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.
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 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 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 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 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:
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.
Proposals to exploit Taw Marsh as a water resource had been put forward as long ago as 1878, and again in 1936. Both schemes entailed the building of dams and were refused by the House of Lords. But this didn't deter the North Devon Water Board from seeking permission for trial boreholes in the marsh in 1957 which demonstrated the presence below of a granite gravel aquifer of considerable size. The Dartmoor National Park Committee of Devon County Council had consented to the drilling on the understanding that utilizing wells in the marsh might obviate the necessity for a more disfiguring dam and reservoir elsewhere. Parliament then approved the scheme in the 1959 North Devon Water Act, overruling objections from the Dartmoor amenity societies.
The scheme was beset by unforeseen difficulties from the outset. Firstly, the water was found to be 45% more radioactive than normal due to dissolved radon from the granite. This had to be eliminated by an expensive aeration plant. Secondly, the projected yield of three million gallons a day could not be met; it transpired that under one million gallons could be relied on. Thirdly, the level of contamination by aluminium was so high that South West Water, who inherited the scheme from the Water Board, ceased water extraction in the late 1990s. This sorry tale was concluded in 2011 when parliament revoked South West Water's licence to extract water from Taw Marsh.note1
The effective failure of this project obliged the North Devon Water Board to look for somewhere to site a reservoir even before the Taw Marsh works were complete, and in 1962 they sought permission from the Dartmoor National Park Committee to sink boreholes to test the rock formation in the Meldon valley a short way upstream from the Meldon Viaduct. Permission was denied. This marked the onset of a protracted battle by that committee and many other organisations to stop the dam being built within the National Park. The Water Board was urged to consider a site outside the park at Gorhuish north-west of Okehampton instead; they were not to be swayed and appealed to the government department responsible.
The Minister ordered an enquiry to determine whether the drilling should be permitted. This was arranged at very short notice, leaving the ten amenity societies who objected little time to prepare. This was compounded by the enquiry being held in January 1963 at Okehampton in the middle of one of the heaviest snowfalls in living memory at the start of "The Big Freeze of 1963", preventing many of the witnesses from reaching the venue. Those who were able to attend were frustrated by the enquiry's terms of reference that didn't allow discussion of the reason for the boreholes: the creation of the reservoir. It became clear to those present that the enquiry was merely a case of due process being exercised, and the Minister decreed the following May that the borings could go ahead.
The Water Board were satisfied with their findings, and in June 1964 the Ministry published the Draft Meldon Water Order that proposed construction of a 140ft high and 690ft wide concrete dam. Immediate objections were raised by the planning authority and amenity bodies on the grounds that it would be an unnecessary intrusion into the National Park. The objectors were given the opportunity to put their case at a public enquiry, to be held in Exeter the following year.
The enquiry was presided over by the Ministry's water engineering inspector Mr Wood, with their senior planning inspector Mr Johnson sitting beside him.
Twenty-seven objecting parties were represented at the enquiry including a number of individuals. The DPA chairman Lady Sayer gave evidence for that organization, while the national amenity organizations were represented by the secretary of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. The Dartmoor National Park Committee hired the services of a QC to put their case.
They also noted that this valley was one of the few places in northern Dartmoor with unrestricted access, being beyond the boundary of the military firing range.
The Devon River Board were among the formal objectors because they wanted there to be a general review of water development in the county, rather than being against Meldon per se. They dropped their opposition following the outcome of the Public Enquiry, by which time they had been reconstituted as the Devon River Authority.
The North Devon Water Board argued that it would be quicker to construct a reservoir at Meldon, thereby meeting their urgent supply needs, and it would also be cheaper to build than a reservoir at Gorhuish which would also incur high annual pumping costs, though they admitted they hadn't investigated this alternative fully. The possibility of siting the reservoir at Gorhuish was discussed at some length, but a detailed comparison with Meldon wasn't possible at the enquiry as the Board hadn't released the limited technical data on Gorhuish at their disposal.
