Dartmoor’s leats – or manmade waterways – run for hundreds of miles across the moor. Delivering water for agricultural, industrial and domestic purposes. The leats connect the five main rivers and other streams with nearly every corner of the moor.
The oldest waterways date back to medieval times. Some appear as gentle streams while others may look like shallow dry ditches – particularly in summer. The careful construction of leats ensures the natural contours of the land pull water from rivers and streams to the destination with gravity alone. In some instances, the gentle slope of a leat is so subtle that it can appear as though the water is moving uphill!
Two of the best-known leats are the Devonport and Drake leat (also known as Plymouth leat). Each of these was constructed to supply Plymouth and Plymouth docks with water. Some of Dartmoor’s more dramatic walks include leats. If choosing to walk along the Davenport leat, begin north of Princetown following the well-marked public footpaths. The meandering track across the moor takes in some of the beautiful wide-open spaces the area is well known for.
Another of Dartmoor’s famous leats can be found on the Tavy Cleave circuit. Beginning just outside of Mary Tavy the path leads to the Wheal Friendship Leat, alongside it to Tavy Cleave and up to Hare Tor for wild, windswept views across Dartmoor. Walkers can choose between a 4.5 and 9-mile circuit.
Leats meet a variety of purposes, from cooling cream to powering mines in medieval times. The name given to a leat can give a clue to its original purpose.
Pot Water Leats were built for domestic use, supplying homesteads and farms with drinking, washing and cooking water. Similarly, one leat, known as ‘Hentor Cooler’ was used as an early fridge – a granite trough placed in the leat’s flow collected water that was used to cool cream and other fresh produce.
Medieval leats often provided power for mines. The water was used to drive the stamps for crushing ore and turn waterwheels that operated bellows. Wheal friendship leat is one such waterway, used to help with the extraction of ore from the mine with the same name.
Dartmoor leats are integral to the agricultural and mining life of the area. Leats deliver life-giving water to the people in nearly every corner of the rugged the landscape.