A Lost Lake (1920)

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Author(s): Baring-Gould. Sabine; Year published: 1920; Origin: DA Transactions; Pages: 152-154
Topic(s): beavers and rivers; Location(s): Lew Trenchard

By The Rev. S. Baring-Gould, M.A.
(Read at Totnes, 21st July, 1920.)

Lo, Loo, Lu, Lugh in Cornish, Llwch in Welsh, Louc’h in Breton, are the equivalents of the Gaelic Loch. As in Gaelic the term designates a pool or lake, or else a creek such as the Norsemen would call a fjord.

Looe Pool at Helston is tautological.

Duloe is “The Two Creeks”, a very descriptive name, the parish lying between two branches of the estuary.

Looe in Cornwall is the settlement at the mouth of the lake or creek.

Nansloe is the lake in the vale.

Landloe = Lan-looe, near Liskeard, is the Lan or Church settlement on the edge of a lake.

Lew Trenchard and North Lew by their names show that at one time, and that when the country was settled by Celts, there existed lakes at both places.

The river that flows through Lew Trenchard Valley and debouches into the Lyd at Coryton Station was never called the Lew River till the issue in 1882–8 of the more recent Ordnance Survey Map. In that of 1809 it was more correctly entitled the “Lewwater”, and so the stream was called as I can recollect from childhood. But the term “water” was a reduplication, I take it, and that Lew or Lugh meant originally Water, and was applied like the Icelandic vatn either to water itself or to standing water, as Ulleswater and Haweswater.

The lake that occupied the Lew Trenchard Valley was three miles long, and its banks throughout are in almost all parts distinctly marked. Not only so, but there is an immediate change of soil between that of the banks and that of the extinct lake-bed. The latter consists of peat and gravel to a depth of nine to ten feet, resting on a stiff clay which, if not glacial, has been brought down by a flood from the North and contains rolled stones. This flood has left belts running East and West on the hillsides to the North, and has formed a thick deposit in the bed of the valley.

In the peat and gravel of the old lake have been found large trees of Spanish chestnut turned black, also great numbers of hazel nuts cracked by the teeth of squirrels.

The level of the lake was 350 feet above the sea. It extended from above Foxcombe to somewhere about where now stands Coryton Station on the G.W.R. Then its waters decanted into the Lyd at right angles.

Whether the stream was there arrested by a bank of rubble thrown up by the Lyd or by a beaver-dam it is now impossible to say, as the ground there has been so altered that its contours are lost.

The Lew Manor Mill was built just below the ancient bank, and the pit of the waterwheel marks the fall from the bank to the dried-up lake-bed. On rebuilding the mill in 1913 it was found that the house of the miller rested on an artificial foundation of rubble and slate, thrown in upon the peat.

At Lew Mill on the old bank stands a prehistoric menhir, but whether in its original site, or was brought there from elsewhere, it is not possible to state. It was thrown down by my grandfather and buried because the farmers brought their cows to rub against it, with the idea that this increased their yield of milk. I raised and replanted it.

When some cottages were being built at Foxcombe under the old bank by Mr. William Palmer of Foxcombe, he told me that in digging the foundations under two feet of ordinary soil that had come down from the bank he came on a mass of sand so fine that – to use his own words – it needed no screening, and was so abundant that a whole village might have been built with the supply for mortar.

Moreover, when a leat was cut or recut here, many black chestnut trees were found as if fallen from the banks into the lake. They were of great size and age, and lay at a depth of ten feet. The lake had several bights as one running up to Beechcombe, and another up the Coryton Valley from the old toll-gate.

It has generally been asserted that the sweet chestnut was introduced by the Romans, but this is by no means certain. Anyhow the lake and parish obtained their designation from the Celts who are supposed to have occupied Britain some thousand years before the Christian era.

The dam may have been constructed by the beaver (Castor fiber) which is distinct from the Castor Canadensis, the American species. The British sort, according to Pennant, was found in certain Welsh rivers as late as the twelfth century. It has given its name to Beverley, Beveridge, and Beaverbrook. In Scandinavia the last known specimen was killed in 1844. It is not possible to feel confident that the lake had its dam formed by beavers till some of its incisor teeth have been found. These are practically indestructible, and possibly unique in composition, shape, and appearance. They may be short, or of great length like tusks. The enamel is extremely hard and of an orange colour, the teeth sharp and chisel-shaped, ridged at the cutting edge of the chisel. All the other bones and teeth would probably have disappeared.

The American beaver plants stakes of alder vertically in the river-bed and lays above them logs of oak or pine, cut to lengths of two feet. The alder takes root, and it is just possible that the presence of alder in lines at right angles to the course of the stream, near Coryton Station, may remain as relics of an old beaver dam.

The creature is remarkably clever. It opens escape passages for the water at the top of the dam so as to prevent the torrent tearing its way through the artificial barricade. There are strong indications in the Sydenham Valley of the Lyd of there having been lakes in it as well at one time, but I have not traced the banks on the map, nor have I examined the course of the North Lew River to discover the site of its lake.

It has occurred to me repeatedly that probably there were palafite dwellings on the Lew Lake, but there are no indications on the surface to lead one to make excavations in search of them.

There are other silted-up lake-beds in the county, notably Boveyheathfield, that deserve to be investigated and their banks traced.

Other writings by Sabine Baring-Gould