The enquiry lasted three days, but the Meldon's opponents had an agonizing sixteen months wait before the Ministry issued its report in July 1966 in which Mr Wood and Mr Johnson came to opposite conclusions. Richard Crossmannote2, the Minister of Housing and Local Government in Harold Wilson's 1964 Labour government, was responsible for the decision. He ignored the advice of his planning inspector, accepting instead the recommendation of the engineering inspector to approve the Water Order.
Despite this setback, all was not lost. It transpired that a rarely used parliamentary procedure allowed the original objectors to lodge a petition against the Draft Water Order when it came before Parliament. Under this provision petitions are heard by a Select Committee comprising members of both Houses of Parliament. The procedure also allowed for there to be a debate on the Order in either House.
In March 1967 the Draft Order and the petition against it were to be laid before Parliament when suddenly the objectors' hopes were dashed once again. Out of the blue the petitionersnote3 learned that their right to petition had been turned down on a technicality. If it wasn't for the intervention of Lord Molson, chairman of the Council for the Protection or Rural England's Standing Committee on National Parks, all would have been lost. He raised objections to this decision in the House of Lords and a motion to annul the Order was put before the Upper Chamber. In the debate the Government agreed to temporarily withdraw the Order, and when it came before the House once more in the Summer the petitioners' rights had been reinstated.
At the hearing the Select Committee were sufficiently impressed by the arguments for the Gorhuish alternative put forward by the petitioners' two expert witnesses and their legal councel Mr Justice Forbes to accept a compromise proposed by Forbes in which the Order would be delayed for eight months while a thorough investigation into the technical viability of the Gorhuish site and its cost relative to Meldon would be carried out. In the Committee's view Meldon should only be chosen if Gorhuish turned out to be impractical or significantly more expensive.
Anthony Greenwood, who had replaced Crossman as Minister by this time, informed Lady Sayer that his Ministry was to organize the investigation. Much to the chagrin of the objectors this investigation turned out to be something of a stitch-up. Contrary to their expectations for a measure of independence, the investigation was to be conducted by the Board itself in conjunction with the Devon River Authority. Mr Wood, the Ministry's chief engineer at the 1965 Public Enquiry, was to lead the working parties and present the final report to the Ministry. The civil servant who had signed the Ministry's letter approving Meldon at the Public Enquiry chaired the discussions.
The DPA's retained engineering consultant was allowed to attend some of the sessions, but not the site tests, nor was he allowed to contribute to the Board's report to Mr Wood which contrived to show that siting the reservoir at Gorhuish would cost as much as £1 million more than Meldon, sufficient grounds for rejecting the former. This figure was derived from estimates clearly skewed against Gorhuish in some instances. For example, the cost of site clearance at Gorhuish was put at £25,000, while at Meldon no figure was given for this. The conclusion in Mr Wood's final report presented to the Ministry in July 1968 had not been in doubt after the publication of the Board's report to Wood in March.
Meanwhile, before the Minister had received Mr Wood's report on Gorhuish, the Meldon objectors were given fresh hopes by the discovery of high levels of arsenic and lead in the spoil-heaps from long abandoned 19th century mine workings within the reservoir's catchmentnote4.
Opinions were divided among the interested parties as to the significance of these findings. Unsurprisingly, the Board's own advisors held that the normal purification process at the Prewley works through which all water drawn from Meldon reservoir would pass would be sufficient to reduce the concentration of dissolved toxins below the recommended levels. The Devon River Authority demurred: after carrying out its own soil analysis its Pollution Officer suggested that it would be best to err on the side of caution and locate the reservoir elsewhere. Representations to the Government were also made by the Council of the Royal College of Surgeons warning of the potential health hazards, emphasising their concern that long-term exposure to relatively small doses of these toxins could have a cumulative effect.
To satisfy the Ministry that it was taking the pollution threat seriously, the North Devon Water Board ultimately agreed to remove the spoil heaps from the area to be flooded, and to seal off the old mine workings at an estimated additional cost of £25,000. However, this undertaking came too late for inclusion in Mr Wood's final report to the Ministry on the Gorhuish investigation.
