Somerset Waterways Water

Bridgwater & Taunton Canal

Total length 14_ miles

Acts of Parliament 1811, 1824, 1837
Completed 1827 to Huntworth
1841 to Bridgwater Dock

Planned as the Bristol to Taunton canal the less ambitious scheme from Bridgwater was approved in 1824 and the canal was completed from the River Parrett at Huntworth to Firepool, Taunton in 1827. After extensive wrangling with the Conservators of the River Tone over water supply and lost revenue, the canal company purchased the rights to navigation on the river connection was made through Firepool lock. Links were made, in 1838 and 1842 to the Grand Western Canal at Firepool and the Chard Canal at Creech St Michael but imminent arrival of the Bristol and Exeter Railway foretold a threat to the important South Wales coal trade on the canal and prompted the canal company to apply to Parliament to extend the canal to the north of Bridgwater and build a floating harbour and dock with connection to the River Parrett. This action secured the supply of South Wales coal avoided the “Sea Carried” tax which required navigating across the Bristol Channel south of Holm Islands and, for a while kept Forest of Dean and South Gloucestershire coal out of the County. Competition from the railway eventually led to the proprietors agreeing to see the canal and docks to the Bristol and Exeter Railway and in 1907 the last recorded cargo passed from Bridgwater dock to a wharf in North Town, Taunton.

The Waterway Today – The canal remained navigable until WWII when it was incorporated into the “Wessex Stop Line” a defensive barrier to delay an invading army to allow time for Government to re-locate east or west of the line. To create this defensive barrier the swing bridges were fixed and Pill Boxes were built along the towing path. After the war no effort was made to re-instate the swing bridges so no vessels could pass for trade or maintenance and slowly lock gates and culverts fell into disrepair. After many years of campaigning by IWA and SIWS a report was produced by IWAAC on the potential of the canal and advice on options for the future. With commendable foresight SCC, BW and the District Councils agreed that to restore to full navigable standard was the best value option, even though the most difficult and costly. Restoration was completed in 1994 and the canal re-opened for navigation. Improvements to user facilities and attractions have continued to take place ever since. The towpath is now home to the Somerset Space Walk and is part of National Cycle Route 3. Bridgwater Dock is being developed as a marina, boat moorings have been created at Bathpool, Maunsel, Boat & Anchor and YMCA, Bridgwater, and the Maunsel Canal Centre and Tea Garden is a popular venue at North Newton.


Grand Western Canal

Total length built 11 miles in Devon, 13_ miles in Somerset

Act of Parliament 1796 Surveyors – John Rennie
Completed in Devon 1814 & Engineers – James Green
Completed in Somerset 1838 Somerset Section
Abandoned and closed 1867

Planned as a Channel-to-Channel waterway from Topsham, near Exeter to Taunton with connection with the Tone Navigation at French Weir.
In Devon, only the broad branch canal to Tiverton was built at the summit level when the funds ran out, largely due to inflation as a result of the Napoleonic Wars and difficult ground conditions. The later Tub boat section in Somerset was completed in 1838 connecting with the River Tone and the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal at Firepool.

The Somerset section, built for boats 22 ft x 6 ft 6 ins incorporated seven boat lifts and one inclined plane. The boat lifts were the first to operate under commercial working conditions anywhere in the world, and after initial teething problems gave satisfactory service for nearly 30 years until closed by the Bristol and Exeter Railway Company to ensure that the competition was removed.

The Waterway Today – Much of the Somerset line is discernible on the ground and a public footpath follows the route from the Devon border to beyond Nynehead and then runs near to the former canal for much of the way to Taunton. The remains of the structures are easy to find and the aqueducts and lift site at Nynehead are especially important for their ease of access, comparatively complete condition and historic significance.


Parrett Navigation and Ivelchester Navigation

Total length 13_ miles to Thorney and Westport

Act of Parliament 1795 and 1836
Completed and opened 1840

The early scheme foundered through lack of funds and traffic passed up river on tidal waters as far as Load Bridge on the River Yeo with trans-shipment required at Langport Bridge. The 1836 Act authorised building locks at Langport, Middleney, Oath and Thorney, replacing Langport Bridge to allow through navigation and cutting the Westport Canal from near Hambridge to Westport where substantial warehouses were erected. Traffic declined after the railway from Durston to Yeovil opened in 1853 and in 1878 the Somerset Drainage Commissioners abandoned the navigation works. Some boats managed to reach Load Bridge and even Ilchester up until the 1930s!!

The Waterway Today – Interest in these former navigations has never completely disappeared. The creation of the Parrett Trail, much of which uses the former towing path between Burrowbridge and Thorney has enabled more people to view the remains of the locks, wharves and bridges. The Langport Area Development Trust recently commissioned a corridor study of the river from Oath to Kingsbury Episcopi. A “Highway” Right of Navigation exists on the Rivers Parrett, Isle and Yeo where formerly navigation improvements were made but there is no liability or responsibility on the current management body, ie The Environment Agency to maintain navigation structures such as locks, even though the locks at Middleney and Thorney appear structurally sound and could easily be reinstated.


Tone Navigation

Total length 12_ miles, Burrowbridge to French Weir

Royal Charter granted to John Mallet 1683
Acts of Parliament 1699 and 1707

Oldest “improved” navigation in Somerset. John Mallet’s Charter authorised improvement by construction of weirs and staunches from Burrowbridge to Ham Mills about three miles from Taunton. Under the 1707 Act, Conservators made the river navigable to Taunton with half locks and full locks. After several years of hostility, the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal Company purchased the river in 1832 and maintained it as a navigation. The section in Taunton between Firepool and Taunton Gas Works carried cargo until 1907 and is still managed as a navigation by British Waterways. Coal was brought upstream to Ham until 1929 in spite of little or no maintenance being undertaken.

