This year, we are celebrating Roadford Lake’s 30th birthday. There is a long, fascinating history behind the modern water supply structure you see today at Roadford; from medieval hamlets to long lost historic farmsteads, generations of history lie beneath the glistening waters.

As part of our Discovering Local Culture campaign, we want to inspire communities to engage with their built and social heritage. Here we take a glimpse into some of this history, as we mark 30 years since the construction of Roadford Lake.

The reservoir

Roadford dam impounds water from the River Wolf to form the reservoir, with an enormous net storage of 34,500 megalitres, and a length of 4.2 kilometres.

History underwater

Before the reservoir was constructed, the farms and other historic sites that remained in the reservoir basin were excavated, photographed and drawn before being demolished, in order to investigate and capture the important history behind them.


Several historic farmsteads were based there: Combe Park (including a fine 18th century farmhouse), East and West Worthas (dating back to the 14th century), Shop, Lower Goodacre, and Hennard Mill, a deserted hamlet with medieval origins. There were also three settlements, mostly deserted, at Hennard Jefford, Hennard Gifford and Pinch, as well as two small cottages near Grinnacombe.


Hennard Mill was an abandoned medieval village, which would have included up to 9 houses around a village green, at one time. A major excavation by the Exeter City Museum Archaeological Field Unit started there in 1987. Through these excavations, they found cobbled floors, stone walls and even the buried remains of an abandoned water mill beneath ‘Humpy Bumpy Field’ (Simon Timms).

Excavations of Combe Park revealed the functions of different buildings, such as a cider house with an apple crusher and a cider press, and a late 19th century granary.


The archaeologists’ work also featured on Timesigns, the predecessor of Time Team, which aired as a four part series in 1991! Interestingly, there is a novel (now out of print) called ‘Red Spider’ (1887), written by the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, who also wrote ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’. The book features the setting of Combe Park Farm, which was located on the construction site of the reservoir (Simon Timms).

Construction of the reservoir

Farms and cottages in the reservoir basin were demolished, trees were felled, and hedges were flattened. On-site work began in 1986, and work on the dam began in 1987. The reservoir was completed in the summer of 1989; the dam was over 430 metres long, and up to 40 metres high. There was a major drought in the South West as the dam was being finished; however, by making the most of the rains in October 1989, the dam was already 15% full in December 1989.


Conservation work

The area around Roadford Lake constitutes plenty of species rich habitats, including the important Culm Grasslands. The building of the reservoir marked some of the most significant changes in the Devon countryside, with a great impact on the valley.

In order to protect and preserve the wildlife in the reservoir area, a variety of conservation efforts were made, dubbed ‘Operation Noah’:

  • Boxes for barn owls were put up in buildings around the area, to allow them to make new homes
  • The Devon Bat Group created more than 100 boxes for displaced bats
  • Dormice were moved to new habitats
  • School children helped to move 5000 woodland plants (comprising over 24 different species) to safe places

Thus, the building of the reservoir gave rise to the opportunity to explore and discover the rich history and wildlife of a remote part of the Devon countryside.

If you would like to find out more about our Discovering Local Culture campaign, click here.

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