Grand Western Canal

Grand Western Canal History

The Grand Western Canal was part of a huge scheme to carry trade between the West Country and London. The final canal was not the first such route to be planned however...

Robert Whitworth, under James Brindley's supervision, surveyed two separate routes with the aim of linking the English Channel to the Bristol Channel. The first route would have started on the south coast at Seaton, east of Exeter, and run north to the River Parrett at Langport. The Parrett would have taken the route to Bridgwater and then into the Bristol Channel. The second plan was closer to the eventual Grand Western Canal route, it would have started south of Exeter at Topsham and linked the River Exe near Tiverton to the Tone Navigation at Taunton. The Tone would then have taken the route north to Bridgwater where it was planned to have linked with another canal to Uphill near Weston Super Mare (via Glastonbury and Axbridge). However, neither of these plans were ever turned into actual routes.

Fourteen years after his first surveys, Robert Whitworth was asked to survey a line which was to become the Grand Western Canal. His proposal was similar to the Topsham to Taunton plan of 1769. The proprietors did not have to concern themselves with the sections beyond Taunton as these were now in the hands of other "friendly" promoters.

In the midst of Canal Mania an Act of Parliament was sought & granted to build the Grand Western Canal from Topsham in Devon, on the River Exe estuary, to Taunton in Somerset.

It was to be 46 miles long with branches to Cullompton and Tiverton. However, the proposed canal from Bridgwater to Weston Super Mare had been cancelled leaving the overall English Channel to Bristol Channel route well short of its target.

This, and the ever increasing cost of goods and labour due to the war with France, caused the Grand Western Canal proprietors to put construction on hold before work began.

During the same year a separate (rival) company in Dorset, to the east, also gained an Act to build an English Channel to Bristol Channel route. This was planned as the Dorset & Somerset Canal but, maybe unwisely, they started work straight away. Not only did they start at a worrying time financially but they also started at a bad place tactically. They began to build a branch line in the middle of their route first! It took seven years for them to realise their mistake but by then the money had run out. The Dorset & Somerset Canal was nowhere near finished and it never saw a boat.

Although the wars with Napoleon were far from over, the Grand Western Canal proprietors decided the time was right to build their waterway. This was helped along by the distant Kennet & Avon Canal company who bought up Grand Western shares after being disappointed by the failure of the Dorset & Somerset Canal which would have linked with their waterway near Bath. The Kennet & Avon company saw the Grand Western Canal as the final piece in a route from London (via their own canal) to Exeter. A whole series of well known engineers were asked to make surveys for the Grand Western project, these included Longbotham and Jessop though it was John Rennie, engineer on the Kennet & Avon Canal, who did the final survey and it was he who became chief engineer.

Two disastrous decisions were made right at the start. Firstly, the proprietors made the exact same mistake that the Dorset & Somerset company had made and decided not to start work either at Topsham or Taunton (the two ends of the line) where trade could have started immediately, but instead they began construction at Tiverton in the middle of the route where there were no links with any other waterways! The second bad decision was an engineering one concerning Rennie's familiar problem of badly judging water supplies. He decided he could save water by lowering the planned summit level, thus missing out the need for water thirsty locks at Holcombe Rogus. However, the problems gained in constructing and maintaining the cutting and embankment far outweighed the inconvenience and cost that would have resulted from a higher summit level, a few locks and one extra reservoir.

Extra incentive came to the Grand Western Canal Company when an Act was granted by parliament to the Bristol & Taunton Canal Company who proposed to build the northern part of the Channel to Channel link. This too was to be engineered by the busy John Rennie. However, Rennie also surveyed a line which would connect the Bristol Channel near Bridgwater (on the River Parrett) to the English Channel near Seaton (on the River Axe) - similar to the first route surveyed by Whitworth in 1769. This would be a major rival to the Grand Western Canal if it were to be completed first. As it turned out, the Grand Western company had little to fear as this route never went further than the survey at this time.

After three years an 11 mile stretch in the middle of the Grand Western route, including a branch into Tiverton, was finally opened. The cost of this stretch alone was more than the estimated cost of the whole route when the original Act of Parliament had been granted! Work stopped because the company was flat broke!

The proprietor's reason for building a middle section first was because they expected to see a trade in stone carrying which they estimated at £10,000 a year. Lime kilns were built at Tiverton near the western terminus of the completed section. The kilns were built below the level of the waterway so that limestone, carried from Holcombe Rogus, could be tipped straight in from the canal. Sadly, the actual income from stone carriage never reached £1,000 in any one year. Apart from lime the main canal trade turned out to be coal from Taunton but it had to be brought by road for the first 11 miles to Holcombe Rogus from where it travelled on the canal into Tiverton.

