The Perfect Wey to Relax - a rural idyll in suburban Surrey
Updated: Mar 9, 2019
I live in what many people would think of as a crowded corner of Surrey. Nearby, the major road arteries of the M3, M25 and A3 take hustling commuters to and from work, whilst overhead the flight paths of at least 3 airports mean you are never far from the noise of aircraft. The towns around here are mostly commuter belt dormitories, yet in the middle of all this hustle and bustle, lies a green corridor where mother nature still holds sway. For the River Wey, one of the Thames' biggest tributaries, winds its way from the Hampshire border to the edge of London, and it is a real rural gem.
Upstream, two branches bring the waters of the infant Wey together at Tilford. The North Wey rises on the rolling hills near Alton, the South on the sandier slopes near Haslemere, the combined stream making its way towards Godalming. Its from Godalming to the Thames, though, that the river is most accessible to visitors, for here the Wey Navigation begins, once of Britain's oldest managed waterways. In the late 17th century, in the turbulent times around the English Civil War, Sir Richard Weston had the grand plan of straightening and calming the winding river, after spending time in the Low Countries where such things were already commonplace. This would allow much faster transport of goods from the Guildford area to London. Eventually, despite choosing the wrong side in the Civil War, an Act of Parliament formed the Wey Navigation in 1651, and after two years work straightening out some of the meandering sections by the cutting of canalised sections, and introducing weirs and locks, it opened to traffic. Whilst it has changed over the years since then, with better locks and more managed sections, and being extended to Godalming, in essence it has remained much the same for 350 years.
The Wey Navigation itself is a lovely place to take a boat, or go for a walk. For me, it is by canoe that is the perfect way to travel see the Wey, paddling along gentle and easily accessible waterways, cutting through the pleasant green lands of Surrey. However, the real gems are the backwaters. Wherever the original river was straightened out by the cutting of the Navigation, meandering backwaters remain, winding their ways down from weirs, bypassing the locks, and on the way, passing through special places where no path follows the bank, where reeds throng closely alongside clear, gently flowing waters, and where wildlife abounds. There are several of these magical streams, some easily accessible, others less so!
The river and the surrounding lands are special places for wildlife, and the water meadows found in several locations are a particularly special habitat. Along the river, bird life abounds, from the obvious mallards and Canada geese, to the elusive kingfishers that flash by in a dart of bright electric blue, and the little grebes who you might just be lucky to spot. Above, buzzards and red kites wheel, showing off their flying skills, but you might also spot a sparrowhawk or a hobby. Where the river breaks away from the navigation, many of the backwaters sound to the fabulous calls of warblers and buntings in summer. Perhaps the most special birds, though, are the owls. Between Send and Pyrford in particular, the barn owls fly, ghost-like, across the meadows at dusk, to a musical chorus of tawny owls in the nearby woodlands. In winter, short eared owls are regular visitors, with a classic owl face with huge yellow eyes, that might turn and stare straight at you if you are lucky enough to see one. In summer, damselflies dance in their thousands, shimmering above sparking waters. Occasionally, you might just see a strange little head crossing the waters, behind it a sinuous shape waving from side to side as it swims. This is a grass snake, perhaps surprisingly a creature very at home in the water.
Let's take a theoretical journey down the river from Godalming to the Thames; in reality this is better broken up into separate sections and loops. This journey will be by canoe, but much of it could be experienced from the banks on foot or, of course, from the deck of a bigger boat. Leaving the wharf at the top of the navigation, the waters of the Wey are slow and tame, and the banks park-like. Farncombe, with its lock, small marina and boathouse, is a hive of activity, the last such before Guildford really. The backwaters around the lock here are tight and not easily accessed, for after dropping down impassable weirs they pass buildings between walls and steep gardens. Once the streams meet again, they start their journey out of the fringes of Godalming, soon leaving the houses behind. On the right bank, the meadows open out, offering the paddler or walker rural views across open fields, where sometimes deer can be seen grazing in the distance.
Half a mile above Unstead lock, the river splits; the navigation cuts straight on to the lock, the original flow dropping over a weir on the right, to fight its way through fallen trees and shallow sections down to the bottom end of the lock cut by a meandering route that is probably more than twice the straight line distance.
Once more reunited, the Wey turns this way and that, shaded by trees at times, before approaching Shalford. Here, the old line of the Wey & Arun canal arrives from the south east. No longer passable, this navigation once linked the Wey and the Thames with the south coast, the only route from London across country to the English Channel.
