All memories of Burrator Gorge before it became a reservoir are more or less dead – but 120 years on from the drowning in 1898, the old landscape is being rebuilt in virtual reality, as a computerised 3D experience which can be travelled using a game controller and a television or, more immersively, with a special VR headset.
Locals are being invited to sample both experiences over a three-hour presentation at Meavy Parish Hall in February.
The theme is Virtual Reality Burrator but that is not yet a finished project, although some elements of it already work – like a visit to the platform of the old Burrator & Sheepstor Halt, a platform on the old Yelverton-Princetown line where workers from across the region arrived for construction of the dam. In one scene a train pulls in; in another it is after midnight, when the last train has gone – “quite eerie”, says the man who got it done
There is underwater film which will eventually be mixed together with a model of the lake bed. And the film includes glimpses of anti-torpedo nets dragged over from Plymouth Sound during a tense wartime episode in which Meavy was apparently counted as a loss which could be tolerated but Devonport won the argument – up to a point.
The Meavy event will also include samples from other work done in Devon over the past 15 years by Professor Robert Stone of the University of Birmingham, who was born and bred in Plymouth and convinced everyone that this part of the world was the ideal place for field work experiments for the teams he leads.
They use mini-submarines and drones with sonar equipment and mix the results in computes with film, photos and even real objects, to edge closer and closer to real life – techniques known as Augmented or Mixed Reality. They have made a model of the coastline between Wembury and Heybrook Bay along which severely disabled hospital patients can travel from their beds, using a recumbent cycling machine – a form of therapy which has had great results. They have created submarine training environments for the Navy, explorable digital rebuilds of sunken ships and reconstructions of Dartmoor quarrying sites. And a history of the building and sailing of the Mayflower is under way for the 450th anniversary of European migration to America.
Meanwhile, the Burrator project is still looking for funding but Bob Stone has made quite a lot of progress as “a labour of love”.
He said this week: “I used to go up to Burrator to take a break from my A levels, more than 40 years ago, and when we were looking for an inland project for the hospital angle I managed to organise it so I could go back. For the underwater project, we took sonar readings and compared those with an 1889 map and we found everything was still there – parts of the Longstone Manor estate, Essworthy Farm, Sheepstor Bridge, Drake’s Leat, and even the old run of the Meavy. Contrary to some reports, there is no entire village down there but there were some unexpected finds and we started to come across all sorts of stories which now need to be pieced into the history of the place.”
In particular, he was referring to the torpedo nets, which revealed a story he believes has never been told, although there must have been some local knowledge of the nets being installed, in 1941.
The Luftwaffe had already bombed Plymouth severely and destruction of the city’s reservoir would have been a fatal final blow. It was two years before the RAF launched the Dambusters raid on crucial German dams, using the special bouncing bomb designed for the purpose. But an attack on Burrator by air-launched torpedoes was already a possibility. Then, in 1943, the Dambusters accidentally gave the Germans an unexploded bomb, so they could work out what had hit them. Plymouth wanted more defences urgently. But London decided to live with the risk – although it would probably have been the end of Meavy and a disaster for Devonport.
Bob Stone uncovered the wartime correspondence after finding the nets and is now looking for pictures of them being installed, along with any other photos of the old landscape, the reservoir in drought years and anything about a Junkers plane crashing into the hills by the reservoir in May 1941.
Samples from Burrator and some of his other projects will be part of the Meavy exhibition and talk, Making The Invisible Visible, organised by the Dartmoor Society and Yelverton Local History Society. Cost to non-members is £5 including tea. Book online at www.dartmoorsociety.com/
* Professor Robert J Stone holds a Chair in Interactive Multimedia Systems and is director of the Human Interface Technologies Team in the School of Electronic, Electrical & Systems Engineering at the University of Birmingham. Find him andf his team at www.birmingham.ac.uk/hit-team‘
Bob Stone, second from left, with helpers, is holding a survey vessel used at Burrator. One of his other inventions, back in the 1990s, was an early “haptic glove”, enabling the sensation of touch in Virtual Reality – but nobody ever improved on it much and sensory gloves will not be part of the show at Meavy.