“The two seas, the waters of St Ives Bay separated only by a narrow stretch of land from the ocean where St Michael’s Mount guards Marazion. Cut a canal and western Cornwall is an island.”Claud Williamson shaw, The Cornishman, 20th September 1906
For a number of years during the late 19th and early 20th century the idea of building a canal to join St Ives Bay with Mounts Bay was preoccupying the minds of a small group of Cornish engineers. It seemed like a cunning plan. If shipping had a way to avoid the dangerous waters around Lands End, saving time, money and lives, surely that would be to everyone’s advantage. The idea of a Hayle to Marazion canal began to formulate and plans were drawn and costs estimated. Today you can walk part of that planned route and it is an idyllic escape in a popular part of Cornwall.
Canals were not as common in Cornwall as they were in other parts of the country and today only a few survive. The most well-known of these is probably the Bude Canal which was completed in 1819. The earliest canal in Cornwall however was constructed nearly a hundred years before that in 1720 near to St Austell. Named Parnall’s canal, after the family that paid for its construction, it was just half a mile long and was used to move tin ore from Carclaze pit to the stamps. Small barges were strung together, loaded with ore and pulled the short distance by horses.
The St Columb Canal, also known as Edyvean’s Canal, was never finished but has a remarkable story in itself. It was originally designed to be 13 miles long, running in a loop inland from Mawgan Porth and then back to Newquay, with the idea of distributing sand, seaweed and stone to farms in the area. Work began in 1773 but only a small section between Mawgan Porth and St Columb was ever finished. What makes this canal remarkable though is that the whole project was designed and managed by the engineer John Edyvean who was completely blind.
The Liskeard to Looe canal opened in 1827, six miles long, it was used to move sand and lime as well as copper. The Par Canal was built around the same time to transport copper ore from Pontsmill to the coast at Par. And then finally there was the beautifully named Tamar Manure Canal, originally planned to be some 30 miles long again the project was never completed. Just a short piece was built near Gunnislake to bypass a weir but this was used for several year between 1796 and 1808 to import coal and fertiliser and export granite and bricks.
“We understand that due to the frozen state of the Liskeard and Looe Canal, there are upwards of 150 tons of copper ore at Moorswater and in boats which coud not be sampled this week with the other now lying in Looe.”West Briton 21 March 1845
And the last of the canals worth mentioning was in Hayle. In 1769, before the Hayle to Marazion canal was even an idea, the Cornwall Copper Company built a length of canal from Hayle to Copperhouse so that their ships were able to berth near their works.
Joining Two Bays
A quick glance at a map, even with an untrained eye, and it is easy to see why a canal between Hayle and Marazion seemed like such a good idea. There is just a short distance to cover, between three and four miles, through a landscape that is already low lying, especially at Marazion Marsh and the Saltings near Hayle, and soil was considered loose and sandy. In fact, it has been suggested that at some point in our ancient history Penwith was once an island, and it might well be again in the future.
“If the sea were to rise about fifty feet, as I suppose it might do over the next millennium or two, Penwith would show its independence by becoming an island. Spiritually, it is one already.”Gerald Priestland, West of the Hayle River, 1980
A canal here, joining the Hayle River at St Erth with the Red River which flows into Mounts Bay would shorten the journey around Lands End by some 30 miles, saving time and fuel for the shipping industry but perhaps more importantly saving ships from being wrecked and cargo and lives from being lost. The canal would also have been a source of income for the area as any vessels wishing to use it would have been charged a fee, of course.
The earliest mentions of the scheme come from the late 19th century, around 1888, when the benefits were discussed in the papers, though it is likely that the idea was first proposed much earlier than that. It seems as the project was initially dropped when it was clear that steam power was taking over from sail. The assumption was that this new form of propulsion would ensure that ships were no longer at the mercy of tide, wind and rough seas, therefore negating the need to avoid the treacherous waters around Lands End.
As a consequence no real action towards making the canal a reality seems to have been taken until some forty years later in 1921 when the scheme was revived.
Despite the advancements in technology ships were still being wrecked with alarming regularity on the Cornish coast in the early 20th century. In addition the Great Depression meant that unemployment was very high in Cornwall, as it was everywhere else, in the 1920s. A number of “improvement schemes”, such as the building of new roads, were proposed by West Penwith District Council “for the relief of the unemployed in the area”. All of a sudden the plans for the Hayle to Marazion canal were being banded about as a solution to everyone’s problems. A way to get our men back to work.
How it would work and what it would look like was discussed and engineers began making estimates as to cost.
“The canal would have a wide entrance on the Hayle side, with a dock at each end of 400 ft long and 50 ft wide, with reverse gates, the outer gates fitted with sluices for keeping the entrance clear. The width of the canal from lock to lock would be 150ft with 24ft of water at neap tides, the entrance on the Hayle to include an entrance to the port of Hayle from the canal. The inlet and outlet on the Marazion side for sialing ships and steamers would have a hydraulic lift-up bridge with lines for the trains on. the canal side could be built with concrete blocks as Mr Gill-Jenkins suggested a few weeks ago in his breakwater scheme . . .”The Cornishman, 28 September 1921
The estimated cost of building the canal was put at around £5 million, which works out at around £145 million in today’s money – needless to say an enormous sum. As a consequence not everyone was as convinced with the so-called virtues of the scheme at a local council meeting:
“Mention of the canal scheme was received with hilarity.”The Cornishman, 2nd November 1921
And by November 1921 it appears that the idea had been shelved yet again, one commentator suggested that the Hayle to Marazion canal would come “in due course”, not through any feat of engineering but when inevitably “the ocean breaks through the intervening narrow neck of land” and flood the area.
Walking along the Hayle River
It is strange, but also rather wonderful I think, to imagine what a canal between Mounts Bay and St Ives Bay might have looked like, and what it might have brought to the area now. Both of the proposed entry and exit points for the ships are nature reserves today, bursting with native and migratory bird life all year round. Marazion Marsh is famous for its stunning murmurations of starlings in the autumn and the tidal Saltings, or Hayle Estuary, is the most southerly estuary in the UK and, according to the RSPB, plays host to up to 18,000 migrant and wintering waterfowl according each year.
It is possible to access both Carnsew Pool and Ryan’s Field on the estuary, both looked after by the RSPB, and there is parking and a bird hide. But for me a walk along the peaceful Hayle River really is lovely. A relatively flat footpath runs all the way along beside the water from St Erth Church as far as Griggs Hill and the Causeway.
In the opposite direction, from St Erth, you can cross over the old bridge and an even quieter track follows the river for another mile of so towards Mounts Bay. As I walk I imagine that this was the planned route for the forgotten Hayle to Marazion Canal, in fact, the section between the estuary and St Erth appears to have been widen and straightened at some point.
While researching this article I came across a few other ambitious plans for canal building – Falmouth to Perranporth was one, Gweek to Hayle another – but of all the canals I read about, both the ones that were actually built and those that never got off the drawing board, I think the Hayle to Marazion Canal really would have been the sight to see.