Below the road bridge at Shalford, and after a short but lovely woodland section, a huge girder bridge marks the railway crossing. Just after this, the unlikely named Riffraff Weir takes the river from the navigation, avoiding St Catherine's Lock. A short canoe portage is possible to get into this stream, which is a gem. Over the next mile, the river twists and turns many, many times. Much of this area is through woodland, where a pair of buzzards make their home, heron prowl the shallow edges of the river, ready to bring shock and doom from above to unsuspecting fish, and deer wander freely just a mile from Guildford town centre. I find it very pleasing that such a tranquil and unspoilt spot lies so close to the urban bustle of the high street, where shoppers, laden with bags, have no idea that just a short distance away time seems to pass at a slower speed as I drift silently beneath the boughs of the trees.
Rejoining the navigation once more, the Wey passes the impressive St Catherine's Hill, with its steep, sandy slopes and superbly positioned ruined Chapel, before reaching the open water meadows that squeeze between the slopes of the downs, reaching almost to the high street itself, as it merges with popular parks. You can see why Guildford grew up where it is, at a place where the high road along the hills had to drop and cross the river, the gap between the slopes an important defensive position at the same time as being a meeting point of roads and river. For the river was probably the most important road of all, even many centuries before the navigation was improved, for it would mark the best way of taking heavy loads across country. Paddling my canoe, you can perhaps feel a link to the many boatmen of times long gone, for whom this river was a way of life.
The wharves at Guildford are mostly redeveloped, but the buildings still echo the shapes of the warehouses that stood here before. The journey through town is actually remarkably short, only just over a mile later does the river reach the first meadows on the northern side. Before then, though, it passes Dapdune Wharf. Here, the National Trust look after a number of attractive and interesting buildings, and a number of old Wey barges and other craft, with displays to show you how life on the Wey once was.
Leaving the town behind, the river passes once more into the countryside, though the noise of the A3 does intrude a little. Still, it is amazing how quickly you start to "zone this out", and there is a sense of being in a calm and peaceful place once again. A couple of locks are passed, normally a portage with the canoe. The second of these, Bowers lock, lies in the very definition of a short cut, where the navigation shortens a mile long loop of the river to just a few hundred yards. This backwater is particularly wild, fallen trees and fast flows mean it is not a place for the inexperienced to venture by canoe or kayak, and entry at the top is blocked by a big weir and large jumble of tangled trees in the flow. The rewards for the experienced adventurer though, are beautiful meanders and shaded woodland slopes, where bluebells throng in the spring.
Another mile or so later, the navigation cuts sharp left at Broadoak Bridge, to make its way pleasantly through woods and across meadows to Triggs lock. Here the views across the meadows are extensive, for the cut is higher than the ground around it. For the paddler, though, one of the most special parts of the Wey, is the backwater that leaves the navigation at Broadoak. A short portage around the stepped weir drops you into a different world. Between here and the junction below Triggs lock, a mile and a half of perfect winding stream takes you away from all roads and footpaths. Clear waters bubble and sparkle, willows cling to sandy banks, and the plaintive cries of the resident buzzards mix with the piping of kingfishers and the lowing of the cattle that are used to manage the water meadows here. This is a special place, though again, beware of fallen trees and avoid in high water.
Again, the canal and river join together, and one of the most pleasant sections of the navigation takes you gently down to Send. At the Worsfold Gates, not a true lock but closed to manage high water, the river dives of leftwards on one of its longest backwater journeys. The navigation splits off through Send, past the welcoming beer garden of the New Inn, and the old Tannery which is a good place to access the canal, before dropping via Papercourt Lock onto the meadows below.
Take a left, though, and you are at the start of an excellent little adventure. The river wanders between green fields where cattle graze, until it reaches a large, vicious looking weir. This is known by us as the Anger Weir, as for years, the D of Danger had faded away, though the sign has recently been replaced. The channel below, the Broadmead Cut, is a flood relief channel which takes a straighter line. Keeping clear of the weir itself, a small channel on the left takes a portion of the river on a different course. Shortly, the modern apartments at Gresham Mill appear. Here, you must leave the river, for these flats mark the location of the old printing works mill, and the river goes underneath through a series of sluices and weirs. Instead, you must put your canoe on your shoulders, and follow the path across the common to below the mill, where it is possible for the adventurous to get back into the river with a little difficulty down overgrown banks.
