Photo: Entrance to Somerset Coal Canal at Dundas by Rodw
(Canal in various ownerships)
The Somersetshire Coal Canal was originally a very profitable canal, providing a means of transport for the coal from the Somerset mines, and feeding traffic to the Kennet & Avon and Wilts & Berks canals. Only a very small portion of it now remains in water, at its junction with the Kennet & Avon Canal, where it is used as private moorings.
The Somersetshire Coal Canal Society was formed in 1991 with the aim of preserving and conserving the canal. However, in 2008 the constitution was changed to progress onto restoration and this won the confidence of landowners and local councils.
The canal was opened in 1805 in order to carry coal from the coalfields in North Somerset to the Kennet and Avon Canal at Dundas to supply the markets of Southern England. Prior to this, coal had to be transported from south Wales to Bristol by ship before being distributed in the area. The SCC is a narrow canal and we were shown pictures of the once broad lock at Dundas (junction with the K&A Canal) that was later narrowed to prevent wide boats from the K&A taking the trade.
In 1858 this was one of the most profitable canals in the country, but by 1892 the trade was dying and the canal was closed in 1898. It was finally abandoned in 1904 when it was sold to The Great Western Railway.
The canal had to pass over hilly ground and initially was designed to operate using three caissons rather than conventional locks At the time a caisson lock, designed by Robert Weldon, was undergoing trials on the Shropshire Union Canal. It had the advantage of saving water, reducing the number of locks from twenty-two to three and speeding up the journey. One caisson lock was built at Combe Hay but proved to be unstable. Two others were planned but were not completed. As a result an inclined plane was constructed as a temporary measure whilst 22 locks were built.
Today some of these locks have been cleared and excavated and much of the stone is now exposed.
The Canal Society has prevented the remains of the canal from disappearing and the society’s long-term aspiration is to restore the whole canal. In 2002, a £700,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant enabled the restoration of the Grade II listed Midford Aqueduct, an important link between the two branches of the canal.