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South West A Horse Drawn Barge Trip along the Tiverton Canal

History and Background

The Grand Western Canal was constructed in the early 1810s and served as a link between the English Channel and Bristol Channel, avoiding the long and perilous boat journey round the Cornish peninsula, where a lot of shipping was lost. Horse-Drawn Barges were one of the most economical and fastest means of commercial transport.

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This was one of the very early canals to be built. Work began in 1810 and navies completed the first 11.25 miles between Tiverton and Lowdwells in four years as it could be built without locks, tunnels or big embankments. It was dug to a depth of 5-6 feet and sealed with puddling clay to keep the water in.

Building costs for the next section to Taunton escalated as it needed 2 locks, 7 lifts and an inclined plane. The section opened in 1838. Plans to extend south to Topsham to join the Exeter Canal and English Channel were abandoned due to cost

Cargo was carried in tub boats which were about 25 feet long and 6-7 feet wide. Made of elm, they could carry up to ten tons of cargo. Donkeys, pit ponies or mules were used to pull tubs rather than shire horses, which were needed for heavy work like ploughing or pulling carts. It is a lot easier to pull a boat and cargo on water than pull the same weight on land. Once moving, forward momentum keeps the boat moving and the heavier the cargo, the more forward momentum . The heavier the boat the more forward momentum it has. Heavy goods and services could be moved easily on water. A single horse could pull up to three tubs in a train.

The main cargo was coal and limestone, which was burnt at the canal basin to produce lime and banks of lime kilns were built into the bank below the canal.

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Alternate layers of limestone and coal were loaded by hand into the top of the kilns. A fire was lit at the base of the kilns and burning could take two days.

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The quick lime produced was stored in casks. It was either used on thee fields to help neutralise the naturally slightly acid soils to improve fertility or used to make mortar or lime wash for the building industry.
The remains of some of the kilns are still visible.


Profitability began to fall with coming of Bristol to Exeter Railway in 1849, which ran alongside the canal. By 1865, declining trade and losses resulted in closure of section between Taunton and Lowdwells, which was sold to the Bristol and Exeter Railway Company and filled in. . The section between Tiverton and Lowdwells was kept open until 1925. For a while this section was leased by Joseph Barry who used it to grow lilies. These were harvested by hand and sent by rail to Covent Garden where they were used to make funeral wreaths.

By now the canal was beginning to silt up and becoming unnavigable. Serious cracks were appearing near Halberton. The canal was formerly closed to navigation in 1962 and plans were drawn up to fill in the canal and use the land for housing.

The Tiverton Canal Preservation Society was formed and a public campaign was a success. In 1971, Devon County Council took ownership and it is now the Grand Western Canal County Park, noted for its wealth of wildlife, particularly wildflower-rich canal banks, dragonflies and kingfishers.



The canal is only 2-3 feet deep now and small dredging boats help keep it open.


The main activities are centred round the Canal Basin with a visitor centre, mall shop, Duck’s Ditty cafe-bar, boat hire , walking along the tow path and best of all, the horse drawn barge trips.

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The first horse drawn barge trips began in 1974. It is the only horse drawn barge trip operating in England, complete with staff dressed in traditional clothing.


The company own three horses. George is 15 this year and is the smallest being a Welsh Cob.


Ross is shire horse and is 18. Brindley, another shire horse, is eight years old and 20232 was his first season as a working horse. Apparently he is still very keen and will complete the trip in 45 minutes! and he’s very keen doing the trip in 45 minutes! The horses are rotated working two days and then spend the rest of the week on the hills. The horses only work for six months during the summer. They can continue to work until they are 20 - 22years old.






1000+ Posts
A trip along the canal

There are two trips, the shorter one taking 1.5 hours and a longer one in the afternoon taking 2.5 hours as far as East Manley.

The Tivertonian is painted in traditional canal colours with roses and castles. It seats 75 passengers travel along at eye level to the canal banks and their vegetation. The skipper gives a running commentary covering the history of the canal and surrounding area as well as about the horses.


The highlight of the trip is the voluntary five minutes silence on the return journey when the only sound is water lapping against the boat, the sound of the wind in the vegetation and the clip clop of the horse's hooves.

Starting from the Tiverton Canal Bsin, George had to be harnessed up to pull the barge.


Tiverton is soon left behind.



Tidcombe Bridge is next.


Look carefully at the stonework under the arch for the mason’s marks. Each stonemason had his own unique mark. The men were paid on the number of stones they dressed rather than hours worked.


The canal runs through rural countryside although trees and bushes along the banks can hide distant views.


East Manley Bridge is the turn round point. The boat continues beneath the bridge where the canal is wide enough to turn. There were many other narrow boats moored up.


The barge then returns under the bridge to moor up for 10-15 minutes to give George a rest.





George is then harnessed up again for the return trip.


Past Manley Bridge, we were asked to observe the voluntary five minutes silence.



Before returning to the canal basin.



This is a very special and quite unique experience and was the highlight of the holiday.

Ian Sutton

1000+ Posts
A great read and super insight into the canal traditions (I grew up less than a mile from a canal).

I once went on a canal boat holiday on the 4 counties ring, and at one point we encountered someone who was doing the work of the horse themselves, hauling a barge from (IIRC) London to Manchester where it was going to have its engine fitted. They were doing this for charity, and I was hugely impressed, as even without an engine, there would be a massive effort needed just to get it moving, let alone keeping it moving along huge stretches of canal. They also had to do the Harecastle tunnel (a mile long IIRC) by the traditional method of lying on their back and propelling the boat by walking along the roof of the tunnel.


1000+ Posts
Thank you Ian. Actually it isn't that difficult to get a barge started, and once moving it more or less takes itself! Now 'legging' is a different matter. I've seen it done in the canal tunnel at Black Country Museum

A few years ago I went across Pontcysyllte Aqueduct on a canal boat. There was just a couple of inches clearance on both sides... We always intended to do a narrow boat holiday but somehow never had chance to fit one in.

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