Karen’s Tiverton Tour – Sunday 7th April

A grand bunch of 21 ramblers met today for a ‘different’ type of walk. A stroll along the  Grand Western Canal and a tour of Tiverton Town, with some historical facts included.

It was a chilly start and particularly so walking beside the still waters today. The Grand Western Canal, now a Country Park, was designed by John Rennie and completed in 1814 at a cost of £244,500. It is fed by freshwater springs in the bed of the Canal. It was extended a further 13 miles to Taunton in 1838 and operated alongside Brunel’s Railway for a time, requiring the Aqueduct at Halberton that our group surveyed today. The main cargo carried on the canal was limestone from local quarries, bound for London eventually.

In 1947 The Canal passed into the hands of the British Transport Commission but was formally closed for navigation in 1962, handed to Devon County Council in 1971 and declared a ‘country park’. Devon County have invested in Tiverton, endeavouring to preserve the heritage of the town and raise standards in both buildings and education for the townspeople there.

A pleasant walk of some 3 miles today to the Canal Basin where the horse-drawn barge was just setting off. A short comfort and photo break here, before we embarked on Karen’s Tiverton Town Tour.

We began on the Merchants Trail, passing the wonderful Old Blundells School initially and moving up through the town via Gold Street to the Old Town Hall, noting Almshouses and some well preserved buildings, as well as some awful new ones!

Tiverton, once ‘Twyfordtown’ – two ford town – stands on both River Exe and River Lowman and dates back to the Iron Age with the iron age fort of Cranmore Castle, looking down from Exeter Hill.

Henry 1 built a castle in Tiverton in 1106, so it would have had great importance then.

In more modern times, Tiverton owed it’s prosperity to the wool trade, building up the town’s heritage in the 16th and 17th centuries. John Greenway built the Almshouses, still standing on Gold Street. Peter Blundell bequeathed funds and land to found his School to educate local children. It was relocated to the outskirts of the town in 1882 and remains an impressive and successful establishment still today.

The town continued to thrive, rivaling Exeter at one point, with prosperity from the wool trade but in the early 18th Century it began to decline, until a gentleman called John Heathcoat moved his lace-making operation from Loughborough to Tiverton. Such was his popularity as a fair employer,  his 500 workers walked the 190 miles to join him at Heathcoat’s Factory, which still stands and was on our route today, home for Heathcoat Fabrics. Not producing cotton or lace any longer but high quality textiles with a much smaller workforce.

The Heathcoat name pops up all over Tiverton as this man brought a period of stable employment, good housing and educational facilities to the town. We still have Heathcoat Primary School, extended and modernised beyond it’s original setting in the West Exe Park now. A fire destroyed some 270 houses and Tiverton became an early example of town planning as new houses were built for the factory workers in a ‘square’ style that endures today. The workers cottages built by Mr. Heathcoat stand proud and remain well maintained, probably desirable properties close to the town and riverside.

We enjoyed lunch in weak sunshine in West Exe Park by the Bandstand, before taking up our tour once again, leaving the West Exe Trail to pick up the Merchant’s Trail again, this time towards St. Peter’s Church which we entered and explored, noting the wonderful stitched kneeling mats and impressive stained glass windows, a large and well maintained church indeed.  We also spotted the tombstone of Tiverton’s best loved son, John Heathcoat set in the graveyard in 1861, with his wife who died some years earlier.

Beside the Church stands Tiverton Castle, a grade 1 listed and part Scheduled Ancient Monument, open for visitors at Easter.

Back to serious walking now as we walk through the town to cross the Exe again, passing Edward VII ‘The Peacemaker’ – apparently –  to pick up the line of Brunel’s original steam railway, running parrallel with the Canal until the route, now a cycle track, becomes overgrown and we must walk up the ONLY and very small incline to reach the road and turn back down to the Canal for the last mile or so home.

Hopefully an interesting and different experience today, topped off with a welcome from Alun at the Canal Garden Tea Rooms, who warmed the garden room for the walkers to enjoy tea and cakes – as we do!

Thank you all – Karen H