Basingstoke Canal (connects at Shepperton via the Wey Navigation)

Researched and written by Jeannette Briggs

The Basingstoke Canal was constructed in the 1770s, and was intended as a means of carrying agricultural produce from the Hampshire/Surrey areas to the markets in London. Such cargoes as timber, grain, malt and chalk were carried over a large distance through the quiet countryside. The impetus for the construction of the canal in the first place was the Napoleonic Wars. Ships carrying cargoes around the south-east coast of England were at risk from French and other foreign warships, so a safe inland waterway from the Portsmouth area up to London was considered to be of huge benefit and worth the expense of construction.

The canal opened in 1794, but quickly ran into financial trouble. There was a short boom in the canal-carrying fortunes when the South Western Railway was under construction, and - later - when the huge Army Barracks at Aldershot were built. However, by 1904 it was offered for sale by its owners. It fell into decline once more, and not until 1950 when it was auctioned off and brought by the County Councils of Hampshire and Surrey was its future secured. Together with the Inland Waterways Association and the tireless efforts of volunteers, the canal was restored for canal boat holidays from the Thames (via the River Wey Navigation Canal) to Odiham Hampshire. This has been a truly remarkable restoration project, the voluntary orgainsations and the local authorities are to be congratulated on their achievement.

 

Above: The Basingstoke Canal at Colt Hill near Odihamphoto by Stephen Worsfold

Above: The Basingstoke Canal - gentle solitude - photo by SW


There are several delightful stretches of the canal for narrow-boaters to enjoy. Also, for much of its length, the canal bank is lined with an assortment of mature trees, which have the effect of screening the canal from the surrounding housing estates, industrial parks - and pretty countryside as well of course.

The Basingstoke Canal leaves the Wey Navigation at Woodham Junction near New Haw in Surrey. (The Wey Navigation leaves the Thames at Shepperton just a few miles to the north of the junction.) The Basingstoke Canal then passes alongside the M25, and starts almost immediately to climb the flight of 6 locks at Woodham, as it goes towards Woking. You can easliy walk to the shops banks and pubs at West Byfleet from Lock 2 of this flight. Despite the large housing estates, busy roads and tower blocks that surround the canal, it is not swamped by all of this, and several of the newer estates actually seem to positively welcome the presence of the canal. Indeed, walkways gardens and moorings have been created that line the edges of the canal.

You can take your canal boat through the town of Woking, where supplies of every description can be obtained. It is Surrey's largest town and owes its beginnings and expansion entirely to the coming of the railway in 1838. It now serves as a huge dormitory town for the population that live here and work in London, and elsewhere in the south-east.


Above: The Basingstoke Canal - Photo by S Worsfold

Above: Boats on the Basingstoke Canal - waiting for you? Photo by SW


Once the canal leaves Woking it starts to climb once more, up the five locks that are known as the St. John's Flight, before flowing through Knaphill (a large old Victorian village built to serve the people who worked in the nearby Brookwood Mental Asylum) and Frimley Green. Here are the Brookwood Locks which are close to the famous Brookwood Cemetery. This huge graveyard was opened in 1854, when the numbers of dead people from London was becoming difficult to accommodate. A small railway was specifically built to carry the corpses directly into the cemetery, which contains the graves of many British and American soldiers from the Second World War...

After this section you can make the canal boat journey to the first of the Deepcut or Frimley flight of locks. The canal climbs steadily up this next flight of 14 locks in a beautiful setting, and as you rise you get glimpses of beautiful scenery in all directions. You see the huge Army camp at Pirbright - which is surprisingly not an eyesore, and you may hear the odd sounds of gunfire as the Army practises their shooting. Not surprisingly, the Bisley rifle range is nearby...

The locks on the Basingstoke Canal need a short paragraph of explanation. Not all of them have an easy means of getting off your canal boat on to dry land BELOW the bottom gates - so it is a good idea to let a crew member land on the canal bank well before the next lock and to walk ahead to open the bottom gates while ascending.

