The Bridgwater and Taunton Canal is a canal in the south-west of England between Bridgwater and Taunton, opened in 1827 and linking The River Tone to the River Parrett. There were a number of abortive schemes to link the Bristol Channel to the English Channel by waterway in the 18th and early 19th centuries. These schemes followed the approximate route eventually taken by the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal, but the canal was instead built as part of a plan to link Bristol to Taunton by waterway.
The early years of operation were marred by a series of legal disputes, which were resolved when the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal Company and the Conservators, who managed the River Tone Navigation, agreed that the Canal Company should take over the Tone Navigation. The canal originally terminated at a basin at Huntworth, to the east of Bridgwater, but was later extended to a floating harbour on its western edge. Financially this was a disaster, as the extension was funded by a mortgage, and the arrival of the railways soon afterwards started the demise of the canal. The canal was rescued from bankruptcy by the Bristol and Exeter Railway in 1866.
After the First World War the canal remained in a state of limbo – with minimal maintenance by the railway company – and was the haunt of fishermen and walkers. The Conservators continued their annual inspections, and the infrastructure remained in remarkably good order, compared to many other closed canals. The section near Creech St Michael was even used for swimming lessons for the local school children in the 1930s.
During the Second World War the route of the canal was employed as part of the Taunton Stop Line, a defensive line which followed the course of canals and railway embankments from the mouth of the Parrett to Seaton on the south coast. All permanent bridges were mined with demolition chambers. Hamp Bridge was prepared for demolition with four small charge chambers under the east side of the arch containing a total of 30 lb (14 kg) of the explosive, ammonal.
Anti-tank obstacles were placed at bridge sites or locks to hinder bridging operations. All of the swing bridges were removed, but were then replaced with fixed timber bridges at towpath level. Only essential maintenance was carried out, to ensure a water supply for fire-fighting and to prevent flooding. Although the physical structure of the canal was not damaged by enemy action, all of the Company records and traffic receipts, together with those of the Bristol and Exeter Railway, were destroyed during a bombing raid.
From the late 1960s, there was a growing awareness of the benefits of retaining the canal. The Inland Waterways Association produced a report, entitled The Bridgwater and Taunton Canal - Waterway with a Future, suggesting that the canal had the potential for development as a linear Country Park, and the County Planning Officer for Somerset County Council produced a second report, suggesting that funds should be made available for maintenance and restoration, which the County Council duly adopted.
The Countryside Act 1968 provided a framework for such action, and a visit in 1971 to see the work being done on the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal as part of the creation of the Brecon Beacons National Park convinced the Council of the wisdom of such a course of action. By 1974, Higher and Lower Maunsel locks, which are listed buildings, had been refurbished by the British Waterways Board, with funding from the County Council. Funding for towpath maintenance and weed cutting was also provided.
Current use :
Boating on the canal is encouraged, although the lack of a link to the River Parrett at Bridgwater is restrictive. At this point, the Parrett is a salt water river, and is laden with silt, whereas the canal contains fresh water. Not only is there a risk of silt entering the canal, but the salt water cannot be allowed to contaminate the fresh, as the canal is still used for the transport of drinking water for the population of Bridgwater. The canal forms part of the local flood relief system, in winter taking water from the River Tone at Taunton and discharging it into the Parrett at a sluice in the western fringe of Bridgwater, near the Bridgwater Canalside Centre.
Bridgwater Docks, in which the tidal basin, locks, quaysides, bridges and fittings are listed buildings, is now a marina, and the old warehouse, built in 1840–50 has been converted into apartments, with new apartment blocks built nearby. The only commercially active industry located at the docks is Bowering's Animal Feed Mill. The towpath forms part of Sustrans' National Cycle Network route NCR-3 connecting Bath and Cornwall, and attracts numerous travellers. Plans have been proposed for the upgrading of the towpath and development of a visitor centre at Maunsel.