The Basingstoke Canal October 2017
Completed in 1796 at a cost of £154,463, the canal originally ran for 37 miles from the River Wey at Byfleet to Basingstoke wharf. It has 29 locks rising by 195ft, a 1230 yard long tunnel, a 1000 yard long embankment and mile long deep cutting.
This is a rural canal, barges carried timber, flour and chalk to London and returned with coal and fertiliser. The canal was not a success, by 1825 it was already falling into decay with only one trader remaining. The building of the railway revived the canal for a while with railway engineers using barges to carry materials but by 1866 the canal company was bankrupt. In 1895 a 90 metre arm was built to serve the Up Nately brickworks and again the canal briefly flourished, but when the brickworks went into liquidation in 1901 trade to Basingstoke ceased. The canal was taken over by the Army at the beginning of the WW1 and run by the Royal Engineers using German prisoners of war as part of the labour force. In 1923 it was bought by A J Harmsworth who secured contracts to carry coal and timber to Woking and hiring out skiffs, punts and canoes which probably made more money than the cargoes.
Having been saved from abandonment because it was judged to be private property, and therefore not subject to the 1888 Railway & Canal Traffic Act, the canal was sold several times, being bought in 1874 for £12,000, 1905 for £10,000, 1923 for £5,000 and in 1949 £6,000 (including boat houses and cottages!). Restoration of the canal started in 1973 and 1977 saw the ‘WRG big dig’ at Deepcut. It was re-opened to Greywell in 1991. Except for a length through Woking, the entire canal is now an SSSI.
Saturday’s walk started at lock 15, the bottom of the Deepcut flight of 14 locks. This is a very attractive section surrounded by woodland, but there are no other access points as the land on both sides is owned by the army, in fact part way up the flight a training exercise was underway while we were walking.
Lock 15, the start of the walk
Below lock 16, showing ‘new’ bywash
Most of the 72ft by 14ft chambers underwent major renovation work involving the demolition and subsequent rebuilding of lock walls, replacement of top and bottom cills, wing walls, new quoins, ground paddle culverts and the construction of by-pass weirs which previously did not exist. The locks don’t appear to leak, every time a boat passes through any lock (except Ash) the gates have to be resealed by the canal rangers to prevent loss of water.
We had not gone far when we realised the next lock had both top and bottom gates open leaving the next pound drained, this allowed for examination of the lock and it could be seen that, unusually, the top ground paddle feeds into the lock under the cill rather than in the side wall (not the case on all the locks).
Locks 22 & 24 have railings and brickwork installed by the army as part of a training course incorporating the canal as a ‘swimming pool’, and Lock 25 is unusual in that it has a bridge directly across its chamber. The weight of tanks being driven across this bridge is pushing in the walls of the lock below making it narrow which can make it difficult for two boats to share the lock. This is also where the army training exercise was in progress (it was considered best not to have cameras out at this point!)
Steps into the ‘swimming pool’
Restored dry dock above the top lock
After the locks the canal goes into a deep cutting, which gives the lock flight it’s name; this is 70 feet deep in places. As the canal turns west we crossed Frimley Aqueduct, this is quite long as the canal crosses the railway diagonally. The aqueduct was extended when the railway was doubled to four tracks. When the aqueduct started leaking onto the railway it was found that the oldest part was lead lined, British Rail relined it all with polythene. At the end of the aqueduct the tollhouse is still in use as a private dwelling.
After passing Frimley Lodge miniature railway we crossed over the lift bridge and had a welcome lunch break at Mytchett Canal Visitor Centre. Unfortunately the visitor centre is closed at weekends at this time of year but happily the busy café is open.
Crossing back onto the towing path the walk continued on to Ash. We passed Mychett Lake and Greatbottom flashes. Now owned by the army and not navigable, these are thought to be natural features and that when was being built it was easier not to build a retaining wall or embankment. The flashes also provide some much needed water to the canal which had no reservoirs. At Ash Vale we saw a much graffitied building which we realised had been Alec Harmsworth’s corrugated iron boathouse. As we took a detour round the road because the towpath was closed we found an information panel behind it with photos of how it used to look.
Alec Harmsworth’s boathouse, now…
At Ash the canal crossed the Blackwater Valley on a considerable embankment which had taken 5 years to build. The A331 now runs down the valley under Ash Aqueduct. Built in 1994. 200 yards of the middle of the embankment were removed to accommodate it. This is an unusual aqueduct for the waterways system in the UK, being of curved construction with suspension cables situated within the trough to provide support.
Shortly after, we reached Ash lock and Wharf, the first lock to be restored, and the end of Saturday’s walk. As we returned to our cars we were surprised to see a moving boat, the only one of the day!
