South Western Waters

Grand Western Canal in Tiverton, Bude tub boat canal, Marhamchurch inclined plane

Some work took me to the West Country recently and a chance to explore some of the more isolated parts of our canal system in Devon and Cornwall.

First visit was to the restored section of the Grand Western Canal in Tiverton, maintained as a linear country park by Devon County Council, and very well used, judging by my fleeting visit on a hot summer day. There were masses of walkers and cyclists, although boats are very rare on this isolated 11 mile navigable length. It deserves the title Grand too, for the bit that survives was built in 1814 as a branch of a grandiose scheme to link the Bristol and English channels by a navigation that would remove the need for the dangerous passage round Lands End, so the original thinking was big, seriously big barges or perhaps small coasters. But the reality of escalating costs curtailed the vision dramatically and the later part to be built was for narrow gauge tub boats, and only ever linked through to the Bridgwater and Taunton canal. It earned a living for some 30 years, but railway competition had closed the narrow section by 1867 although the level barge section into Tiverton kept going with limestone and lime burning until the1920s. But by then the narrow bit with its boat lift and incline planes was totally derelict and some of it is now difficult to find at all, never mind consider restoring.

No visit to the Grand Western could be considered complete without a trip on the horse drawn trip boat ‘Tivertonian’, operating now for 30 years and one of only 5 companies operating a horse drawn boat regularly anywhere in the country at present. (Top 4 images) So I presented myself at their base for a taste of their brand of nostalgia on one of the hottest Sundays of the summer. This was a very mixed blessing. The weather was wonderful, but the boat was therefore packed with its full complement of 80 passengers. A profitable day for the company, thank goodness, but difficult if you wanted to see out, or move about, or take photographs over the side. Instead we sat quietly in our allotted places, avoiding eye contact or conversation in our properly reserved English way, and spent most of the hour trip outwards not quite looking at each other and not quite seeing out either. I’ve always known from my own days as a trip boat steerer that the passengers get a bit of a raw deal, paying to sit down there in the bottom of a boat, seeing very little over the canalside vegetation, made even worse nowadays by all the trees that have been allowed to colonise both sides of the canal. Meanwhile the lucky captain is steering the boat, experiencing the weather, admiring the scenery over the hedges and chatting amicably to the locals. And he’s getting paid! Unfair isn’t it?

It was a well organised professional operation, and the captain gave his introductory talk in a convincing and amusing way even though we all knew he must have given something like the same schpeil a hundred times at least this year, but it did its job, broke the ice and put us at ease. ‘Prince’, an unflappable Shire horse was hooked on and we quietly slipped along the two and a half miles to the winding hole, and a stop to walk around and drink tea. The boat or barge, for it is something of a hybrid, is custom built for the job, cheaply built judging by the welding and clumsy lines, but carries a big payload of passengers with all the necessities of toilets, bar and catering facilities. Although barge width, it is in the style of a narrow boat with all the colourful romantic necessities of roses and castles, and masses of diamonds, but because of the height of the cabins for headroom inside, the cabin proportions are rather non traditional, not to say lumpy. It sums up the dilemmas facing the whole canal business, that awkward balance between preserving the past and satisfying a modern business need, between simply giving people a pleasant time or preaching and teaching about an important bit of history. There are no easy solutions I fear. I chose to walk back, dodging backwards and forwards to take photographs of the horse doing his job. Prince sweated traditionally and looked great.

Then to Bude in North Cornwall to look at the tub boat canal which I knew was short - just a couple of miles today, but was shocked with myself to discover the true depths of my ignorance - Bude was the entrance to 35 miles of canal network, nearly as long as the main line of the S.U. It is just a tiny little wriggle down left on most canal maps if it’s there at all. In truth only the first 500 yards or so are now properly navigable, from the entrance lock to the first bridge, a swing bridge originally but now fixed at low level. This section is in use as a small yacht harbour whilst the rest that is in water, rising through two wiered locks, is a pleasant country walk. There are plans and hopes to restore it to navigation but one wonders who would use it, and how often. The lowest section would make an extensive marina but the remainder above the two smallish locks would hardly be a tempting navigation challenge for many. Room for another trip boat perhaps, but could it ever repay the costs of re-instating locks and bridges?

The present navigable bit is very pleasant however, and the little museum alongside is worth a visit for some canal information. It is a bit amateur and scrappy in a refreshingly old fashioned way, but friendly and cheap. It occupies the site of the railway sidings that kept this part of the canal harbour in business until the 1930s, although it was the same railway that had really finished off the inland traffic. The rest of the canal had been abandoned in 1891.

Inland then to Helebridge to try and find the remains of the first incline plane at Marhamchurch. Although cut off and disguised by recent roadworks on the main A39, now rather pretentiously re-branded as the Atlantic Highway, the placid terminal basin of the canal was easily found and I set off along the towpath to explore. It was rather muddy and an old stone built wall alongside the towpath seemed to be undergoing massive repairs. A few yards further along there was a big tractor tyre across the path, followed by one of those enormous modern straw bales that can only be lifted by a modern front lift tractor. How did that get here then for there is no obvious vehicle access to this narrow overgrown towpath? Curiouser and curiouser. And slowly it dawned into my dull sightseeing mind that everything was muddy up to my eyeline, that all the bushes and trees were filled with leaves and grass, the tattered wrack and flotsam of a river bank after the spring floods. But this is an artificial level canal, with houses and gardens and a wharf alongside, and this flood level evidence was a least seven feet above the normal canal level. Surely not?

You heard about the floods at Boscastle, saw the amazing pictures on television perhaps? It grabbed the headlines but it wasn’t the only place that suffered. Here at Helebridge two quite small rivers meet and flow down the valley to Bude harbour. The smaller River Nest drains from the north and runs alongside the canal basin, and although it was running high at the time it wasn’t the cause of the problem. The other river drains from the south where a torrential downpour - eight inches of rain in two hours - sent a wall of water down to the new bridge under the new highway. It couldn’t cope and the water smashed sideways across the fields to the canal settlement, destroying fences, walls, two garages, and pushed a car into the canal. It flooded the whole area back up to the bottom of the incline plane. It also flooded the old barge building workshop that houses the remains of the last remaining Bude canal tub boat and for the first time since it was rescued from the mud in 1970 it was again awash with canal water. So were all the other exhibits in this tiny museum, alas, and a little forlorn notice in the car park reads ‘closed until further notice’. Very sad, for this is alongside other planning application notices about the expansion plans for this little museum, which will presumably have to be radically reconsidered. If it happened once .... Miraculously, as at Boscastle, there was no loss of life, although there had to be helicopter rescues from rooftops, and amazingly it was all over in a few hours, leaving the canal basin battered and the farmers’ straw bales in some very surprising places.

Tony Lewery
The Brow, Ellesmere
September 2004


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