Exeter has a perfectly good river on its doorstep so why was there a need for a canal you may ask. For the answer to that we need to go back to the late 13th
century when the Countess of Devon, a member of the Courtenay family, built a weir across the river just upstream from Topsham
in order to power her mills on either side of the river.
Up until this point the river was navigable up to the city walls, but the weir made it difficult for boats to reach the city even though the Countess left a gap in the middle of the weir. Worse still, in 1311 her cousin, Hugh de Courtenay, blocked the central section, effectively forcing the ships bound for Exeter to unload at his quay in Topsham.
The Courtenay family were very influential and Henry Courtenay, the 1st Marquis of Exeter, was a close friend of King Henry VIII, which was just asking for trouble if you ask me, and the Marquis unsurprisingly ended up losing his head on Tower Hill in 1539. Falling out of favour with the King meant that all his lands were confiscated and the city of Exeter was eventually granted the right to tear down the weir. Unfortunately, it was all a bit too late as the river had silted up, and to overcome the problem it was decided to build a canal linking Countess Wear (!), as it became known (and still is), to the city.
The Roman and medieval city of Exeter grew up on a hill overlooking the River Exe, which means that the river runs below the city rather than through it.
This also means that it requires an inconvenient 15-minute walk downhill from the city centre (unless you follow the nicer walk alongside the City Wall), or an even more inconvenient bus service to get here. That said, get here you must, because it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of the city.
In my Brief History of Exeter, I mentioned that a Celtic tribe called the Dumnonii were the first people to settle here, and although there doesn’t appear to be any hard evidence, it seems likely that they were trading at the Quayside before the Romans arrived.
You might have expected the Romans to be trading here themselves, and although they probably did, their main port was at Topsham, some 4 miles downstream.
Even so, by the Middle Ages, trade was flourishing on the Quayside – or at least it was until Countess Isabella de Fortibus built a weir across the river above Topsham to run her mills. To bypass the problem a canal was built from the opposite side of the river down to a point just below Topsham.
Exeter’s influence was restored, and by the mid-18th century trade reached its peak when woollen cloth became the chief export. This cloth was stored in warehouses along with imported olive oil, wine and salt cod.