Plans for a Grand Western Canal were born out of an 18th century idea to link the Bristol and the English Channels. If successful, the Canal would have allowed shipping to avoid long and perilous journeys by sea around the Cornish peninsula. It also promised to better connect the heart of Somerset and Devon to the outside world.
An initial 11 mile section of the Canal was opened in 1814 between Tiverton and limestone quarries at Westleigh. However, the project had run in to financial problems. Building costs had escalated as engineers were forced to use steep embankments and deep cuttings to negotiate the rolling Devon countryside.
It was not until 1838 that the next section of the Canal to Taunton was completed. By this time hope of the Canal reaching the English Channel had been abandoned.
In the 1840s the Grand Western Canal enjoyed its one brief period of profitability when it was busy carrying coal and limestone. However, the coming of the Bristol to Exeter Railway brought competition and signalled a downturn.
In 1865, with its trade declining and losses mounting, the Canal’s eastern section from Taunton to Lowdwells was sold and then abandoned. The limestone trade kept the remaining Canal open until 1925 when persistent leaks led to the damming-off a section near Halberton. Apart from a local lily-harvesting business, the Canal was then left unused.
By the 1960s the Canal’s life looked to be coming to an end. Plans were drawn-up to fill in a portion of the Canal in Tiverton, and use the land for residential development. These threats caused local people to act. A ‘Save the Canal’ campaign was fought and won.
In 1971 Devon County Council took on ownership and declared it a Country Park. In the years since, investment in dredging, repairs to the Canal and improvements to its visitor access have helped make it what it is today: one of Devon’s most popular countryside attractions.
If you are interested in helping to restore and preserve the Canal’s historic structures, please contact the Friends of the Grand Western Canal.
For more information on the history of the canal, ‘The Grand Western Canal’ and the abridged and updated version ‘The Grand Western Canal – A brief history’, both by Helen Harris, are highly recommended. The former is now out of print but can sometimes be found in library collections and second-hand bookshops. The later is available from the Canal Basin gift shop, Minnows Touring Park and Tiverton Museum.
Also of interest may be a dissertation by Jo Norton on the social history of the canal and its impact on local communities.