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Going with the flow

Leatsman Martyn Langsford keeps our historic leats flowing with water on a daily basis.

Leatsman Martyn Langsford
It's the history of it that really hooks me into the job. Working with these channels built over 300 years ago, I find it fascinating and that's what keeps me going when we're up on the moor in all weathers. The craftsmanship they put into it back then is mind-boggling. You can be in the middle of nowhere and there's a water inlet with carved stone bollards around it, carved with the Plymouth insignia. There isn't anyone around to see it so they must have done it just for the pride of the job. But it's lovely to see and nice to think I'm part of the team that's preserving it.

There's only four of us and over 50 miles of bank to cover, so there is a limit to what we can achieve but I like to think we keep these amazing feats of engineering generally in good nick. For us it's about keeping the water flowing, both to the hydro-electric power stations at Mary Tavy and Morwhelham, and along the Devonport leat that still takes drinking water to Burrator and Dousland. We have to keep them clear of blockages or otherwise they could flood farmers' land. The power stations in particular need a steady supply of water or we can't generate electricity.

There's a lot of manual work with a spade and fork to keep the vegetation down and the channels clear - some of the locations are so remote that's the only way to do it. A digger couldn't get there.

My family have lived in Tavistock for generations so I feel a connection with the moor. I like seeing the wildlife. Sometimes when I'm working at Hillbridge keeping the inlet screens clear the kingfisher will just perch there: he's not bothered by us at all. I like seeing the Atlantic salmon and the sea trout making their way upstream. I saw a hobby hunting on the moor the other day and it's a lovely sight. Days like that it's the best job in the world but when you get called out to a blockage on a filthy winter's night it's not always so sweet. They don't always appreciate where we have to get to in order to clear it. It might be a two hour walk in the dark and the rain. I have chest waders and even a full dry suit if I have to get into a tunnel. Drakes Leat was built for the mining industry - to keep the waterwheels turning and the mines in power - but Drake was shrewd and he made sure there was enough water to supply some of the townsfolk of Plymouth as well. Everything flows by gravity, there's no pumps, and they're still a useful part of our water supply, although of course we have other bigger sources now too, so everyone who wants it can have a water supply, not just the merchants.

I've done a few different things in my time but I like looking after the leats. They're scheduled ancient monuments and a unique part of Dartmoor's history, and I'm proud to be a custodian of that.  

Leatsman_Martyn Langsford

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