VISIT | Cruise the Gloucester - Sharpness Canal | Gloucestershire
The Legacy of Industrial Canals in Gloucestershire Where Folks Ponder and Play
Sixteen miles of canal with towpaths to walk or cycle in the direction of Gloucester or Sharpness on the River Severn
Take in any of the places en route - Saul Junction in the middle which connects to the Stroudwater Canal system is particularly of interest
Plentiful views across the water, and waterfowl galore because of its abutment with Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust
"...A good place to stroll and watch the canal boats go by waving at you as they pass..."
It comprises sixteen miles of canal which stretch from Gloucester Docks to the little riverside village of Sharpness on the banks of the River Severn. It was built to provide a safe route for trade in and out of Gloucester rather than face the dangerous currents and eddies of the upper River Severn, where so many boats and lives were lost. Now the Canal offers a tranquil place to meander and repose, a place for walks and bike rides, a site to spot wandering river birds and an opening to discover the unique life of this Severn side area and its part in the industrial history of Britain. The Gloucester-Sharpness Canal.
But let’s be very particular here – the Gloucester-Sharpness Canal was not its original name. For the original plan was not to site its southern entrance onto the river at Sharpness, but rather Berkeley Pill near its namesake little town of Berkeley, slightly further down.
The original plan was conceived back in 1793 when the merchants of Gloucester and the industrialists from further afield from the West Midlands (think Birmingham, Stoke-on-Trent, Worcester) came up with the interesting idea of creating a rival for Bristol in terms of trade and business – step forward Gloucester City. Thus, the concept of the Gloucester-Berkeley Canal was born.
The River Severn known as the lifeline that runs from the Bristol Channel into the city of Gloucester was hazardous for shipping, with strong tidal shifts and currents with frequent loss of life, but a canal would mean hazard-free travel into a new open-for-business city in Gloucester.
It would take six Acts of Parliament and over thirty years to complete. Just a little canal. But when the first Act of Parliament was passed in 1792/93 to allow the beginning of its construction, no one could foresee that for the next twenty years in fact the Canal would have just five miles of length, canal locks at each end and a basin dug out – just a giant stagnant pond. For the problem was simple – the project was out of cash.
It took the interference of a Coventry man by the name of Mark Pearman who reminded the City of Gloucester, its industrialists, and admirers to take up the project again in 1817. And from thence, it took a massive loan from the Exchequer Loan Commissioners of £450,000. But there was a cost to the plan – a shortening of the route – so rather than opening to the River Severn at Berkeley Pill, an early swing to Sharpness Post was put in place.
It would become the world’s deepest canal for a time. Sixteen miles with fifteen swing bridges. Locks at each end. 70-90 feet wide and over 18 feet deep with a basin at each end. At Gloucester, a small basin for barges and little boats. At Sharpness, two locks – one for the big vessels and one for small ships.
To get it finished, it also needed the expert supervision of Thomas Telford. The renowned engineer. He inspected the whole canal before its official opening accompanied by the Secretary to the Exchequer Loans Boards (who wanted to make sure they had got their money’s worth) as well as the Chief Engineer on site, who had been appointed by Telford. A man by the name of William Brown Clegram. Or simply Captain Clegram.
Clegram had been on site to make sure all things went as they should. He had a plethora of experience – having worked on many an engineering project including works at Shoreham Harbour in Sussex and gave advice on many of the other southern sea harbours on the coastline nearby.
Clegram lived in Saul Lodge and frequently travelled up and down the Canal whilst it was being completed. He was a man who loved what he did. Clegram would stay as Resident Engineer on the Canal until just before his death.
In 1827 the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal was officially opened connecting the city of Gloucester with the Bristol Channel via Sharpness and the River Severn. They had finally done it.
It was a canal that was intended to be navigable for ships of a vast girth and depth. And it was.
On the official day it opened, hundreds of people lined the spot around Sharpness Point waiting for the first vessels to traverse the canal on its grand opening.
The first two vessels to arrive was the Schooner Meredith Brand (owned by Messrs Johnson of Gloucester) that had arrived from Charente in France with a cargo of Brandy, and the Ship Anne. A 300-tonne ship belonging to Mr Irvine of Bristol which had been waiting in the river for three days with a load of salt.
But as with the story of the Gloucester-Sharpness Canal, there were just a few last-minute dramas. A lack of wind and a genuine fear the tide in the river had turned and that the Anne would not make the point. Ever the ingenuity of these maritime engineers, a number of boats sailed out with a line and warp directed by Captain Clegram before she was hauled in at nine o’clock.
Can you imagine the crowds standing on the banks calling them on? The frisson of excitement? The cheering. The whistling. The applause at they pulled her in.
When finally, both vessels were in the Canal, they hoisted their colours, shouted three cheers and the towing horses began their long journey onwards in the direction of the destination – Gloucester. The Meredith led the way.
There were plenty of delays. But onwards they went and over five hours after they left Sharpness and the Severn, they arrived at Gloucester Docks. It was half past three in the afternoon. Boats rowed out to meet them including a band of musicians playing the National Anthem and Rule Britannia. Church bells rang out in celebration across the city. And then there was 20,000 spectators that had crammed themselves on to the dockside.
Captain Clegram, Thomas Telford and all the great and good of Gloucester attended. Keen to mark the piece of history when the Canal officially opened for business. Clegram’s impact on the locale that he had joined was made permanent when just after his death in 1863 when his son and the local community paid a subscription for a special memorial stained glass window to him in Saul Church.
Directions and Map |
Find Saul Junction out on the Arlingham peninsula off the A38 south of Gloucester or north of Bristol or dot on to the canal at any point from the edge of Gloucester near Hardwick or near the WWT site at Slimbridge or indeed at Sharpness Docks itself