21st September was a day of glorious sunshine, perfect for a trip on the Grand Western Canal. Twelve of our members boarded the horse drawn barge in Tiverton Canal Basin. (If there had been three more of us we could have benefited from a discount on our tickets!) Perhaps the only slight disappointment was that there was a largeish coach party on board, so every seat was taken, but that did not really detract from what was a most enjoyable morning.
Philip Brind, proprietor of the barge, dressed appropriately as a bargee, explained to us that his beautiful horse, George, was only really “for show”, as the barge itself, even fully loaded, is incredibly light to handle when it is on the water. His young horse handler, Lauren, could single-handedly push the barge across the canal! We glided quietly along under several bridges, one of which still bears the “logos” of the illiterate stonemasons who constructed it. We then stopped for a while for Lauren to tell us a little of the canal’s history. It was built 200 years ago, by workmen from all over the country digging the whole canal by hand – no mechanics in those far off times – who completed the work in only four years. The labour was relatively well paid for those days, so there was no problem in recruiting workers. The mid-Devon countryside being quite undulating, the work involved having to build up some areas, hollow out others, so that the canal is totally level.
On our return journey we were all asked to stop talking, the bar was closed and all extraneous noise eliminated. For ten minutes or so we glided along in total peace and quiet, just the sound of the water lapping on the side of the barge. That was what it would have been like 200 years ago when limestone was transported in the barges to be converted into agricultural fertiliser. Of course we know that the coming of the railways meant that the canal was no longer needed. How fortunate that it has been restored and is now a wonderful recreational facility in mid-Devon.