Reflections on the Basingstoke Canal
Basingstoke: a much-maligned town thought of as urban and boring by many.
Canal: a stretch of water thought by many to be full of shopping trolleys and dead dogs.
If you believe the above, then putting the words together shouldn't offer much hope of a rural idyll. You'd be wrong. Quite the opposite, in fact, as I hope to describe.
The Basingstoke Canal was built in the late18th Century, connecting what was then a small market town with the much older Wey Navigation near its junction with the Thames, and thence onwards to London. Unusually for a British canal, its prime cargo was not industrial or mineral, but agricultural, and for the majority of its length, it passed through rural Hampshire and Surrey. Some of this, particularly in the eastern sections, is now fairly urban, but even there the canal is a pathway of green behind the back gardens of suburbia. The rest is one of England's most beautiful waterways.
You could think of the canal in two halves. The eastern half, as the canal leaves the Wey at Byfleet and makes its way steadily uphill through Woking and on to Aldershot and Fleet, is a mixture of urban and countryside, much owned by the Ministry of Defence. Here you will find all of the canal's locks, 28 of which make their way up to Deepcut from the Wey in about 10 miles, and the last, Ash lock, just on the edge of the Aldershot.
From here westwards, a section of around 15 miles of lovely canal winds its way slowly towards Basingstoke. These days, it doesn't quite make it, for 5 miles before its original terminus, it reaches the kilometre-long Greywell tunnel. After the canal was largely abandoned, this fell into disrepair, with some roof collapses, and when the canal was restored, this section was not feasible. Now, it is an important to a large colony of bats, who's flittering shapes are a joy to watch at dusk in the summer.
Technically, there's a third section, the final five miles west of the tunnel, but this is almost entirely dry or built on, and only a short bit is easy to find.
I have lived in Knaphill, near Woking, for nearly 20 years now. For the first 10 of these, I was barely aware of the canal, though I live but a five minute walk from it. Though I've always been an outdoor lover, I'd never really thought to explore this waterway. Close to home, I used it as a pleasant and easy way to access the mountain biking on and around Tunnel Hill on the "ranges" the military training areas that form the heathlands just to the west, but I never really though of it as somewhere to visit in its own right.
Then I discovered canoeing. What's more, I discovered that I had some lovely places practically on my doorstep; the Wey Navigation, the Thames and the Basingstoke Canal. I bought an inflatable canoe, almost on a whim, and finding much information and help on the online community and forum that is Song of the Paddle, I headed to Winchfield Hurst near Fleet and inflated my strange contraption.
What a revelation that first short voyage was. I paddled slowly, and badly, southwards under a canopy of green, as mighty boughs shaded the quiet water. All around me was life, as birds gave voice to their courting and to their territorial claims, bringing music to the woodland through which I drifted quietly. I was brought under the spell of this wonderful section, and it has never left me yet.
As time has passed, I have explored the whole canal, but my particular favourite sections are those between Fleet and the Greywell Tunnel. Heading from Winchfield Hurst, the canal contours the side of a gentle rolling hill, with open fields on one side, and trees on the other. Here, in the summer months, the air is filled with swallows and martins by day, their acrobatics a joy to behold as they chase the many insects which rise from the waters and the banks. At night, it is the turn of the bats, equally as agile but with added echo location, letting them fly right by you with no danger of collision. I could spend hours just drifting watching either bird or mammal fly around me.
Further west, there is a long strait which I have christened the Hall of Trees. As the canal passes through a beautiful mixed woodland, the branches lean out over the waters towards each other, so you feel you are paddling silently down the nave of some great church. For years, there were a handful of ancient oaks here, their boughs like the hammer beams of some mighty cathedral, but sadly these had to be felled for the good of the canal and its users. Though the ancient giants no longer live, their children and grandchildren are steadily replacing them, and this remains a special place where I just lean back in the canoe and gaze upwards into the green canopy above.