The views of the advisory Water Resources Boardnote5 on the siting of the North Devon Water Board's reservoir had not been sought as it only came into being a month after the Draft Meldon Water Order was published. Meldon Gorge's fate was still in the balance when Plymouth revealed that it would need a new reservoir too. The now fully functional Water Resources Board(WRB) under the chairmanship of Sir William Goode drew up for consideration a shortlist of possible sites which included Swincombe, high on Dartmoor by Fox Tor Mire, and Townleigh on the River Thrushel, a tributary of the River Tamar.
The National Parks Commission and the DPA were actively promoting Townleigh reservoir as its waters could be shared between Plymouth and North Devon, obviating the need for the Meldon reservoir. Townleigh would take longer to complete than Meldon, and it would entail the flooding of low quality agricultural land which was opposed by local landowners and farmers. The interests of the National Parks were not represented on the WRB and the wishes of the National Farmers' Union and the Country Landowners' Association prevailed: the provisions in the 1969 Plymouth and South West Devon Water Bill included a new reservoir in the Swincombe Valley.
The Minister's decision letter backing the Meldon reservoir was published in November 1968. The only remaining recourse available to the objecting amenity societies was an appeal to the Parliamentary Ombudsman that an injustice had been done. They were aware that the Ombudsman could not himself quash the Water Order, but they hoped that a critical report might pressurise the Minister to withdraw the Order. An appeal to the Ombudsman can only be done through an MP; Mr Carol Johnson, a Labour MP who had been supportive of their case throughout agreed to act as sponsor, and a meticulous dossier was prepared and presented. The complainants were bitterly disappointed when Sir Edmund Compton, the Ombudsman, in his report made no criticism of the Minister or the Water Board, concluding that he found no evidence of maladministration on the part of the Minister, nor did he find fault with the Minister's decision. The only crumb of comfort from the report was a recommendation that conservation interests should in future be represented on River Authorities and the Water Resources Board.
The way was now clear for the bulldozers to move into Meldon Gorge which they did in early March 1970. There was palpable fear that with Meldon given the all-clear, devastation of the Swincombe Valley would follow, as in this piece in The Spectator by Stanley Johnson headed The Rape of Dartmoor. These fears proved unfounded: when the Plymouth Water Bill came before Parliament it was thrown out at the Committee stage on grounds of loss of amenity, to the immense relief of Dartmoor lovers everywhere.
Construction work at Meldon was completed in March 1972, and on the 15th Mr W H Wilkey, Chairman of the North Devon Water Board, closed a valve on the dam to begin impounding water from the West Okement. The official opening ceremony took place on September 22nd of that year, as recorded on a commemorative plaque.
More than forty-five years have elapsed since Meldon reservoir was opened and no new reservoirs have been built within Dartmoor National Park and I believe it is unlikely that any will be proposed in years to come. North Devon and Plymouth's water needs have been met for the forseeable future by the opening in 1989 of the massive Roadford Lake reservoir with a capacity more than 10 times that of Meldon. This was created by the damming the River Wolf, a tributary of the Tamar a few miles north of the Townleigh site mooted earlier as an alternative to Meldon. Interestingly, after Sir William Goode at the WRB had selected Swincombe for Plymouth's new reservoir in 1969 he predicted that Townleigh would be reservoired anyway in about twenty years timenote6.
Some of the alarmist predictions made in The Meldon Story have not come to pass: the pollution fears receded once the reservoir came into service, and the new reservoir car-park and lane leading to it have not been overwhelmed by an anticipated surge in visitor numbers.
As to the reservoir itself, it is hard to deny that it blends in well with the surrounding hills, giving the overall impression of a natural lake when viewed southwards looking away from the dam as in the adjacent picture . In addition, the discretely placed car-park complements Belstone in providing another starting point on the north side of the moor for ramblers wishing to explore some of the wilder areas of Dartmoor beyond the reservoir. To rebalance the tone of this piece, I conclude with these words in praise of Meldon reservoir by Eric Hemery in his monumental work High Dartmoor.