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  • Writer's pictureMal Grey

The Jungles of Surrey - the Hoe Stream by canoe

For nearly ten years now, I've been exploring the backwaters of my local rivers, especially the Wey. I've had some wonderful moments, on beautiful meandering streams, away from the hubbub of modern life.

Near the ancient ruins of Newark Priory, under the tree-shaded slopes of a bluebell clad hillside, a small river, more of a stream in fact, meanders down to its confluence with the Wey. This is the Hoe Stream, though confusingly it also seems to be called The Bourne at this point. To reach here, it has wound its way from the edge of the heathlands near Pirbright, through Woking, and on past woodlands and water meadows to the Wey.

For some time now, years in fact, I've wondered if I could get a canoe down it. Its hard to resist a thin blue line on the Ordnance Survey map, and wonder if I can get a 16 foot open canoe down it, despite the fact that those single thin blue lines tend to mean streams that aren't as wide as the canoe is long. I've wandered as close to the banks as I could get, and pushed the bows of the canoe upstream a little, to find a reed-choked ditch, which would be almost impassable in summer.

So, my thoughts fell to a spring attempt. In spring, the greenery is generally still just sprouting, and though the high winter water levels have declined, there is still enough water to float a canoe. A mate, Maj, had also explored the Hoe a little with similar ambitions, so a plan was hatched. We would attempt it this April. All we really knew, was that it would involve plenty of jungle bashing, but whether it was actually possible, we were not so sure.

We reckoned that the section from Woking Leisure Centre to the River Wey was the heart of the Hoe Stream, a 3 mile section that passes first through Woking Park and White Rose Lane Nature Reserve, before leaving the town behind at Hoe Bridge, meandering through some wooded sections, then across the water meadows to the hillside below Pyrford Village. This was perhaps only 3 1/2 miles or so, but we knew it would take a while. What we didn't realise, at first, was that this would become a whole project in its own right, taking not just a few hours, but numerous visits on different days.

After contemplating just dropping in at the Leisure Centre and hoping for the best, we fortunately decided that this was asking for trouble, as we had no idea of the condition of the stream, the speed of the flow, the number of trees we might encounter taking their rest in the stream, and how long it would take. Instead, we decided to attack from the downstream end, working our way up. I thought we might take a couple of attempts to do this. In the end, it took 5 days worth of paddling!

There was another motivation behind our plan, as well as the adventure and enjoyment from exploring an unknown stream. I had an inkling that we would sadly find that, downstream of Woking, there would be lots of floating litter and detritus, just as there is on the Wey below Guildford. On that, we have occasionally managed to organise a litter clean up paddle, and if it proved the same on the Hoe, I hoped we could do the same.

Our base of operations became the little car park off Newark Lane near the road bridge. We'd then make our way, normally via the beautiful loop of the Wey past the ancient ruins of the stunning Newark Priory, an almost unknown Augustinian priory that is unreachable on foot, to the confluence of the Hoe Stream and the River Wey.

Here the adventure began. This lovely little stream meanders beneath shady slopes that, in spring, are clad with a carpet of nodding bluebells. The slowly flowing river, easy to paddle against, turns time and time again as it meanders its way through this charming woodland, before taking a straighter route across the water meadows to the Newark Lane road bridge. This was as far as I'd previously been, as beyond, the stream, barely 8 feet wide in places, had always been completely choked with reeds. Fortunately, in April, the reeds had yet to grow, and we successfully made our way onward. It wasn't entirely without effort, for every few hundred yards we'd have to duck through a tree, or squeeze through a gap between bush and nettle-clad bank.

A few meanders later, about half a mile up from the road, we came across a real blockage. An old pollarded willow had fallen and slipped from the banks some years ago, but still clung to life. Its formerly vertical trunks, perhaps a dozen of them, lay straight across the stream, and from them had sprouted new growth, heading upwards at 90 degrees to the trunks. This was all protected by a jungle of later growth, full of insects and arachnids. I jumped out to look beyond; it was clear. However, this was an evening paddle, and we were running out of time. It was time to return back to the start.

A week later, we were back. In the meantime, Maj had made a quick visit, and cleared a little of the growth to allow access to the main problem. Now we were back, armed with loppers and folding saws. Clearing such trees is a fun part of canoeing which I enjoy. However, there are also sound reasons why our passage should not substantially alter the river, as this is a special environment. Our approach is to merely clear a narrow passage that is enough to squeeze a canoe through, leaving the vast majority of the tree untouched. On some rivers, safety comes first, for instance if its a place regularly canoed by less experienced paddlers, as "strainers" (trees in a strongly flowing stream) are incredibly dangerous to the unaware, and a wider route is made. Here, though, we could safely assume nobody else was daft enough to follow us, and thus prune a route the width of a canoe.

We'd enlisted the help of legendary canoe ditcher, Fran. So the three of us had made our way back upstream to clear a route through this complex blockage. We took it in turns to go into the front line, from both sides of the tree, pruning the thin stuff and making a canoe-wide hole in the bigger bits. Lashing two canoes together allowed one of us to stand in the bows, a foot in each canoe, to get to the bigger stuff. Sometimes, lying in the front of the canoe was required. Eventually, we were through. A sudden release of debris flowed past us, sadly some of it litter. The route ahead was clear, just.

