b_960_960_16777215_00_images_landscape_exeterriver_large.jpg The woollen cloth trade needed water to power its simple machines and to support several stages of the production process. Exeter could meet this demand, offering a reliable, plentiful and easily accessible supply.

From the tenth century onwards water channels known as ‘leats’ were dug outside the western walls of the city. The aim was to tame the River Exe, which was then much wider than it is today, and to create land. This land came to be known as Exe Island.

Exe Island created space for building on, while its leats provided a supply of fast-running water which could be exploited as a power source. Before long, watermills – many of them belonging to the cloth industry – were built along these channels.

The growth of Exeter’s woollen cloth industry from mediaeval times depended on the River Exe supplying the water power for its many watermills.


These mills were in turn fed by a network of leats. A leat is the name, common in the south and west of England and in Wales, for an artificial watercourse or aqueduct dug into the ground, especially one supplying water to watermills.

However, the leats were not originally built to supply mills with power, but were excavated for the draining and reclamation of land between the city wall and the Exe. The banks of the Exe under the wall were part marsh, part shingle banks.

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