This week’s article is with thanks to Philip Hull of the Dulverton Weir & Leat Conservation Group who shows us one of Exmoor’s hidden gems (as seen in his image above). Dulverton’s ancient weir and leat system has been proclaimed the best remaining in any UK town by a leading academic, who says it is one of the most important examples of its kind in the country. And the reason Dulverton’s medieval weir has been given such an accolade is because of a group of community minded citizens stepped forward to research the historic structure after it was breached by floods three years ago.
The old water power system came to light after a group from Dulverton pooled resources in a self-funded archaeological drive to find out more about an ancient weir at the heart of their community. Philip Hull commented: “The ancient history of Dulverton weir and leat can be traced back to 1331 and the system was in use right up to the 20th century. The research cost local residents £400 and we spent the money because the weir has been an asset for Dulverton which has never been recognised.”
“As more is discovered about the Dulverton urban watermill landscape it’s becoming more obvious that the weir and leat is not the simplistic and charmingly haphazard structure that most have formerly believed. When it was built it was at the cutting edge of technology and was built by skilled individuals. The more senior of these ‘engineers’ were often from mainland Europe, where the technology was more advanced.”
The report comes after a visit Dr Matt Edgeworth (a fellow of Leicester University) made to survey the weir. He is regarded as one of the UK’s top experts on weirs and leats. He said: “The system at Dulverton is one of the best preserved in England located in a town. You could probably find others out in the countryside as good, but to find one in an urban situation in a medieval form is fantastic. There was clearly a big woollen industry on Exmoor in medieval times and Dulverton would have been at the centre of the processing of textiles.
“Most of those mills on the leat that still survives would have been fulling mills linked to the woollen trade, but there would have been others doing things like grinding corn and so on. I would say the weir system goes back at least to Norman times, but it could be older than that. It is one of the best kind of medieval water management systems in a urban context that still survives. It is still in good condition and it still functions. In theory you could power mills from it today.”
Dr Edgeworth added: “I am an archaeologist and I mostly deal with things that are buried in the ground. This is an example of medieval structure that is still working – you don’t have to dig to find it. The amazing thing is that people have been looking after it and kept it in use for hundreds of years – and the best way of saving it is to keep the water flowing through it. Without the weir being kept in good repair the leat would stop working – so it is vital the weir is kept in good nick. The local group realised the importance of the weir and the leat system as well. They have the vision to see how the two work together. You can’t really have one without the other – it is all part of one system.”
Philip Hull sums the situation up by saying: “Dulverton Weir has been overlooked for years. Nobody appreciated its beauty, history or amenity value. I’ve lived here for 32 years and I’m as guilty as anyone. We all just drive past it without looking; it’s modern day life I suppose. But the weir is an integral part of Dulverton’s history, it has been quietly doing its job keeping the town leat topped up with water since medieval times.
“And now it needs our help,” said Mr Hull. “I urge anyone passing to stop, get out of the car and look. You will be amazed at what you see.”