It is difficult to ascertain how long fishing has been possible on the canal. Hearsay and vague records indicate that it took place whilst there was commercial usage. Fragments of information apparently from far back from the 19th century suggest that it was often of a high standard. Some of the veteran anglers of the 1920s often spoke of ‘the days when the boats were running’ but had little to say how the navigation affected sport. They mention that it kept the channel clear of weed, but then of course weed growth did not present the problem it does today.
The date at which the Bridgwater Angling Association acquired the fishing rights may be a matter for dispute, but it must have been between 1907 and 1909. The commercial navigation ceased about this time. Records of merchandise carried were discontinued in 1907.
No trace of any negotiations involved remain. But what we know is that the rent demanded by the then owners, the Great Western Railway was £3 per year and £3 per year was charged for the towpath. The actual stretch which was obtained was from the Bridgwater docks to Maunsell lock. This stretch has been rented ever since. £1 was also charged by the Maunsell estate who had retained the fishing rights. So all in all the yearly rent at the time was £7.
During the time that the GWR owned the canal and contrary to believe by the locals, a high standard of maintenance was upheld. In fact it was obligatory by an act of parliament when the GWR purchased the canal from the previous owners. It was during world war two the maintenance on the canal went on a steep decline owing to lack of man power. After the war when the railways were nationalized the ownership of the canal came under the British Waterways Board. This is when the rot started but the canal was still required for the operation of the Bridgwater docks by supplying it with water, for without the canal water the docks could not operate.
But when the docks were closed to shipping and the supply of water was no longer needed the future of the canal was uncertain. This is when the Somerset Waterways Society played a major part in convincing the County council of the recreational value of the canal. Thus finance was obtained for a restoration of sorts and the canal was saved.
There is a veritable kaleidoscope of memories built up over a life of fishing on the canal. They come from the entire length of the canal. Wide waters at Huntsworth, Standards lock between Fordgate and North Newton and the so called Paul Reeds stretch which is located between the scrap yard bridge and the Squibblers Way on the out skirts of Bridgwater where very popular in the heyday of fishing the canal. The high bank at Durston has been an important place as regards to fishing as well.
But as popularity was concerned it was Wide Waters the anglers flocked to. It afforded the best fishing for the average angler. Wide Waters was a lay by for the barges and thus had the widest expanse of water which attracted the fish. Unfortunately the early 1970s saw the emergence of the M5 and the peace and tranquility of the place was gone for ever. I recall way back in the 1970s well known match fisherman from the local area fishing this place with large wagglers and worm for a good day bream fishing.
Standards lock is recalled with the lock house- long since demolished- and a Mr Ingram in residence. This gentlemen was always ready with information about the fish which was often quite visible in the clear water below the gates. One Bill Morrison who was one of the fore most roach experts in the southwest way back in the 1920s had a favourite spot down towards the row of willows on the opposite bank. The amount of quality roach found there back then was remarkable by all accounts. The main shoal came right under the main lock gates when feeding. The shoal believe it or not consisted largely of fish of about one and a half to one and three quarters of a pound. The bait that Bill Morrison used, Boiled Wheat.
Now the Paul Reeds stretch which has already been mentioned may not be one of the most scenic parts of the canal but it was certainly one of the most popular in the early part of the 20th century. Being nearer the town it was very convenient, especially for an evenings fishing. Over many seasons this length gave some of the best sport available. The favoured spots were the “Rushes” where the old course of the canal left towards the river. Tench were the principle quarry but any other canal fish could be expected and in the form of very good specimens. This stretch was notable for having been one of the main habitats of the original school of carp.
Prior to world war 2 there were several excellent and indeed quite famous stretches for fishing within the boundaries of the town of Bridgwater. The basin just outside the lock into the docks, and the tennis courts in the length at Hamp which is now referred as the YMCA stretch were popular and they were exceptionally good for roach and tench. The occasional chub often inhabited these lower parts. In fact in 1921 a considerable number appeared lying in line under the walls at West Street. Unfortunately they have not been seen in such numbers since. Perch was very much in abundance in the canal in those times and they added much to the attraction to the area. Very good roach were seen over most of the lower end (YMCA to the docks). Tragically neglect and low water has rendered most part of this stretch difficult for fishing. The length between Wembdon road and Victoria is only just over 2ft deep in the middle.
