Meldon Reservoir - Part 2

The protracted struggle to prevent construction of Dartmoor's Meldon reservoir: part 2 - the detailed account

The full story

North Devon Water Board's Taw Marsh woes

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 borehole enquiry

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 1965 Public Enquiry

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.

The objectors to the Meldon Water Order based their case on the inestimable value to the nation of this wonderful wild valley, which the proposed developments would destroy; on the principle, pronounced by successive Ministers, that a national park should not be invaded unless it can be proved beyond all doubt that there is no other alternative; and on the fact that the Board had not fully investigated other potential water sources. [3, p7]

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.

The Petition to both Houses of Parliament

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.

The Gorhuish investigation

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.

Toxic contaminants discovered at the Meldon site

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.

Plymouth seeks permission for a new reservoir

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.

Last ditch attempt to save Meldon Gorge

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.

Plaque commemorating the opening of Meldon Reservoir in 1972
Plaque commemorating the reservoir's opening

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.

Meldon reservoir looking south

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.

...many would admit - myself among them - that this artificially formed, serpentine lake, set under the green hills of W. Ockment country, devoid as it is of conifers and perimeter road, attractive to water-fowl and heron and with a natural islandnote7 at its upper end within the Nature Reserve, is a place of stern, almost classical beauty, where the curve and slim line of the dam matches the clear-cut outlines of the looming hills. The palpable artificiality of Fernworthy and Venford has no place here, and I cannot but admire the careful, tasteful planning that has been the effectual means to such an end. We have lost Meldon Gorge - lower reach of the river between Vellake Corner and Redaven Foot - yet in its stead have gained something no less remarkable. Only at Burrator and Meldon is the Dartmoor skyline even conducive to such a development, and at Meldon alone has all been achieved without a coniferous and exaggerated intrusion into the wilderness.[5, p904]


See Somers Cocks(2, p266) for a fuller description of North Devon Water Board's Taw Marsh travails, and Walpole(4, p132-134) for more on this and earlier proposals to utilise Taw Marsh as a water resource. For a more up-to-date overview, including an explanation as to how the marsh has been restored to its former health, see [return]
Richard (or Dick) Crossman is probably best know today for his candid three-volume Diaries of a Cabinet Minister published posthumously. The first volume, covering his years as Housing Minister, shows that he chose to delegate the Meldon public enquiry decision to his subordinate Fred Willey, his Minister of State who also held the non-cabinet post of Minister for Planning and Local Resources. Crossman is referring to Willey in this passage from the entry for July 4th, 1966 (my italics):
Dick Crossman
Dick Crossman
He is a theoretical left-winger as well as a lawyer, and his PPS, Joyce Butler, is even further to the Left, but he is inclined to accept what his civil servants give him. I must persuade him that I really want him as my right-hand man on planning. I have already given him an important job on a Dartmoor reservoir, about which we are in difficulties because of its coming just after Ullswater. I told him to do it himself and I think he will, provided the directive comes clearly from me. [Crossman(6, p560)]
'Ullswater' refers to the Manchester (Ullswater and Windemere) Water Order which was approved by Crossman following a public enquiry in 1965. This scheme involved extracting water for Manchester from these lakes in a less obtrusive way than an earlier plan involving a reservoir which was thrown out by Parliament in 1961. It's clear from his Diaries that Crossman made the decision on this Order himself. [return]
The Petitioners were: the Council for the Protection of Rural England; the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society; the Ramblers' Association; the Youth Hostels Association; the DPA; Dartmoor Rambling Club; Exeter Rambling Club; and the Dartmoor Rangers. Devon County Council had decided to step aside, and its Dartmoor National Park Committee wasn't allowed to petition in its own right. [return]
According to the DPA's own research, carried out after the pollution issue emerged, there were three former mine workings from which spoilage could seep into the reservoir: Forest Mine and Homerton Mine, both close to where the Fishcombe Water tributary joins the West Okement, and an unnamed mine near Vellake Corner. See The Meldon Story(3, p21). Hemery(5, p886) pinpoints the location of the Forest and Homerton mines, recalling seeing a "large water-wheel-pit" at the site of the latter before it was drowned by the reservoir. The ruined workings of the Red-a-ven or Meldon copper mine in the same mineral vein can still be seen upstream from the dam. [return]
The Water Resources Act of 1963 legislated for the creation of the Water Resources Board which was formed on July 1st, 1964 with a remit to advise the Government on "the proper use of water resources in England and Wales". The other outcome of this Act was the creation of the River Authorities which replaced the existing county River Boards on April 1st, 1965. [return]
See The Meldon Story(3, p30). [return]
I assume that Hemery was using the adjective 'natural' here in the sense of 'uncultivated'; it seems inconceivable that he was unaware that the island was a feature added during construction of the reservoir. The Meldon Story(3, p56) mentions that it was created as a free-standing island nature reserve from 70,000 tons of mineralised rock and soil from the main reservoir excavations, not as an extension of a larger Nature Reserve as Hemery says. The only designated nature reserve in the area is the Black-a-Tor Copse National Nature Reserve which is some way up the West Okement valley and was accorded this status several years after publication of High Dartmoor. [return]
South end of Meldon reservoir showing the island nature reserve
South end of Meldon reservoir


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. [return]
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".