Swincombe—wild and lonely and free

Forty-three years ago today Swincombe, in the heart of wild Dartmoor, was saved from a reservoir—largely thanks to the efforts of the Dartmoor Preservation Association‘s chairman, Lady (Sylvia) Sayer.  In honour of the event I reproduce here an article I wrote for the DPA in 2004.

At about 3pm on Thursday 3 December 1970, a small joyous figure appeared at the Ramblers’ Association’s office in Crawford Mews, London.  ‘I’m walking on air,’ said Sylvia Sayer to the Ramblers’ chief and fellow-campaigner Chris Hall.  She had just come from the House of Commons where the bill to destroy the Swincombe valley had—against all the odds—been rejected.

Vast dam
The proposal, from Plymouth Corporation and the South West Devon Water Board, was to create a 754-acre reservoir in the Swincombe basin.  The vast dam would cross the valley about 250 yards downstream from Stream Hill Ford.  The reservoir itself would form a huge triangle with each side stretching for nearly two miles but, as it would be shallow, the draw-down would leave an ugly margin around the waterline.  Water was to be stolen from the West Dart, Cowsic and Walkham rivers, via the concreted and widened Devonport and Prison Leats.  Much more was proposed by way of tunnels and pumps.  This would, of course, devastate the moor—and all to provide Plymouth with water, much of which was being lost through leaky pipes.

The view north from Fox Tor.

The view north from Fox Tor.

In those days such works had to be approved by Parliament, and the DPA led the fight against the bill.  It jointly petitioned with other national and local bodies; and Devon County Council and the landowner, the Duchy of Cornwall, also objected.  All were represented by counsel.  The bill was considered by a parliamentary committee of four MPs for 17 days.  DPA members from Devon and from the newly-formed London Group were present throughout.

As Syl wrote in the DPA newsletter of May 1971, at the conclusion of Plymouth’s 17-day-long case the committee chairman, John Hunt (Conservative, Bromley), ‘courteously asked to have the committee room cleared … so everyone except the four MPs of the committee went out of the room, down the flight of stone steps into Westminster Hall, to wait for a torturing ten minutes while Dartmoor’s future hung in the balance.’ 

They returned to hear Mr Hunt say ‘We have come to the conclusion that the promoters have not made out the case for the bill, and in the light of this we feel it would be contrary to the public interest to allow the proceedings on the case to be continued.’  Syl rejoices: ‘With that stunningly straightforward statement, those Four Just Men* saved Dartmoor from the worst threat it has ever had to face.’

Syl thus never had the opportunity to present her case, but her evidence remains in the archives and is wonderful reading, together with its meticulously drawn and coloured maps.  ‘Foxtor Plain is a great natural amphitheatre … a place of immense spaciousness and wildness: it has nothing to do with “prettiness”; its character is one of austere beauty, challenge and inspiration—Dartmoor itself’.  She describes the archaeology and public paths in loving detail.  She emphasises the national importance of this precious place.  And she condemns the Country Landowners’ Association and National Farmers’ Union for falsely claiming the alternative sites were high-quality agricultural land and for using their influence on the Water Resources Board to insist that the reservoir should go on Dartmoor.

Swincombe valley from Ter Hill.

Swincombe valley from Ter Hill.

Indeed, even after Swincombe was saved, the NFU and CLA continued to press for it, and it was not until the Roadford reservoir was given the go-ahead in 1983 that Swincombe was finally reprieved.

Back in December 1970, Syl didn’t know that.  The day after the victory, she and her husband Guy walked to the dam site, wandered among the antiquities, found again the tinner’s hut inscribed ‘HC 1753’ near Swincombe gorge, and drank in the quiet landscape, saved from the ravages of the water board.

I hope such destruction is now inconceivable, but whenever we walk around that ‘great natural amphitheatre’ we must remember the great battle, and the DPA’s part in it.

To return to Syl’s article in the DPA newsletter: ‘Of all the hundreds of kind congratulations that we have received, one brief sentence from one letter sums it all up perfectly.  The writer is an octogenarian member of the DPA who has known and loved Dartmoor all his life [but was now exiled from it] …“I shall dream of Swincombe lying there, wild and lonely and free.”  And so may it ever be.’  We echo that today and for ever.


*The Four Just Men were John Hunt in the chair, John Cordle (Conservative, Bournemouth East and Christchurch), George Wallace (Labour, Norwich North) and Michael Cocks (Labour, Bristol South).


About campaignerkate

I am the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and I campaign for public access, paths and open spaces in town and country.
This entry was posted in Dartmoor, National parks, wild country and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Swincombe—wild and lonely and free

  1. Reblogged this on Over The Hills and commented:
    This was the greatest of Dartmoor victories. If it had gone ahead you might as well have scrapped Dartmoor’s national park status.

  2. What I find really strange is the way that any mention of Sylvia (and there used to be a great deal about her) on the Wikipedia entry on the DPA has been excised. Who was responsible for this Stalinist re-writing of history?

  3. Perhaps Kate would do that.

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