Why Lydford Gorge is special

Sunlight and trees reflecting on the river Lyd, Lydford Gorge

This steep-sided river gorge, nestled on the western edge of Dartmoor has been drawing visitors in search of the picturesque since Victorian times and before.

The beginnings

The story of Lydford Gorge begins around 370 million years ago when layers of sediment were deposited on the sea bed and over time turned to rock. Around 300 million years ago these rock layers were crunched, twisted and folded by enormous movements of the Earth’s crust. 

Devonian fossils

Some of the exposed rocks in the gorge contain fossil bryozoan; sea-living filter-feeding animals around 0.5mm long that lived in colonies similar to today’s coral. They are important in helping to age the rocks to the Devonian period.

Around 450 thousand years ago the river Lyd captured the headwaters of the river Burn and the extra water helped erode down through the rock layers creating a gorge. At the end of the last ice age, 11,500 year ago, the meltwater added to the erosive power of the river creating Lydford Gorge as we see it today.

Lost in myth and legend

There are many stories of the gorge that tend towards the mystical. If you get a chance to explore for yourself you'll understand why. With a constantly damp atmosphere which sustains luscious plant growth; shiny black rock faces and thunderous water – it can feel like a prehistoric rainforest. Then there are the money logs, pixie doors and weird wooden faces to help with the enchanted feel.

The tale of the ‘Gubbins’, a band of lawless savages whose lair was said to be Lydford Gorge, has been told since at least the 15th Century. Other figures of legend, such as the white lady that supposedly haunts the waterfall, are much more ephemeral.

Coins hammered into a log at Lydford Gorge, Devon
Coins hammered into a log at Lydford Gorge, Devon
Coins hammered into a log at Lydford Gorge, Devon

The Picturesque

In 1782 William Gilpin (1724 – 1804) started discussions around the Picturesque. Eventually changing the nation’s tastes – from the formal and prescribed landscapes created by man to more rural and rugged landscapes. Lydford Gorge became the go to destination for artists wanting a more natural beauty. Lydford was captured in many works of art at the time by the likes of the renowned local artists William Widgery and his son Frederick John Widgery.

A depiction of the Whitelady Waterfall at Lydford Gorge
The Whitelady Waterfall at Lydford Gorge depicted on a vase at Killerton, Devon
A depiction of the Whitelady Waterfall at Lydford Gorge

The gorge and the National Trust

Lydford Gorge was bequeathed to the Trust in 1943 by the Radford family; with the aim of keeping it for the nation and open for the public to enjoy. 

The current paths and facilities have been operational since 1969. However keeping the gorge accessible is a full-time job. The constantly damp atmosphere means that structures such as bridges, steps and handrails don’t last as long as they might otherwise. Also the semi-ancient woodland grows on steep slopes with thin soils. High winds and heavy rainfall can cause trees to fall and even floods and landslides. 

The Devil's Cauldron viewing platform during a flood
The Devil's Cauldron viewing platform during a flood
The Devil's Cauldron viewing platform during a flood

If you hike through the gorge you’ll be forgiven for thinking that it’s a completely natural environment. This is indeed what the rangers work very hard to achieve. Without constant maintenance the gorge would fairly quickly become inaccessible. It’s amazing how quickly nature can take over when it has the chance.

Woods and wildlife

The gorge was designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1952 for its ancient broadleaved woodland, the lichens, liverworts and mosses that grow there, and geological features associated with gorge formation and river capture.

As well as looking after the day-to-day maintenance required in the gorge the rangers run several monitoring programmes. Pied Flycatchers, which are on the ‘Birds of Conservation Concern’ red list, are successfully breeding at Lydford Gorge, thanks to work done by the rangers. There is also a dormouse monitoring scheme and work planned to improve areas for butterflies.

A male pied flycatcher about to be released with a new identification ring
A male pied flycatcher, part of the monitoring scheme at Lydford Gorge, Devon
A male pied flycatcher about to be released with a new identification ring

To learn more about the history, geology and wildlife of the gorge pick up one of the new guidebooks, available on site and through the online shop.