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Conceived at the height of 'canal mania'

The Grand Western (GW) Canal emerged in the 1770s as a scheme to connect the Bristol and English channels.  This would mitigate the perils of sailing round the Cornish peninsula and improve access from the emerging industries of South Wales to continental markets.  It was also seen by the merchants of Tiverton as a way to bypass the port in Exeter, as the canal would run directly to Topsham on the Exe estuary.

This scheme scheme was opposed by Exeter merchants who had recently renovated the Exeter Ship Canal and feared that the GW canal would abstract water from the Culm, vital for powering their woolen mills.  John Rennie drew up plans but the canal did not achieve parliamentary approval until 1796.  By this time the Napoleonic wars made fund-raising for the scheme difficult, delaying the start of construction until 1810.

The first length of the canal constructed was the summit section of about 11 miles between Tiverton and Lowdwells.  This could realise immediate trade by conveying limestone from the quarry at Westleigh for burning and sale to Mid Devon farmers.  A number of redundant lime kilns can still be seen along the route, most notably at the Tiverton basin.  However, changes in the alignment consumed all the funding and work halted with completion of the summit section in 1814.

Construction of the Bridgwater & Taunton (B&T) canal in the 1820s led to renewed interest in completing the GW canal, at least as far as Taunton.  Unfortunately, to allay the fears of the Exeter merchants, the summit had been constructed to take water from springs discovered near Holcombe Rogus and it was realised that these sources were insufficient to allow the use of locks. 

Completion to Taunton

The company turned to engineer James Green for advice.  Green had undertaken many infrastructure schemes across the South West, including work on the Bude and Chard canals, and he came up with a proposal to use balanced lifts to conserve water.  To reduce costs he proposed building the canal as a 'tub-boat' canal for 26ft craft instead of the 54ft ones used on the B&T.  These proposals were accepted and the Somerset section of the GW Canal was completed in 1838 with seven vertical lifts totaling 177ft 6inches and an inclined plane lift of 81ft.  These structures are indicated by diamond shapes on the map.


The lifts, believed to be the first commercial boat lifts in the world, were described by Green in the Transactions of the Institution of Civil Engineers, from which the plates on this page are taken.  A more recent artist's impression shows how the 24ft lift at Nynehead would have looked when operating.  In essence, they consisted of brick chambers with two wooden basins suspended by chains passed over large wheels.  As one basin rose, the other descended and thus the water balance was conserved as the only difference between the contents of the two basins was the water displaced by the boat.

End of the dream

Completion of the Somerset section had a rapid impact on canal revenues, as the chart shows.  However, within six years Brunel's Bristol & Exeter Railway was in place and canal use plummeted again.  It was bought by the railway and the lifts were decommissioned by 1868, leaving only the summit section conveying limestone until 1917, when all commercial transport ceased.

With the exception of fishing and the harvesting of water lillies, the canal remained unused until, following a public appeal, the newly-created British Waterways Board passed all the GWC assets to Devon County Council in 1968 to become the Grand Western Country Park. 

More details are given in 'The Grand Western Canal: A brief history', by Helen Harris, available from the Friends.  Details here!

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