And so... the "Grand" Western Canal Company had a sea to sea barge canal from Tiverton in the middle of the countryside to..... well....nowhere in particular! They were (at best) some 20 miles away from the nearest sea. Meanwhile, work on the Bristol & Taunton Canal had also been held up before it had even begun. In fact, it was another 11 years before any of the northern part of the Channel to Channel route was started.

The Grand Western Canal Company had no money for the first 10 years of its life. It desperately needed a connection with either Exeter or Taunton and the company received plans from numerous would-be engineers who submitted ideas which they claimed would be cheap and easy. However, the company resisted all temptations and did not make the mistake of re-starting work before they could afford it.

Work at last began on the Bristol & Taunton Canal though there were still many problems. These resulted in a shortened version which no longer reached Bristol but would still reach the Bristol Channel near Bridgwater. The new "Bridgwater & Taunton" company were eager to make the long proposed Channel to Channel link and they urged the Grand Western company to restart work on their canal. They even offered to build the northern most section for them but still the Grand Western company resisted - a reluctance which could have been fatal...

A survey was paid for by men who were eager to have a Channel to Channel link across the West Country. The proposed line was similar to that of Rennie's surveyed in 1811 which would link Bridgwater to Seaton and completely bypass the Grand Western route.

An Act of Parliament was passed to construct the "English & Bristol Channels Ship Canal". It was to be a wide and deep waterway, built very straight in order to take fast ships. The Grand Western company knew they would have to act soon if they were ever to make their own Channel to Channel link.

The neighbouring Bridgwater & Taunton Canal finally opened but there was no sign of the mighty southern link to Seaton being started. The English & Bristol Channels Ship Canal Company had failed to raise the massive funds necessary for such a large scale route. The Grand Western company decided that this was their moment and a proposal made by James Green was put into motion. Green was an engineer from Exeter who had worked competently on the Exeter, Bude and Torrington canals in the West Country and on the Kidwelly & Llanelly Canal in Wales. He had also surveyed the line for the unsuccessful English & Bristol Channels Ship Canal and was maybe a little frustrated at its failure, thus he turned to its neighbouring rival. Strangely, for a man who had almost got the chance to build a massive ship canal, he suggested that the Grand Western Canal (which had so far been built to barge width) should be completed to Taunton on a much smaller "tub-boat" scale. At Taunton the new line would connect with the recently completed Bridgwater and Taunton Canal, if the new line proved successful the company agreed that they would build the remaining part of the Channel to Channel route south to Exeter.

Green's estimated costs were just within the amount that the company could afford and work began on the "main line" some 35 years after the Act of Parliament had first been granted.

Green had successfully used inclined planes on his Bude Canal so he suggested that locks could be completely avoided on the Grand Western Canal by using an inclined plane at Wellisford. He also proposed seven vertical boat lifts along the rest of the route. The canal would be built to tub-boat dimensions on which four boats could be pulled by one horse. The company agreed and work began but Green soon ran into big problems. He completed the inclined plane but he could not make it work properly! This was quite amazing as he had successfully used inclines on other canals seven times before.

The canal was almost ready for opening when it was realised that there were big alignment problems between the canal pounds and the caissons at the bottom of each of the boat lifts. Green hadn't done any tests on his scheme to install the lifts but had gone straight ahead and built them. He was ordered to put the problem right at his own expense. This he did by adding a lock at the bottom of six of the lifts and then completely redesigning the seventh. When the work was finished, Green was sacked!

W.A. Provis was employed to examine the whole of Green's work and a number of faults were discovered. Provis found that the incline was failing to work properly because the caissons had been built too small to make up the weight (when full of water) to create the necessary counter balance to carry the boats up and down. Money was scraped together to convert the incline to be powered by a steam engine.

The delay in the opening of the canal cost the company their last capital. To stay afloat the committee had to put their own personal money into the company funds, they appointed Captain Twisden as engineer and he also loaned money to the company!

The "main line" finally opened and the Grand Western Canal began to see modest prosperity. The Channel to Channel route was now in place to the north of Tiverton - from the completed parts of the Grand Western Canal to the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal and into the River Parrett. However, no attempts were ever made to build a link to the south from Tiverton to Exeter.

The canal's small success was very short lived as the Bristol & Exeter Railway opened very close to the canal. At first rivalry was almost friendly, the railway even paid for an aqueduct at Halberton which was needed to span the new railway cutting. However, within a few years the canal began to suffer, co-operation dwindled along with trade on the canal and a rate-cutting war began.

After nearly 20 years of battling to stay alive, the Grand Western Canal Company finally gave in and leased the whole route to the railway company.

