Maritime Shortcuts

17th August 2017 Open Monthly Meeting

Maritime Shortcuts – Colin Vosper

The topic for the main speaker at the August 17th Bude and District U3A Open Meeting was close to home, yet far away, with none other than the Bude Canal playing a leading role in Colin Vosper’s talk: ‘Maritime Shortcuts  – Canals of the West Country and overseas, past, present and future’.    Attempts to engineer canals across the South West peninsula were the first focus of the talk, followed by a look at the Suez and Panama Canals and a future canal project in Central America.

Bude U3A Speaker Secretary, Denni Clarke, introduced Colin Vosper, a retired further education lecturer from Devon, for his talk about canals.  He said that in giving his talks about the South West canals he hopes to raise awareness about local history as well as encourage travel, and to show that local history has many surprises in store for those who may be interested!

Throughout his lively and enthralling presentation, Mr. Vosper used ‘PowerPoint’, photography and enhanced digital imagery to illustrate his points and especially to demonstrate the various engineering plans for overcoming the problem of constructing canals through difficult territory.  The centuries old dream of building a canal across the South West peninsula, would save some 200 miles on a sea journey from the Bristol Channel to the English Channel.  Three prominent 18th / 19th Century engineers, John Rennie, James Green and Thomas Telford each played a part in attempting to make the dream a reality – of course none of their plans were totally successful.

James Green, Devonshire’s first county surveyor, was given the task in 1817 of surveying the land for the Bude Canal (1823 – 1889).  His planned use of six inclined planes to take the specially built tub- boats uphill using water power was unique.  Mr. Vosper reminded his audience that an original tub- boat could be seen in the Canal Museum at Helebridge.  He encouraged his listeners to get out and visit what remained of the canal and its workings: the Hobbacott and Marhamchurch  Inclines, Druxton Wharf, Helebridge museum and of course all that is to be seen in and around Bude itself.

The second attempt to build a canal from the Bristol Channel to the English Channel was the Public Devonshire Canal – so called because the public could buy shares in the enterprise.  The  proposed route roughly followed the present day Tarka Railway Line but nothing much of the canal was ever built.

The Grand Western Canal (1814- 1864), explained Mr. Vosper, was to be built in two parts, beginning near Bridgwater in Somerset and ending at Topsham, Devon, with a spur to Tiverton.  There was to be a level section from Tiverton to Loudwells and the Somerset section which included inclines and boat lifts – the first commercial service of boat lifts in the UK.  Although the entire project was never completed, the Devon section remains open today and is now a country park.

‘Three canals failed to get across the peninsula,’ said Mr. Vosper, ‘ but what remains provides us with evidence of our industrial heritage.’ ‘Go and visit them and show support’, he urged.

Moving on to the present, Mr. Vosper turned his attention to the building of the Suez and Panama Canals.  Many, including Napoleon, had dreamt of digging a waterway all the way from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, thus avoiding the south Atlantic and southern Indian Ocean and saving some 4,000 miles of travel in safer conditions for ships and crew. In 1856 Frenchman, Ferdinand De Lesseps, obtained a concession to construct the canal and work finally began.

De Lesseps, who was not an engineer but more of a ‘project manager’, was also involved in a French attempt to build a canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean towards the end of the 19th Century.  The Panama Canal, as it is known, proved to be a much more difficult engineering project than Suez with dramatic climate changes, a hazardous rain forest and mountainous terrain to contend with and the French eventually abandoned the project.  Ultimately it was the USA  that completed the Panama Canal in 1915 under the direction of Major General Washington Goethals,  thus saving about 7,000 miles on a sea voyage from New York to San Francisco.

Mr Vosper showed a dramatic four minute time lapse film of a journey through the canal from Atlantic to Pacific. The film showed the mighty boat locks in action. These locks are an important feature of the canal, enabling some of the largest ocean going ships to pass through.

The Suez and Panama Canals have in common some very recent updates.  Panama has new locks and a new channel, opened in 2016, and Suez has added a ‘by-pass’ channel which has effectively doubled the number of ships which can pass through. Looking to the future of maritime short cuts, Mr. Vosper, spoke of a Chinese / Russian plan – ‘more speculation than reality’ – to build a 170-mile long canal across volcanic land in Nicaragua.  The project is risky and may never happen, he said in conclusion – ‘ and ‘now I’m ready for a cup of tea!’

Denni Clarke thanked Mr. Vosper for his enthusiastic and enlightening presentation.  She reminded everyone that the next Bude U3A Open Meeting will be on 21st September and features a talk given by Richard Wolfenden-Brown on The Plough Arts Centre.  Everyone then joined Mr. Vosper for that cup of tea.

Anna Crew

24 / 08 / 2017