Exeter Ship Canal

About this route

Since prehistory, rivers have always been an essential resource for societies to exploit and the river Exe is no exception.  The  archaeological record  for prehistoric activity along this river is sparse, but no doubt the riverine environment would have been exploited for food and connectivity between settlements.  It is also  thought the area occupied by the modern Exe Bridges has been the location of a river crossing since this time.

Shortly after the Roman occupation of Britain  (c. post AD 60), the Roman army constructed a fortress on a spur overlooking the Exe Bridges crossing so they could control and use the river crossing.  The development of the town of Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter) followed in subsequent decades.  The river at this time was hard to navigate and obstructions allowed only small light boats to access the city.  Exeter therefore relied heavily on Topsham, several kilometres downstream, where its natural harbour allowed larger ships to trade their goods.  Many of the goods destined for the city were likely to have been transported via a road linking Topsham and Exeter, now represented by Topsham Road.  There is no firm evidence to support that the site of the later Exeter Quay was in use during this period.

The’ Exe’ name, derived from the ancient word Isca, meaning water or river full of fish, is also an element in the names of many of the settlements dotted along the river.   Up Exe, Exton, Exwick, Exmouth, Exminster, Nether Exe and Exeter to name a few and show the influence the river had on these small settlements.  The power the river wealded and the opportunities it provided led to disputes over its control.  Documentary evidence not only records a number of these disputes but also reports the devastating effects of episodic flooding in the Exe valley.

By the 16th century Exeter did not want to rely on Topsham for its trade and sought to become independent so they could reap the rewards.  In the 1540s attempts were made to remove various obstructions in the river which restricted navigation to the city, but these attempts failed.  In the early 1560s the engineer John Trew was commissioned to build the original lighter canal (a canal for shallow boats or barges) on the eastern side of the Exe, utilising an existing mill leat (St James Leat), though difficulties were encountered.  Instead, the canal was shifted to the western side of the river where it may have followed an old course of the Exe.  The canal was completed in 1566, 16 feet wide and 3 feet deep and fed by water from the river directed by Trew’s Weir.  The canal began about 0.4km from the city walls and finished at Matford Brook.  The new canal allowed lighters to carry goods to the city from sea-going vessels anchored in the estuary, which in turn brought about the expansion of the quay and dockside facilities.

Throughout the medieval and post-medieval period Exeter prospered, with wool being the driving force of the English economy, the trade was described as ‘the jewel in the realm’.  The best weavers from areas of Belgium such as Flanders, Bruges, Ghent and Ypres were willing to pay high prices for the good-quality English wool so they could turn it into fine cloth.  Englishman from all classes who had the smallest to largest parcels of land ensured sheep were their main commodity to benefit from the wool trade.  The years after the English Civil War (1642-1651), saw a trend in the export of not just wool but woollen cloth.  Devon serge was a particular favourite and Exeter was the southwest’s epicentre for the finishing of this cloth.  Northern Europe were major players, with Rotterdam in particular becoming  one of Exeter’s most important trading partners.  The process, called fulling, required a water wheel to drive the machinery and many of the mills in Exeter diversified and operated as fulling mills, as well as processing corn, paper, ice and lumber.

The lighter canal gradually deteriorated and was not able to keep up with the demands of trade.  In 1676 Richard Hurd led the extension of the canal half a mile south, across the Exminster Marshes, the new entrance being called Trenchard’ Sluice.  However,  it did not resolve many of the navigational obstacles, so Exeter Chamber embarked on enlarging and converting it from a lighter canal to a ship canal.  Around this time, 50-100 sea-going ships could anchor at the terminal of the canal.  Between 1698 and 1701 the canal was deepened between the Quay and Trenchard’s Sluice, which allowed ships up to 200 tons to access Exeter’s Quayside.  A sluice was also added near the quay and the old sluices further down removed and replaced by the Double Locks.  The entrance at Trenchard’s at this time was too far upstream for large craft, so in 1829 the eminent engineer James Green led a development to extend the canal to Turf Reach, block the original entrance and create a lock to provide access to Topsham.  The Canal Basin was constructed in 1830 near the head of the canal and was surrounded by coal yards and warehouses.  There was even an Edwardian power station located a short distance to the northwest of the Canal Basin.  The canal could now accommodate ships of up to 500 tons, rendering it the second deepest inland waterway in Britain after the Caledonian Canal.  The Exeter Canal is often cited as one of the first of its kind, as it was the earliest English waterway to make use of pound locks and mitre gates.  The exact sites of these are unknown, although James Green’s 1829 map  records their possible location.

The basin was initially linked to the railway main line by a broad-gauge connection, later converted to narrow gauge.  Railway turntables were placed at each of the northern corners of the basin, one of which was excavated in 2008.  The arrival of the railway though contributed to the decline of the canal as a means of transport, while the latter half of the 20th century saw almost all the industrial activity disappear from this part of the city.

Bridges of course also play a significant role in connecting people, goods and transport and the Exeter canal bridges are no exception.  One of the earliest bridges is the Grade II Listed Countess Wear Road Bridge, over the river Exe, constructed in 1770 and subsequently widened between 1935-8 to accommodate the increase in traffic.  The Countess Weir Bridge and the Countess Weir swing bridge over the Exeter ship canal were used to train British paratroopers prior to D-Day because the locality was like that of the ‘Pegasus Bridge’ over the Orne River in Normandy.  The  wartime association is commemorated by a public information panel set nearby.

Today, the river and the canal are considered to contribute to the significance of the settings of many of the built heritage assets sited nearby.  The Custom House and associated buildings, mills, bridges and warehouses for example, are all intrinsically linked to the exploitation of the river and canal.  The canal continues to be exploited in the 21st century, but for recreational  purposes such as leisure boating, fishing, wild swimming and ferry trips, and it is also used by the Exeter Maritime Museum for educational purposes.


Interreg Atlantic Area and TIDE logo

Getting Around

By car: The nearest major road is the M5.  Along Topsham road towards city centre, at Southgate turn left along inner bypass, take first left and park at Quay and Cathedral car park. A short walk from this car park will take you to the Quayside where you can walk along the towpath or paddle the canal to Turf Reach.

By bus: A regular bus service runs from the city centre to the Historic Quayside.

Exeter Quayside offers restaurants, bars, antique and gift shops and indoor and outdoor activities and there are several pubs dotted along the canal.
Stoney and uneven ground in areas.