The cumbersome "main line" with its faulty lifts and inclined plane was certainly no asset to the railway company and they soon closed down the whole of the tub-boat section from Taunton to the start of the Tiverton Branch. Surprisingly, they did not close down or even neglect the broader (original) section into Tiverton. In fact, they maintained it well and issued strong warnings and punishments to anyone who damaged the canal or threw anything into it. There are also stories of outright generosity from the railway company; for instance, they apparently allowed a Mr. John Lindsay to wash his sheep in the canal for free! Whether the sheep came out any cleaner than they went in has not been recorded.

The railway company performed major repairs on a troublesome section near Halberton. (No - the canal had not silted up due to sheep droppings)! Eighteen boat loads of clay were used to re-puddle the canal bed though this section continued to cause problems.

With the remaining stretch (the original Tiverton Branch) seeing fewer boats every year the owners, now Great Western Railway, blocked off the canal near Halberton. This was done to stop the amount of leaks springing from the route. Of course, if they had maintained it in the first place there probably wouldn't have been a problem.

What happened to the canal after this is not mentioned in my reference books though it clearly declined in the same way as most others did throughout the 20th century. In 1948 it was nationalised and during the 1950's it was classified in the "fit only for closing down" category.

The Tiverton Branch was finally abandoned by its governors, the British Transport Commission. It was left disused but was not filled in.

Devonshire County Council took over the Tiverton Branch of the canal. The towpath was opened as a country walk and in the early 1970's talk of a restoration which would bring boats back to the 11 mile branch was reported.

DCC reopened the blocked section of canal at Halberton. The leaks which had caused its closure were fixed using modern waterproofing techniques. Soon the whole stretch into Tiverton was fully restored.

The Grand Western Canal now has a restoration trust which hopes to restore the whole line to Taunton. Devon County Council still own most of the route and have agreed not to allow any of the surviving route to be destroyed further. The original John Rennie Tiverton Branch is now fully restored. Horse drawn trip boats ply the waterway in summer and the basin is a big tourist attraction. Small day boats are also available for hire.

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Grand Western Canal Route

My reference book was written in 1971 and may not be accurate now. However, most of the route runs through beautiful quiet countryside that has changed little since the canal was built.

The Grand Western Canal left the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal via a stop lock near Taunton railway Goods Depot and can/could still be seen at the bottom of Canal Lane. Within a few yards the route climbed 23 feet up the first of James Green's seven vertical lifts. Part of the retaining wall of the lift now forms a boundary between the Goods Depot and some gardens. Unfortunately the lift has gone and a goods shed has been built on its site.

Just west of this area the canal bed was taken over by the railway.The route crossed Station Road and Staplegrove Road and can easily be seen where the railway and canal route were the same. Just past here the railway left the canal bed but the canal has since been lost beneath allotments. However, near here traces can be found of a short canal line known as Parliamentary Cut. This short section is thought to have linked the canal to the River Tone. However, it is not known if the link was ever completed and there is certainly no evidence that any boats ever used it.

About one mile west of Taunton is the well preserved Silk Mills bridge under which the canal used to pass. Beyond here the canal line runs across fields in a westerly direction between the railway and the River Tone.

At Norton Fitzwarren the bed of the canal could still easily be seen by crossing the footbridge at the (former) railway station and walking south a short distance across a field. About a hundred yards west is the site of Norton Lift. It was the smallest of the seven lifts at just 12 feet high. There is no masonry to be seen but the rise in ground level is easily spotted.

Past this second lift the canal, railway and river Tone all curve south westwards and within a mile is the site of the third lift.Allerford (or Hillfarance) Lift had a rise of 19 feet and its site can be accessed through two gates off the minor road which leads from Hele Manor to the railway level crossing at Allerton. This lift has often caused confusion over how many lifts there actually were due to it having two different names. There is a little stonework still visible at the lift and the canal is sometimes visible here too when it holds water.

The canal continues south west, now on an embankment as it crosses Hillfarance Brook, but then the route disappears for about a mile until a road bridge near Trefusis Farm, north of Bradford-On-Tone.Half a mile past here the railway crosses the route on an embankment and almost immediately the canal reaches Trefusis Lift, situated south of the East Nynehead to Bradford-On-Tone minor road. The lift is now on private land in a small copse within the garden of Lift Cottage.Sadly, the lift has previously been used as a dumping ground but its wall is in fairly good condition and the central dividing pier which all of the lifts had can be clearly seen.

