I grew up in Yelverton and so know this area of the Moor so well. I’ve spent more hours than I care to remember around Burrator, exploring, fishing, camping and walking. Sheepstor is a village I have passed through literally hundreds of times over the years, but rarely stopped and I’d certainly never been in to the church. One grey and wet Sunday morning a couple of days before Christmas, I decided I should grab my camera and head to Burrator and then onto Sheepstor.
When I got to Burrator I was rewarded with the sight of water cascading over the spillways. Although this is a fairly regular occurrence at Burrator, I’d not seen the spectacle for some time and it was as impressive as always. Being a typical dank Dartmoor winter day there was mist hanging over the reservoir and dam which just increased the photogenic properties of dam. Work on the dam started in 1893 when it was realised that the expansion of Plymouth (in particular Devonport’s Naval Base) would need a larger water supply. Burrator reservoir itself holds 4210 Ml (that’s mega-litres of water. A mega-litre is the equivalent of 1000 cubic metres of water!) and spans about 150 acres. The reservoir is fed by the River Meavy and the water is held back by two dams; the first is the well-known 47m high granite dam that you first see as you approach the reservoir from Dousland and the second is an earth embankment dam with a clay core. This dam was extremely troublesome to build at the time hence it’s size. The original reservoir was actually enlarged after only 10 years and they achieved this by adding an additional 3m height to the main dam…. while this work was being carried out a suspension bridge was erected parallel to the dam and you can still see its original tower base on the eastern side of the reservoir. There were several farms submerged when the valley was flooded but not anywhere near the scale that is popularly believed and certainly no entire village, church or ghostly bells which is often incorrectly reported.
On to the hamlet of Sheepstor itself. The population is around 50 people and there are nothing more than a few houses and the church in Sheepstor itself but a large part of its charm is how quiet it is there. I headed to St Leonard’s Church (built in around 1450) and was surprised to find no service, especially being that close to Christmas. When I entered the church, I was pleased to see lovely Christmas decorations and a beautiful tree adorning it. The church itself is a pretty standard little Dartmoor church however in its graveyard there are some fairly remarkable graves that belong to four members of the Brooke family, three of who were otherwise known as the ‘White Rajah of Sarawak’. James Brooke, Charles Brooke and Charles Vyner Brooke all ruled over the Kingdom of Sarawak which is found in the NW of the island of Borneo in the South China Sea after the territory was gifted to the Brooke family by the Sultan of Brunei as a reward for helping him fight piracy and insurgency amongst the native Dayuh people.
There is a rather lovely legend about the bell ropes from Sheepstor church that tells how the local people wanted to find the depth of Crazywell Pool which lies a couple of miles north of Sheepstor, so they took the six bell ropes up to the pool and tied them end to end and fixed a weight to one end before lowering them into the water. By the time they reached the end of the sixth rope the weight was over 90 fathoms below the surface with no sign of it reaching the bottom and from that moment that Crazywell Pool was rumoured to be bottomless! In reality, at it’s deepest Crazywell Pool is about 5m deep at the western end (which is its deepest spot).
Sheepstor also featured in the 2010 Steven Spielburg’s film, War Horse after nearby Ditsworthy Warren House was chosen to be the scene for the Narracott Family Farm. Initially Spielburg was only going to use the Ditsworthy location until he first visited the location and famously declared “I have never before, in my long and eclectic career, been gifted with such an abundance of natural beauty”. He ended up using over twelve locations on Dartmoor alone.