Farmer John French repairing a sluice to ensure a good flow of water in the leat © Our Upland Commons project

Major restoration of historical waterway secures its future

Ross Tibbles
Ross Tibbles

Vital repairs to a 19th century waterway on Holne Common on Dartmoor, have preserved an historic feat of engineering whilst ensuring local farms continue to get water.

Holne commoners, led by farmer John French, have spent the last few months restoring the profile and flow of Holne Moor Leat, or Hamlyn’s Leat on Dartmoor. Dartmoor National Park Authority youth and junior rangers were also on hand to help out for a day.

The Leat is at least 170 years old and is an unlined, man-made water channel, running for nearly five miles. Thanks to skilled hard work in winter conditions by the commoners, it continues to provide essential drinking water for people and livestock at four farms on Dartmoor.  

John French, whose family have farmed at Michelcombe Farm since the 1860s, and whose livestock drink from the Leat, explains what was involved: “A special digger was used to clear weed from the bottom of the Leat and to reinstate the sides. And where that wasn’t possible, on Combestone Tor and White Wood, local farmers got to work using hand tools. We also replaced sluices to regularise the flow of water.

‘It was an opportunity to reflect on the skills of the Victorian engineers who first cut the Leat for local businessman, Mr Hamlyn. He needed it to power waterwheels at his mills in Buckfastleigh and he certainly invested in the right people to get the job done. With a bit of regular maintenance and one-off renovations like this, it still works.

‘The skill lies in keeping the water flowing, from the point of extraction, the O Brook, to its destination. The engineers used natural contours and gradients to achieve this; at one point it even appears to flow uphill. Another clever feature is the bullseye stone. It’s a flat slab of granite with a central hole bored through it and it means each farm gets a fair share of water,” adds John.

The work is part of the Our Upland Commons Project; a three-year, £3 million, 25-partner project helping to secure the future of upland commons in Dartmoor, the Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and Shropshire Hills. It is led by the Foundation for Common Land. The project is made possible by funding from National Lottery players and grants from Esmée Fairbairn and Garfield Weston Foundations. There is also input from local funders; South West Water, the Duchy of Cornwall, the Dartmoor Preservation Association, Devon Wildlife Trust, Dartmoor National Park Authority and Dartmoor Commoners’ Council.

Tamsin Thomas, the Dartmoor project officer, says: “The work and skill involved in getting this job done is incredible. It’s another example of farmers taking practical steps to problem-solve and make something good happen. It means an important feature on Dartmoor, that provides a vital water supply, is being looked after. Dartmoor is full of clues and remains of the many different people and cultures who’ve made it home including Victorian ingenuity in getting water to people and power to Buckfastleigh.”

Anyone wanting to find out more about the Our Common Cause, Our Upland Commons project can visit: foundationforcommonland.org.uk.