List of YWT Nature Reserves (A-Z)


Sign up to our monthly e-newsletter


 Or opt into another list

Family Fun - latest news and events
Learning - for teachers and community group leaders


History of Adel Dam

Laying a new path - Credit Robin Jakeways

Compiled by Rob Wilkinson

Research by a local archaeological group has revealed a Roman settlement in the Adel area. Remains discovered in this field adjacent to the reserve more than likely extended into it. The Roman settlement at Adel was significant, sited on the York to Ilkley road, which crossed the beck inside our reserve, had villas and a fort, and there is a possibility that a water mill might have been located there.

The 1770 Jeffery’s map shows a lake, the beck and a mill on the site, although the earliest written record of a mill on the site dates to the twelfth century. The lake shape and size is similar to the present lake, possibly retained by a small embankment.

The current dam

The current embankment is thought to have been constructed in the 18th century. The Adel Enclosure Award map of 1809 shows the dam with beck flowing in and goit flowing out. The ordnance survey maps up to 1930 indicate a measured water area of 7.368 acres.

The outlet to the eastern end of the embankment formed the outfall to the goit and back to the original beck. Water can still be seen to be discharging as it was always intended to do back into the beck. The goit outfall is now closed. A chamber big enough for people to stand up in and possibly to maintain the channels and equipment is sited between both outfalls. The stone roof to this chamber also doubles as an overflow and would allow excess water to pass over or timber boards could be inserted into vertical grooves cut in the stone on each side to increase the water capacity in the dam.

Black Hill Dam (later Golden Acre Park)

This new dam situated upstream of Adel Dam was constructed in 1823 and was some 25 acres in size, In 1829 following a storm in the area, the water level rose and overtopped its embankment (the overflow was allegedly blocked) bringing down 20 yds length of its construction. The dam was recorded as having emptied within two hours. The resulting tsunami across Adel Dam must have been immense. There was no loss of life or injury but considerable damage and material loss occurred as the wave swept on through Leeds and into the river Aire some six miles away. The newspaper reports at the time do not mention any damage to our embankment. However, massive movement can still be seen at the original outfall, which must have occurred at this time. It is also worth mentioning that the detailed newspaper report at the time was tucked away on page three of the edition. I’m sure it would have been number one on News at Ten had it occurred today !


Adel Dam when constructed allowed for a surge of storm water only from the beck, hence the small overflow included. It did not anticipate that a new much larger dam would be constructed or the risks that that would pose. Following the collapse of Black Hill Dam and the subsequent damage to Adel Dam an additional larger overflow was constructed at the western end of the embankment. This is shown on the Tithe map of 1848 and all subsequent ordnance survey maps starting with the first of 1851. The top level of this overflow was constructed at the same level as the original overflow. Although this overflow has been lowered evidence of its existence still remains

1843 Adel Reservoir Act

The work required by this act would have increased the water capacity of the dam but it was not carried out because the demand for water diminished due to the increased use of steam power.


An estate map dated 1866 shows trees on one side of the dam. Mr Edison the owner at the time planted more trees around the dam and the reserve has been described as a Victorian garden and an arboretum there being so many different species of tree.

Swallows and Amazons

Arthur Ransome was born and bred in Leeds, is known to have stayed with the Edison family and boated on the lake in his youth. It is possible that the setting of Adel Dam later provided him with the inspiration to write his series of books Swallows and Amazons.

1930 Reservoir Act

This Act came about as a result of an embankment collapse in Wales in 1925 when the resulting flood brought down an embankment to a second reservoir, resulting in the loss of 25 lives. The 1930 Reservoir Act requires that any reservoir exceeding 5 million gallons water capacity would have to pass a safety check. Adel Dam exceeded this amount; this was later confirmed by a structural report commissioned by the Trust in 2000. This report also gave an indication of the huge cost to make the embankment safe and bearing in mind that the use of waterpower had finished it was easier and cheaper to remove the new overflow and permanently lower the water level. This lowering occurred prior to the issue of the 1936 ordnance survey map, which shows a reduced water area of 1.55 acres, which still exists today.

Apparently, this area latterly afforded access to the lake hide before the bridges were built as little or no water passed through. It is thought that the stones forming the western end of this lowered structure were removed later to further lower the lake water level. These stones litter the beck downstream. Part of the spillway collapsed in 2002 further ensuring that the lake could never be the force it once was


The large mural in the adjacent Golden Acre park café is reproduced from an aerial photograph taken during the open years (early 1930’s) of the leisure complex in Golden Acre (formerly Black Hill Dam). The view shows predominantly the Golden Acre leisure complex but large areas of open countryside can be seen in the background including Adel Dam. The view shows that the water level is as now and the embankment can just be seen. The original water area is totally open – compared with today’s dense central area of wet woodland.

Nature Reserve

The dam became a nature reserve in 1968 and was managed by the Leeds Bird Watchers Club for many years until it was eventually taken over by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust in 1986. A group of volunteers currently help to maintain the reserve.

A film made in 1970 fir the Yorkshire Naturalist Trust (as YWT was then known), called the 'Spiders Web' includes footage of Adel Dam. It shows water cascading over the spillway, volunteers working on a bridge and Canada geese and young on the lake.