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Sketching on the Exeter Ship Canal

The Exeter Ship Canal is a great place to come for some sketching, painting and drawing. The canal is 5 miles long, from Haven Banks, near Exeter Quay to the Turf Lock on the River Exe. There are lots of interesting spots to sit and sketch. My particular favourites are the Swing and Bascule Bridges, where the canal goes under the A379. The disused high tide lock, with its cottage (now a Cafe), opposite Topsham. And where the Exeter Ship Canal enters the Exe Estuary at Turf Lock.

Materials Used

Most of the sketches here have been drawn or painted using an A5 Daler Rowney, Red & Yellow cartridge pad, any that are not, I’ll let you know with those sketches. I’m also using a Winsor & Newton, watercolour field paint box. The indispensable (I find anyway) pens and pencils I’ve used are a Black Brush Pen, a Waterproof Fineliner Pen, a Black Watercolour Pencil and a 6B Pencil.

Small pen sketch of the Entrance to the Ship Canal

Entrance to the Ship Canal

June 6th, Brushpen ~ A6
“A walk along the Exe Estuary from Powderham to Turf Lock. The ‘little fella’ walked and rode on his trike thing. Slightly slow progress, but we were all out and about enjoying ourselves. Sunny day, but breezy, picnic on a sheltered bench overlooking the view here at the entrance to the Exeter Ship Canal.”

History of the Canal

Up until around the 1270s the River Exe was tidal and navigable up as far as Exeter Quay. However, at this time Isabella de Fortibus, Countess of Devon, built a weir across the river, to power her mills. River traffic up to Exeter was reestablished in 1290. Only to be blocked again in 1317 by Isabella’s cousin, Hugh de Courteney with another weir. He also built a quay at Topsham, where boats had to now unload for the road trip to Exeter and he could collect the tolls for this.
Exeter traders in 1563 commissioned John Trew to build a canal to bypass the weirs. This was completed in 1566/7, this early canal had three locks and were the first pound locks in the country. This first stage of the canal, however, was not very effective, as it could not be entered at all states of the tide.
The Exeter Ship Canal was extended, in 1677 to Topsham. In 1701 the cut was deepened and widened to allow for larger shipping. The canal was extended again in 1827 to the current entrance at Turf Lock.

Topsham Lock was built in 1832 to try and allay the Topsham traders’ fears of being passed by, with the extension to Turf. Even though Topsham is just across the river here, the old lock keepers cottage is quite isolated.

The Sketches

Watercolour sketch of Topsham Lock.

Northwards up the Exe Estuary

June 16th, Watercolour and pencil ~ A5
“This is the derelict High Tide Lock of the Exeter Ship Canal, from the Topsham side of the Exe Estuary. I find this old lock, with its cottage fascinating.”

Watercolour sketch of the Lock Cottage on the Exeter Ship Canal

Lock Cottage on the Exeter Ship Canal

May 29th, Watercolour ~ A5
“The good weather has been continuing and the ‘little fella’ was wanting to get out in the canoe. So it seemed an ideal day for a short trip up the Exeter Ship Canal. We put the canoe in at the ‘Swing Bridge’ and got as far as Topsham Lock. Too much further than this and ‘His Nibs’s’ attention wanes. A pleasant trip watching the wildlife and letting the world drift by. That’s our canoe tied up by the cottage.”

Watercolour sketch of the Lock Keepers Cottage on the Exeter Ship Canal

Lock Keepers Cottage

November 3rd, Pen & Watercolour Wash ~ A5
“An overcast day with a fresh westerly wind. Sitting opposite Topsham and sketching the lonely lock keepers cottage. This lock is now very disused and all boarded up.”

Just Fishing, watercolour sketch of a man fishing on the Exeter Ship Canal.

Just Fishing

May 4th, Watercolour ~ A5
“Sitting sketching a restful scene, with this chap quietly fishing in his lunch hour.”

Watercolour sketch of the Bascule and Swing Bridge on the Exeter Ship Canal.

Back at the Bascule

July 22nd, Watercolour ~ A5
“Parked up again at Exeter’s ‘Swing Bridges’, just in time to see the bridges opening to allow through two boats. The crew of one ere managing to bash their boat about quite a bit and generally looking pretty unprofessional. With the kayakers doing a good job of getting out of there way! I hadn’t seen the bridges opening before so that was interesting. Showery day again today.”

