Towing the line along the Great Western Canal
PUBLISHED: 13:25 27 April 2015 | UPDATED: 13:25 27 April 2015
Simone Stanbrook-Bryne takes to the towpath this month as she explores a remnant of our industrial past now converted into pleasurable leisure spot for everyone.
Once upon a time there was a dream. This dream, in the age before railways, was to create a navigable waterway joining the Bristol Channel with the English Channel. The sea journey around Land’s End was hazardous so an inland route for transporting goods would benefit many.
Canal building was tough, civil engineering work undertaken by ‘navigators’ from which the term ‘navvy’ is derived.
The dream started to take shape and the Grand Western Canal was part of it. The first section to open, in 1814, stretched between Tiverton and Lowdwells near the Devon-Somerset border. The Somerset section, which continued to Taunton to link up with the Taunton & Bridgwater Canal, opened almost 25 years later.
But a changing world challenged the viability of the canal. The Somerset section closed in the late 1860s, although the Devon stretch continued commercially until 1925. Then, for decades, it gradually choked up. Its future looked bleak; one plan was to use it for landfill. But enlightened changes in law enabled Devon County Council to take ownership in 1971. It is thanks to this intervention that we have a lovely Country Park today.
The less-frequented and perhaps most idyllic part of the canal is the section nearest Somerset. The towpath starts its ambling journey into deeper Devon by Burnhill Farm (Burnthill on OS map). Here, Lowdwells Lock once operated, connecting the canal to its Somerset section. Setting off along the towpath it soon heads unexpectedly uphill, the waterway disappearing into fern-festooned Waytown Tunnel.
The walk crosses the road above the tunnel, rejoins the towpath on the other side and soon passes 19th century Waytown Limekilns, reminders of the canal’s industrial history. A nearby information board tells their story. There are more examples of lime kilns at the Tiverton end.
The canal here is in a deep cutting, the water spring-fed and beautifully clear. Mallards may be seen swimming and ‘grazing’ below the surface. Moorhens zoom across the water, often accompanied in spring by delightfully fuzzy black chicks.
Continuing towards Burlescombe, the next feature is Whipcott Wharf. Now a picnic site, stone from nearby quarries was once loaded onto boats here. Then comes Fenacre Bridge where, during the canal’s ‘ribby’ years, the water was used to dip sheep. Also at this time the canal provided water lilies to London and Birmingham florists.
Approaching Fossend Bridge the view opens up and in fields to the right are the remains of the circa 15th century mill and gatehouse of Augustinian Canonsleigh Abbey, founded around 1170. The building stone came from quarries which were the 13th century precursors to today’s Westleigh Quarry, whose dominant buildings are seen nearby.
Beyond the village of Burlescombe the path passes beneath ‘caged’ Black Bridge; this once carried the quarry tramway transporting stone to the canal and railway. The bridge is now part of a footpath network. To the left trains pass to and from London; a poignant juxtaposition as it was the arrival of the railway in the West Country that led to the commercial demise of the canal.
Beyond Black Bridge one of several milestones sits beside the towpath stating that it’s IX miles to Tiverton. Grey herons spear the water and fish congregate in puddles of sunlight. Tall spires of velvety reed mace flower in summer, their remnants often visible throughout the year.
From Ebear Bridge it’s 2½ miles to Sampford Peverell, the village at the almost-mid-way point. Westcott Bridge is followed by Ayshford Bridge where it’s worth leaving the towpath to visit the diminutive and beautiful 15th century Ayshford Chapel, now in the care of Friends of Friendless Churches. Historic Ayshford Court, home to the Ayshfords until 1689, stands nearby.
Swan families grace the canal throughout its length and a good range of dragonflies zooms above the water, sign of a healthy ecosystem. Holbrook then Boehill Bridges span the canal, the latter carrying the M5. The path wends its way through Sampford Peverell where various access points lead off; one handily drops into the garden of The Globe. The 13th century church keeps watch on passers-by.
From here it’s almost two miles to Halberton and expansive views open up on the left towards Blackborough Hill. Behind to the left is Culmstock Beacon with its ancient beacon hut, once part of a chain of beacons alerting the country to the arrival of the Armada. Two more bridges are ducked under before splendid Rock House appears, originally built for canal engineer, John Twisden.
Beyond Rock Bridge, as the towpath continues to Halberton, it’s hard to imagine the devastation in late 2012 when the canal was breached after torrential rain. Water flooded into fields on the far side and although several hundred fish were saved many perished. While repairs were undertaken temporary dams were installed, enabling the remainder of the canal to retain water, but the damaged section was empty, a startling sight. In May 2014, to coincide with the bicentenary of the canal, a reopening celebration took place. The canal came alive with colourful boats by day and a wonderful illuminated boat parade by night.
Near Halberton’s Greenway Bridge there’s access to Halberton Court Farm Shop and Café, which is also on the route of a short, circular walk from the canal. The towpath now describes a big loop, the Swan’s Neck, to maintain a level contour. We were thrilled to spot an Egyptian Goose hobnobbing with mallards along here.
At the far side of the loop the Dudley Weatherley Jubilee Bridge, named after a local artist, gives access to Tiverton Road Car Park, where Beck’s Diner offers welcome drinks and snacks during the summer season.
It’s now three miles to the basin at Tiverton and just after Tiverton Road Bridge a footpath leaves the towpath, heading to the farm shop on the circular route. Continuing to Tiverton the walk crosses the canal at Crownhill Bridge where there are well-located picnic tables. Soon an aqueduct carries the canal across a one-time railway line, closed, like so many, in the 1960s. Some permanent moorings for boats flank the canal beyond this. East Manley Bridge is swiftly followed by Manley Bridge, where there’s another option for a circular walk between here and Tiverton incorporating the towpath and a sylvan stretch of the disused railway.
Along this stretch the picturesque horse-drawn barge may drift past. The last of its kind in the South West, it has been operated by Tiverton Canal Company for over 40 years – a relaxing way to experience the canal at an authentic pace.
The outskirts of Tiverton appear and Tidcombe Hall keeps stern watch over the waterway, which had to be looped away from the house to appease a 19th century Bishop of Exeter who once lived here. Tidcombe Hall later became a Marie Curie hospice. It is now in private ownership.
The canal soon slips under a modern bridge dedicated to William Authers, former Tiverton mayor. It was on a nearby garden that 700 birdwatchers descended several years ago to spot a visiting waxwing.
And finally, the basin. A good place to refresh at the end of a walk and, nowadays, a peaceful contrast to the industrial buzz that once defined the area. Enjoy it.