Devon Books facsimile edition, 1986.
Burnard was a founder member of the Dartmoor Preservation Association and a pioneer of Dartmoor photography. [return]


I have used "Burrator Dam" photographed by Nilfanion and licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
The cover of The Meldon Story is reproduced by kind permission of the Dartmoor Preservation Assocation.