Exeter Branch report: Feb to Jul 2016

Our first lecture of the year (February 2016) was given by Colin Vosper on ‘Maritime shortcuts – canals in the West Country and abroad’. His ingeniously animated PowerPoint presentation illustrated the work of Victorian canal builders who devised mini-canal routes for tub-boats across the South West Peninsula to avoid treacherous sea passages around Land’s End. Prominent figures at the time were James Fussell IV (1748–1832) – an iron master and inventor; John Rennie (1761–1821) – the famous Scottish engineer; and James Green (1781–1849) – civil engineer and canal expert. Of the featured canals, the Bude Canal was remarkable for the adoption of inclined planes to haul tub boats on wheels to the upper levels instead of using locks, and the Grand Western Canal has a high level section at Tiverton and a lower section to Taunton. None of the canals however managed to traverse the entire peninsula, yet those sections that were completed proved to be successful commercial ventures. The talk was concluded with a time-lapse video of the journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean along the Panama Canal, arguably the greatest canal that was ever built.

Moving from artificial to natural waterways, our second lecture (March 2016) was given by Dr Jenny Bennett on ‘Exeter and its river – tracking changes from 4000 BC’. By integrating geological, archaeological, historical and cartographic data, she and her co-workers were able to recreate the chronology of the ever-changing flow patterns and the development of the floodplains. This included a long history of channel abandonment, the creation of new channels and the reoccupation of former channels in response to flood events and longer-term changes in climate. Special mention was made of the nature of the River Exe at Exeter, whose ancient configuration fell somewhere between a meandering and a braided system, and its impact on the industrial development of the medieval city with respect to the placement of leats, weirs and mills. Furthermore, the river in those days was much broader and shallower, allowing it to be forded at low water. Another revelation was that some of the Exeter Ship Canal probably follows the route of an abandoned channel (or channel segments) because in places it is far from straight.

Our popular annual country house visit led by Neil Macaulay (May 2016) was to Bridwell House at Uffculme set within 100 acres of late 18th century parkland with an ornamental lake and freely roaming herds of red and fallow deer. The Grade I listed Georgian house was built in Regency style between 1774 and 1779 by Richard Hall Clarke, whose family occupied the property until it was acquired by Lord Ivar Mountbatten in 1997 (Earl Mountbatten of Burma was his great uncle). The main reception rooms display fine decorative ceilings and command expansive views across the Culm Valley and the rolling hills of Devon. The original chapel was replaced by a Gothic-style structure in 1809, which was never consecrated because Clarke used it as a museum to house Captain Cook’s artefacts, acquired during his travels around the world. A cream tea was taken in the Orangery, an attractive building surrounded by south-facing gardens.

In July 2016, our annual ‘Meet & Greet’ event for new members was held in Tuckers Hall in Exeter, which has been occupied by the Incorporation of Weavers, Fullers & Shearmen since 1471. Having been introduced to the workings of the Devonshire Association, participants were given a brief history of the building followed by a walk around the ultramodern exhibition, including a virtual tour touch screen and a working fulling model.

A joint Exeter and South Devon branches Topsham to Exmouth afternoon excursion also took place in July, beginning at Holman Way car park with a guided tour of historic Topsham led by members of the Topsham Society. After a break for refreshments, participants enjoyed an exclusive Stuart Lines cruise to Exmouth Marina with a commentary by Tony Buller on the physical characteristics of the Exe Estuary and the development of the middle estuary villages. He concluded that most of the upper estuary has either disappeared or has been changed beyond recognition due to human intervention. The natural features of the middle estuary, however, have generally remained the same for hundreds of years. However its western margin has been straightened and sealed by railway embankments, and the originally uninhabited sand and gravel spit at The Point (Exmouth) was converted to a more permanent deep-water port (after an Act of Parliament in 1864) and is now home to the Exmouth Marina and the Quay Estate luxury apartments. Participants returned to Topsham from Exmouth Station via the picturesque, east bank Avocet railway.

Finally, we are delighted to announce that Katharine Harris has agreed to put her name forward at our October AGM as a replacement for Dr Margaret Fuest as Treasurer. Margaret will remain as a committee member after many years of excellent service as an officer. The branch, however, still urgently requires additional volunteers to boost the committee and help expand its activities during the next few years. Please contact Chairman Geoffrey Harding if you are interested in joining us.

Antony T Buller

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