It might be short, but the Stover Canal is a sur­viv­ing rem­nant of a unique trans­port sys­tem which once linked Dart­moor to the coast by canal, es­tu­ary and tramway


A sur­viv­ing rem­nant of a unique trans­port sys­tem which once linked Dart­moor to the coast

The West Coun­try’s wa­ter­ways might not have the at­trac­tion of be­ing part of a na­tional nav­i­ga­ble net­work, or even (in most cases) sur­viv­ing as nav­i­ga­tions at all. But their her­itage gives them a fas­ci­na­tion all of their own: the in­ge­nious ver­ti­cal boat lifts of the Grand Western, the in­clined planes of the Bude Canal, and the many dif­fer­ent (and ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful) at­tempts to link the Bris­tol Chan­nel to the English Chan­nel.

The Stover Canal, how­ever, lacks any of these grand ideas, and at just un­der two miles long with five locks, you might be for­given for won­der­ing what the at­trac­tion of restor­ing this un­re­mark­able for­mer lo­cal trans­port route might be. Un­til, that is, you take a more de­tailed look – and re­alise that this is ac­tu­ally one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing of these some­times ob­scure western wa­ter­ways.

And the best way to take a more de­tailed look at the canal, and at what the Stover Canal So­ci­ety has been do­ing to re­store it, is to fol­low it on foot via the Tem­pler Way. It makes for a good week­end’s walk, or can be eas­ily broken down into sev­eral shorter walks – and even a se­ries of cir­cu­lar walks, re­turn­ing via al­ter­na­tive routes.

“A week­end’s walk?” I hear you ask, “But I thought you said it was less than two miles long.” Well, yes, I did – and that brings us straight away to one of the most im­por­tant fea­tures of the Stover Canal’s in­ter­est­ing his­tory. The canal it­self was short, but it formed the cen­tral link of a chain of trans­port routes reach­ing for 18 miles from the coast at Teign­mouth to the heights of Dart­moor. So the Tem­pler Way be­gins at Teign­mouth, where car­goes of clay and stone com­ing down the canal were trans­shipped to coastal ships.

As canal walks go, it starts with a most un­usual fea­ture: a ferry ride. Eng­land’s old­est pas­sen­ger ferry, which traces its his­tory back to 1296, is now op­er­ated by a pair of open boats run­ning be­tween Teign­mouth and Shal­don ev­ery day (ex­cept Christ­mas Day and New Year’s day). See teign­mouthshal­don­ for hours of oper­a­tion.

From Shal­don the Tem­pler Way fol­lows the south side of the Teign for four miles. It’s a wide es­tu­ary, and un­til a tug

‘Af­ter trade ceased north of Teign­bridge and this sec­tion was no longer needed for nav­i­ga­tion, the lock was adapted into a dry dock by cut­ting out one side and build­ing a barge-sized “shelf”’

took over in the late 19th Cen­tury the canal barges trav­elled un­der sail power, with ‘Vik­ing ship style’ square sails, rather than the fore-and-aft rig seen on the Thames sail­ing barges and many other in­land sail­ing cargo craft. In­ci­den­tally, if you’re plan­ning to walk this part of the Tem­pler Way, you’re ad­vised to check up on tide times and avoid high wa­ter…

On the ap­proach to New­ton Ab­bot, the es­tu­ary nar­rows down and then splits into sev­eral tidal chan­nels as it passes through the north side of the town. Street names such as Quay Road and Wharf Road in­di­cate that craft once tied up on more than one of these chan­nels – and there is still a quay used by seago­ing leisure craft. The White­lake Chan­nel is the one that we are in­ter­ested in, as it led (in­deed, still leads, if you’re in a small craft) to the start of the Stover Canal. For those on foot, the Tem­pler Way crosses the White­lake Chan­nel via the A383 bridge, di­verges from the right bank to pass through a na­ture re­serve, then re­joins the chan­nel close to where a nar­rows con­tain­ing the re­mains of a set of lock gates can still be seen.

