Winding it’s way through the Westover ward of Bridgwater and much neglected in recent years, is the Bridgwater and Taunton canal. This vastly underused resource surely deserves some attention paid to it. With this in mind Westover ward councillors brought together enthusiastic officers of the Inland Waterways Association and Sedgemoor Corporate Director Doug Bamsey to brain storm some ideas and see what exactly might be possible.
The Bridgwater & Taunton Canal runs upstream for 14.2 miles from Bridgwater Dock to Taunton and was restored in the early 1990’s. However, the Ship Lock and the Canal at Bridgwater, which were built to give access from the River Parrett to Bridgwater Dock, were not restored, thus denying sea-going craft renewed access to both the Dock and the Canal.
The River Parrett Navigation extended to Thorney Mills (34.3 miles above Bridgwater Bar and 18.7 miles above the entrance to Bridgwater Dock) and both it and a number of tributaries, together with the short Westport Canal, were once navigable. Commercial navigation ceased around 1878 although small freighters still come upstream to Dunball Wharf (some 3.2 miles below Bridgwater Dock), and water-based leisure activities, such as those at Langport, currently make good use of the River.
The Inland Waterways Association (IWA) believes that both the Canal and the River are under- utilised and hence undervalued assets of Bridgwater and that their development could create a major community asset for both the town and its surrounding areas. In particular, they consider that the development of the town’s waterways could bring the following:
• Increased boating and leisure activities on both the Canal and the River
• Additional tourism in the centre of Bridgwater and further upstream
• Enhanced levels of economic activity both within and beyond Bridgwater
The Bridgwater & Taunton Canal today
The Bridgwater & Taunton Canal is owned by the Canal & River Trust (CRT) and principally comprises the watercourse itself, the towpath, the locks and other structures. However, the Dock at Bridgwater is owned by Somerset County Council and leased to CRT. The Canal is used for a variety of purposes including boating, canoeing, fishing, cycling and walking; in addition water is supplied to Wessex Water. There are some 50 boats based on the canal of which approximately 30, of varying sizes are moored in Bridgwater Dock, a number of which are used for residential purposes. The maximum potential capacity of the Dock is some 60 boats.
Bob Abbot, Inland Waterways Association (IWA) Chairman says “The IWA believes that there would be considerable merit in developing and implementing a 5-year plan to enhance the Canal from Bridgwater Dock through to Standards Lock and thus to increase its attractiveness to existing and potential users, from both the local community and further afield. This would involve consultations with CRT, Local Authorities along the environmental corridor, IWA, canal and towpath user groups, the YMCA, boating societies and local community groups. It would have a clear aim of developing an agreed and affordable plan. Enhancements at Bridgwater Dock would complement and build on Bridgwater Vision’s Celebration Mile proposals.”
A key IWA aim is to replace the existing slipway at the north-east corner of the Dock with one that is considerably more user-friendly and capable of attracting trailboaters to use both the Dock and the Canal. Bob adds “Our target would be to have this in place well in time for a possible IWA sponsored Trailboat Festival to be held in Bridgwater at the Spring Bank Holiday in May 2019, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the reopening throughout of the Canal in 1994.”
Linking to the River Parret
For the longer term the IWA has suggested that a suitable lock should be planned for and built as part of the proposed tidal barrier as it is constructed. Bob Abbott says “The dimensions of the lock will need to be such as to allow sea-going craft up to an appropriate size to reach Bridgwater Town Bridge and moorings, and to permit smaller sea-going craft to use the River Parrett above Bridgwater and to access the Dock and thence Canal. Likewise, boats based on the Canal will be able to use the facilities in Bridgwater and access the River Parrett and the sea. The IWA recognises that the key to restoring navigation on the River Parrett lies in the approach taken to deal with the flood mitigation issues and the ability to both provide for and fund a suitable lock when the tidal barrier is constructed. The sight of sea-going craft on these two waterways in Bridgwater will, in our experience, help enhance the attractiveness of both the River Parrett and the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal as well as bringing worthwhile economic benefits to the town. “
The proposal to reopen the River Parrett to navigation from Bridgwater to Langport and reconnecting the River and Canal could create some 27 miles of environmental corridor and help facilitate the protection and migration of wildlife. Training opportunities in reconstruction and environmental heritage would also arise. The waterways will become more attractive not only to boaters based on the two waterways but to visiting sea-going craft, traditional narrowboats and trailboats. In the longer term there is potential scope to extend the navigable rivers much further within Somerset, thus making them attractive for boating holidays and a wide range of related recreational pastimes.
Bob Abbott concludes “Once the key decisions are taken on the future of navigation on the River Parrett it would be appropriate to prepare and implement a 5-10 year plan to develop the River, its structures and facilities and thus to enhance its use over time for both boating and leisure use. In the meantime steps should be taken to protect the existing riverside environment from any development which would not be in keeping with the evolving vision for the town and River. “
A way forward that involves the public
Cllr Brian Smedley outlined the projects that were underway or planned that related to the canal and its immediate setting saying “ There are numerous projects that can tie into our aspirations for the canal and these include the Meads Eco Park,the Celebration Mile, the Bridgwater Vision, the work done by residents and volunteers at Brownes Pond, the Bridgwater Way local Sustainable Transport Fund and the Flood Action Plan and these all provide the current opportunity for joined up thinking”
Doug Bamsey stressed that there were “ Severe limitations on Council budgets” and noting “the decisions Sedgemoor, Taunton Deane and Somerset County had made in recent times to reduce expenditure on the Canal” .
Cllr Kathy Pearce said “It is important to ensure that there is public understanding of any projects that emerge for increasing the use of the canal as a recreational amenity, including the residents that border the docks. It is important to get their views and to have their support. “
All present agreed that having boats using the canal was a key outcome and recommended a 3 stage approach:
1. Short term ;- Works to allow boats to move along the waterway, which includes raising the water level.
2. Mid term;- A high profile Trail Boat event .
3. Long term;- Lock gates opened into the Parret.