A welcome rest at the side of Ash lock
A rare sight!
After freshening up we all met for a meal at Neil and Anne’s recommended pub, the Fox and Hounds in Fleet, a lovely pub next to the canal which served large helpings of good food.
On Sunday morning we started at North Warnborough lift bridge. Originally a swing Bridge, when it was changed to a hydraulic lift bridge in 1954 it took 25 minutes to operate! In 1988 the new bridge was installed. From here we were to walk the accessible sections of the final 5 miles. The last boat navigated the canal to Basingstoke in 1910 and the collapse of the Greywell tunnel in 1934 cut Basingstoke off from the rest of the canal, the navigable section now finishes soon after North Warnborough bridge.
Only a few minutes walk brought us to Odiham Castle. Alongside the canal the unique octagonal keep is all that is left of this Norman Castle, we spent time reading the interpretation panels before moving on. Straight after the castle the River Whitewater passes under the canal by means of a sump. The original wooden pipes of 1792 were found to be in reasonable condition when replaced in the 1970’s. The winding hole immediately after is the end of the navigation. Greywell lock soon follows, easy to walk past if you are not aware of it. This shallow lock was an addition to the canal to raise the level of water in Greywell tunnel as boats were struggling to get through because of the shortage of water in the canal. It is possible to walk down to Greywell tunnel portal but getting quite overgrown. A quarter of the 1230 yard tunnel collapsed making it too expensive to repair; it is also home to five species of bats, which probably restrict restoration even more.
Greywell lock—easy to miss
Greywell tunnel portal
It was a pleasant walk over the tunnel, through woodland and fields, with good views of the surrounding area. Once we reached the top, the path wasn’t difficult to follow providing you had the instruction to take the path by the fallen tree! The portal has collapsed at the other end of the tunnel, and the end is fenced off but it is possible to peer inside.
Once away from the tunnel end the towing path is still decent on the next length of canal. With it’s elegant high bridges, the canal itself varies from having fairly clear stretches of water to being very overgrown and covered in fallen trees, however it makes a very pleasant and interesting walk. Of great excitement was the short Brickworks Arm, at the end of which was sitting the remains of an excavated wooden steam narrowboat ‘Seagull’. Amazingly, the propeller and shaft are still in situ, the engine is now in the Waterways Museum at Gloucester.
The canal disappears soon after this as the M3, which cut through the canal, is not far ahead, however it is possible to follow a footpath to Little Tunnel, which some of the group did. Really a long bridge this listed structure now sits in the middle of fields and is being used as a shelter for farm machinery.
To find any more traces of the canal it was necessary to drive to Old Basing. First a lunch stop was needed. Barton’s Mill is a converted 17th century corn mill in Old Basing, another attractive pub, it was an extra treat to be able to view the machinery here.
A path running from the pub by the mill leet, under a railway viaduct and through the churchyard brought us back onto the line of the canal. From the M3 it has been built on or incorporated into gardens, so now some detective work was needed. Behind the church we found the parapet of a bridge, the line of canal then running through the grounds of the vicarage. From here we managed to follow the line fairly closely, through the attractive village of Old Basing and into Basingstoke. As we approached Old Basing House, where the canal ran alongside, we noticed the great barn was open so a we had to look in as we were passing. This impressive 16th century barn was also known as the ‘Bloody Barn’ as it was the scene of the fiercest fighting during the civil war.
After Basing House the road crosses the canal line at the extant Red Bridge and continues to the site of a swing bridge, the original canal cottages are still lived in but they are difficult to see being surrounded by trees. The canal from here is completely destroyed. A walk across Basing common brought us to Eastrop Park which is where our walk ended, a hawthorn hedge runs down the side of the park marking the canal boundary before the canal line is covered by roads. The basin had a bus station built over it in the 1960’s which has since been replaced by and the modern shopping centre car park.
Parapet of bridge in Old Basing
The great, or ‘bloody’, barn
Postcard of swing bridge cottages circa 1912
Whilst being an interesting walk the obstacles hindering restoration make it extremely unlikely anything will ever happen. An alternative proposal is to build a new canal linking the Basingstoke from its current terminus to the Kennet and Avon west of Reading (The Hants and Berks Canal) providing a cruising ring and with a short arm following a new route into Basingstoke. An attractive idea for boaters although there would still be the problems of lack of water on both canals.
Our thanks go to Dave and Izzie for suggesting the Basingstoke as a weekend away and providing advice, to Neil and Anne for finding and booking the excellent pubs and checking out parking for us and to Sarah for providing a taxi service for our drivers. A good joint effort which gave us all a very enjoyable weekend.
The finish in Eastrop Park