The rocky coastline around Britain's south west peninsula is hazardous today - in the 18th century it claimed sailors' lives continuously. From the outset of the canal era a safe alternative was sought to link developing industries in South Wales and the Midlands with customers along and across the English Channel. James Brindley made the first surveys in 1769, identifying a route between Bridgwater and Topsham on the Exe estuary.
An alternative route to Beer in East Devon was later promoted by Telford but by the 1820s there were no backers for his grand project.
The matter was let drop until 1792, when Brindley's plans were developed and costed by John Rennie. Sadly, opposition from the burghers of Exeter, who feared the competition and were concerned that water supplies to their mills would be interrupted, delayed the necessary parliamentary approvals. By now, war with France tightened belts and work was again delayed.
The summit section, from Tiverton to Lowdwells was built first to make the most of lucrative trade generated by the lime-kilns at Canonsleigh. Construction proved expensive and completion of the summit in August 1814 brought a halt to further work. It fell to James Green, Devon County Surveyor, to engineer the link to Taunton, opened in 1838, with his innovative lifts in place of locks, and the descent to Topsham was never even started.
Sadly, the arrival of rail links in 1844 removed any chance of profit from the Grand Western venture and trade beyond Lowdwells ceased in 1868, although the summit continued to convey limestone until the First World War.