Lydford has had a surprisingly important role to play in the history of Devon, at times to be respected and at times to be feared. An area of industry and one of beauty.


Read all about the accident at the bottom of the page.

Lydford ‘Castle’

The Book of Lydford is part of the award winning Community History Series from Halsgrove. An A4 large format hardback book containing over 300 photos. It can be bought from The National Trust Shop at Lydford Gorge, or local books shops such as WH Smiths or Book Stop in Tavistock.

The sequence of events that formed the site for Lydford, began millions of years ago. Two events created the most important attractions for both the early settlers and the modern tourist – the gorge and the waterfall.

The geology of the area is that of Upper Devonian Slate, a much less durable rock than the granite one associates with Dartmoor itself. Originally there were two rivers, both rising on the western slopes of Dartmoor, one a tributory of the River Lew that flowed into the huge Tamar River and on to the sea and the other running close by down an adjacent valley into the River Tavy at Tavistock.

The more powerful river eroded down through the slate to form the gorge, the power of the water rolling stones and rocks around to form hundreds of potholes that eventually linked together to form the gorge. Meanwhile the smaller river meandered down its shallow valley to Tavistock. It’s at this point we advise those interested in this classic example of river capture to read more informed reference material such as “A Geological Field Guide to Lydford Gorge and Adjacent Areas” available from The National Trust Shops at the gorge. Luckily this leaflet includes a glossary so you can learn all about ‘greywackle’, ‘hornfels’ and ‘isostasy’.

(Two references we found both claim that when the two rivers joined, the combined waters formed the gorge. The small problem with this theory is that the White Lady Waterfall, where the river Burn that once flowed to Tavistock now joins the Lyd flowing through the gorge, is downstream of the gorge so does not contribute to the water in the gorge!)

A lesser, un-named tributory to the Lyd, forming a valley north of the village joins the Lyd and the gorge next to the site of the first settlement. It is these two that formed the promentory on which the first settlers, requiring only a long bank to protect the third side of a natural fortification. Part of this ‘Town Bank’ is clearly seen next to Nicholls Hall.

Nicholls Hall and remains of Town Bank

Viking Invaders

In the 10th century, King Alfred (891-901) fortified the town against Viking invaders. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states: ‘Turning into the mouth of the Tamar (the Vikings) went up till they came to Lideford, burning and slaying everything they met’.

The ‘burning’ probably included a small wooden building erected, it is believed, about 600 AD by the Celtic followers of St Petrock (the most popular pre-Saxon saint of the region) on the site of the present Parish Church.

St Petrock’s Church.
Click on photo for more information

Lydford coins found in Denmark

In 997 AD the Danes burned down the Saxon stronghold and raided the Mint that had been established there. These coins, known as Danegeld, using silver mined locally, can be seen in both Exeter and the British Museum. A replica of one of these coins from the time of the Great Viking Raid of 997 AD has been used to create the image on these pages.

1066 – the Norman Conquest, and a wooden fort is built at Lydford to be abandoned in the later half of the 12th century and replaced by a medieval stone castle the remains of which can only be seen from inside. The soil piled against these walls makes a later fortified prison and courtroom built in 1195 on the top of the walls, appear to have been built on a mound.

The Law of Lydford

As the administration centre for the Royal Forest of Dartmoor and also having jurisdiction over all the tin-mining (stannary law) districts, the court and prison earned a grim reputation for hanging defendants in the morning and passing judgement in the afternoon. Gibbet Hill to the south east of the village must have been site to many a gruesome death. Lydford Castle’s role as court and prison continued right up until the early nineteenth century when it was abandoned in preference to a new prison built at Princetown to house French prisoners of war. This has since become the infamous Dartmoor Prison.

While the beauty and power of Lydford Gorge has brought visitors for many hundred years, it became National Trust Property when Mr T.H.Radford generously gave it to them in 1943. The Trust then bought further land in 1963 to enable what had once been a single track along the bottom of the gorge and down to the Devil’s Cauldron and back, to be extended to a circular walk that includes a new section along the top through the woods on the eastern side.

Lydford before the Car and Mains Water!

The photo below shows the Castle Inn in the distance and the ‘Castle’ beyond. Could the woman carrying the buckets be going to the old spring down the track to the right after the first house?

A close look at the photo shows the building that once stood in front of the castle and a horse and buggy waiting. All that can be seen of the building today is the gate posts that form part of the wall next to the road and the ‘kink’ in the wall by the track next to the Castle Inn that was the base of a chimney.

Lydford and War

Lydford commemorated those that gave their lives in the first and then later the second world wars with a Memorial at the cross roads in the village centre. The photo below shows a ceremony by the memorial taking place during the 1920’s. Sadly names had to be added after the Falklands war and more recently for the Iraq War.

The date of the photo is estimated by the presence of the old car in the background.