Around 1½ miles further west the canal crosses the River Tone on a single arched aqueduct. In 1971 this fine stone structure was said to have suffered from crumbling though its narrow iron trough (with towpath alongside) was still intact. It can be reached from the minor road which runs from Nynehead to the A38. There is a wharf cottage by the roadside at the point where the minor road crosses the canal, the aqueduct is to the east about 600 yards away. The approach is on a low embankment but my 1971 reference book said it was then easier to walk across the adjacent field rather than to battle through the undergrowth on the towpath at that time.

The fifth of the vertical lifts is a short way to the west of the minor road. The impressive masonry chamber of Nynehead Lift was cleared out and surveyed in 1970 and was/is the best preserved of the seven lifts. It had a climb of 24 feet and had a cottage close by it though in 1971 this was in a much worse state than the lift, with only the foundations still intact.

A little further west is a single arch aqueduct over the drive to Nynehead Court. Then the route reaches Winsbeer Lift which is very much an anti-climax after seeing Nynehead Lift. This one can be reached on a path which leaves the B3187 south of the River Tone (about 1½ miles north of Wellington). The site of the lift is about 600 yards along the path though my guide does not say if it is east or west of the B-road! There are no remains of this left other than the 18 feet grassy slope which marks it's site. On the higher side of the lift the canal holds water. There is a cottage here too, this time in better shape than its adjacent lift but still in ruined condition.

From here it is possible to walk west through the fields for 2 miles to the foot of Wellisford Inclined Plane. It is situated ½ a mile north of Thorne St. Margaret along a track known as Bungalow Lane.This track runs to Incline Farm which is at the top of the plane. The former engine house is also at the top beside some cottages. The incline lifted the canal 81 feet.

West of the incline the canal route swings south west towards the largest, and last, of the vertical lifts. The approach can be followed along fields to the south west of Greenham village. The canal route is marshy and the undergrowth can be very dense. Underneath the foliage there is plenty of water as the route approaches a wide-spanned accommodation bridge. Just beyond the bridge is a huge wall of greenery which hides the remains of the 42 feet rise of Greenham Lift.Ronald Russell, in "Lost Canals of England & Wales", said he had great difficulty distinguishing what was what but he found some stonework which could have been the base of the retaining wall or part of a buttress. Above the lift is the best kept lift cottage, fully restored and lived in.

Above the lift the canal is clearly defined but it suddenly ends at a minor road where an aqueduct once crossed. My reference book does not say which road this is but it is almost certainly the one running north westerly about 400 yards away from (and parallel to) the River Tone. Apparently the aqueduct abutments (covered in ivy) can be seen from the road. Just 100 yards further on is the end of the James Green section and the start of the John Rennie (Tiverton) section. There was only one conventional lock on the whole canal and even it has long since gone though Lock's Cottage still survives. Beneath the road junction - where the minor roads head off to Greenham, Holcombe and Westleigh - there is a short small-bore tunnel. The canal then heads almost straight south for two miles with a minor road close on the eastern side. At the end of the straight stretch the canal almost runs head on into the railway but it curves west just as it meets the tracks. Within ½ a mile the canal bends again, towards the south west this time, and then passes through Ayshford on route to the larger village at Sampford Peverell. At Sampford Peverell there is a wharf in the centre of the village just south of the A373 dual-carriageway (which crosses the canal just before the village), Ronald Russell said the wharf was well worth looking at. On the far side of the main road is a winding hole and a canal maintenance boat can often be seen. The walk through the village is said to be excellent and typical of this rural waterway. It was in this village that the canal historian Charles Hadfield lived as a youngster. He, as much as anyone, is responsible for the revival and interest in canals which has come to the fore during the late 20th century. After Sampford Peverell the route continues south west for one mile, passing the quarry where sandstone was obtained to build the canal.After curving west and heading fairly straight for one mile into Halberton the route suddenly takes a great sweeping loop taking it north west, south west, south east and then south. The loop is 2½ miles long while the same journey on the adjacent (straight) minor road is just ¾ of a mile!

South of the loop is the Halberton Aqueduct and embankment. The aqueduct once crossed a railway and, in fact, was paid for by the railway company though the line is now disused. The railway's sleepers have been well used however, they have been made into the numerous seats which can be seen all along the towpath into Tiverton. Justbeyond the cast iron trough aqueduct is an old wharf and then East Manley is a little further west. From here onwards it is possible to see horse drawn boat trips during summer.

On the outskirts of Tiverton is a school who's pupils can often be seen beside the newly restored canal. This is Blundells School founded in 1604. A former pupil, author R.D. Blackmore used the school in the opening setting in his book "Lorna Doone".

The canal basin and terminus of the Tiverton Branch is on the south east side of the town close to the junction of the two minor roads coming in from Butterleigh and Manley. The basin is very popular with tourists and includes day boat hire and horse drawn trips. Near by are the lime kilns which created the branches only major trade.

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