Canals – Boating off the Beaten Track
The Gloucester & Sharpness Canal
Martine O’Callaghan of Coolcanals tells us why she thinks the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal is a great place to get away from it all:
It’s a canal off the main cruising rings that can be overlooked. Although you have to negotiate the river Severn to reach it, once you’re on the canal, it’s a lazy journey for boaters – no locks after Gloucester, and the swing bridges are manned, giving you more time to take in your surroundings.
We didn’t immediately fall in love with the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal – it strides such a Spartan-straight course, it never treats you to the twists and turns of some other canals. But the dynamics of this canal catch you unawares and now we’re smitten, it’s become a firm favourite.
Built to carry tall ships, when it opened it was the widest, deepest canal in the world. What it lacks in traditional narrow canal charm, it resoundingly makes up for in its unique way. Every way you turn, if you look twice, the water is sending clues about the past. But it’s not only heritage that makes this canal fascinating: the canal is bursting with wildlife and birds making their way to the adjacent Slimbridge Wetland Centre. The River Severn Estuary clings to one side of the canal and changes the view with its tides, and then there’s the ethereal beauty of the Purton Hulks, Frampton’s church overlooking the canal, the start of the Cotswold Canals at Saul, Gloucester’s historic docks and Waterways Museum.
This is an ancient waterscape riddled with English history. The Gloucester & Sharpness Canal was built during troubled times when Horatio Nelson was fighting the Battle of Trafalgar, and Napoleon was losing at Waterloo. When it opened in 1827, it was the world’s broadest, deepest canal, built as a bypass from the treacherous waters of the river Severn as far as Gloucester.
Approaching Sandfield Bridge, looking towards Gloucester. The swing bridge is operated by the bridge keeper whose office is in the canal-side brick building. The Gloucester and Sharpness Ship Canal was built in order that vessels could bypass a particular hazardous and meandering stretch of the tidal River Severn. The canal was started in 1794, then continued in 1817 following consultation with Thomas Telford. Further delays meant the canal was not fully navigable until 1827. © Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Since Roman times, Gloucester had been an important port, but seafaring vessels that ventured inland too often met their end with the unpredictable sands and tides of the Severn. With the canal’s help, Gloucester became Britain’s furthest inland port where sea vessels could venture incongruously inland flagging high sails through the rural landscape.
Cargoes from around the globe arrived by sailing ship, barge, narrowboat, tanker and steamship. During the Industrial Revolution, it carried grains imported to feed the hungry towns of the Midlands. And in the 20th century, it carried cocoa beans to Cadbury’s factory at Frampton on Severn where they were made into chocolate crumb and then sent on narrowboats to Bournville. The canal also played an important role in the economy of the Midlands carrying coal from the Forest of Dean.
Looking towards Gloucester. This section of canal is about half a mile west of Patch Bridge. Maximum dimensions for vessels: Length 240 feet, beam 30 feet, draught 10 feet, and headroom 105 feet. On this canal there is a speed limit of 6 mph. The canal is 16½ miles long, with a lock to the River Severn at each end. © Copyright Roger Kidd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.