Al­though it looks like a sin­gle pair of flood gates or stop gates, this is ac­tu­ally the bot­tom of Jetty Marsh Locks, a stair­case pair form­ing the start of the canal – but the mid­dle and up­per gates were some dis­tance away, the en­larged lower cham­ber form­ing a kind of basin (with bol­lards still in situ to­day) where barges would wait for the tide. Look across to the far side of the nar­rows, and you may make out an in­scrip­tion in the stonework: GEO TEM­PLER ESQR 1824.

This seems as good a point as any to in­tro­duce the Tem­plers and their links with the wa­ter­way. James Tem­pler, who had in­her­ited an es­tate from his fa­ther (also James, who had made money from build­ing docks in Ply­mouth and Rother­hithe), built the canal at his own ex­pense in the 1790s to serve the de­vel­op­ing ball clay quar­ry­ing in­dus­try.

James Tem­pler died in 1813, and the es­tate passed to his son Ge­orge, who re­built the orig­i­nally turf-sided locks at Jetty Marsh in the 1820s – hence the in­scrip­tion. Ge­orge Tem­pler de­vel­oped a sec­ond trade, the car­riage of gran­ite from Dart­moor (we’ll see later how it was brought down to the canal) which kept the canal busy un­til the late 1850s.

Sadly Ge­orge was less care­ful with his money than his fa­ther (a con­tem­po­rary ac­count men­tions his “gen­eros­ity and un­bounded hos­pi­tal­ity”), had to sell most of the fam­ily es­tate in­clud­ing the canal, and ended up work­ing as the gran­ite com­pany’s agent. Once the gran­ite trade had ended, the re­main­ing clay traf­fic dwin­dled, and fi­nally ended in 1937 with the canal aban­doned six years later by its then own­ers the Great Western Rail­way.

You’ll see noth­ing of Jetty Marsh up­per lock to­day – it dis­ap­peared when a bridge car­ry­ing a cur­rently out-of-use

rail­way line over the canal was re­built as a small cul­vert in the 1970s – but the tow­path has been di­verted through an ad­ja­cent span and con­tin­ues along­side a well-pre­served canal chan­nel head­ing north. The Canal So­ci­ety has put a great deal of ef­fort into re­in­stat­ing and im­prov­ing the tow­path in re­cent years – hav­ing spent its first decade in lon­grun­ning (and even­tu­ally suc­cess­ful) ne­go­ti­a­tions for a lease with the GWR’s suc­ces­sors Rail­track and af­ter that Net­work Rail.

Just over half a mile north of Jetty Marsh was the next lock: Teign­bridge. A turf-sided (later timber-lined) struc­ture with a rise of only six inches, there is lit­tle or noth­ing to be seen of it. But the ad­ja­cent road bridge, the only orig­i­nal bridge sur­viv­ing on the canal, is in good con­di­tion, and in­trigu­ingly car­ries carved heads of Nep­tune (com­plete with trident) on the key­stone of one side, and a goat on the other. This was a cen­tre of the clay in­dus­try, with clay sheds (used for stor­ing clay and keep­ing it dry) lin­ing the canal, and for much of the canal’s life was the limit of trade, with the length above fall­ing out of use.

So far we haven’t seen much ev­i­dence of ac­tual canal restora­tion work, but that changes al­most half a mile fur­ther north at Grav­ing Dock Lock. This re­mark­able struc­ture has been a fo­cus of at­ten­tion for the Trust in re­cent years, backed up by sup­port from week-long sum­mer Wa­ter­way Re­cov­ery Group vol­un­teer canal camps. So what’s re­mark­able about it? Mainly the fact that af­ter trade ceased north of Teign­bridge and this sec­tion was no longer needed for nav­i­ga­tion, the lock was adapted into a dry dock by cut­ting out one side and build­ing a barge-sized ‘shelf’. Pos­si­bly unique (there’s some­thing sim­i­lar on the Mon­mouthshire Canal, but its func­tion is as yet un­con­firmed), the struc­ture has now been com­pletely re­stored. It even boasts the re­mains of a gate, show­ing clearly that the bal­ance beams were ba­si­cally untrimmed tree trunks.

