One of the beauties of Plymouth is its incredible proximity to sea and moor, it’s what the city was built on; its accessibility and its beauty. The moor is a special place to be, but many Plymothians have a few favourite inland spots for a day trip; one is certainly Roborough Down and the other, Burrator.
Burrator…imagine a place – a great green open-air playground in easy distance of Plymouth with plenty of free parking, at which you can challenge yourself with a run or a bike ride, can take a buggy and the children around a level hard surfaced lane around a lake – or get up onto the Tors for some more rugged walking.
You could enjoy the stunning views from the top down over South Devon to Plymouth Sound from which Drake once set sail – or walk through an ancient landscape of farmsteads and stone bridges where the same Drake once had a family farm. Well – it’s all there, waiting for you, and free!
What you see today – the reservoir lake – was created around 1898 by the City of Plymouth which was in desperate need of a good water supply. Drake had created a leat – a man made channel six feet wide – in 1585 to carry fresh moorland water over 18 miles from the Moor down to Plymouth. This was lined with granite slabs in 1871 and many stretches can still be found today. Supposedly Drake galloped his white horse ahead of the water on it’s opening day!
This was insufficient as the 20th Century beckoned, and the valley now occupied by the lake was perfect to be dammed and flooded; it was home to just a few small farms, and was easily closed off by a granite dam at Burrator and a low clay bank at Sheepstor. The dams were raised by an additional ten feet in the 1920s.
The Railway from Plymouth to Princetown passed the Western side of the lake and there was a halt above the dam; today the trackbed forms a fantastic cycle track, part of a network that allows miles of high-moor riding and walking. You can still find the iron kissing-gate that gave entry to the platform – don’t forget to collect your kiss if you use it!
Here then are a few suggested spots for you to aim for; an Ordnance Survey 1:25000 map of Dartmoor will be a useful accessory, but it’s easy enough to find your way on the clear tracks. A walk around the lake perimeter road is about three and a half miles in length.
First of all, find your start point; there are parking spots all around the lake, some larger and some smaller. All are free.
A little common-sense advice when you leave your car – don’t leave valuables on view!
If you haven’t visited before, parking at the dam itself is suggested, then you can set off in either direction along the roadway. It is busier at weekends so make sure children are briefed on road safety and dogs are kept on leads. In the week or in the evenings you may not see a single car all the way around. Children can enjoy their bicycles on the hard surface while you walk.
You will see Forestry Operations all around – don’t climb on timber stacks, and obey any notices.
Ww love the tradition of the Ice Cream van at the Dam – it is even there on Boxing Day and New Years Day too!
Let’s assume you’re heading clockwise around the lake; you will shortly come to a sloping track that leads up to the site of the railway halt – head up here if you want a longer and higher stroll.
Also at the foot of the slope is a waterfall! It’s a man-made creation, and allows surplus water from the old leat to overflow through a great iron pipe down to the reservoir.
A little further along and we have the grand house once occupied by the superintendent of the reservoir, now offices.
Next comes a place that really needs a closer look – the Discovery Centre. The green iron shed was once a forestry store, and was converted into a fine interpretation centre with lots of history to be seen and activities to be had. The South West Lakes Trust is very active in conserving, clearing scrub, running events and generally bringing Burrator to public attention.
Don’t miss the ‘totem pole’ outside the Discovery Centre; have a good look at the pole and see how many parts of the Lake’s tale you can see!
Follow the road away from the Centre; you can stay on the low and level roadway, or perhaps go up the steep road at the junction. You will pass over Drake’s leat and under the old railway bridge that now carries the cycle track to Princetown; a right turn at the top of the hill will then see us heading back around the lake on this quieter lane – what incredible views from the top! A level crossing once took the line across the road and a keeper’s cottage stood here, at Lowery crossing. Down the hill is Lowery barn, recently conserved, and one of the few old farm buildings still standing. Go down to it and have a look at the interpretation board.
Come back to the road and follow, along the leat.
Hard to believe but in the 1980’s this was a part of North America for a few weeks, with Al Pacino and Donald Sutherland starring here in a movie called ‘Revolution’ at this spot!
Another more well-know movie was also shot around here – War Horse. You are close to many locations used in the filming, though you may not recognise them. If you fancy a long stroll find Ditsworthy Warren on your OS map – that was Joey’s farm! Spielberg said that Dartmoor and it’s light were the finest he had ever found – and that he hadn’t had to adjust anything to make it look fantastic!
At the top of the hill you will find the leat crossing under the road, and a stone cross – one of many that way-marked the tracks across Dartmoor.
During World War 2, the lake was used to formulate Air Sea Rescue training for aircrew, which was run from a hotel a few miles away toward Yelverton, (with life raft training in its swimming pool!) The first RAF Air-Sea Rescue Squadron was then stationed RAF Harrowbeer.
For an easier walk stay on the tarmac down the steep hill to the main perimeter road, and follow left.
We will follow the rough track down to old Leather Tor Farm bridge, and the old farm ruins. See if you can spot the ‘potato cave’ on the downhill slope of the track; this was a store for vegetables and is cool inside all year around.
The old bridge is made of huge granite slabs, and was probably once a ‘clapper’ bridge. Imagine cutting those stones, hauling them across the land and then placing them onto the bridge!
Turn right over the bridge, and in half a mile we find ourselves back at the tarmac perimeter road at Norsworthy Bridge.
There are more options here to wander off to left or right and explore if you have time, but we’ll stay with the road.
The next feature is the Arboretum trail; walkways give access for all, and there’s a small car park here.
There are stiles over the roadside fence if you want to explore the shoreline, and follow the old roadway; in the summertime the water level is often low enough to allow walking on the ‘beach’ and see old exposed ruins. Another half a mile and on the right we have Longstone Manor; take a look, the ruins are fascinating and a super interpretation board gives a lovely idea of what it was once like.
You can next stay with the road (toward Sheepstor village – the church of St Leaonards is worth a detour – see if you can work out the tale of the White Rajahs of Sarawak who are buried there!)
We will pass through the wooden gate onto the trackway that leads over the small Sheepstor Dam. A lovely picnic spot, and a great place for children to play on a beach that isn’t by the sea! There are usually plenty of ducks here. You will have seen plenty of Moor Ponies along your way; once they roamed the Moor in their tens of thousands and many were used in mines. They are all owned by different farmers and are collected – ‘drifted’ – in each Autumn. Don’t feed them, and try not to get between foals and mothers.
You’ll be back onto the hard road now, and a quarter mile will see you back at the dam where you started.
A very attractive wooded pathway from the dam leads down to Meavy, or you can drive around in a few minutes.
If you’ve followed this route you have had a fantastic six mile walk and will have refreshed both body and soul; Burrator is a wonderful playground, a mixture on man’s influence over landscape, and with a wonderful ‘big-sky’ view. No two days are ever the same as the weather and the seasons alter the light and the sky – Burrator is one of those places that ‘hooks’ you and sees you come back time and time again!
We love the Sunday Roast Dinners at the Royal Oak, the ‘olde world’ charm and village green with its ancient oak tree (one of the oldest in Britain). It’s a truly traditional Devon pub – and many of the local still drink from their own tankards.
(And if you’re and angler, you will be double hooked as an enquiry with the Lakes Trust and a fishing permit will see you on the lakeside for many a happy hour!)