Old Woking lies beyond, but is quickly behind you. Suddenly, you enter a different, quieter world, where nature holds sway. Over the next 2 miles, the river twists and turns dozens of times, the wind whispers through the tall reeds that line the banks, and the clear waters below are full of waving water weed. Warblers chatter, herons stalk patiently in the edges of the stream, and if you're lucky, you might see the blue flash of a kingfisher flying missile-like above the water ahead of you. Here, I find it almost impossible not to slow down and drift at the gentle speed of the river beneath my canoe, and time seems to pass at a different pace here.
Later on, a crumbling red brick wall comes into view on the left bank. This unpretentious looking ruin, is actually the remains of Woking Palace. The first time I came here, I was rather surprised to find that Woking had a palace, effectively an extensive hunting lodge that was a a day's easy ride from Hampton Court. Henry VIII visited often. Sometimes we lunch in the ruins, where Henry once feasted himself, and where a real tennis court would once have echoed to the sound of shots played by our most famous king.
Meandering so much that you sometimes find yourself pointing towards places you passed half an hour ago, eventually you arrive below Papercourt Lock. This, and Papercourt Meadows through which you have passed, are the kingdom of the owl. At dusk, if you're lucky and patient, you will see the ghostly shape of a barn owl hunting low over the tussocky grasslands. If you're here in winter, you might see short-eared owls doing the same, even in daylight, a wonderful sight. I have heard there are little owls in one area, but have yet to see these.
A road crosses the Wey between Pyrford and Ripley. Close by, visible on foot from the nearby lock, stand the ruins of another surprising find, the little known Newark Priory. Unfortunately, the ruins are not accessible on foot, but here the river brings another treat, for it winds its way close by. The 12th century priory was an Augustinian establishment, eventually another victim of Henry VIII's "divorce proceedings", and for nearly 500 years it has stood, crumbling and neglected by all but the crows and the cattle. Now, its ancient and unloved walls are a magical backdrop to the Wey's meanders, especially at dawn and dusk.
Half a mile downstream stands the biggest of the Wey's weirs - that at Walsham. And here there is a parting of ways. The Navigation keeps left, and makes its way by the most direct route through New Haw towards Weybridge. More canal-like than ever, it remains rural for a couple of miles, before being joined by the Basingstoke Canal and running in straight lines to its final junction with the river.
Meanwhile, the River Wey has gone on a little adventure of its own, freed from the controls of the navigation, zig-zagging this way and that through the countryside. It passes the beautiful grounds of the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley, after a very manicured section through an extremely nice golf course, before pausing briefly at Byfleet Mill. Canoeists will have a short awkward portage here, using a right of way on the left bank accessed by a hidden mill leat.
Shortly downstream, the character changes, as the Wey enters urban surroundings at last. For a canoeist, though, the interest remains, for the view from the river is still much wilder than that on the roads above. Wagtails flitter around the banks, the river flows and burbles gently past gardens and under dark bridges. One of these marks the boundary of the old Brooklands racing circuit, where a ridiculously steeply banked track once ran. Soon, the tail planes of old aircraft poke above the greenery on the right, including Concorde, as you pass the excellent Brooklands Museum. As the main railway line appears, high above towering brick arches, the last remains of that banking lie to the side, and you can just make out how steep they are. Imagine racing round there in a 1930's car, averaging over 100 mph. The casualty rate was quite high.
The railway marks the return to a more rural section, passing meadows where goats and horses wander, before the final run into Weybridge. Here, large and impressive dwellings contrast with smaller riverside homes, though even the latter come with a bit of a premium for enjoying the banks of the river.
The ironwork of the road bridge at Weybridge marks the end of the flowing river Wey. Here the canal enters a wide pool from the left and the waters combine again for the last kilometre to Thames Lock, the end of the Wey Navigation and the junction with Old Father Thames.
This journey down the Wey is a special one, a secret gem in the semi-urban sprawl of commuter-belt Surrey. The contrast of this magical strip of the natural word, stuffed full of life, winding its way through a strip of land between large towns and some of the UK's busiest motorways, makes it even more special to me. I love it.
The Wey Valley website - loads of useful and informative information
River Wey Navigation: The National Trust Page
Canoeing Info: Paddle Points
Canoe and row boat hire: Farncombe Boat House