Black and white pen sketch of the Exeter Ship Canal and the fields beyond.

Exeter Ship Canal

April 8th, Pen ~ A5
“Pretty busy with people enjoying the sunny afternoon. Not that you can tell that from this peaceful-looking sketch of a rural idyll. Though those blobs on the horizon are traffic on the motorway. I have another main road right behind me and that’s not mentioning those obvious pylons!”

Pencil sketch at Exeter's River Park

River Park

April 22nd, Pencil ~ A5
“Looking across the marshy grassland through the trees. Robin rootling about & looking at me.”

Pen and watercolour sketch of the Turf Lock Hotel

Turf Lock Hotel

December 14th – Pen and watercolour, A5.
“Sketching from the levee on the west side of the estuary, looking towards the Turf Lock Hotel. We had tea from our flask, as the ‘Turf’s’ winter opening hours are not so good if you fancy an ale. (They’re not open until February and we might have been wearied by the wait!) Another cold, clear, sunny day with a hard frost. We also saw lots of birds – Heron, Buzzard, Cormorant, Lapwing and Dunlin amongst others.”

The Hotel at Turf Lock was built by James Green, with amongst other things, stables for horses which towed the ships onto Exeter. This is a lovely spot with views out across the Exe Estuary towards Exmouth. On a quiet day, there is a peace and tranquillity here (though it can be pretty busy on a summer, Sunday afternoon…) Sit here and watch a wealth of wading birds including Avocets, Curlew and Oystercatchers.

Watercolour painting looking down the Exe from the Turf Hotel.

Down the Exe from Turf

February 14th – Watercolour using a Daler Rowney, Langton 5 x 7”, ‘Not’ Watercolour Pad, with some brush pen in the foreground, A5 – Sold.

Black and white pen drawing of the stern of a barge left on the foreshore.
Black and white pen drawing of an abandoned barge on the mud in the Exe Estuary.

On the Mud

August 22nd, Pen, brush & ink ~ A5
“Just paddled with my old pal ‘Wivs’ to the Turf Lock for an ale, chat and soup. Plus a little sketching at the same time, this is two of the abandoned boats slowly rotting in the mud. The one in the foreground was a flat bottomed sailing barge. The smaller one behind is more modern, with the rusty engine still in it – but it’s still not going far!”

Watercolour pencil sketch - Up the Exe from Turf

North up the Exe from Turf

August 4th, Watercolour and black watercolour pencil ~ A5
“This is a sketch looking back up the Exe towards Topsham. With the old bank retention pilings in the foreground.
Turf Hotel was pretty busy, so sat right at the end to have a little more peace and quiet (Bah – Humbug). This also enabled us to watch the goings-on with the boats as they tried to moor-up alongside the pontoon. Really quite entertaining.”

Charcoal and pastel drawing of Moonlight on the Exe

Moonlight on the Exe

October 13th, Willow Charcoal & White Pastel on Daler Rowney, Ingres Pastel Paper ~ A4 – Sold
“A beautiful evening. Everything is still and dusky, the only thing you can hear are groups of noisy geese. Who are taking off in groups and heading across the Exe Estuary. Stopped at the Turf Lock, for a little sketching, it’s starting to get chilly and the dusk is rapidly turning into night, so I must be fairly quick. The moon is beautiful tonight riding high in the sky, with the water reflecting it’s light.”

Pen sketch of Exeter's Swing & Bascule Bridge

Back at the Bascule

March 31st, Brush & Ink ~ A5
“An odd mix of weather today, sunshine, showers, but mostly grey & damp. However, this was not deterring the kayakers – though the two instructors looked a bit chilly. They had their hands shoved tightly into their buoyancy aids.”

Pen sketch of a lad working on his  'Single Scull'

Working on the Scull

March 31st, Pen ~ A5


Watercolour sketch looking down the Exeter Ship Canal, with trees all around.

Down the Cut

April 25th, Watercolour ~ A5
“Very wet day today. Parked at Exeter’s ‘Swing Bridge’ and by just parking ‘just so’, I can get a southerly view down the Ship Canal. Two dog walkers have donned their coats and are strolling down the towpath.”

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