In Tiverton the rain was coming down heavily. Asking around, didn’t give me any leads so I headed on to the tea rooms at the edge of town, near the viaduct of the Grand Western Canal. Tea, cake and endless folding and unfolding of maps. Hopeful that the rain would let up, I studied my route.
Originally I’d planned that if the weather was this bad I just wouldn’t walk. But the longer I stared out at the rain the more impatient I became to know where I would sleep that night. There was a campsite further up the canal and I decided to see how easy it would be to camp along the canal and use the campsite as a backup.
In the days when a large number of goods were shipped between London and Bristol, ships were sometimes lost at sea as they navigated around Lands End. The Grand Western Canal canal was to connect the Bristol Channel and the English Channel. In 1796 an Act of Parliament granted permission for the canal and the first section from Lowdells to Tiverton was finished in 1814. The canal is fed by a number of freshwater springs and is cut through deep embankments in places to keep it level. By the mid 1830’s the full plan had to be abandoned because of the difficulties and cost, but the canal reached as far as Taunton, carrying coal and lime.
Big lime kilns used to sit along the steep canal bank and lime would be loaded into the holes in the top, and after heating, the finished lime would be shovelled out of the arched chambers onto the barges and pulled along the canal by horse. The lime was used as an additive to soil. You can still pass the ruins of the kilns today by the canalside.
Putting my giant poncho on and off over the backpack was a frustrating energetic struggle, of contortions, jumps, flicks and jiggles. After a while I realised the breaks in the rain weren’t long enough to be worth taking it off, so I just endured the sweating in between the downpours.
Flat well-made paths and quiet of the canal were a delight and although it wiggled around a bit, it was much easier going than other footpaths. Occasionally I would pass underneath a bridge where a runner, dog walker or cyclist was sheltering, waiting out the showers. I greeted them cheerfully, and kept on. One bridge had both a walker and cyclist, already soaked, both sullenly checking their phones.
Water was squeezing out the toes of my shoes as I stepped. Several beautiful canal side villages passed by temptingly, sometimes with little signs to pubs. I took the opportunity to wash out some underwear in a pub sink and take some paper towel to stuff in my shoes at night.
There was an unexpected wide flat patch grass that looked like it should have been for a small bridge or a lock. It was perfect for my tent. As I put it up a man cycled past. I waited for the admonishment, but instead he asked if I was ok.
“Yep, absolutely fine. Thank you!” I called back with relief.
The rain stopped again and I was able to sit smiling on a bench overlooking the canal to eat my dinner of dried fruit, oatcakes and hardboiled eggs. I sat outside for only a few minutes more after eating, because I began to be attacked.
“Bastards!” I shouted.