Dating back to the 1500’s the Exeter Canal was one of the first artificially made canals in the UK which was constructed to allow boats to bypass the weirs on the River Exe and get between the port at Exeter Quay and the mouth at Turf Quay by Exmouth. Before the construction of the canal, ships were unable to sail directly to Exeter due to the weirs which were constructed in 1284 across the River Exe to drive the water mills at the manor of Topsham so were forced to unload their cargo at Topsham Quay. The construction of the countess weir (named after the 8th Countess of Devon who owned the manor of Topsham at the time) meant that Topsham became a thriving port. Port handling fees were collected along with tolls to allow the transport of goods along the manors roads which benefited both the land owner and the town which introduced the necessary businesses required to support the busy port. Following many petitions from Exeter's city merchants to have the Countess weir removed, in 1550 King Edward VI finally agreed to the request however by this time the River Exe had silted up upstream of the weir and ships were no longer able to pass hence the construction of the Exeter Shipping Canal which runs alongside the River Exe. It was originally constructed between the Countess Weir and Exeter Quay although due to restrictions at low tide it was extended over 100 years later so that the entry point was further down the estuary. The canal was later enlarged to allow for ocean going ships however with the improvements of transport of goods by train and road the canal saw a decline in commercial use and a great paddling location.
At 5 miles in length the Exeter canal has become a popular route for outdoor enthusiasts including paddlers, walkers, cyclists and wildlife enthusiasts. There are a number of car parks located along the canal starting in the city centre (we parked at Haven Banks Car Park, Exeter EX2 8GP) and ending near the Turf lock so there is perfect length paddle for everyone. Once you exit the city centre the canal flows through the countryside and you have far-reaching views across the countryside for the majority of your paddle. About half way along the canal is the Countess of weir lifting bridge where the the A38 crosses both the river and the canal. Although the bridge is a lifting bridge the costs and work associated with stopping the traffic and lifting the bridge means that there are not a lot of large boats on the canal. This means that the canal is relatively free of motorised boats and makes for a really relaxed paddle and great route for paddlers wanting to gain confidence on a flat body of water.
If you like to stop off at a pub during your paddles then the Exeter canal has a couple of great options. The Turf Hotel marks the end of the canal and has a lovely pub garden looking over both the river Exe and the canal. It is not directly accessible by road so the pub garden is normally full of outdoor enthusiasts on a sunny afternoon. For paddlers who choose to start in Exeter and do not wish to paddle the full length of the canal then the Double Locks pub is a great stopping point about half way along the canal with a pontoon right outside the pub great for mooring your boards and kayaks on. The Double locks has a great array of the outdoor seating looking over the canal.
For more experienced paddlers that want a loop paddle with a little more variety then it is possible to paddle down the River Exe, past Topsham and then back up the canal entering next to the Turf Quay Hotel. Beginning at the Exeter basin start the first part of the journey on the canal to avoid the Trews Weir and then carry your board or boat across onto the river (approx. 100m). There are several points along the river where the canal runs alongside and there is public access to get back onto the canal however if you wish to do the full loop then paddle past Topsham quay and you will see the Turf Hotel on your right (if you can’t see the hotel you will see the Yurt at the end of the pub garden!). From here you can access the start of the Exeter canal and follow it upstream back to the quay at Exeter.
Additional Access Points:
- Countess Weir Car Park, EX6 6LR
- Off Station Road, EX6 8DZ
Before You Go:
- The Turf Hotel often closes through the winter months so check their opening times before visiting
- Along with all the usual paddling kit we highly recommend wearing a quick release leash on canals and moving water.
- Water levels can be low in the summer months so if you have a US fin box on your paddle board swap the central fin out for a shorter flex river fin
- No license is required for paddling on the Exeter Ship Canal
- If you do not own your own paddleboard then you can hire Sandbanks Style paddleboards from Saddles & Paddles on Exeter Quay. They also rent out solid sit on top kayaks and Canadian canoes.