Bude Canal

The Bude Canal

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Bude Canal map
Bude Canal map

The Bude Canal was built in 1823 to enable the transportation of unusually mineral-rich sand from beaches in and around Bude to the hilly interior of Devon and Cornwall's border country, where soil was poor and farmers in great need of fertilizer. The canal stretched for thirty-five miles, heading west to Launceston, east to Holsworthy and also linking to a purpose-built reservoir at Virworthy, dubbed the 'Tamar Lake', which was used to feed water to the system.

Within it's first six miles Bude Canal was forced to climb 430 feet above sea-level, which it did by means of a series of innovative locks, known as 'incline planes'. Unlike conventional locks, incline planes hauled special 'tub boats' up slopes on chains, rather like a funicular railway. The construction of the canal was no mean feat. Designed by local engineers and built entirely using picks and shovels, the entire project was completed at a cost of just £118 000.

Capable of taking fifty-foot barges for two miles from Bude's exposed sea harbour to Helebridge, a section of canal that involved two conventional locks, the remainder of the system was exclusively for tub boats. These had special wheels for the incline planes, could carry around three long tonnes and were just six meters long. The tub boats would have been pulled by horses in groups of five or six, and the incline planes were, for the most part, powered by waterwheels and steam engines.

One interesting exception was at Hobbacott Down, the highest and most famous incline plane in Britain. Here, a (very) large bucket was filled with water, the weight of which then pulled the tub boat up the incline using gravity. The incline at Hobbacott Down is so steep that the water in the bucket had to weigh at least fifteen tonnes!

For all it's engineering audacity, the Bude Canal Company was beset with problems during its short career. Income was never able to match the predictions and, due to the complex nature of the design and the heavy cargo, mechanical failures like chains snapping and rails breaking were commonplace. Nevertheless, the system successfully carried large quantities of fertilizer to farms near the wharves, revolutionising agriculture in the area and returning with heavy loads of slate and granite to be shipped across the country.

Bude Canal - Summerleaze Beach
Bude Canal lock

The advent of railways and cheap manufactured fertilisers spelt the end of the Bude Canal's usefulness, however, and the tub boat operation was finally abandoned in 1891. The canal, which quickly fell into disrepair, was eventually bought by the local council in 1902 who have used the Tamar Lake Reservoir to supply water to local villages ever since.

In 2005, with only the sea lock still in working order, major plans to restore at least part of the canal were approved, with several million pounds worth of Heritage Lottery, Objective One and Development Agency funding promised. The project, which was supposed to start in 2007 and be completed in 2009, was moderately successful in opening up the first two miles of the canal, although storm damage in early 2008 caused major setbacks. It is now possible to traverse this part of the canal by boat, canoe or kayak and to walk beside it along the original towpath, now renovated and suitable for wheelchairs.

Bude Canal
Bude Canal

The canal is a haven for wildlife both in the town and in the upper reaches, and an angler's paradise (permits locally available). The Bude Tourist Information and Canal Interpretation Centre is now open to members of the public and includes information on the history of the canal and on the various inland trails from which it is still possible to gain a first-hand impression of this unique waterway. For those of you who prefer to stick to the towpath, the Woodland Tea Garden offers lunches, cream teas and chocolate cake two miles from the sea lock, in the village of Whalesborough.

Restoration is still a work in progress, but more and more of the route is being opened up to the public and returned to its former glory.