With an hour free before a coffee rendezvous with our son and his partner at their new house, we opted for a brisk walk down the next stretch of the Ship Canal.
In the autumn we walked from the terminus to the bascule bridge at Countess Wear. Today we parked by the bridge and walked the other way in brilliant sunshine. The canal above the bridge was frozen -
but on the other side of the bridge it was mostly open water. The sewage works is the most prominent feature on this stretch.
Many years ago I was a helper Mum when our son’s class visited the works – totally fascinating. The strongest memory I have is the chorus of ‘Eurggghhhhh!!!’ when the children saw the mechanical screening area – a turning cylinder type of mechanism with spikes to catch floating items, festooned with dripping loo paper and all sorts of other stuff ….. ‘Why are there all those white balloons?’… I don’t remember the answer that was given but the grown-ups were amused! I do remember being told that the water that is discharged into the river (the other side of the works) is clean enough to drink – it certainly looked clean enough. And the entire office block was heated and powered by a combined heat and power plant run on the methane gas from the treatment process. I hope it still is.
From April 1963 to December 1998, the sewage sludge was taken out to sea by MV Countess Wear and dumped. The law on dumping at sea changed and so this ceased at the end of 1998. There is a fascinating account of one of these trips in a pdf in the archives of ss-shieldhall.co.uk (‘A short sea voyage’, page 17 of their February 2011 newsletter, only available as a direct link from Google – I found the link by searching for MV Countess Wear.) It also has the spec for those interested. This site http://www.exetermemories.co.uk/em/_transport/canalshipping.php has pictures of the vessel.
We couldn’t tell from our side of the canal where the wharf had been; the pictures below show that only the area alongside the access road is now open enough, but it was probably nearer the works which is now all concealed behind reeds, scrub and trees.
There were plenty of others enjoying the bright sunshine. The towpath here forms part of the National Cycle Route 2 and there were many cyclists and runners – plenty of space for all as it was built wide enough for maintenance vehicles to use.
We walked almost as far as the M5 crossing, about a mile away. There were three craft moored on the opposite bank – no signs of life though. One looked like a houseboat, another like something naval, and the third a little fishing boat.
It was noisy from the M5, a few hundred yards across the water meadows as it swings round to cross the canal and river a little further on. We turned round here.
In spite of the freezing wind (and a pronounced whiff from the other side of the canal) there were several pike fishermen out on both banks. You can just about see that the canal is frozen near the edge, and the wind is causing ripples further out. No-one was without a hat and this chap was hugging his insulated mug. Meg found a ball to play with, as she often does.
The Old Sludge Beds nature reserve has been developed on part of the old sewage works. The water levels are now managed to provide a ‘mosaic of wetland habitats, open water, freshwater reedbed and scrub’ – see http://www.devonwildlifetrust.org/reserve/Old+Sludge+Beds/. Daubenton’s bat and Cetti’s warbler occur, and there are also starling roosts (like the one you can see on Tixall Wide at the right time of year). Not a lot to be seen on a midwinter morning though.
There are good views of the river bridge in this direction (the safety barrier in the foreground is on the road to the sewage works).
We hope to complete the walk down to the sea lock our next time out here. The pub there, known as Turf after the lock, closes during the winter but opens again next weekend! The small notice gives details of the Topsham ferry times.
Let’s hope it’s another sunny day, though a little less cold would be nice!