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The Exeter Ship Canal, sometimes just called the Exeter Canal, downstream of Exeter, Devon, England was built in the 1560s which means it pre-dates the "canal mania" period and is one of the oldest artificial waterways in the UK.
At the start of Exeter's history, the River Exe was tidal and navigable up to the city walls enabling it to be a busy port. In the 1270s or 80s, the Countess of Devon, Isabella de Fortibus, built a weir across the river to power her mills (this weir is remembered in the name of the nearby suburb Countess Wear). This had the effect of cutting off Exeter's port from the sea and damaging its salmon fisheries. In 1290, trade with Exeter's port was restored, only to be blocked by a new weir built in 1317 by Hugh de Courtenay, 9th Earl of Devon (Isabella's cousin), who also built a quay at Topsham. Because of the blockages on the river, boats were forced to unload at Topsham and the earls were able to exact large tolls to transport goods to Exeter. For the next 250 years the city petitioned the King to have the waterway reopened, to no avail, until 1550 when Edward VI finally granted permission. However it was by then too late because the river channel had silted up.
In 1563, Exeter traders employed John Trew of Glamorgan to build a canal to bypass the weirs and rejoin the River Exe in the centre of the city where a quay would be built. Work began in February 1564, and was completed in Autumn 1566 or early 1567. The canal had three locks with vertical gates – the first pound locks to be built in Britain. They accommodated boats up to 16 tonnes. The original cut was 3 feet (0.91 m) deep and 16 feet (4.9 m) wide (0.9 m by 5 m). It ran one and three quarter miles (2.8 km) from just below the Countess Weir to the centre of Exeter. This navigation was not very effective; it could not be entered at all states of the tide, and the double transfer of cargo over such a short distance made it uncompetitive with road transport. The weir that maintains the water level in the quay is still named "Trew's Weir" after the canal's builder.
In 1677 the canal was extended and the entrance was moved downstream to Topsham. In 1701 the canal was deepened and widened to allow the passage of ocean-going ships. At the same time the number of locks on the canal was reduced to one. Floodgates were also fitted to the canal entrance. These improvements lead to the canal being highly successful until demand for access declined with the end of the wool trade in the early nineteenth century and later with the rise of the railways.
There were many notable failures to connect Exeter and the South West to the national canal and rail networks:
The Grand Western Canal linking Exeter to Bristol (1796) was never completed;
The Bristol & Exeter Railway link to the canal basin was postponed in 1832 and 1844;
The South Devon Railway ran services to the canal from 1867, but by this time the canal was too small to attract the sizeable ocean-going vessels and the canal was taken over by its creditors for sixteen years. Use of the canal has declined gradually ever since.
The last commercial use of the canal was in 1972 when the Esso Jersey left the canal basin, carrying oil to its terminal, although the government-owned water board ran a sludge tanker, the Countess Weir, until 1997 by which time it was privately owned.
The fall of commercial traffic in the 1960s coincided with the rise of leisure use of the canal.
After some recent difficulties the future of the canal looks good with the city basin being included in part of a £24 million redevelopment. The quay area has been subject to redevelopment over recent years and is continuing to be converted to wider recreational use. The canal basin itself is popular for a range of water sports. Throughout the year a small hand powered passenger ferry (a pull ferry) operates across the canal during the day, though there is a footbridge close at hand.