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Grand Western Canal

History of the Canal

Canal Bridge with Men in Boat
Photo courtesy of Tiverton Museum.


Originally part of an ambitious scheme to link the Bristol Channel with the English Channel, the Grand Western Canal was proposed as a way for shipping to avoid the long and perilous journey around the Cornish peninsular, and as a route for transporting goods, including coal from South Wales, into the heart of Somerset and Devon.

View the original proposed route for the Grand Western Canal. image - PDF icon (163KB - pdf help)


The section from Tiverton to the limestone quarries at Westleigh (also known locally as the Tiverton Canal) was completed in 1814, but the costs had escalated hugely (proving this is not just a modern-day phenomenon!) due to the use of steep embankments and deep cuttings to keep the canal on a level contour.

This massive overspend delayed construction of the next section to Taunton for many years, but eventually it was completed in 1838. By then any plans to link the canal with the English Channel had been abandoned, but for a short time the canal was profitable, mostly carrying coal and limestone, much of which was burnt in limekilns and used for improving agricultural land.


The advent of the Bristol & Exeter Railway, took much of the trade from the canal, and in 1865 the section from Lowdwells to Taunton was sold to the railway company and abandoned. However the limestone trade continued on the ‘Devon section’ until the 1920s when a major leak led to the damming off of a section near Halberton.


Apart from a small lily-cutting business, the canal slowly choked up with reeds and was largely unused until the 1960s, when proposals to use the canal as a linear landfill site and possible route for a road galvanised local support for preserving the Canal.


Canal Repairs 1920

Photo courtesy of Tiverton Museum.

1969 campaign poster

Start of the walk to save the Canal in 1969

Photo courtesy of Patsy Clements.

The campaign to save the canal proved to be successful as in 1971 Devon County Council bought the canal and declared it a Country Park. Since then a substantial investment in dredging and relining the canal has been made and the canal is now a popular visitor attraction and thriving local amenity.

Many original structures dating back to the canal’s heyday are still to be found in the Country Park. Many are protected by Grade II listing, including the Tiverton Basin and Waytown limekiln complexes,15 road bridges over the canal (designed by John Rennie) and the 40m long Waytown Tunnel. Other notable structures include milestones, culverts, wharves, accommodation bridges and a lock.

In recent years, The Grand Western Canal Trust, the Waterway Recovery Group and the Country Park Ranger Service have worked together to restore many of these structures.

A Subtle Navigation. image - PDF icon (108KB - pdf help)This article has been reproduced with kind permission of Clare Blake and 'Devon Life' magazine.

Bridges

There are a number of bridges crossing the Grand Western Canal. There are twenty-four in total, 2 pedestrian bridges, nine accommodation bridges and thirteen road bridges. The Dudley Weatherley Jubilee pedestrian bridge is the newest addition. It was opened in 2000, and is dedicated to a local artist, who can be seen sketching along the canal, and who was a very active volunteer when the canal was first restored as a country park.

Tidcombe Bridge

Photo courtesy of Tiverton Museum.

Most of the bridges were built from locally available stone and timber, the stone structures are still functional today. Most of the remaining stone road bridges are now Grade II listed structures. They were built by the famous canal architect John Rennie.

The largest bridge carries the North Devon Link-road traffic over the waterway and was opened in 1984. In comparison to this the Waytown Tunnel near Holcombe Rogus is the lowest bridge. There is no towpath through this tunnel so the horses had to be walked over the top, while men in the barges made their way through by lying on top of the boats and pushing their feet against the tunnel walls. The men that did this job were known as leggers.

Limekilns

Remnants of the industrial age of the canal can be found along its banks. Two limekilns are clearly visible at either end. The kilns are now a valuable historical feature. The first remaining limekiln is at Tiverton basin. The lower arches are visible in the car park and one of the top entrances remains open to show the internal structure, the rest have been closed.

Tiverton LimekilnsWaytown Tunnel LimekilnsThe other limekiln still visible along the canal is between Whipcott Bridge and Waytown Tunnel. The remains of a wharf can be seen next to Whipcott Bridge which was used to load and unload cargo to and from the barges. There are plans to restore both the wharf and the limekilns with help from volunteers from the Waterway Recovery Group.

The canal carried limestone from nearby quarries to the Tiverton basin limekiln. This was fed into the top of the furnace, and burned lime or ‘quicklime’ was extracted from the bottom, stored in the yard, which is now the car park, ready to be taken away to local farms by road. The kilns near Waytown tunnel received limestone direct from the neighbouring quarry and the barges transported the quicklime to farms accessible from the wharves along the canal. The waterside location of the limekilns improved the efficiency of trade and provided a cost-effective service to the local farmers, who used the lime to fertilise their fields.

A working limekiln became a place of social gatherings in the hay day of the canal, especially in the winter. The burning furnace gave out much needed heat to workers, passers-by and the homeless in the area. Food could be heated on the hearths, cider was supplied by the local farmers and much gossip was exchanged!

If you are interested in helping to restore and preserve the Canal’s historic structures, please telephone the
Grand Western Canal Trust’s Secretary, Hugh Dalzell, on 01884 849255.