Drake’s Leat

The Box

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Tucked away on North Hill sits a small wonder, Drake’s Reservoir. 

Not only is this area a marvel of Victorian horticulture but also a celebration of the historical importance the water course had in the development of Plymouth in the post-medieval period.  

Before it was known as Drake’s Reservoir it was known as Drake’s Leat. A leat is an open watercourse conducting water to a mill. Plymouth Leat, or Drake’s Leat, ran for 28km from the River Meavy on Dartmoor to the edge of Sutton Pool, via Endsleigh Place. 

Photograph of Drake’s Leat Map

But why was water so important to the town’s development? 

In the late 16th century the town and port had grown to an estimated 7,000 inhabitants and had a growing economy. After much too-ing and froing, a Water Bill was submitted to the Parliament in 1584 with the following clauses:

  1. To provide a supply of water for naval and merchant shipping 
  2. To provide water for firefighting in Plymouth
  3. To scour Sutton Harbour of silt
  4. To improve the poor quality of land on Dartmoor adjacent to the proposed leat

The Bill was passed to the committee chaired by Sir Francis Drake. This was the first evidence of his association with the leat that would later bear his name. He proposed that a series of mills could be erected and operated on the banks of the leat (some of which he would run). The Bill was passed by Royal Assent in March 1585. It was delayed by war with Spain. 

Drake bringing in the water by Burrator Falls, from a panel by Samuel Cook, 1967

Construction of Drake’s Leat began in 1589 and was managed by Drake. It opened on 24 April 1591. Legend has it that Drake raced the ahead of the water on a fine white stallion! From 1592 onwards public ‘conduits’ were constructed to supply the water free of charge to the population, one of which can still be seen at Drake’s Reservoir. 

Initially most of the leat was an open channel which consisted of a ditch between six and eight feet wide and about two feet deep. Over time its sides were lined with stone or slate, and sections were roofed to prevent pollution and contaminated water spilling into the clean leat water.

Much remedial work on the city’s water supply system was carried out in the 19th century. Subsequently, various sections of the leat were modified or rebuilt. This consisted of the construction of a series of reservoirs and pipes in 1852 while subsequent parts of the leat were abandoned. Parts of the leat can still be seen throughout Dartmoor to this day, particularly on Drake’s Trail

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