Virtual Burrator, like its Virtual Wembury counterpart, has its roots in a hospital rehabilitation research project. The research focuses on the development of virtual restorative environments and their effect on our sense of well-being. Previous restorative environment research suggests that exposure of individuals to natural settings (the coast, countryside, forests, etc.) can reduce stress, improve feelings of well-being and help individuals to recover from fatigue following intensive mental activities. Restorative environments as simple as hospital window views onto garden-like scenes can also be influential in reducing post-operative recovery periods and the need for analgesics.
Burrator, with its historic reservoir, is located in the county of Devon, to the north of Plymouth. The region is one of stark contrasts, presenting the visitor with open moorland, high granite outcrops (called "tors") and woods of mixed trees and foliage. The area is also steeped in social and industrial archaeology, from the twin-dam reservoir itself to the nearby Yelverton to Princetown Railway Line; and from the remains of the 13th Century Longstone Manor House and Farm to the original Devonport and Plymouth (or Drake's) leats - the city's earliest sources of fresh water. The region's natural beauty was not only the inspiration for the medical and rehabilitation work undertaken by the University's serious games researchers; it also provided the backdrop for various scenes in Steven Spielberg's award-winning film War Horse.
The digital terrain, aerial imagery and 3D assets were sourced from similar vendors as those described for the Virtual Wembury Project and the model has been constructed using similar techniques. In contrast to the Virtual Wembury area, however, the Burrator region is huge (in reality as well as virtually!). Consequently, the model has had to be split into 16 sections, each of which will take some time to complete and will form the basis for many research and student projects in the future, be they linked to the VRET initiative or to resurrecting the rich heritage the region has to offer.
Virtual Burrator - The GWR Connection
Located above the main Burrator Dam and hidden by a line of trees not in existence during its heyday are the remains of Burrator & Sheepstor Halt, part of the old Plymouth to Dartmoor Railway, on the Yelverton to Princetown branch line. Opened in 1823, the original Plymouth to Dartmoor line (via Horrabridge, north of Yelverton) was intended to support the conveyance of land reclamation materials and workers to the moor and granite and mineral resources from Kings Tor Quarry, a few miles north and east of Burrator, back to the Sutton Pool wharves in Plymouth via ornate level crossing gates that still exist today. By 1825 the line had been extended to Princetown (or Prince's Town), fulfilling the dream of the builder of the nearby Dartmoor Prison and the town itself, Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt. At the height of its early service, Dartmoor Prison housed some 6000 French and American prisoners-of-war and, despite a period of abandonment between 1815 (the end of the Anglo-French/Anglo-US Wars) and 1850, is still a maximum security institution today.
The cycle path that now follows the railway trackbed is named the Tyrwhitt Trail, and a number of sites and artefacts still exist, including the Royal Oak siding at Foggintor quarry, which supplied granite for Dartmoor Prison and the 46m-high column supporting Admiral Nelson's statue in Trafalgar Square, London. Another important historical quarry is that at Swelltor. Here it is still possible to find support corbels which were carved for the original (John Rennie) London Bridge, but ultimately abandoned, being surplus to requirements. Of course, this particular bridge was sold to American oil tycoon Robert McCulloch, who allegedly believed he was buying the more iconic Tower Bridge. The sold bridge is now part of a theme park in Arizona.
Despite its early importance, the line always ran the risk of early closure, especially with the very sparse population of the region and the closure of the granite quarries in 1920. Even the Great Western Railway (GWR), who absorbed what was to become their Princetown Branch in 1922, attempted to keep the line alive by opening a number of intermediate halts between Yelverton (which replaced Horrabridge as the Princetown line junction in 1885), including Burrator, with access paths to the Reservoir and the moorland around Yennadon Down. Burrator Platform, which later became Burrator & Sheepstor Halt, was opened in February 1924 and, as well as providing visitors access to the Moor a year later, the platform performed an important role in providing access for Plymouth and South Devon work teams to the Burrator Reservoir construction site. The Halt eventually closed in March, 1956. Burrator & Sheepstor Halt was of a simple wooden construction and the halt "furniture" - seats, fences, lighting, and so on only experienced basic material changes during its existence, as did the single wooden shelter. On occasions, at the northern end of the platform, one would sometimes see a petrol-driven Wickham Ganger's Trolley, temporarily stored on wooden rails orientated perpendicularly to the main track, on which it would run and carry small platelaying and engineering teams. Today (2011) the remnants of the halt can be explored, courtesy of the cycle trail and other paths leading up from the Reservoir. However, all that remains are the two "kissing" gates and associated steps giving access to the Reservoir path and local moorland, isolated fence posts, the concrete/brick shelter foundation and one, solitary, moss-covered wooden sleeper, unceremoniously abandoned nearby.