Bridgwater & Taunton Canal History
In Somerset the River Parrett at Bridgwater and the River Tone at Taunton were both navigable for many years prior to the building of the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal…
The River Tone was made navigable from the town of Taunton to the River Parrett at Burrow Bridge. The Parrett ran north from here to the Bristol Channel, passing through Bridgwater on route, it also ran many miles south into Somerset. Things never exactly ran smoothly for the Tone Navigation, especially financially, but the route was very popular with those who made use of it. Goods were brought from South Wales, Bristol and the Midlands and boats were able to use the two rivers to penetrate well into the centre of Somerset. Because of this, for many years there was no overwhelming need for a canal in the area.
When a canal in the Bridgwater and Taunton area was eventually proposed, it was not local growth that the promoters had in mind, their plans were on a much grander scale. They wanted to create a waterway connection from the Bristol Channel to the English Channel in order to avoid the long and dangerous trek around Lands End. The first part of the plan was a canal from Exeter to Taunton, passing close to Tiverton (to be known as the Grand Western Canal).
At Taunton another waterway (to be known as the Bristol & Western Canal) would head north east and connect with the River Avon at Morgan’s Pill (near Bristol).
The B&W Canal route was surveyed by Robert Whitworth under the supervision of James Brindley. Around the same time a second plan was also surveyed by Whitworth.
This rival scheme was promoted as the Taunton & Uphill Canal which would run from the Grand Western Canal at Taunton to the Bristol Channel near Weston Super Mare.
In the end, none of these plans even reached the stage of an Act of Parliament but the ideas were not forgotten…
Robert Whitworth was asked to re-survey his route for a canal from Exeter to Taunton. However, it took 4 years for the Grand Western Canal Company to obtain their Act of Parliament. It took another 4 years after that before any work was started and many more years before the canal actually reached Taunton.
Also in 1792, proposals were put forward once again to create the Taunton to Uphill route but these were defeated due to strong opposition from landowners who feared that such a waterway would affect land drainage and irrigation. I expect the owners of the Tone and Parrett navigations also made objections to the proposed canal which would almost certainly damage their business.
The whole idea of a Channel to Channel canal via Bridgwater and Taunton was quashed when a separate (rival) company in Dorset gained an Act to build their own Channel to Channel route. This was named the Dorset & Somerset Canal and work on it was started immediately. However, the company soon ran into financial difficulties, the work was stopped and the canal never saw a boat.
After a very long delay, the building of the Grand Western Canal began though construction began at Tiverton, a long way from Taunton. At the same time the Kennet & Avon Canal (from Reading to Bristol) was almost complete. This lead to a meeting in December where a plan was put forward to create the missing link which would not only connect the Bristol Channel to the English Channel but at the same time connect London to Exeter. John Rennie, who was involved with both the K&A and the Grand Western, was asked to re-survey the old Bristol & Western plans – now referred to as the Bristol & Taunton Canal.
In his report Rennie said “No line of country can be more favourable for a navigable canal”. He proposed a ship canal, built all on one level from a lock on the Avon at Morgan’s Pill (near Bristol) to the River Parrett near Bridgwater. There were then two alternative routes to the south coast. The first would drop through two locks at Bridgwater, cross the Parrett and then head for Taunton where it would join the Grand Western Canal. The second plan would run from the River Parrett to the River Axe on the south coast near Seaton. In the end it was the Taunton route which was promoted, possibly helped along by the Kennet & Avon company who had shares in the Grand Western Canal.
In January, a meeting of landowners between Bristol and Bridgwater made objections to the newly planned canal, claiming it would harm their businesses and be a hazard to drainage. Further south, the river Tone Conservators and its traders also objected to the proposed canal which would bypass their river. Despite this opposition the Bristol & Taunton Canal Act was passed later in the year though a number of restrictions were placed upon the new company – some of them rather bizarre…
The new canal company were ordered not to build a tunnel at Clevedon (south of Bristol) or to start work at Bridgwater until all other sections of the canal were complete. There was also a time restriction placed on the company. If the route was not completed within 4 years, their Act of Parliament would be considered void. The company were also told that they had to pay off all outstanding debts owed by the River Tone Navigation – and they had to do this within 3 months. The only part of all this that the new Bristol & Taunton Canal Company actually managed to do was to rid the rival Tone Navigation of all its debts. Work on the canal never got under way.
Canal mania was just a distant memory and 11 years had lapsed since the B&T had obtained its Act – which had now long since expired. The whole idea of a connection between Bristol and the south coast had been dropped – only a short section of the Grand Western Canal near Tiverton had been completed. Nevertheless, in March a group of B&T shareholder’s agreed that an attempt should be made to obtain a new Act to build a canal from the River Parrett at Huntworth to Taunton. This would create an alternative to the River Tone Navigation which was often unnavigable due to drought in summer and floods in winter. The shareholders also asked the Grand Western Canal company to complete its line to Taunton or allow them to build a link to the GWC. This would create a continuous route from the Bristol Channel to Tiverton and might even revive the idea of a Bristol Channel to Exeter canal.
At the same time (and possibly the reason for the resurgence in B&T activity) promotion began for a waterway connecting Bridgwater to Seaton under the name of the English & Bristol Channels Ship Canal.
A new Act of Parliament was obtained by the B&T company, allowing the building of a canal from Taunton to Huntworth with a lock and a basin at Huntworth where it would link into the River Parrett. The new canal was to be known as the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal although it did not actually start in Bridgwater. The new company were obviously very keen this time and work began straight away – this was probably because plans were still underway to build the English & Bristol Channels Ship Canal from Bridgwater to Seaton.
James Hollinworth was appointed engineer on the B&T. His canal was to be 13 miles long with 6 locks each measuring 54ft by 13ft.
An Act of Parliament was passed allowing the construction of the rival English & Bristol Channels Ship Canal. It was to be a wide and deep waterway, built very straight in order to take fast ships across the West Country.
Meanwhile, the B&T canal was being built very quickly across a landscape that brought very few problems. This (along with the threat of the English & Bristol Channels Ship Canal) spurred the neighbouring Grand Western Canal into action and (at last) they started connecting Tiverton to Taunton. In turn, this seems to have had a bad affect on the ship canal because the promoters of that waterway found it impossible to raise the necessary cash to begin construction and the whole idea was dropped.
On January 3rd, a cheering crowd came to Taunton to watch a canal barge, with flags flying, enter the town – the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal was officially open.
Like a lot of canals, the B&T’s construction had cost a lot more than estimated by the surveyor. It took the company 10 years to pay off extra money which had been borrowed to complete the route. Nevertheless, the early years of the canal were a good success with tonnages and tolls rising every year.
Of course the opening of the canal was not cheered by everyone. After 110 years of unhindered business, the River Tone Conservators now found themselves with a big rival. Their greatest problem was that their waterway suffered badly from droughts and floods while the well controlled canal could stay in water (and in business) all year round. And so, a period of “dirty tricks” began! The Tone Conservators did everything they could to hinder the canal’s water supply (which came from the River Tone at Taunton). It would appear that they were pretty good at this because the B&T was eventually forced into breaking down the river bank at Taunton to make a new connection with the river. The next trick was to dramatically reduce the tolls charged on the river. The B&T company objected to this of course but they lost the battle in court. This angered them enough to announce (in August 1827) that they were going to take over the river navigation using powers given to them in the Act of 1811. The Tone Conservators objected but in November the canal company forcibly took charge of the river and immediately returned the tolls to their original rate. On top of this, they ended all maintenance on the river navigation.
The Tone Conservators – booted out of office by the canal company – went back to court and again won their case when it was decided that the B&T could not use powers obtained in 1811 because that Act had been voided (timed out) in 1815. The Conservators repossessed their river in July and immediately reduced the tolls again. They also started to cut water supplies to the canal once again. This time they weren’t holding back! A dam was built to block the canal from the river at Firepool Lock in Taunton. The courts soon forced the Conservators to take the dam away so they then threatened legal action against any boat that attempted to enter the river from the canal.
In November, the canal company made a final offer to buy the River Tone but once again it was rejected.
The River Tone problem was finally resolved when the B&T company took the matter to the House of Commons. An Act was passed in July enabling the canal company to buy out the Tone for just £2,000. Weirdly, the Conservators retained the right to an annual inspection of the navigation and if it was not maintained properly they had the right to repossess the river!
Despite all the problems – and having a canal as a direct rival – the River Tone was still carrying almost 40,000 tons a year and receiving over £2,000 in tolls at the time of the take-over.
The B&T company were now free to complete all their plans. Their first job was to build a short canal in Taunton connecting the River Tone to the Grand Western Canal (which was still under construction). When complete this would create the continuous route from the Bristol Channel to Tiverton as they’d planned in 1822.
The B&T company probably thought that the River Tone was the only rival they would ever have. However, in May an Act was passed in Parliament allowing the creation of the Bristol & Exeter Railway, which was to have branches to Dunball Wharf and into Bridgwater. A new fight for survival was about to begin though before the railway was built, the canal continued to do very well.
To combat the immanent arrival of the railway, the B&T company took a gamble and decided to build an extension of about two miles from its terminus at Huntworth into Bridgwater where a dock would be built and a new connection would be made with the River Parrett. It was a gamble because there was little chance that the extension would increase traffic. The hope was that it would prevent the loss of traffic to the railway. The new extension was to pass right through Bridgwater, snaking through the town to pass close to as many businesses as possible.
The new extension was opened on March 25th to the sound of bells, cannon fire, the playing of the national anthem and (best of all no doubt) the consumption of “roast beef and plum pudding”!
As soon as the new extension was opened, Huntworth lock and the basin at the old terminus on the River Parrett were closed and never used again.
Somewhat surprisingly – considering the growth of railways in the area – another new canal was built in 1841 which linked with the Bridgwater & Taunton. The Chard Canal (the last “small” canal ever to be built in the UK) initially ran from Ilminster to Creech St Michael on the east side of Taunton. This was a great bonus to the B&T because it increased traffic just at a time when it needed it most.
The B&T reached its peak, carrying over 118,000 tons and collecting over £8,000 in tolls.
Despite this, the profit made by the canal in the first two years after building the extension into Bridgwater was nowhere near enough to pay off the money borrowed to construct it.
The situation was made worse when a railway between Bridgwater and Taunton was opened on July 1st. The canal company had no choice other than to lower its tolls. In an effort to keep traffic on the canal they also agreed to pay the Grand Western Canal a subsidy to encourage its traffic to continue to use the B&T instead of transferring onto the new railway.
The story for the B&T was a familiar one echoed throughout the UK at this time. Railway competition was simply too much to deal with and as the rail network grew, business on the canal steadily declined. With no hope of turning this around the canal company decided they would become the “Bridgwater & Taunton Canal Railway”(!). The plan was to drain the canal and convert the bed into a railway line. A number of other canals decided to follow suit including a Kennet & Avon scheme to create the (wait for it…) “London, Devizes & Bridgwater Direct Railway Company”. This was part of a plan to turn as many West Country canals as possible into railways under the banner of the “West of England Central & Channels Junction Railway Company” which would have been able to carry goods and passengers from London to Penzance – but would have been a nightmare to pronounce! Of course none of this materialised and after a short time, with income plummeting, the B&T Canal was put into the hands of a receiver.
As a result of the B&T going into receivership it could not keep up its subsidy deal with the Grand Western Canal Company, this led the GWC to stop using the B&T and use the railway instead. Of course this meant there was now even less trade on the Bridgwater & Taunton.
With the canal now deep in debt, the receiver obtained an agreement with the Bristol & Exeter Railway Company to lease the waterway. This eventually led to the railway buying the canal (though not for another 16 years). During this time the neighbouring Grand Western Canal also had a long battle with the B&ER and it too eventually had to sell out to the railway.
On April 8th, the Bristol & Exeter Railway Company took possession of the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal, paying £64,000 for it. This paid off all loans and debts and provided a small amount for the shareholders. Surprisingly the railway company began its ownership by building a new wharf at Bridgwater dock. Other improvements were made and things were not looking so bleak for the waterway. But…
The Bristol & Exeter Railway Company amalgamated with (or was taken over by) Great Western Railway – a company who did not much like messing about with boats. The canal went into an instant decline.
The River Severn railway tunnel was opened and this meant that coal from Wales was no longer carried across the Bristol Channel into Bridgwater docks. From this point on the canal became little more than a local thoroughfare with hardly any goods being imported from, or exported to, other parts of the country.
Canal tonnage was now down to just under 14,000.
As if matters weren’t bad enough, the canal began to suffer badly from water shortages. During the next 5 years there were numerous occasions when goods had to be carried by train. By 1905 water levels were back to normal but by this time many of the canal’s customers were lost to the railway forever.
The last tolls on the B&T were collected and the canal slowly but surely fell into dereliction, used only as a water source and a drain.
During WW2 the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal (along with the Chard Canal and River Axe) were used as defence lines. Sadly, the many iron swing bridges along the canal were melted down for the war effort and were replaced with fixed wooden ones. These were stronger bridges which could take large amounts of military traffic and also had the advantage of being easy to destroy if necessary. Pillboxes and tank traps were also placed along the canal. Some of these can still be seen today.
The B&T Canal (like most canals in the UK) was nationalised and the British Transport Commission took control of the derelict waterway. It should be noted that during all this period the old River Tone remained navigable – though also mostly unused. It too was nationalised by the BTC.
In the BTC waterways review, both the B&T Canal and the River Tone were placed into Group 3, “Waterways having insufficient commercial prospects to justify their retention”, and – to be fair – nobody could really argue with this at the time. What this meant was the canal would not be maintained and would eventually be filled in and sold off.
The Bowes Committee said that the canal might be suitable for redevelopment – what they had in mind is not clear but nothing was actually done
The B&T Canal became one of the first canals to carry water commercially. Wessex Water reached an agreement with the National Rivers Authority and the British Waterways Board (who had replaced the BTC) which allowed them to pump water from the canal into Durleigh Reservoir. Since its closure in 1907, the B&T had kept a very good water level due to its connection with the River Tone at Firepool Lock in Taunton.
Thirteen years after the BTC report had said the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal was fit only for closing down, nothing had changed. Its use as a water supply channel kept it intact. The 1968 Transport Act classified it as a “remainder” waterway – not fit for maintenance or development as a navigation.
Around this time the Bridgwater & Taunton Restoration Group (later the Somerset Inland Waterways Society) was formed. Pleasure boating was becoming very popular around the country and a number of derelict canals were already being restored. The long term plan was to put boats back on the B&T. Luckily for the restoration society they gained good support from Somerset County Council.
Restoration of the canal began, mostly funded by Somerset County Council with the work being done mostly by the British Waterways Board. It was reported that SCC were planning to spend £15,000 on the canal during 1972, £5,000 of which was to raise the height of some of the bridges. However, this didn’t go down too well with restoration society because the bridges were to be lifted only to a height of 3ft 6ins – high enough only for canoes and rowing boats! The society managed to postpone the work on the bridges while trying to persuade the council to raise them to a height of about 7ft. Of course it is not just a matter of putting an old bridge on stilts! Most bridges needed to be completely renewed and all approach roads would need to be altered.
But the local council were certainly keen to see the canal restored, for example, later in the decade they spent £20,000 just to restore one retaining wall and they announced plans to convert the derelict docks in Bridgwater into a sport and leisure area. Ware’s warehouse, which faced the docks, had become a Listed Building and was to be converted into an indoor leisure centre which would also include a nightclub. The barge lock into the River Parrett and an original bascule (lifting) bridge were also to be restored. (Note: The leisure area was never built though, as we shall read, the docks were eventually redeveloped).
Work began on clearing Newtown Lock in the centre of Bridgwater leading into the old docks. The lock was found to be full (almost 12ft deep) of silt and other accumulated rubbish. By this time the SCC had also restored Maunsel Lock in the middle of the route and dredged most of the canal, but they confounded the restoration sociey by planning to build a bridge at Bathpool with just 4ft clearance. Once again the council had to be persuaded that this was ludicrous considering the amount of money they had spent on making other stretches of the route navigable.
BWB work parties completed repairs to virtually all the locks on the canal. By the end of the year only the two locks at either end of the route, Firepool Lock in Taunton and Newtown Lock in Bridgwater, were still to be fully restored. This meant that the canal was now a continuous working waterway for about 13 miles. There was, however, still one major problem. Almost all of the bridges which crossed the canal were still too low to allow boats to pass under them. Originally nearly all the bridges had been swing bridges, now they were either fixed in place or had been replaced by new bridges which left no headroom. By the this time, keen as they were, the SCC simply couldn’t afford to raise the bridges. Cutbacks in local authority spending meant a big rethink was needed.
During the year a convoy of small outboard powered dinghies passed through the newly reinstated locks as they cruised from North Newton to Bathpool (near Taunton). They were the first boats to use the B&T locks for over 70 years
In April a report made by the West Somerset Inland Waterways Association appeared in Waterways World magazine describing a plan which would create a cruising network of 100 miles within the West Somerset area. As well as the B&T Canal restoration this also included reinstating the Wesport Canal along with the rivers Tone, Parrett, Yeo and Isle to full navigable routes. In the case of the B&T the report said that its restoration would be relatively simple with only one lock and a handful of minor bridges needing to be restored. This seems to have been wishful thinking, it took another 14 years to get all the bridges raised on the canal and the chance of all the other waterways being restored is still very very slight.
In January it was reported in the waterways press that the disused Bridgwater Docks were to be redeveloped into a 160 berth marina by the newly created Bridgwater Marina Company who had purchased the docks from the Somerset County Council for £300,000. Most of the berths were to be for sea going vessels but 20 moorings were to be provided for canal craft. A new lock was also being built by SCC with the help of the BWB. This would allow boats up to 16ft long to enter the new marina from the River Parrett. The main building at the docks, Ware’s warehouse, was also to be restored and converted into flats, a pub, a restaurant and a museum. The work was expected to be complete that summer.
Details of the rest of the restoration project are somewhat sketchy but throughout the 1980’s work continued, bridges were lifted one by one, some made into swing bridges as they had been originally. The last bridge to be raised was Priorswood Bridge in Taunton which was replaced in 1993.
In June the B&T canal was officially reopened from end to end. For the first time since 1907 boats could once again navigate the whole canal from Bridgwater Docks to the centre of Taunton. This, of course, is fantastic news but there are still some disappointments. The biggest of these is the lack of a connection from Bridgwater Docks to the River Parrett. The barge lock remains closed, apparently to stop mud and silt getting into the “lovely new marina”. The marina is “lovely”, but aren’t marinas supposed to hold boats?!!
It would be unfair to end on a sour note. The canal restorers, BW and the Somerset County Council should be praised for their many years of work in bringing back to life one of the UK’s nicest “country canals”.
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Bridgwater & Taunton Canal Route
The Bridgwater & Taunton Canal is 14½ miles long, it crosses the lowlands of Somerset in which there are numerous SSSI’s (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) and it also runs through rolling countryside along the Tone Valley. Almost all of the route is rural and peaceful, there are only a few villages and two towns (one at each end).
The canal begins in the centre of Bridgwater (OS Grid Ref ST 298376) at the docks which were created when the canal was extended in 1841. The docks were once ranked 5th amongst Britain’s ports, as well as a transhipment wharf they were also used as a safe haven for fishing vessels from the Bristol Channel, some 9 miles downstream via the River Parrett.
There are two basins at the docks, a large non-tidal “inner” basin and a smaller tidal one. Redevelopment in recent years has changed the docks dramatically. Today there is little to be seen of the old wharves, warehouses or other canal buildings. The area is surrounded by new housing – built to look like old warehouses. One of the only structures which has survived is Ware’s warehouse which was completely derelict until the 1980’s when it was transformed into flats, offices and a pub. It now forms the centrepiece of the redeveloped docks.
The old warehouse and new housing stand alongside the larger of the two basins, this is now a modern marina complete with lots of mooring pontoons. However, there are hardly any boats here because the lock into the basin from the River Parrett is kept closed to prevent the basin from silting up. This means that only boats which use the canal can enter the basin and because the canal can only be entered via a slipway (there is no connection to any other navigation), there aren’t many boats at present.
Between the two basins is an original bascule (lift) bridge which has been restored to full working order just as it was in 1841. From the bridge it is easy to see the smaller (outer) basin. You can also see the tidal gates which were once used by coasters though these are now closed, blocked by a concrete dam. The old barge lock can also be seen, also blocked. The smaller basin is surrounded by sluices which are needed to flush out the mud which the Parrett brings in with the tide.
The River Parrett runs alongside the docks with a footpath along its bank. Across the far side of the river is a bottle shaped kiln which has survived from a former brick works. Just a short walk upstream on the Parrett is an unusual bridge called the Telescopic Bridge. This strange structure is a former railway bridge which had a central section that could slide away, allowing boats to pass through the gap. Today the bridge is fixed in place but it is still used by pedestrians. Further upstream are a number of other bridges; some very old, some very new.
Back at the larger canal basin, boats can now leave Bridgwater Docks and enter the canal through the restored Newtown Stop Lock. A new swing bridge has been installed beside the lock, replacing a fixed bridge which used to block the canal. Bowerings Animal Feed Mill stands close by and although the mill is old (and its name seems to reflect this), it is actually still a working mill, still producing feed for animals.
The canal curves anti-clockwise around Bridgwater, starting by heading south west with the towpath on the western side. The route soon enters a shallow cutting and passes under a large bridge (the A39, Wembdon Road) where towrope markings can clearly be seen on its arches.
The cutting deepens as the canal continues to curve left, now facing south east and eventually straightening out into Albert Street Cutting. This cutting is nothing like those seen on such canals as the Shropshire Union where the waterway was cut through a hill which now towers above on each side, covered in trees and plants. Albert Street Cutting is made of stone and brick! Huge walls line each side of the narrow canal, making it look like a tunnel with its roof removed (like Rose Hill Tunnel at Marple on the Peak Forest Canal). Half way along the cutting there actually is a small tunnel (which is really just a very long road bridge). Emerging from the bridge you would be forgiven if your first thought was “get me out of here”! At this point, the huge stone walls of the cutting are (apparently) only prevented from coming down on top of you by huge wooden cross-buttresses which stretch across the waterway above your head.
Beyond Albert Street Cutting the surroundings open up and you can see as far as the Quantock Hills some 5 miles away to the south west. The towpath is well used by locals at this point, it is wide and nicely surfaced. On the east bank of the canal is a YMCA which has provided moorings and a slipway. Next to it is a supermarket which also has moorings alongside it. On the towpath side is a small brick building which is the extraction point for Bridgwater’s water supply. Do they really drink canal water in Bridgwater? (Still, anything is better than cider I suppose!!!!).
The canal passes under 3 bridges (one of which is the A38, Taunton Road) and then passes moorings used by the Somerset Navigators Boat Club. The route then curves right (south) to come right alongside the west bank of the River Parrett – or, to be more precise, it comes alongside the flood bank which runs along the west bank of the River Parrett. On this stretch, near Hamp (ST 304357), there is a weir (on the east side) which allows excess water to run into the river and there is also a pond (on the towpath side) which is actually a flooded clay pit.
About ½ a mile past Hamp Bridge is Crossways Swing Bridge (which was the first on the canal to be restored). This is on Marsh Lane near Huntworth (ST 309353). All the new swing bridges on the B&T Canal have instructions on them which look awfully complicated. They tell boat crews how to operate the hydraulic gear though when I was here the gear on Crossways Bridge was not in place and all a boatman had to do was lower the “Stop” barriers on the road and then push the bridge open!
Before the construction of the Bridgwater extension in 1841, Crossways Swing Bridge was where the canal joined the River Parrett. The old basin has long since been filled in but it was situated close to the WW2 pillbox which can be seen on the east side of the canal. The towpath changes to the east bank at Crossways Swing Bridge and the River Parrett now moves away in a south easterly direction. It is possible to take a path alongside a row of cottages which roughly follows the line of the former canal basin down to the river. A footbridge crosses the Parrett beside Somerset (railway) Bridge and a path runs along the river bank back towards Bridgwater. However, this is not the greatest of waterside walks, the river runs alongside industrial buildings and at low tide the banks become very muddy.
Back on the canal, the route continues south. Within another ½ mile the M5 motorway bridge crosses over. Very close to this large bridge is the much smaller Mead’s Swing Bridge with the Boat & Anchor pub nearby, now with boat moorings and a picnic area. South of here the canal becomes more and more rural though the railway from Bridgwater can be seen, and heard, over to the east.
Huntworth Lane bridge is next (ST 317343), followed by Fordgate Swing Bridge and then Standards Lock (ST 315316). The locks on the B&T are different to those seen elsewhere in the country. Their ground paddles are fitted with metal counterweights on a chain and pulley. This makes it much easier to work the paddles (in theory anyway). I have also seen a description which says the lock balance beams are “unusual” because they are made of concrete. The word “unique” also springs to mind. Something else unusual is that the locks must always be left empty (when not in use!) with the bottom gates left open.
Up until now the route has been passing through the flat landscape of the Somerset Levels. Standards Lock marks the end of this and the route now begins to climb up, around and through rolling countryside. Beyond Standards Lock the canal deviates from its mainly southern course to curve around (anti-clockwise) close to North Newton (ST 302311). Church Road runs close to the canal on the east side and eventually crosses the canal close to Kings Lock. The “Alfred Jewel” (a Saxon ornament and the oldest surviving crown jewel) was found in North Newton churchyard. However, I have seen two different references as to when it was found. One book says 1693 and another say 1963! You can easily(?) find out as the jewel is on display in Oxford at the Ashmolean Museum. North Newton is a lovely village with a pleasant pub called the Harvest Moon.
Beyond the village the waterway regains a southerly direction and near the settlement of Hedging it arrives at Maunsel Lock (ST 308295) with its adjacent lock keepers cottage – the only one left on the canal. Just a few yards further south is the lock which takes the canal up to its summit level.
The B&T now passes over a high embankment with excellent views all around. On this stretch is Black Hut bridge named after a former building used by canal lengthsmen (maintenance workers). At the A361 bridge (ST 302281) the railway line comes close to the canal. A few hundred yards to the east there was once a station and a pub called the Railway Hotel – now both long gone.
To the south of the A361 the canal does a quick right-left-right meander. Over to the east is Cogload Viaduct and an impressive elevated railway junction. On this section (between trains) the canal is amongst the most peaceful to be found anywhere in Britain.
Next the canal passes the small settlement of Charlton and the Charlton Engine House (ST 291265), now standing almost completely derelict. It dates back to 1827 and it used to house steam engines which were used to pump water from the River Tone into the canal. The Tone is now within ½ a mile to the south east (on the far side of the railway). It is worth remembering that the Tone was navigable long before the canal was built and was still officially navigable until after WW2.
The canal now reaches the village of Creech St. Michael (ST 272255) which is well worth a visit. Apart from being very pleasant, it has two pubs and a strangely large Baptist Church. On the canal at Creech St. Michael is the site of the former junction with the Chard Canal which was opened in 1842 (the last “small” canal to be built in Britain) but was closed just 26 years later. It was 13½ miles long with just 2 locks. However, it also had 4 inclined planes, 3 tunnels, 2 aqueducts and a number of high embankments. Today there is not a great deal of this waterway left and there is absolutely no chance that it will ever be fully restored. All the same, much of its route can be followed on foot. At the junction there used to be a towpath bridge, a stop lock and a lock keeper’s cottage. Nearby are the remains of the buttressed walls of an embankment that carried the Chard Canal onto an aqueduct over the River Tone. The embankment and aqueduct can still be seen by walking across the railway to the bridge which crosses the river. From here the Chard Canal can be seen over to the right.
Leaving Creech St. Michael (now heading west) the canal passes an ivy-clad pillbox and there are houses on the north bank. The M5 is reached again within a mile and then the B&T Canal arrives at the eastern outskirts of Taunton. The A38, Bridgwater Road, crosses over at Bathpool (ST 254260) where there is a BW maintenance yard. A small marina has now been developed here.
Beyond the A38 the canal runs westward until it comes close to the A361, Priorswood Road. It then begins to curve south west to Priorswood Bridge (ST 238258). This bridge used to block the canal and was one of the last obstacles which the council had to remove, which they did in 1993.
Beyond Priorswood Bridge the canal passes under another new road bridge (A358, Obridge Viaduct). After another 300 yards the route passes under the railway line which has been close to the canal throughout the route – so close that it put the canal out of business before buying it out and finally closing it down in 1907.
The final section of the B&T curves west, passing through an industrial area which includes an old GWR water tower (to the north) which was once supplied with water from the canal. Nearby are the remains of limekilns which were also served by the canal, this time with coal and lime.
The canal ends at Firepool Lock (ST 230253), which lifts boats into the River Tone. This is a very easy place to find in Taunton – it’s at the end of Canal Road! A small bridge crosses the canal close to the lock.
Navigation does not end here however because the river is navigable for about one more mile, upstream to French Weir (ST 219249). This takes boats through Priory Bridge and the main town bridge which carries the A3027. The town authorities have done a lot in recent years to make Taunton’s waterfront very pleasant indeed. For those wanting to visit the canal by car, there are numerous car parks near to the waterfront.
Firepool Lock was also the site of the junction with the Grand Western Canal, a waterway which contained 7 vertical boat lifts and an inclined plane. The first of the lifts, Taunton Lift, was situated just to the north of the junction but has now been wiped out by railway lines and a depot. The lift raised boats about 20ft, up from the level of the B&T to that of the GWC which then headed west out of Taunton and eventually south west towards Tiverton.
Accessing the B&T is very easy, because it is now a navigable waterway it can be walked from end to end – the towpath is in very good condition. Cycling is allowed but you should obtain a permit from a BW office. It is possible to reach the towpath from almost every road bridge that crosses the route. Many new car parks have been placed along the canal and some of these have picnic sites close to them. The locations listed below are just a small example of places which can be visited….
Bridgwater Docks (ST 298376). Accessed from Russell Place, the old dock is now a newly developed marina with mostly new buildings. As well as being able to walk around the marina, there is a pub housed in an old warehouse and it is possible to access the River Parrett footpath.
Crossways Swing Bridge, Marsh Lane, Huntworth (ST 309353). Site of the former junction with the River Parrett. There is a car park and picnic area by the bridge.
Mead’s Bridge (ST 313348). A swing bridge, car park and picnic site close to the M5 viaduct north east of Huntworth. The Boat and Anchor pub stands on the canalside.
Kings Lock, Church Road, near North Newton (ST 306314). There is a car park near the lock.
Maunsel Lock, Bankland Lane, near Hedging (ST 308295). Site of the last remaining lock cottage.
Charlton Engine House (ST 291265). Charlton Road ends at a bridge over the canal. The engine house is a derelict pumping station.
Creech St. Michael, St. Michael Road (ST 272255). A nice village and the site of the old junction onto the Chard Canal. There is a car park close to the canal bridge. On the same road is a bridge over the River Tone from where the old Chard Canal aqueduct can be seen.
Bathpool, Dyers Lane, Taunton (ST 253262). A marina and a BW yard situated near to a swing bridge.
Firepool Lock, Canal Road, Taunton (ST 230253). Junction with the River Tone and site of the junction with the Grand Western Canal. It is possible to park on Canal Road but much better to park at one of the many car parks in town. This also gives you the opportunity to see the River Tone and the town itself.
Some of the towpath is part of the Parrett Way and is on route 3 of the National Cycleway. Other parts of the towpath can also be cycled but a permit should be obtained from a BW office.
Obtained from the YMCA in Bridgwater.
OS landranger 193 (Taunton & Lyme Regis) and 182 (Weston Super Mare & Bridgwater)
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