Having climbed the 90ft up through the Deepcut locks the canal now enters the Deepcut cutting, which is over 1000 yards long and up to 70 ft deep. This will have been exciting for canal boat veterans and those who took a canal boat hire for the first time and will be an enduring memory of your canal boat holiday. It is lined with huge old trees and is very shady and remote - but it does restrict the views!

   

Above: A lock on the Basingstoke Canal - photo by SW

Above: Towpath at Mytchett - photo by SW


After the cutting the canal makes a sharp southerly turn towards the town of Mytchett, and you see woods and heathland rising to the east. You pass Mytchett Lake, which is famous if you are an angler for the size of the fish caught there, and then you pass lots of leafy gardens down to the water's edge - they are at the rear of large houses in Ash Vale that back onto the canal.

   

Boats on canal at Mytchett centre -photo by SW


After crossing Spring Lake on an embankment and the Blackwater Valley Road on an aqueduct the canal again approaches Army property at Aldershot. Eventually you catch sight of the very large airfield at Farnborough, which still hosts the world-famous Farnborough Air Show. Over 250,000 people come to see the Air Show here every year and if you are on the canal at this point in September you should get a really good view! A lot of the experimental work on Concorde was done here.

You next pass the huge open spaces of Aldershot Army Camp. The Army brought up over 10,000 acres of prime woodland and heathland here in 1854 to train soldiers. Much of the building materials were brought to the camp by the Basingstoke canal. There is a spectacular display every ywo years of Army weaponry held in June.

   

 Above: Bridge over Basingstoke
canal at Farnborough - Photo by SW

Above: The Canal near Farnborough - photo by SW

The canal passes through Pyestock Hill with an excellent canalside supermarket at Pondtail Bridges. The canal continues right through Fleet and onward on a level pound with no locks to negotiate in your canal boat for several miles which is a bit. Eventually you leave Fleet behind and the first interesting point is at Chequers Bridge at Crookham Wharf near the village of Crookham. You are close to the quaint old village of Dogmersfield which is full of pretty thatched and timbered houses and a nice old pub, The Queen's Head.

After Dogmersfield you reach a long stretch of the canal that wends through rural countryside until you reach Broard Oak bridge and Colt Hill bridge which are on the outskirts of the town of Odiham.

     

Above: Broad Oak
Bridge - photo by SW

Above: The canal at Colt
Hill Bridge by SW

Above: Brickwork of Colt
Hill Bridge- photo by SW

At Colt Hill Bridge are good moorings at the marina here, and The Water Witch pub which is very popular with boaters.

Odiham itself is a delight - it is full of gracious 17th and 18th century buildings and atmospheric old pubs like The George. You can also obtain all necessary supplies for you canal boat holiday journey.

When you leave Odiham Wharf you see Warnborough Green and North Warnborough, two nice old Hampshire villages and a group of lovely old thatched cottages near cheerful pubs like The Swan. As you reach Odiham Castle just beyond Warnborough you will see that there is a turning point here because this is the head of navigation for most canal boaters.

 Above: Odiham Castle

Above: The canal at Colt Hill-
photo by SW

Beyond lies the Greywell Tunnel, which collapsed in the First World War and remains in a derelict state. It is the home for a large colony of Natterer's Bats! (Estimated at over 12,500 bat). You can leave your narrowboat and climb over Greywell Hill Park to visit the western portal of Greywell Tunnel, or what is left of it. There is a very short section of the old canal here between the portal and Penney Bridge, but you can only paddle a canoe here!

A visit to the Basingstoke Canal is very well worth the effort - it has nice "quiet" rural scenery (nothing too dramatic) and some pretty little town and villages, but the main attaraction is the peace and quiet of this canal. It is not very well known and has fewer   hire craft on it, so you don't wait so long to navigate the locks. Also it has lots of long straight stretches, without locks, and if you like an easy life then this canal will suit you  very well! I hope that this brief introduction to the Basingstoke canal will inspire you to try it for yourself one day!