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The Rolle Canal

The Rolle Canal.

Constructed under the instigation of Lord Rolle early in the 19th Century to extend the commercial navigation on the Torridge upstream as far as Great Torrington.

Previously the navigational limit had effectively been the tidal limit at Weare Giffard.

The prime purposes of the canal were:

1. To facilitate the carriage of limestone and coal as far as possible inland from the port of Bideford to be burned in lime kilns for spreading on agricultural land to increase fertility.

2. To carry clay from the Marland clay pits to Bideford for the pottery industry and for export.

For the latter purpose a mineral railway was subsequently built to replace the packhorse trail from the canal at Torrington to the clay pits.

The chief engineering features of the canal were:

1. The Sea Lock - the entry to the canal from the Torridge estuary at Landcross.
A conventional large canal lock to maintain the canal water level while allowing river barges to enter the canal basin at the appropriate state of tide and remain there for loading/unloading or repairs. There was a considerable ship building industry based at the sea lock. The lock chamber and canal basin have been partially restored by the owners and, along with an old Torridge barge needing restoration, can be seen from the Tarka Trail just South of Landcross tunnel.

2. The Inclined Plane at Ridd - about three-quarters of a mile South of the Sea Lock.
The level of the canal had to be raised from near sea level at Landcross to the level of the Torridge upstream of Torrington. This was achieved in one step by the use of an Inclined Plane where the canal boats (tub-boats with wheels attached) were dragged up a steep ramp by an endless chain powered by a water-wheel.
This feature was virtually obliterated in the building of the railway along which the Tarka Trail now runs, but part of the vaulted roof of the in-filled wheel pit is just visible at the side of the trail.
It is proposed, in consultation with the County Archaeologist and English Nature, to carry out a limited excavation of the wheel pit to reveal more of its construction and improve its already important status as a hibernation site for bats.

3. The Beam Aqueduct - In the vicinity of Beam House the canal was carried over the Torridge at a high level on a stone arched aqueduct. This now forms the driveway to Beam House, a youth activity centre.

4. The Mineral line interchange and viaduct upstream of Rothern Bridge, Torrington.
The present steel girder railway viaduct carrying the Tarka Trail across the Torridge valley supercedes the original wooden trestle viaduct that carried the narrow gauge clay railway linking the Marland clay pits with the canal. A few of the original stone plinths of the old viaduct are visible from the “Rolle Road” which now follows the canal bed from the “Puffing BiIIy" pub on the Tarka Trail, around the base of Torrington Castle Hill, as far as “New Town Mills".

5. New Town Mills - Built by Lord Rolle, along with Rolle Bridge over the Torridge, upstream of the town, to provide a modern efficient water mill and major road link south from the town. The canal feeder leat from upstream of Rosemoor, together with the side stream running down from Stevenstone in the East, provided a reliable water supply for the mills.

6. Canal Basin and Limekilns at Rosemoor - the effective terminus for the canal craft in the coal and limestone trade. These are not at present open to public view but plans are in preparation with Rosemoor Gardens for restoration of the canal basin and opening a public walkway from Rosemoor’s woodland car park, along the line of the leat, to access the basin and allow sight of the lime kilns.

7. The "Dark Weir” - at the base of Darkham Wood towards the Eastern edge of Rosemoor property.
This weir across the Torridge stabilised the river level at this point to ensure a constant water supply to the canal. There is a commemorative stone set into the masonry where the leat leaves the river at the West end of the weir.

The "Dark Weir” and the canal leat feature prominently in Henry Williamson’s tale of Tarka the Otter, as do the New Town Mills, the canal aqueduct at Beam and the canal below Halfpenny Bridge.

Chris Hassall, April 2004