“ Address: Canal Ranger Service, The Moorings, Canal Hill, Tiverton, Devon, EX16 4HX „
Fudge. Cream teas. And an acrobatic dog. Having ticked off the first two on a recent visit to Devon, we managed to see not just a clever dog, but one in a beautiful environment and totally Simon Cowell-free too. How could it be bettered?
What is now the Grand Western Canal Country Park and Local Nature Reserve to give it it's full name was originally constructed as a means of moving goods, predominantly coal from Wales into Devon and Somerset without the need to risk sailing around Cornwall in the early nineteenth century. With the advent of locomotives, moving stock on the waterways slowly died here as it did countrywide and the canal became pretty much forgotten about until the 60s when someone suggested using it as a huge landfill site. The NIMBY reaction of locals resulted in Devon county council taking ownership and sprucing it up with it becoming a Country Park in the 70s.
* Where it's at. *
Pretty much from the heart of Tiverton in Devon, and winding along open countryside in a vaguely north-eastern fashion through Sampford Peverell and Westleigh until it reaches the border of Somerset.
The main focal point of the park is probably the Canal Basin at Tiverton. This is home to the Canal Ranger Service offices who maintain all 11 miles of the canal, as well as having plenty of parking, a visitor centre and a small gift shop.
For me, the most interesting aspect of the Canal (and the reason I wanted to visit it) was that it is home to one of the few horse drawn barges left in England. Anyone who watches the BBC Countryfile programme will be aware that every year they bring out a calendar featuring 12 of the best photos sent in by viewers. Viewers can then vote for their favourite photo, and last year the favourite was Taffy who graces the 2012 calendar. Taffy being one of the horses who pulls the visitor barge moored here.
Taffy the calendar pin-up didn't grace us with his presence, but we did meet Dandy. I know nothing at all about horsies, but we discovered that Dandy is rather unusual not just in the breed - a Clysdedale - which are quite rare, but he has a gorgeous colouring too (Red Roan) and with pale blue eyes. We hadn't made any plans to go on one of the barge trips, although if we had been better prepared we could have pre booked tickets or bought them from the shop here. As it was, at the allotted time, a flash mob of tourists suddenly descended on the towpath and waited to embark.
* Sustenance ... *
..especially in liquid form is best served from the Duck's Ditty. Not just any old Ditty, though, this moored barge is probably one of the cutest floating cafes you could find anywhere in the world and without any pretensions you might find in big city ones. What really warmed us to this establishment though is that the staff allow dogs to sit in the open area at the rear. The bar area inside serves beers and wines, local and from further afield, although as we had an excitable dog to keep from any wildfowl we chose nothing stronger than some coffees and ice creams. The Duck's Ditty is family owned, and all the staff involved in both the horse drawn barge trips and the café wore very colourful olde world uniforms that brought to mind maypole dancing.
For anyone with the forethought to bring their own food, there are plenty of picnic tables on the grass nearby.
While we were sitting here, we had a superb (duck's eye) view of the barge turning in the water ahead of us preparing to set off with passengers. The acrobatic dog (I think her name is Molly) rode into view on Dandy's back and took another days work, lolling around on board, in her stride.
* Recommended? *
The canal park was fairly busy when we were there, although it's difficult to tell how many walkers were locals and how many were day trippers. The canal basin is in a fairly built up part of Tiverton, and what looks like a newish estate is on the left as you walk along the towpath. The houses on the far side of the canal all had lovely gardens dropping down to the waters edge, which was just as well because for the most part we had to content ourselves with very little wildfowl to coo over.
We caught sight of one nesting swan and plenty of ducks, and the fishermen we saw along the way would be further testament to the health of the canal. As unlikely as it was to see any, we were hoping for a glimpse of the otters which are reputed to live alongside the canal. If they're smart, they'll build their homes a few miles further along where the residential 'hood falls away into open countryside. Away from prying eyes and nosey dogs.
Tivertonians are certainly lucky to live alongside such a lovely park - as Country Parks go it's one of the more unusual I've been to. If I lived locally, I'd be tempted to cycle along either early morning or later on in the day when the rather narrow towpath isn't given over to walkers.
For those not willing or able to walk or cycle past the residential area where the Canal Basin is situated the views - Dandy or Taffy aside - might be disappointing, but if you have the time and inclination, the walk is really pleasant. Those wanting a boat trip can hire all sorts, from swish motorised ones to wee rowing ones. These can be hired and launched from the Canal Basin as well as Sampford Peverell. This, I imagine would be a fairly safe introduction to sailing for landlubbers like me.
One feature worth mentioning which I regret we couldn't make time to visit is the Aqueduct, halfway between Tiverton and Halberton. designed by Brunel and still standing strong.
So yes, I think this Country Park does have pulling power, and I would recommend a visit.
A country park set in Devon.