De­spite hav­ing seen no trade for 150 years the chan­nel north of there is still in good con­di­tion as it was re­tained for wa­ter sup­ply, and in­cludes the fi­nal lock, Teign­grace. While lack­ing any­thing re­mark­able, it does still re­tain the re­mains of lock gates (in­clud­ing rem­nants of the ba­sic pad­dle gear which lacked any gear­ing, be­ing lev­ered up with a metal bar), and its cham­ber is twice as long as Grav­ing Dock Lock, be­ing in­tended to take two boats at once. The stone cham­ber it­self is in de­cent con­di­tion con­sid­er­ing how long it’s been aban­doned.

A fi­nal length leads to Ven­tiford Basin, the canal’s ter­mi­nus, and the other main fo­cus of re­cent restora­tion work. The stone-lined basin walls have seen re­pair work, the re­mains of a sunken barge ex­ca­vated as an ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­er­cise, and a cen­tury’s worth of silt re­moved. More is planned for this year with an­other two weeks of WRG Canal Camps, the work in­clud­ing re­in­stat­ing, re-set­ting and re­point­ing the gran­ite blocks which

form the canal walls. But the ex­ca­va­tion at Ven­tiford has also shown up an un­ex­pected sur­vivor: twin rows of gran­ite blocks can be seen run­ning along­side the canal, and di­vid­ing into fur­ther rows of stone. Any­one who has vis­ited Bugsworth Basin might iden­tify them as the stone sleeper blocks which sup­ported the rails on many early horse-tramways.

And they’d be al­most but not quite right. In this case, the stone blocks didn’t just sup­port the rails, they ac­tu­ally were the rails. These are the sid­ings at the lower end of the Hay­tor Gran­ite Tramway, which in­stead of iron (which wasn’t eas­ily avail­able lo­cally), used twin rows of shaped stones to make the two grooves in which the wagon wheels of the trains ran. It’s unique (there’s some­thing sim­i­lar but not quite the same near Don­caster), and it was built by Ge­orge Tem­pler as the top­most link in the trans­port chain reach­ing to his quar­ries on Dart­moor.

The Tramway lasted un­til the end of the gran­ite trade in 1858, fol­low­ing which the canal was sold to a rail­way com­pany, which kept the canal open but used the lower part of the tramway’s route for part of its new line. The rest was just for­got­ten – in­clud­ing these lengths at Ven­tiford whose sur­vival was un­til re­cently un­sus­pected.

The Tem­pler Way con­tin­ues be­yond Ven­tiford, fol­low­ing foot­paths, coun­try lanes and lengths of the tramway where pos­si­ble, as it climbs onto the moor­lands. Fol­low its 1300ft climb, and imag­ine the trains of eight empty wag­ons hauled up­hill by a team of 16 horses, or the full loads of gran­ite rat­tling down­hill on the bumpy stone ‘rails’ with just a sin­gle wooden brake pole rubbing against the wheels to check their speed. If you make it up onto the moors, there are miles of ‘rails’ still in situ, com­plete with points, cross­ing, and sid­ings lead­ing to some half a dozen dif­fer­ent quarry sites.

Ge­orge Tem­pler’s “gen­eros­ity and un­bounded hos­pi­tal­ity” might have cost him his es­tate, but he’s be­queathed us a fas­ci­nat­ing trail lead­ing from here right back to the es­tu­ary and to Teign­mouth – with the Stover Canal restora­tion at its heart.

‘Any­one who has vis­ited Bugsworth Basin might iden­tify them as the stone sleeper blocks which sup­ported the rails on many early horse-tramways. And they’d be al­most, but not quite, right... they didn’t sup­port the rails they were the rails’


The White­lake Chan­nel, which led to the Stover Canal

Re­mains of the lower gates of Jetty Marsh Lock

In­scrip­tion ‘Geo Tem­pler Esqr 1824’ at Jetty Marsh

The canal be­low Grav­ing Dock Lock

De­tail of the arch show­ing the carved goat

Look­ing up to­wards the bridge at Teign­bridge

Vol­un­teers restor­ing Grav­ing Dock Lock

Grav­ing Dock Lock show­ing the ‘shelf’ added as a dry dock

Re-point­ing walls at Ven­tiford Basin

The canal ter­mi­nus at Ven­tiford Basin

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