The Railway Comes to Lydford – Twice

The first line to reach Lydford was Brunel’s broad gauge railway in 1865. These early trains ran on track that was just over 7 feet wide. Although designed by Brunel, the railway was run by the South Devon Railway until financial difficulties in 1876 lead to a takeover by the Great Western Railway. Brunel’s broad gauge network was converted in 1892 to run on the narrower ‘standard’ 4ft 8.5ins gauge introduced by Robert Stevenson.

A legacy left by Brunel around Lydford after this conversion is bits of the old rail. Brunel’s broad gauge ran on rails that were ‘top hat’ in section while all the new lines were the classic I beam section we have nowadays. Rather than carry it all away he found another use for it and nearly all the ‘strainer’ fence posts alongside the old disused track bed are made of the old broad gauge Great Western rail.

South Devon Railway’s extension to their Tavistock branch line turned west at Lydford and ran past the White Lady Waterfall, along the side of the Lyd valley and on to Launceston.

When in 1874 the London and South Western Railway extended their line from Okehampton to Plymouth they originally shared the broad gauge track with South Devon Railway from Lydford to Plymouth by adding a third rail between the two original rails. This was far from satisfactory and in 1890 a new and seperate line was built running parallel to the original track.

The photo above was taken from Was Tor during the first half of the 20th centruy. The two railway companies each with their own station. The nearby Great Western station with a train waiting at the platform. The locomotive appears to be facing the wrong way and with no sign of smoke or steam. We wait for an explanation.

These photos taken of the LSWR station in 1927 show the station staff sheltering from a bit of rain!

Not visible at this resolution but the two adverts opposite are for Clarks Classic Custard Cream and Bovril. Also the lattice steel footbridge shown in the top photo has been replaced by a concrete one.

If you have any more information or photos, please e-mail.

Early Cyclists

Could these early cyclists foretell of their 20th century counterparts using the now disused LSWR railway line to visit Lydford via the Granite Way. (Women cyclists were only accepted after Mrs. Bloomer’s invention and the rational dress reform movement of 1881. The lady cyclist in the photo dates it to after this time).

Two cyclists passing Rose Cottage about halfway
between Nicholls Hall & the War Memorial

Widgery Cross

William Widgery and his son, Frederic John, have left Lydford with two lasting memorials that can be seen for miles around. Widgery Cross, built by William at his own expense to celebrate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1897, perches on the top of Brat/Brae Tor at 450m and dominates the skyline to the west of the village. While William was a builder, artist and copier, it is the many fine paintings of Dartmoor by Frederic John Widgery that can be found in collections around the world. William once lived at the cottage once called Seemoor Cottage, now called Widgerys while his son lived so much of his life at Lydford House Hotel that some have thought it was built as his own private dwelling.

Widgery Cross

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Many thanks to Pete Kilgannon who looked after the Beacon Villages site, for letting us use this article found in Beatie Neill’s scrapbook. Further to an appeal in both the Tavistock Times and the Okehampton Times for any information about this accident so we could date it, we received the following letter:-


I saw your query in the Okehampton Times about the newspaper cutting
concerning Miss Sheppard’s death in Lydford Gorge.

I note that at 49 she is described as “elderly” – I doubt that would go down
well these days.

The death of Eliza Icely Sheppard aged 49 was registered in the Tavistock
Registration District in the September Quarter (July, August, September) of 1881. In the 1881 census (April that year) Eliza I “Shepherd”, unmarried aged 49, was living at 9 Buckland Terrace, Plymouth. Also there were a brother, Richard aged 47, a visitor named Sarah Willis aged 55 and two servants Anna M Benny, Cook, aged 42 and Alma J Rogers, Housemaid aged 21.

Eliza Icely Sheppard was baptised at Stonehouse, Plymouth on 2 June 1832 (born 25 February). She was one of four children of Thomas and Eliza Sheppard baptised there before 1840. Her father was a Purser in the Royal Navy.

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Norman Fort & Ditch

Believe it or not ...

Lydford was once an important town equal to Exeter, hard to believe now when you walk through the quiet village streets. It was also once the largest parish in England with its boundaries stretching to the edge of north East Dartmoor and down to Princetown.

For more than 300 years Lydford has attracted tourists to its spectacular Gorge. So dramatic is this deep gorge that Tristram Risdon, in the 17th century, remarked ‘it may be numbered amongst the wonders of this kingdom’

White Lady Waterfall

Useful references and links:-

Lydford Saxon Town and Castle – A brief Guide by English Heritage.

“A Geological Field Guide to Lydford Gorge and Adjacent Areas” available from The National Trust Shops at the gorge”.

“The Lydford Book” – see first column


Lydford Ghosts – This excellent site will tell all you need to know with some excellent references and explanations. The same site also explains about the ‘Lydford Leap’
Are you perhaps researching your family connections with Lydford. If so this link to the GENUKI site might help you.

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