The Waterway Today – The navigation works at Bathpool and Obridge were demolished in the 1960s when the flood relief scheme was undertaken which straightened the river between Firepool and Bathpool. However the former towing path remains as a public right of way and the remains of the lock at Ham and the only remaining “navigation” bridge at Knapp can be visited. Small boats can and do navigate from Hankridge to Ham and from Ham to New Bridge near North Curry.


Chard Canal

Totallength 13_ miles

Act of Parliament 1834 Surveyor James Green
Completed and opened 1842 Engineer Sydney Hall
Tub boat canal Abandoned and closed 1867

Ran from Bridgwater & Taunton Canal at Creech St Michael via Thornfalcon, Wrantage, Beercrocombe, Ilton, Ilminster and Chard Common to Chard.

There were major engineering works on the whole line. Substantial embankment with aqueducts over railway, river and road between Creech St Michael and Ruishton; deep cutting from Thornfalcon to Lillesdon Tunnel (314 yds) followed by the important site at Wrantage with aqueduct remains, embankment, inclined plane, cutting and tunnel (1800 yds), sixth longest in the UK. Embankment, curring aqueduct and bridge remains are clear to see from Beercrocombe to Ilton. At Ilminster, in spite of recent loss to road works and housing development, a short length of canal is in water in the recreation ground before the site of Ilminster incline and tunnel. Beyond Ilminster access is limited but much of the line is discernable including the remains of the only lock on the canal at Sea. At Chard Common the site of the large Chard Common incline can be seen from a public footpath. This was the only dry carriage inclined plane ever constructed in Britain and was the first application of a water turbine in this country. All significant remains in Chard have been destroyed in recent years with the redevelopment of the former feed mill at the terminal basin, in spite of Grade II listing!

The Waterway Today – Most of the line still exists albeit in multiple private ownership. Many of the sites of significant engineering works, inclines, tunnels, aqueducts, cuttings and embankments can be visited although much of the canal and towpath exist most is not open to public access. This was the last canal to be built in Britain by private enterprise and incorporated the very latest engineering technology of the day and though its working life was very short it worked very well and was only closed because of purchase by the rival railway company.


Dorset and Somerset Canal

Total length built Approx 8 miles

Act of Parliament 1796
Date opened for navigation Not completed, never opened

Proposed to link Kennet & Avon Canal at Limpley Stoke via Frome, Wincanton and Sturminster Newton with the south coast at Poole, with a branch from Frome to collieries at Nettlebridge. Only a section of the branch was built, but of particular interest was the proposal, by James Fussell, a local ironmaster of Mells, to replace locks with boat lifts. When the canal had been completed these lifts would have predated those built on the Grand Western Canal by some 30 years. The branch never carried cargo, but an aqueduct, a bridge and parts of the line are still to be found, including the “Roman Wall” in Frome!


Galton’s Canal and Brown’s Canal

Total length 2_ miles

Act of Parliament None
Completed and opened 1801

Two privately cut canals from the River Brue to the North Drain. No traffic records exist.
Current state – incorporated into local drainage system.


Rivers Axe and Brue and The Pillrow Cut

The Rivers Axe and Brue were navigable until Drainage Acts in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. The Pillrow Cut connected the two rivers in medieval times and was developed for “tourism” (pilgrimage!) and carriage of produce and stone by the Abbot of Glastonbury.


Somersetshire Coal Canal

Total length 10_ miles waterway 15 miles tramway

Act of Parliament 1794 Surveyors John Rennie
William Jessop
William Smith
Completed and opened 1801

The canal ran from the Kennet & Avon Canal at Limpley Stoke to Paulton and Radstock. (Never completed as a canal.) Until the 1870s was one of the most profitable waterways in the country, carrying coal from the many collieries for distribution throughout Southern England. With the coming of the Bristol & North Somerset Railway profits rapidly declined and in 1893 a Receiver was put in and the canal closed in 1898 then was abandoned in 1904. The canal to Paulton was purchased by GWR and the Limpley Stoke to Camerton branch built on the bed of the canal using the Coombe Hay tunnel and several of the canal bridges. This part of the route was immortalised in the film “The Titfield Thunderbolt”.

The Canal Today – In spite of railway building and over a century of abandonment, many substantial remains still exist. The aqueduct at Midford carrying the canal part of the Radstock branch has been extensively restored by the Somersetshire Coal Canal Society and Bath Historic Buildings Trust. Unique “Caisson Locks” were proposed to overcome the sudden rise in the land at Coombe Hay. Two or three were built but the Fullers Earth strata made the masonry unstable so they were abandoned and replaced by the spectacular flight of 22 locks, the remains of which can be viewed from a public footpath. A short section of canal at Dundas (Limpley Stoke) has been restored and is in water, connected to the Kennet & Avon canal and is used as moorings and as a base for several canal based small businesses.


Glastonbury Canal

Total length 14_ miles

Act of Parliament 1827 Surveyor John Rennie
Completed and opened 1833

Ran from Highbridge Sea Lock to Beckery, Glastonbury with one lock at Shapwick.
Last recorded through traffic 1854. Handed to local Commissioners for sewers and abandoned in 1936.

The Canal Today – The seaward end from Highbridge to Bason Bridge is the River Brue, much of the rest of the route has been incorporated into the South Drain. Small boats are able to pass from Highbridge to Glastonbury.


Copyright© Somerset Waterways Development Trust 2007 . All rights reserved.