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The Historic Exeter to Topsham Canal

A stroll along the very first English canal to use locks - and a look at the old port of Topsham.

Distance 4 miles (6.4km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Level tow paths

Landscape River estuary; extensive mudflats at low tide

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 110 Torquay & Dawlish

Start/finish SX 972844

Dog friendliness Watch out for wildlife - and mountain bikes

Parking By St Clement's Church, Powderham

Public toilets Turf Hotel, Passage House Inn, by fire station in Topsham

1 The walk starts down the lane past the church towards the river. After a few paces turn left to join the South West Way (unmarked as such) which follows the Exeter-to-Penzance railway line here, running along the bank of the Exe estuary. Walk along the path to cross the railway. Turn left to walk upriver; there are superb views to (from left to right) Topsham, Exton, the Royal Marine Commandos Training Centre, Lympstone and Exmouth. Within 20 minutes you should reach the outlet of the Exeter Ship Canal at the Turf Lock, with the Turf Hotel beyond.

2 The original canal here - the first English lock canal - was begun in 1563, and ran from Exeter to Matford Brook. It was extended to Topsham in 1676, and then to the Turf, enabling trade vessels of over 300 tons to reach Exeter again (the estuary had silted up during the 14th century). In 1827 the Exeter to Topsham Canal was deepened and extended a further 2 miles (3.2km) to the Turf Lock, giving it a total length of 5¼ miles (8.4km). The building which now houses the Turf Hotel was probably built to accommodate visiting boat crews and their horses. The horses were used to pull the barges up the canal to Exeter.

3 The original lock gates can be seen beside the canal. Made of wood and weighing 15 tons, these were opened and closed by hand-operated winches, requiring enormous strength; they needed constant repair, and were replaced every 50 years. The gates currently in use are made of steel and are electronically operated.

4 Don't go over the lock gates here (unless you are in need of refreshment already!) but keep straight on up the canal. This stretch is beautiful, with bulrushes and waterlilies lining the banks, and is popular with canoeists. The only problem with the tow path here is that you are under constant threat from mountain bikers - but you can always catch the White Heather launch for a change of scene (which operates daily from Exeter Quay to the Turf Hotel).

5 When you reach a small bridge over the canal, cross over to reach the Topsham ferry slipway. The ferry runs every day except Tuesday, April to September 11am-5:30pm and at weekends and bank holidays October to March, but is always dependant on tide and weather. You can hail the ferryman if he's not already waiting for you. Catch the ferry over and have a drink at the Passage House Inn and, if you have time, take a look round Topsham itself. An important port since Roman times, it prospered greatly when shipping could no longer reach Exeter, and its eventful history has been based largely on shipbuilding and smuggling. Today life in Topsham is somewhat less dramatic. The estuary is used mainly by commercial and pleasure craft, and by thousands of birds who return each year to feed on the mudflats.

6 Finding your way back to your car from here should be fairly easy.

This easy walk along the picturesque estuary of the River Exe has a huge amount to offer. You can visit medieval Powderham Castle, which is open to visitors from April to October (excluding Saturdays) and you can see the oldest ship canal in the country. There are usually boat trips to watch the rare avocets here in February - and a ferry ride takes you to the historic port of Topsham.

St Clement's Church, where you leave your car, is situated on the very edge of the Powderham Estate, the historic family home of the Earls of Devon. The original building dates back to the late 14th century when it was the home of Sir Philip Courtenay. Extensive damage caused during the Civil War was followed by a comprehensive programme of restoration in the 18th and 19th centuries.

While you're there

If you feel like a change, it's quite possible to explore the Exe estuary and south Devon coastline without using your feet! Stuart Line Cruises operate from Exmouth, just south of Topsham, and run trips both upriver and along the coast towards Dawlish and Sidmouth. There's also a trip to Topsham, with a return journey to Exmouth by train, which runs along the very edge of the estuary with wonderful views across to Powderham Castle and Starcross village.

Where to eat and drink

The Turf Hotel, in a fantastic position on a narrow point of land where the canal meets the River Exe, is a free house with excellent food - and no chips! Open from the start of April until early November, there are camping facilities here, making the most of its unique setting. The Passage House Inn by the ferry in Topsham specialises in seafood and welcomes families. It's a great place to sit outside and watch the goings on up and down the river.


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