The ‘High Bank’ at Durston or the Lyng Embankment to give its proper name might be regarded as on of the most famous venues. It was here that so many of the early Association cup contests were fished. The winning of this cup was a mark of distinction for any match man worth his salt.
The ‘Newton Stretch’ between Standards Lock and Kings Lock being further afield , or at one time less easy to reach, was favoured by the few who were in search of unfrequented places. Here again all kinds of the fish of the canal were in abundance and it had a reputation for having the best stocks of pike. Many of the largest were caught in this length. The original quality of the fishing seems to have endured rather better than elsewhere for many years from early last century.
The water above North Newton – Kings Lock- was never well used in fact it was almost totally disregarded, But Banklands just below Maunsell lock has a particular charm. The channel goes through a cutting giving a feeling of shelter. It is a place where a long series of splendid catches can be remembered.
Just after the war the short stretch between the upper and lower Maunsell locks was carrying a stock of Roach remarkable even for that period. For several seasons it was one of the popular spots on the canal. It was here that one Bert Porter took a Roach of two pounds thirteen ounces, a record for the Association waters.
In the 1920s boating for pleasure began to take of on the canal. A guy called Hanson maintained a boat house at the first swing bridge -crossways- No longer there owing to the bridge for Squibblers way. The popularity of pleasure boating was such that it was done all year round not just in the summer months. The favourite trip was from Crossways to Fordgate and back. It was during this period that anglers who fished wide waters notice that most fish where not bothered by the disturbance. Except two spieces Carp and Tench. These two types of fish left the area for either Fordgate or the Paul Reeds stretch.
Back in 1928 the canal between Kings lock and Standards lock was drained in order to fit new lock gates at standards lock. It was dry or nearly so for several days. But the tench survived this so well that a good catch was possible about a week or so later. Assessment of the consequences for the roach is less easy to make, but recovery must have been rapid because the fishing had regained its former state within a few seasons. This occurrence prompts speculation that either environmental conditions or water quality used to be more favourable for fish. Also the instance shows that although the railway company maintained the canal so well there was little regard for the fishery.
In 1980 a book was published called Fishing Canals by Ken Cope. In it the author mentions the Bridgwater and Taunton canal. Here is an except “Roach, rudd , bream, tench and pike are the main species and they often reach specimen proportions. Big fish reported in the last three years include rudd to 2 lb 12 oz, roach to 2 lb 11 oz, tench over 5 lb and bream to 5 lb 6 oz. Bronze maggots, casters and bread flake are the most popular baits but many tench are taken on worms. Past records from the water reveal rudd of 3 lb 12 oz, roach of 2 lb 14 oz, pike 27 lb 4 oz and chub 5 lb 2 oz.”
As you can see the canal from an angling point of view has a very rich history indeed. But alas those anglers who are the mainstay of the history of the tow path have long passed away. But as one now wanders along the many stretches of the canal devoid of anglers there still linger in my mind an essence of fishing from long ago. People like you and me sitting on their wicker baskets and armed with their cane rod and peacock quill floats. But the anglers fished a canal whose personality has changed over the years. In those days there where many more places where one could just plonk one self down on the bank and have a dabble without worrying about hacking back the reeds or raking out the swim. The water way has now been blighted by neglect and encroachment of the ghastly weed and as a consequence the anglers have left in their droves. The future of the canal is uncertain lack of investment and the never ending threat of budget cuts puts development in doubt. As the saying goes “you never know what is around the corner” and in terms of the canal this certainly applies.
The building of the canal was started in 1822, this was the days before JCBs bulldozers and even steam shovels. The canal hard to believe was dug by hand wheel barrows, horses and picks and shovels where the main tools of the day. And for the record the canal was completed in 1824, and then it only went as far as Somerset bridge. The canal was extended through the town up to the docks in 1841. On average the navvies in building the canals burnt up an incredible 20,000 calories a day, As you can see it was pretty hard work. The navvies built the canal believing that it was for use of barge traffic and the transporting of cargo. But I wonder if they every realised that one day that the resultant of their hard labour would provide many hours of delightful pleasure for the people who partake in our much beloved sport that of angling.
Most of the material for this article came from a booklet that was obtainable from local tackle shops in the early 1980’s The booklet was titled The History of Bridgwater Angling Association by Harry Sutton. Harry was on the committee for many years and worked as a dentist in the town. I would like to thank the ex chairman of Bridgwater Angling Association John Hill for lending me a copy for without it the writing of this article would have not been possible.
Tight lines Pete C