We kept going up this utterly lovely stream. At times, we'd squeeze under hanging branches, and we had to clear a couple of large logs jammed in at one point, using a sort of pulley and strap approach to swing a heavy log clear. Bend after bend meant that every corner brought a surprise; a hanging branch, a branch to duck under, or a reedy bit to push through. Deep in one of the latter, I spotted something lying on the edge of the floating reeds; a banded grass snake. Surprisingly, it lay there, apparently calm, as I slid slowly past just a couple of feet away. Before I could back off, it dropped into the stream and swam away. Except, it was struggling. A kink near the tail showed an injury, and the poor thing couldn't swim as sinuously as it normally would. Worse, when it tried to climb the steep banks, it couldn't quite make it, and would fall back. Not knowing whether to help, or stop disturbing it, I chose to help. My paddle gave it something else to wrap around and, after a worrying moment when it started sliding down the shaft towards me, I managed to transfer it to the long grass above.

Drama over, we pressed on, into a lovely open woodland, but with thick bamboo thronging the banks. Here a huge fallen tree blocked our route, a thick trunk far too thick to remove. Time was up for another day, and we turned for home, perhaps half-way to Woking Park.

It was a number of weeks before we could return, but in mid-May, Maj and I were back at the log. We knew that just upstream was a weir, but didn't know how easily that would be passed. Above that, we were nearly at the edge of Woking.

It took nearly two hours to get back to the big trunk. It was stable and wide, so we climbed on to it in turn, and hauled our canoes over with difficulty. Above was a shallow section, hard to make progress up whilst fighting through the overgrown bamboo.

The weir was a lovely spot, almost like an ornamental waterfall in a great country house estate. We climbed up it, and above was a slower calmer section that led, via a handful of other fallen trees, all the way to Hoe Bridge on the edge of town, via some truly gorgeous bits of the river, quiet and shaded by trees, yet bursting with life. Just before the bridge, a sting in the tail; another fallen tree that took a good half hour to get through. Maj and I had reached the road, and the little second weir, but again time had run out, and it took us a good two hours to return to the cars once again.

We'd just a mile to go to reach the Leisure Centre, but we'd already been 3 full days at the coal face. I thought, though, that the worst was over, as I'd managed to walk much of the remaining section, where the Hoe passes through the park and nature reserve. With this in mind, Maj and I decided that next time, we'd start early enough for a long day and get the job finished. By now, it was taking 3 hours to get to our high point each time, and maybe two to return, by then with canoes full of leaves, twigs and a whole community of creepy crawlies.

The big day arrived. We worked our way steadily upstream, until we reached the weir. This was easily hauled up, and we were on the last leg. Despite it being within the urban sprawl of Woking, this was a delightful section. There were numerous obstacles, but nothing like the sections below, and the mile was covered in about an hour. Despite being in Woking now, we saw nobody, even on the path that wanders through the delightful White Rose Lane reserve. A few shallow parts slowed us down, but suddenly there were voices all around, and people walking the paths on either side. We had reached Woking Park, and soon after that, our destination. A shallow section full of rocks lies beneath the bridge that leads to the doors of the Leisure Centre. This was our finish line, and we hauled the canoes through the shallows until we could climb steeply up to the park above.

What a contrast. Suddenly, incongruously, we were on the edge of a busy car park, with folk marching to and fro into the Leisure complex, and the sound of traffic all around. Nobody paid the slightest attention to the two strange chaps, clad in buoyancy aids, who'd popped up from nowhere. Slightly surreally, we grabbed lunch and a Costa coffee. We done it, we'd reached our goal.

Now we simply had to return. Free of the challenges of the upstream battle, we took our time, and savoured every last minute in the jungles of Surrey through which we paddled, ducking and diving under trees, turning bend after bend, surrounded by wildlife and stunning flora. The weather rewarded our efforts, for this first passage of the Hoe in perhaps many years, was now blessed with blue skies and not a breath of wind to spoil the reflections on the glassy water.

This had been a brilliant series of adventures, battling up a mere 3 miles over a number of days. I worked out that our total "man hours" spent on the project was something like 50! The greenery has now returned, as the reeds grow up, but I do hope that others will come to quietly and responsibly enjoy this little backwater, and to experience the magic of the jungle.

There is a flip side. As I said at the start, I expected to find litter. We did. Though much of the stream is clean and lovely, and even the sections in Woking through the park and nature reserve are relatively clear, downstream of the town is a different matter. At every blockage we came to, a large pile of disgusting rubbish had accumulated. Plastic bottles, countless footballs, carrier bags, and traffic cones were amongst the mentionable litter. Larger items included bicycles, shopping trolleys, two fire extinguishers and a trials-style motorbike. Our species sometimes makes us despair.

So, we need to return. I suspect this will now be impossible this summer, due to the growth of reeds and trees, but I hope to organise a proper river clear up for the Hoe Stream. Its going to need a lot of organisation, for there is too much to carry away in the canoes in one go, we will need to drop it off at points along the route for collection. Hopefully, the council, EA, various nature organisations and the like can help us with that bit. Watch this space.

@WokingLeisureCentre, @thamesbasinheathspartnership

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