Topsham, Devon, and the River Exe Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Topsham, Devon, and the River Exe

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For a few centuries Topsham was the main port for Exeter, before the world's first lock-gated canal was built to try to bypass it. It lies on the River Exe in Devon in the UK and has been settled by Celts, Romans and Saxons. Fishing and shipbuilding were important economic activities. Bricks from Holland (which were brought as ballast in ships) were used to build many of the larger and most sumptuous houses. Across the river is a castle surrounded by a deer park. Despite its small size, it is still served by a railway, which is known as the Avocet Line. It has ten pubs within a mile of each other (the Topsham Ten) and is close to an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). It also has an award-winning farm-shopping centre nearby, which contains what many believe to be one of the country's finest fish and chip shops, close to one of the few pubs HM the Queen has visited.


The River Exe starts on one of the National Parks of Exmoor and flows through Exeter, entering the English Channel at Exmouth (there is a theme going on here). Topsham (the theme didn't last long) lies between Exeter and Exmouth. The Old English word for meadow is 'ham' and 'hamm' is a watermeadow. Topsham has both.

A Roman fort was built here in the 1st Century AD and a fairly straight road runs from Topsham to Exeter, leading some to think it is an old road. Topsham is a riverside town, with views downstream along the River Exe to Exmouth and, nowadays, to the M5 in the other direction. But, in years gone by, the view would have been to Exeter's Roman walled garrison (the wall is still there, but the Romans are not) and Exmoor. Where else would you build a fort?

Powderham and Some Fishing

Over the river from Topsham is Powderham Castle. It is the country retreat (home) of the Earls of Devon, also known as the Courtenays, after which some streets are named. They came, along with other immigrants like William the Conqueror mentioned in the Domesday Book, from France. They built other establishments in Devon before building the castle around 1390, which now includes a deer park. Much later they added one or two (now very old) tortoises. The family made rules about what people could and couldn't do. Despite this they have had a chequered history, involving the legal profession and sanctions called tainting and beheading. Later on they also had dealings with Roundheads, which were less stressful.

In 1846 an engineer built an atmospheric railway through the grounds (with permission), which proved to be a mistake, involving leather seals and hungry rats. IK Brunel made several mistakes in his illustrious career; this was one of the grandest.

Shipbuilding and fishing were very important to the economy of Topsham. A mural, on the side of a small shop, celebrates the abundant fishing that was enjoyed in the River Exe in years gone by. Shipbuilding is no longer on the agenda, being replaced by strolling and gazing.

The Port, Lock Gates and a Canal

Until 1250 a boat could sail up the River Exe and tie up alongside the quay in Exeter. Then along came a Countess who caused a weir to be built across the river to power her mills. (Not sure if they were Satanic). The weir was dismantled, only to be replaced by another constructed by her cousin, who lived in Powderham Castle, a few years later. He also had the hidden agenda, and commercial acuity, to build a quay at Topsham, thinking that ships of the time had to unload their cargoes somewhere, and he could levy a toll or two. During the next 250 or so years, much head scratching went on until the traders of Exeter employed a canal builder to bypass the River Exe and its weir altogether. In 1563 John Trew was employed to build the world's first canal with lock gates. Up to that moment Topsham was the only maritime gateway to Exeter.

The Dutch Connection

The port at Topsham was still important. The canal was limited to ships of 16 tonnes for the next couple of centuries and pulled by horses for about two miles, very slowly. The canal was eventually lengthened to four miles and could accommodate ships of up to 150 tonnes. So Topsham continued to export much of the agricultural output of Devon.

Some of the wool and serge that was sent from Topsham went to Holland. In return, during the 1700s the ships came back with bricks. Some say these were used as ballast in otherwise empty ships. This is something that this researcher finds incredible, as the Dutch did not make bricks for nothing. Coincidentally the ships also brought back architects' plans for building Dutch-style houses with gables of a wavy nature. These are there now, mainly on The Strand, for all to see. The combination of bricks and plans suggests a grander design.

The Avocet Line

Railways come and go, but Topsham's arrived in 1861 and is still there today, on its way from Exeter to Exmouth. It is known as the Avocet Line because it passes the SSSI that is the Exe estuary and the many thousands of birds (including avocets, which are the emblem for the RSPB) that wade there, looking for the next worm.

Once there was a short branch line to the quay from the station. This was closed in 1957, and is now a road.

Topsham quay is still there but is home to a car park, an antiques centre in the old dockside building and several pubs, bars and eateries. There are also some boats parked in the river and the adjoining boat park, with an outlook that encompasses Powderham Castle and the Exe estuary. There are one or two rotting hulks in the river, which give an air of je ne sais quoi.

You may cross the river using a very small ferry to the Double Locks Pub, which happens to be close to the lock gates, which allow access to the canal to Exeter. The pub was built in 1701 as the lock gateman's cottage, with stabling for horses, which were employed to tow ships along the canal. It was remodelled in 1827 when the canal was widened and deepened. Subsequently, it became a public house. (Double locks just means the lock is long enough to accommodate two ships, apparently).


Topsham is a genteel town, with many gift shops and much architecture to please the eye. Cyclists are allowed to travel in both directions along the one-way high street. It is sandwiched between the river and the railway line, with a level crossing that brings traffic to a complete standstill a few times a day. On the other side of the level crossing is Dart's Farm, which includes The Fish Shed, for perfect fish and chips, and more. Nearby is one of the Topsham Ten pubs; the current Monarch of the Realm visited The Bridge in 2000, which is recommended by CAMRA a real ale organisation. There is also a beautiful cemetery and allotments to enjoy as well as the Goat Walk alongside the River Exe. White Street is also worth a visit. It was the red light district of its day, as it is close to the quay. There is also a beautiful chimney, built from Dutch bricks, to admire.

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