In my introduction to Bude I mentioned that the opening of the canal was the first big thing to happen to this tiny, nondescript village at the mouth of the equally nondescript River Neet.
The reason that I’m calling it nondescript is because there was nothing here; no harbour to land fish, no minerals to mine, and it didn’t even lead to anywhere. All that was here were rocks, sand and water, so why build a canal? The answer was because of all three.
The rocks and sea cliffs around Bude are unique for Cornwall in as much as that they are made up of carboniferous limestone. Nowhere else in the county has rocks like these, and geologists have even found a special name for them – the Bude Formation. To mere mortals like me it makes for an interesting coastline and a nice sandy beach, but to people interested in making a living it meant that these cliffs produced sand containing calcium carbonate which could be used to neutralise the acidic land of the inland farms.
The first person to dream up the idea of transporting this sand inland by canal was a Cornishman who went by the name of John Edyvean back in 1774. His idea was to build a 95 mile waterway from Bude to the navigable part of the River Tamar, thereby connecting the Bristol Channel with the English Channel. This would have allowed, not just the transportation of sand, but other goods as well, such as coal, slate and timber. It also meant that ships didn’t have to take the hazardous journey around Land’s End.
Having dreams are one thing, but realising them is another, and in the end his plans were proved to be too ambitious. Nevertheless, the seeds were sown and in 1819 work began on a cut down version which involved building a 2 mile stretch of canal between Bude and Helebridge which could be used by traditional barges, and then followed by 33 miles of tub-boat canal.
Tub boats were amphibious craft which could be hauled up inclined planes by water power, and were used where canal locks were impractical. This was innovative engineering for the time and involved using water drawn from the specially built Tamar Lake.
The project involved building six of these inclined planes as well as two barge locks and an aqueduct over the River Tamar. At the Bude end, the course of the River Neet was altered where it ran into the sea, and a breakwater built.
It involved a lot of planning and a lot of money, but took just six years to complete and opened in 1825.
Despite all this hard work it wasn’t a financial success, and although the farms got their fertilizer, it came at a cost.
The increasing use of the railways didn’t help, and in 1891, apart from the barge section and the feeder branch to the Tamar Lake, the canal was closed.
£120,000 was spent on the scheme, but it cost the council just £8,000 when they took over what was left of it in 1901.
The canal and the river meet up at Summerleaze Beach where you can access the breakwater and walk along to Chapel Rock.
This rock and its chapel was said to be the spot where Bude originated. Dedicated to the Holy Trinity and St Michael in 1400, the chapel also housed a lamp that helped to guide ships away from the treacherous rocks along this notorious coastline and into the safety of Bude Haven.
One of the best rock features to see here is the unusual ‘Whaleback’ If you walk along the beach on the seaward side of the breakwater, you can’t miss it because it does indeed resemble a beached whale. Geologists call it a pericline, which is defined as a “dome-shaped formation of stratified rock with its slopes following the direction of folding”.
After you’ve finished looking at the rocks close up, then it’s worth heading up to Efford Down to have a grandstand view. To get there just aim for the Storm Tower (or ‘Pepper Pot’ as it’s more affectionately known).
This octagonal tower was built as a refuge for the coastguard by local landowner and philanthropist, Sir Thomas Acland. The views from up here, as you can imagine, are exceptional. Looking northwards, your eyes will be drawn towards the satellite dishes of GCHQ Bude near Morwenstow, a joint UK/USA operation for the intelligence services.
There are several beaches between Bude and Morwenstow, but my favourite is Sandymouth, which is beautifully looked after by the National Trust.
Sandymouth is just under 3 miles along the coast path from Bude, but it’s as good a place as any, to see the rocks, the sand and the water. Don’t miss it!