Today the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal is a peaceful rural haven, frequented by kingfishers, boaters and ramblers. In 1940, however, war intruded on this portion of Somerset – a waterway running for 15 miles to the southwest of Bristol. Toward the start of the Second World War, soon after the British evacuation at Dunkirk, the canal became a fortified barrier designed to counter potential invasion by Hitler’s armies. Pillboxes and ominous concrete structures called dragon’s teeth were built along the canal, as it became part of a larger defensive initiative called the Taunton Stop Line.
In all, the Taunton Stop Line ran for nearly 50 miles, from the Devon coastline near Axminster, up to the Somerset shore close to Burnham-on-Sea. Dragon’s teeth can be still seen on the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal today – lines of pyramid-shaped concrete structures around a metre high, made to halt tanks. Along with pillboxes, landmines and barbed wire, the dragon’s teeth were intended to block German invaders. There were hundreds of pillboxes along the entirety of the Taunton Stop Line, equipped with machine guns and, in some case, ex-naval six-pounder guns of First World War vintage. Britain had been forced to abandon much of its military hardware on the Dunkirk beaches. To some degree, pillboxes were static, improvisational substitutes for tanks. Over 20 pillboxes remain along the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal today.
The Taunton Stop Line was planned under the leadership of a British officer with the formidable name of General Sir Edmund Ironside, but despite this commander’s forbidding surname and the dragon’s teeth, it’s uncertain how effective the Stop Line would have been against the German forces that had recently rolled their Blitzkrieg across much of western Europe.
“I think the German army would have overcome the Stop Line pretty quickly,” says David Viner, a heritage adviser for the Canal & River Trust. “The pillboxes would have been significant obstacles, but they didn’t cover the whole canal. It’s hard to see what would have stopped the German army throwing temporary bridges across the canal. But, in Britain at that time, we were preparing for the worst and had to do something. Part of the reason behind the Stop Line was to inspire the local population – to let them know we were prepared to fight. The Stop Line was a manifestation of Churchill’s speech where he talked about fighting them on the beaches, and in the fields, and never surrendering. The Taunton Stop Line would have slowed invaders down a bit and allowed the defending forces time to regroup, but it was also a case of doing something visible to back-up the principle that we weren’t going to just capitulate.”
In somewhat peculiar terms, a British Army memo from June 1940 outlines the thinking behind defences such as the Taunton Stop Line: “The immediate object is divide England into several small ‘fields’ surrounded by a ‘hedge’ of anti-tank obstacles. Should AFVs [armoured fighting vehicle] or airborne attacks break into the enclosures the policy will be to close the gate by blocking the crossing over the obstacle and let in the ‘dogs’ in the shape of armoured formations, or other troops, to round the ‘cattle’.”
In the event, Operation Sea Lion – Germany’s planned seaborne invasion of the UK – was put in indefinite hold after the German air force was frustrated during the Battle of Britain. The armies of the Third Reich never materialised in Somerset, but evidence of the Taunton Stop Line remains. Though the pillboxes are often overgrown, they are a powerful presence in the landscape – wartime buildings that sits fascinatingly alongside the Industrial Revolution-era construction that is the canal itself.
“Not so long ago,” says David Viner, “pillboxes were seen as an obstruction that should be removed, or as ugly remnants from a time we’d rather forget. Now we’ve moved into a period when people are much more interested in pillboxes. There has been a lot of focus on the history of the Second World War and people are fascinated by artefacts from this point in history. Once pillboxes were seen as spoiling the view – now they are seen as something interesting, a part of our country’s story.”
The last time your correspondent walked the length of the Bridgwater & Taunton Canal the waterway’s natural wonder was evident – I saw kingfishers three times down the canal’s length. The pillboxes added to the scene with their angular potency – intimations of a period full of drama and peril. There’s one pillbox on the canal, at Creech St Michael, that was built inside what had once been a lock-keeper’s cottage – thus camouflaging the defensive position. More recently this cottage-cum-pillbox has been repurposed again, becoming a roost for bats. With this twice-transformed building, the natural world and human history are reconciled on the canal side.
Cut off from the rest of the waterway network, the idyllic Bridgwater & Taunton Canal makes for idyllic walking and peaceful boating. Plan your day out on our website.