The Bridgwater and Taunton Canal
by John Swayne
Although only 23.33km (14.5 miles) in length, The canal passes through the unique lowland areas of Somerset, many parts of which have been designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) because of The diversity of rare birds and plants which thrive in this unique area. As it meanders between willow lined banks, the Quantock and Blackdown Hills can be seen with Exmoor visible on the skyline.
The waterways of West Somerset, Devon and Cornwall originally extended for a total of 241km (150 miles), although compared to Those of the Midlands and the north of England they seemed of little economic importance.
In Somerset the River Tone and River Parrett were part of a small group of river navigation which linked towns such as Taunton, Langport, llminster and Thorney to the town centre of Bridgwater on the River Parrett. This enabled goods such as coal and iron to be brought from ports in South Wales unloaded onto barges and delivered inland to centres of population in the county.† This was one of the reasons why the canal was a comparative latecomer in the history of canals.† It was built as part of a more ambitious scheme to create a water route between the South Coast of Devon and Bristol, thus avoiding the hazardous waters around Lands End.† The Grand Western Canal, some of which is in water and in use around Tiverton, and the Chard Canal were extensions to the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal.† The Grand Western Canal was to link with the River Exe and thus down to Exmouth and the Chard Canal to with the River Axe and thus to Seaton.† These two canals relied heavily on intricate lifting mechanisms which did not prove efficient and thus the life of these two canals, and the ambitious project, was short lived.
The Bridgwater & Taunton Canal was opened. The original route ran from Taunton and joined the River Parrett at Huntworth. The engineer for the canal was James Hollinsworth.
A further Act was obtained authorising the extension from Huntworth to Bridgwater and the building of the dock and its entrance lock to the River Parrett. The canal operated very successfully during this period.
The canal was sold to the Bristol & Exeter Railway Company for £64,000. Control eventually passed to the Great Western Railway who made little attempt to maintain commercial traffic.
The last barge tolls were collected and the canal has served principally as a water course and drainage channel since.
The Second World War.
The line of the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal, The Chard Canal and The River Axe became a major defence line in the South West of the County to restrict Hitlerís movement to strategic docks should he invade.† All the iron bridges, which were melted down for the war effort, were removed and replaced with wooden structures that could be destroyed quickly.† Pill Boxes and Tank Traps, which can still be seen in place on the canal, were built along the whole length of the defence line.
The British Transport Commission took control of the canal.
The canal became the responsibility of British Waterways.† The canal became one of the first canals to commercially carry water when Wessex Water needed more capacity during the summer months in Durleigh Reservoir.† Wessex Water reached a commercial agreement with the then N R A and British Waterways to pump water from the canal to Durleigh.† The canal itself maintains its level with water from the River Tone at Firepool Lock, which is its link to navigation of the River Tone.
The canal has been fully restored by British Waterways, with support from Somerset
County Council and local district councils.† The bridges along with most structures have been recreated, as they were when the canal was in its prime.
Attractions and things to do
Bridgwater Dock was once ranked 5th amongst Britainís ports was a safe haven for schooners.† Discover the townís architectural history including the Blake Museum or visit the canal in the autumn whilst watching its world famous carnival.
This was the first bridge to be restored and the original route of the canal to the River Parrett can still be seen.
Standards and Kings Lock
The concrete balance beams are unusual and the paddle gear unique with a heavy lump of metal used as a counterbalance across a cast iron pulley wheel.
The existing church stands on the site of a Saxon structure and in 1963 the Alfred Jewel, a Saxon ornament and oldest surviving crown jewel, was found near the site.† The jewel is now displayed in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
Adjacent to the lower lock is the only remaining lock keepers cottage which is now an interpretation centre for the canal.
Charlton Engine House
Sadly now almost derelict and with its beam engine long since removed but in its prime was reported to pump 125,000 gallons per hour.
Creech St Michael
The 13th century church is worth a visit and the original Chard Canal branched off here.† The remains of the aqueduct can still be seen and much of the route of the canal can be explored on foot.
The access point to navigation on the River Tone.
The historic town boasts several spectacular churches with towers which are visible for many miles.† Visit the county museum in the 12th century castle.
Exploring the Towpath
Walking the towpath is popular with both visitors and locals alike. There are car parks and picnic areas at strategic points such as Meads and Fordgate Swing Bridges, Maunsel Lock and Bathpool. There are adequate parking facilities at Taunton and Bridgwater At certain points the towpath links with public rights of way which provide circular walks. You can plan these easily using Ordnance Survey 1:25000 series maps.† Some of the tow path is part of the Parrett way and route 3 of the national cycleway.
The canal is renowned for its excellent coarse fishing. Most coarse species are present including roach, pike, perch, carp, bream and tench. Fresh-water duck mussels can also be found especially when dredging is being undertaken and mud is deposited on the canal bank. The fishing is controlled by local angling clubs.
All you need, besides a canoe, is a BW licence or membership of the British Canoe Union (the BCU membership fee includes payment for a BW licence).
The canal is open to navigation between Bridgwater and Taunton. All craft require a licence and a mooring permit There is a slipway at the YMCA in Bridgwater and at the Bathpool moorings. The Priory Car Park slipway in Taunton is available at the moment but may be obstructed on occasions. An unsurfaced slipway is available at French Weir. Please contact the YMCA Office telephone number 01278 422511 or J Swayne British Waterways Volunteer Warden, telephone numbers 01278 662188 or 0860 946287 if you require further information
A Word ofAdvice
The canal is attractive and enjoyable but please take care, especially of children, when visiting the canal and its towpath, particularly near locks and weirs.
It is impossible to do justice to the canal, its scenery and things to do and see in this brief introduction.† You will not be disappointed when you visit the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal.