Dorset & Somerset Canal History

The Dorset & Somerset Canal was proposed at a time when a number of plans were being made to link the English Channel to the Bristol Channel. The canal was to be 49 miles long from the Kennet & Avon Canal, between Bradford and Bath, to Sturminster Newton, on the River Stour. The Stour would then take the route to the coast at Christchurch. In the middle of the route there was to be an 11 mile branch west of Frome. William Bennet produced a survey of the route.

1796
An Act of Parliament was granted and work began on the Dorset & Somerset Canal. In the same year a separate Act was granted for another Channel to Channel route, the Grand Western Canal, which was to run further west across Devon to Somerset.

The owners of the Grand Western Canal correctly predicted financial problems in the coming years due to friction between the British and French governments. They put their canal on hold but the Dorset & Somerset Company saw this as a chance to make the sea to sea link first and they began work immediately.

The proprietors of the Dorset & Somerset Canal made the strange decision to start building in the middle of their route on what would eventually be just a branch line to the west of Frome. The idea was to gain early income from coal brought into Frome from the rich coal fields around Nettlebridge.

However, if the company had started construction at the sea they could have gained instant trade as each new section of canal was built. While this income would have been smaller than the coal trade, it would have been there virtually from day one.

Also, by starting on the coast the constructors would have had a ready made route for carrying their own building materials to the ever moving work sites. But none of this happened and work began near Frome in the middle of the route.

The western ½ of the 11 mile branch line was easily kept on a 425 feet contour but the eastern end of the branch at Frome was some 210 feet below this level.

At first conventional locks were proposed but the West Country is famous (or infamous) for inventing alternative ways to move boats up and down changing gradients. These usually took the form of vertical boat lifts but engineer James Fussell came up with a design that he called “Balance Locks” which he hoped to install on the Dorset & Somerset Canal.

1798
Fussell patented his “Balance Lock” and began building the first one to the north of Mells.

1800
The Balance Lock (or lift) at Mells was complete and trials were begun to see how effective it was. It took the form of two masonry lock chambers, both 20 feet deep, divided by a central buttress. At the top and bottom, on the canal approaches to the locks, the waterway divided into two channels which provided the entrance and exit to the locks. Boats would be floated into watertight caissons which were built inside the lock chambers and were hauled up and down on a chain like a giant pair of scales. The amount of water in the higher caisson would always exceed that of the lower one so that gravity could be used to move the caissons up and down – hence the name “Balance Lock”.

1802
Although the canal was far from being finished, the boat lift at Mells was proving to be a major tourist attraction. Hundreds of people turned out to watch the tests on Fussell’s incredible invention.

1803
Trials on the lift proved successful and building on four others was started to the east, between Mells and what is now the A362. However, money ran out while the lifts were still being built and 1¾ miles of the Frome Branch was still unfinished. The whole canal had been estimated at £150,000, the branch was only supposed to have cost around £30,000 and double that amount had been subscribed back in 1796. However, the cost of the lifts together with the increased costs of labour and materials (caused by the wars with France) meant the total amount raised wasn’t enough even to complete the branch, work was suspended until new funds could be found.

Sadly, no further money was ever raised, shareholders were frightened off when called upon and nothing could be raised from elsewhere. Work was never restarted on the branch or any other part of the canal and the route never saw a single boat.

1825
A pamphlet was published in an attempt by some local businessmen to restart the canal. A list of the completed portions of the Frome Branch was included along with a detailed description of the original route. Once again the locals showed no interest and no further attempts at completing the canal were ever made.

Dorset & Somerset Canal Route

Despite only 11 miles ever being built (with portions of that left unfinished) and the disappearance of the canal from O.S. maps as early as the mid 1900’s, there is still a fair amount to be found on the branch between Frome and Nettlebridge.

No trace of the canal remains in Frome, the land was redeveloped in the 1970’s. But almost 2 miles to the north west of Frome the A362 crosses the route of the canal (at OS Grid Ref ST 764 499). This is near to where the road also crosses the Frome to Radstock railway and a stream (to the north east of Great Elm).

The canal crossed the stream a little way west of the main road via the three arched Murtry Aqueduct which still stands today (ST 762 498). On one side of the aqueduct is a curious little skew arch. The whole structure appears to be in relatively good condition and you can walk across its grassy top. Of course there is no water because this aqueduct – like the rest of the canal – never saw a boat.

The railway line crosses the line of the canal about 200 yards north west of the A362 though the canal disappears completely past this point for about a mile. Of course the canal and railway were never in existence at the same time so, to my knowledge, there are no railway bridges or aqueducts where the two cross each other. The railway, I believe, is lower than the canal line – if the canal was actually built here at all.

When the route reappears, it is close to the site of five of the six “balance locks” (or boat lifts) which were proposed for this canal. The remains of these can be traced though I am not sure where the access points are today. Only four of the five lifts were ever started, none were ever completed! They were to be situated just west of the road from Buckland to Great Elm and immediately north of the railway line (close to ST 747 500).

Very little work was done on the lowest lift and none on the second. The 20 feet deep pits were dug on the other three and these can still be seen along with some masonry work. The pounds between the lifts were never connected and the lifts were never finished. Above the fifth lift the division of the canal into the two channels which led to the lift entrance and exit can still be seen. Past this lift the canal is well defined, often holds water and is clear of weed. This is thought to be because it was puddled with clay but never filled with water, the water here now is simply rainwater.

Over the next 1200 yards or so the canal course continues north westwards, meandering as it goes while the railway runs parallel on lower ground to the south. The canal line can be followed here though it has a number of interruptions where farmers have ploughed over its course. A few hundred yards before the canal reaches the minor road from the A362 to Mells (Conduit Hill), the route reaches the bottom of the site of the only “Balance Lock” to be completed (close to ST 736 504). This was the lift which was built to test the design. Sadly, there is nothing to be seen here now apart from a depression on a wider than usual portion of canal bed, making it very hard to imagine the 20 feet drop and the hundreds of people who once turned out just to gaze in amazement. The minor road to Mells (Conduit Hill) crosses the canal route about 1¼ miles north of Mells. Access to the canal and the top lift is said to be possible by walking south east from the road across the field on the northern side of the railway. I have no details of a path or of rights of way.

About 800 yards north west of the Conduit Hill road the canal route swung south (at ST 714 512) but it was taken over by the Newbury Railway branch line which ran from the main (Frome) line to Vobster. On a map of 1890 parts of derelict canal can be seen where it meandered south while the railway took a straighter course. In the main though, the railway used the canal bed. On this stretch the canal past Mells Colliery (ST 711 500) which was labelled “disused” on the 1890 map.

South of the colliery the railway curved south west while the canal continued straight south. It entered Vobster at ST 710 494 where the old map appears to show a wharf or basin (or maybe just a turning point) just north of the east-west road – a little way east of Vobster cross roads. A modern building and its land now stands on this site. I have no information as to whether a bridge was ever built beneath the road here but there was definitely a bridge beneath the next road…..

After passing the east-west road at Vobster the canal curved sharply to head west and pass under a north-south minor road (Vobster Hill at ST 705 493). In fact, the canal curved so much that it was heading almost north west by the time the road crossed it. The line of the canal can still be seen here and a well preserved bridge can be seen beneath the road (see photos left).

West of Vobster the canal bed has vanishes completely and, in fact, it was probably never completed here. There would have been a tunnel to the south west of Vobster, beneath Stock Hill (near ST 697 492). Only a little work on the cutting approaching the west end of the tunnel was ever started. Part of this may still be accessible at ST 692 490 which is on the land to the north east of The Green at Coleford.
The canal crossed Church Street, Coleford (close to ST 687 488) although once again I have no information on whether a bridge ever existed. A short way west of here is one of Britain’s canal oddities, but what a mighty oddity it is! Standing, more or less, in a back garden and clad in ivy is a mighty aqueduct known locally as the Hucky Duck (thought simply to mean “aqueduct”). Its proper name is Coleford Aqueduct and although it has now lost its parapets and never saw a single drop of canal water – never mind a boat – it has stood for nearly 200 years doing… well… nothing really! It can be walked across and there is a lane below it so we can all see it and agree with an 1825 pamphlet that described the aqueduct as “a noble and stupendous structure”. It can be found just north of the minor road, Springers Hill, at Coleford (grid ref ST 684 487).

Immediately west of the Hucky Duck the canal headed south west to cross under Springers Hill close to the Greyhound Inn (ST 683 486) and then, a few hundred yards further south west, it curved around the south side of Bennett’s Hill Farm (ST 681 484).

Now heading north west the canal route continued for about 1½ miles to Edford. The line can be followed from Coleford road bridge, through a cutting, over a number of stiles and across a minor road (at ST 677 487) to Edford village. Before reaching Edford it past the south side of Edford Colliery (ST 672 488) now the site of a modern works.

It reached the north-south road at Edford a little way north of the Duke of Cumberland pub (ST 669 488). A bridge carrying a track which was once used by packhorses coming down from the pits on nearby Stratton Moor crossed the canal near here. The canal bed can still be followed (as a depression in the ground) for about ½ a mile further west to the site of a basin. The canal ended here in 1803 when money ran out. Its final destination should have been another 1¾ miles west at Nettlebridge but unfortunately it never made it that far.

Many thanks to Per Dindorp for additional research and photographs. For more info about this area see somerset4u.com.