Our lecture on the history of the Great Western Canal was to be delivered by the archivist of the Canal Trust, Denis Dodd. Ill-health prevented the archivist attending and Crediton's own John Moore, who is not only a member of Crediton History Society but also a canal enthusiast involved with the Great Western, stood in admirably.
John explained that a 1796 Act of Parliament approved the building of a canal from Bristol Channel to the English Channel. Initially this was to run from Topsham to Taunton with branches to Cullompton, Tiverton and Wellington. After some delay, the Topsham leg was abandoned. The need for limestone in the rural areas predominated and it was decided to start building at Tiverton. The first length was well over budget but opened in 1814 and the lime kilns can still be seen there in the big retaining wall at the canal basin.
The stretch from Tiverton is unusual as, despite being over 11 miles long, it is level and there are no locks. Embankments, cuttings, aquaducts and many bridges were built, all lwith diggers, an enormous feat.
Mr Moore showed his impressive collection of photos taken along the canal over many years. These featured the many bridges, aquaducts, engineering works and properties builtin connection with the canal. The latter included a magnificant house for the foreman, who was allowed to pick the site, and a new rectory at Sampford Peverell because the old one was to be demolished but never was!
Referring to the catastrophic collapse of part of the embankment following heavy rain last winter, Mr Moore explained that temporary dams at Greenway Bridge and others were put in place but didn't stop the 16million litres of water pouring through a 23m breach, with 100s of fish ending up in the field. Repair work started at the end of June at an estimated cost of £3million and it is hoped that work will be finished next May for the 200th anniversary of the opening.
Extending the route became unviable when the railways began to take over most of the traffic and then the canal itself. When a leak was found in the 1920s, the canal gradually silted up, and other uses for it were suggested such as a landfill site. Fortunately, instead it was made a country park and has been well preserved since then by the County Council.
The Society's archivist, John Heal, was on hand and able to advise that a company formed to build an Exeter to Crediton canal. Work started at the Exeter end and some engineering can be found at Newton St Cyres and Salmon Hutch. Bow was to be the terminus for the canal and it may have been extended to Torrington and Bude. However, it was abandoned for much the same reasons as led to the decline of the Grand Western Canal as a commercial proposition.