A little later on, the canal curves its way through a cutting in a modest hill. This is another special spot, where tall trees shade the green slopes of the cutting, making it feel as far from man-made as a canal could possibly feel. A bench, dedicated to Mary, is a wonderful spot to sit for an hour. Sometimes I bring my little firebox stove and cook myself a meal, to be eaten as the sun drops behind the trees, and the evening chorus brings more music to my ears. Afterwards, there is a spot nearby where badgers live and sometimes, but not always, it is possible to drift in utter silence in the canoe and see them as they rise from their daytime slumber, change their bedding by dragging in fresh leaves, and then start grubbing for food. Once, in the last glimmer of light, I strained my eyes to watch the young brocks tumble and play in a secret hollow just 30 feet from my boat. Lots of other creatures make their homes along this most beautiful of waterways; kingfishers darting in a flash of electric blue, herons squawking like Pterodactyls over your head, or standing patiently like statues, dragon and damsel flies fluttering around the banks.
Another special section is that which runs from Colt Hill Wharf on the edge of the fine historic village of Odiham to the Greywell Tunnel. The last few hundred metres of this section show off one of the reasons why this canal is a little different; for much of the year, the water is crystal clear here. The reason is that here, on the "top" section of the canal, the water is fed by springs, reputedly in the tunnel itself. Its a remarkable feeling to be afloat on such clear water, looking down on the world beneath the surface, a forest of gently waving plants offering shelter to the many fish, which swim up and down in large shoals, clearly visible. Here lives at least one pike, and if you are a lucky paddler, you will find it lying up beneath you, waiting patiently for its unfortunate next victim to come past. Even at night, caught in the beam of a torch, the pike pay no attention at all to the large shadow drifting over their heads, allowing a remarkable look at this torpedo-like killer. This unusually clear water, which is also unusually chemically, is one of the main reasons why the canal is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
There's also historical interest here. Just a few hundred metres before the tunnel, where the canal crosses the bubbling clear stream of the River Whitewater, a strange ruin stands just back from the banks. I've heard it described as a "blancmange" and a "melting snowball", but this is King John's Castle. Its strange shape comes from the loss of the outer stone cladding on the walls. This was once a place of importance, and from here the said King John headed for Magna Carta island and one of Britain's most important moments. A year later, just 13 men kept off a French army supporting the First Barons War rebellion for two whole weeks. Its an excellent place for a Halloween get together, or for a banquet!
Its not just the lovely rural section beyond towns of the Surrey-Hampshire border that is unusual amongst canals. After climbing the Deepcut flight of locks, the waterway swings south. Here it comes to Mytchett, and the Basingstoke Canal Visitor Centre, well worth a visit. There's also a campsite and both boat trips and smaller boat hire. This next few miles are also not typical of your average semi-urban canal, for they are enlivened by the presence of a number of wider, lake-like sections. These are "flashes", where the canal crosses hollows in the natural lie of the land, and it was easier to let these flood than construct more banking. They also help store additional water, something this canal has problems keeping on top of at times, thanks in the main to limited supply to the top section. Now they offer a break from the narrow confines of the navigation, and most are lined with reeds or fringes with wetlands, making them superb wildlife habitats, and as such are designated nature reserves. A couple of the larger ones, the entertainingly named Great Bottom Flash for instance, are effectively lakes, something there are not many of in this part of the world, enhancing their unique appeal.
To me, though it is the most idyllic sections around Winchfield Hurst which I return to again and again. Whenever I need a break from the hectic rush of "normal" life, I can head here in the safe knowledge that I will find beauty, peace and tranquillity, whatever the time of year.
Boat trips and hire
Mytchett: Basingstoke Canal Visitor Centre
Bridge Barn, Woking
The Swan, Ash Vale
The Barley Mow, Winchfield Hurst
The Waterwitch, Odiham
The canal relies on help from volunteers to maintain it. More here.
There are also occasional parties organised separately, such as litter picking by canoe which we have carried out a few times. The "grand slam" of a session, sadly often achieved, is a bicycle, shopping trolley and traffic cone. There have also been much stranger objects!