Here's a hike in the Garden of Eden.
Well, that's what they used to call the fertile land out North Petherton
way, just below the eastern elevation of the Quantock Hills. They
used to say the wooden handle of a spade would grow in the peat
of the Somerset Levels if you planted one.
And in the early 1800's men with spades did come here - only they
weren't growing trees. They were navvies, working on the Taunton
and Bridgwater Canal, and their handiwork is still very much in
evidence today. It can be enjoyed by anyone with a small boat, or
a pair of walking boots.
Basic Hike: you have several choices at the Maunsel
Lower Lock car park on the Taunton - Bridgwater Canal - but the
one we chose was the walk north, along the tow path, beyond Godfrey's
Croner to Whites, then south over the rhynes to Wisteria Farm and
Coxhill Bridge - and back along the canal.
Recommended map: Ordnance Survey Explorer 40
Distance and Going: four-and-a-half miles - very
level and not muddy in dry weather.Canal walking is a wonderful
thing. It is flat, you are constantly by water - which is always
pleasant - and a well-laid footpath comes as part of the package.
Note that all maps on this site are only indicative.
You should never set out without the correct OS map.
The Taunton and Bridgwater provides
walkers with numerous opportunities along its 15 miles. You could,
of course, walk from one end to the other and catch the train back
if you wished.
For the less ambitious a good introductory hike can be found around
Maunsel Lower Lock where there's a car park, and a canal visitor
centre with a tea room. To find it take the A361 Taunton to Glastonbury
road, and follow the canal signposts between Durston and West Lyng.
The car park is a mile or so to the north of the main road.
Once you are there an interpretation board offers a choice of
four or five hikes - all based around the canal. This one goes north
past Coxhill Bridge and the village of North Newton.
But before we step forth, let's take a brief look at the history
of this lovely waterway. The Taunton and Bridgwater canal was part
of an ambitious 19th century plan to create a route between Exeter
and Bristol which would avoid the treacherous sea route around Land's
End. It's a great pity the link never materialised, though we must
be glad they managed to reach as far as Taunton.
This northerly section opened in 1827
and later, in 1841, an extra bit linked through to the new docks
at Bridgwater, making a total length of 15 miles. The canal was
used mainly for the transportation of coal, timber and limestone
which was carried in barges and small tub-boats. The commercial
viability of the waterway ended when the Bristol and Exeter railway
opened. The rail company eventually bought the canal, and all commercial
vessels ceased trading in 1907.
The British Waterways Association lobbied for many years to save
the canal from dereliction and in due time local authorities, along
with British Waterways, started restoration. Work began in 1980
and continued until 1995 and now the Westcountry has a remarkable
man-made navigation that it can be proud of.
We strolled along the towpath on a balmy evening recently, and
were delighted by the low-lying bucolic idyll in which we found
myself. Herons fished for their supper, various waterfowl seemed
excited by the joys of spring, and a roe-buck shot off towards Middlemoor
Drove like an athlete on a pogo-stick.
Several fishermen were busy doing nothing
and one or two of them had the longest angling-rods ever used in
such narrow waterway. "It'll go to 16 metres if I put all the
extensions on," explained a jolly man enthroned upon a tiny
stool. He'd caught three tench, but said that it hadn't been a good
afternoon. "Water's too clear. The fish can see you. On a day
like this - it's them who've got us by the short-and-curlies."
Nearby, his car bore the bumper-sticker: "Gone Fishin'."
There’s an interesting book called By Waterway To Taunton
(by Tony Haskell - Somerset Books - which can be obtained through
Halsgrove of Tiverton) that explains how the canal builders had
a fairly easy time of it in these parts. No difficult flights of
locks for them. This waterway climbs a modest 35 feet between the
tidal basin at Bridgwater and Firepool Weir at Taunton, an ascent
that could be achieved with the help of just five locks.
The route follows the very lowest contour of the
eastern tip of the Quantocks - everything beyond is the aptly named
Levels. You see this as you walk; to your left, low ground begins
to rise - to your right the vast swathe of peat moor is as flat
as a pancake all the way to Othery.
We walked past the swing-bridge at North Newton where a handsome
old church did its best to add grace to a village dominated by new
homes, and out past King's Lock to round Godfrey Corner and reach
another bend in the canal at a place called Whites.
Here we left the waterside to follow a footpath south across the
rhynes - you'll see it on the map - it runs down to Wisteria Farm
and from there you can regain the canal at Coxhill Bridge.
You could, if you were out for a whole day, continue along the
canal to Fordgate and join the Parrett Trail across the rhynes to
the River Parrett. Then you'd head upstream to Manor Farm near Burrowbridge,
take the drove road to West Yeo, follow Lyng Drove south, turn right
along Bankland Drove and so come back to Maunsel Lower Lock via
Bankland Lane. A dozen miles - and not a single step to climb.