Surrey’s lost canal route to the sea

PUBLISHED: 09:46 15 November 2016 | UPDATED: 09:46 15 November 2016

WACT narrowboat Zachariah Keppel cruising along the canal (Photo Wey & Arun Canal Trust)

WACT narrowboat Zachariah Keppel cruising along the canal (Photo Wey & Arun Canal Trust)

Authorised for use with material provided by the Wey & Arun Canal Trust.

As celebrations get under way to commemorate the opening of the first fully-navigable section of the newly-restored Wey and Arun Canal, not to mention the 200th anniversary of this historic waterway, Harriet Danhash brings us its story

Boat crew members taking part in a Pirates and Princesses themed cruise on the canal (Photo Dave Verrall)Boat crew members taking part in a Pirates and Princesses themed cruise on the canal (Photo Dave Verrall)

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine October 2016

***

Nowadays when one thinks about a canal, the mind tends to conjure up images of lazy, sunny days whiled away walking or cycling along leafy banks or, for the more adventurous among us, perhaps even chugging along on a narrowboat. Hark back to Victorian times, however, and the picture could not have been more different. Canals were functional beasts, used primarily for transporting cargo from London to the provinces, and vice versa.

Here in Surrey, the story was no different, and our county played host to an inland waterways route that led all the way from the River Thames at Teddington to the Wey Navigation at Weybridge, then down through the county towards Guildford and Shalford, and on to the Wey and Arun Canal, before meandering its way through Sussex towards the south coast. Back then, everything from military items to agricultural produce, and limestone to even gold bullion – which would have been transported down to Portsmouth ready to be shipped off to the colonies – would have frequented Surrey’s waterways.

For half a century, the canal held strong as the preferred way to transport goods, being easier and faster than moving large cargoes by the unmade, rutted roads of that time. However, with the advent of the Victorian railway network, the canal gradually fell out of favour. Eventually, in 1871, an Act of Abandonment was passed and a closure order was placed on the Wey and Arun Canal. Most of the waterway became derelict and it became known as London’s ‘lost route to the sea’.

A new beginning

Today, however, a new – and very exciting – chapter is unfolding in the story of this historic waterway. Thanks to the sterling efforts of the Wey & Arun Canal Trust (‘WACT’), the full 23-mile stretch is now in the process of being restored to its former glory.

“As well as restoring the waterway itself, our work is all about creating a green corridor along the canal,” explains press and public relations officer, Rob Searle, who joined the charity two years ago as a paid part-time fund-raiser, became hooked on the canal restoration and now volunteers on all sorts of activities. “Whilst the canal was built for commercial reasons as opposed to leisure, the route passes through some beautiful countryside. Also, the WACT is not just for boaters; it’s for everyone who enjoys the countryside and so we’re engaged in enhancing wildlife and the natural landscape too.”

With that in mind, over the last few years, the WACT has worked tirelessly to clear the trees and bushes that, over the course of a century, had sprouted from the canal bed and banks, blocking the waterway. Stretches of the canal have also been dredged and cleared, and the banks and towpaths are now maintained.

None of this would be possible, however, if it were not for the efforts and sheer dedication of the WACT’s 300-strong army of volunteers. At working parties taking place throughout the week, skills ranging from hedge-laying to civil engineering are deployed to bring the waterway back to life. Others help out on the popular boat excursions on the restored canal section at Loxwood, just over the Surrey-Sussex border, offering the opportunity to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of more than three miles of fully-operational canal.

“This is my second year on the boat crew and I have answered many questions from passengers about the history and the current status of the canal,” says volunteer, Sandy Henney, who helps out with her husband Bob Marsh. “After going on a WACT-led walk to see some of the restoration work myself, I realised there was so much more to the WACT than I previously knew. It is not just restoring part of England’s waterway heritage but it’s taking an holistic approach to conserving and reviving the natural environment, too, for the enjoyment of everyone who visits what is one of the prettiest canals in the south of England.”

Bridging the gap

In Surrey, the biggest phase of the restoration so far has been the £750,000 project to build the new Compasses Bridge at Alfold. Replacing a wartime concrete causeway that was blocking the waterway, the bridge has been funded primarily by donations and legacies, special appeals, support from the WACT’s 3,000 members, and grants from the Johnson Wax, Basil Samuel and D’Oyly Carte charitable trusts.

The opening of the new bridge, along with the first fully-navigable section of the waterway in Surrey – which stretches from that point to the A281 Guildford/Horsham road – will be marked with a whole weekend of celebrations at the start of this month. Also coinciding with the 200th anniversary of the Wey and Arun Canal being officially opened, it looks set to be a very special occasion.

“Events will kick off on Saturday October 1, with the first leg of the Bicentennial Baton Relay starting from where the canal meets the River Arun at Pallingham in West Sussex,” says Rob. “Over the course of the weekend, the baton will make its way north along the canal route to Surrey, travelling by boat along the restored sections of the canal at Loxwood and Alfold, and carried by foot along those stretches where work remains to be done.

“Then, on the Sunday, patron of the Surrey Hills AONB, Dame Penelope Keith, will be our special guest to officially open the Compasses Bridge and there will be plenty to see with boat rallies and a flotilla at various points along the route, up to Dapdune Wharf at Guildford.”

Looking to the future, with more than half of the canal route worked on so far, there is still plenty more to do and the WACT has a number of other projects in the pipeline. Between Shalford and the southern side of Bramley, only a very small stretch of the original waterway remains, and there are plans to rebuild the canal on a new route, which would either pass through Cranleigh Waters or, perhaps ironically, follow the old Guildford to Horsham railway route.

Ultimately, the WACT’s admirable intention is to create an entire corridor through Surrey and down into Sussex, where walkers, cyclists, horse riders, anglers, photographers and wildlife enthusiasts can enjoy the wealth of flora and fauna.

“Over the years, our photographers have spotted all kinds of wildlife along the canal, from deer, kingfishers and all kinds of butterflies to herons, kites and buzzards,” says Rob. “We also have our Hunt Nature Park at Shalford, which was created by the WACT following a very generous legacy from the late Ed and Doris Hunt. There, you will find a viewing platform, complete with picnic benches, where people can pause to admire the local wildlife. The platform will also be an ideal place to watch the building of a new lock, when that part of the canal is restored. In addition, there are ducks on the restored shallow ponds in the park too.”

The ripple effect

From here in Surrey to deepest, darkest Sussex, the canal has become a firm favourite with people from all walks of life and, with the continuing work of the WACT, its popularity looks set to rise.

The canal has even been featured on the Channel 4 television series, Great Canal Journeys, when actress Prunella Scales and her actor husband, Timothy West, travelled along the length of the navigable stretch in the WACT’s passenger boat, Josias Jessop. The programme served to raise the profile of the WACT’s vital work, in restoring and preserving a part of Surrey’s history, so that intrepid explorers can continue to discover the canal for generations to come.

And, whilst it’s unlikely that we’ll see any gold bullion making its way down the canal in the near – or indeed distant – future, there are plenty of other treasures just waiting to be discovered along this magnificent waterway.

• For further information about the WACT, the volunteering opportunities available and details of their events, see weyandarun.co.uk

***

Get exploring

If you’re looking to head outside this month and this has whetted your appetite for a nice autumnal jaunt, then look no further than the WACT’s selection of leaflets with suggested walks along the canal.

The WACT also publishes a little booklet, entitled The Wey-South Path, which is a guide to the long-distance walking and cycling route that mainly follows the canal towpath, and sets out circular routes linked to the historic waterway.

And if you need an extra incentive to head out and explore this local gem, popular pubs along the routes, or a short diversion away, include The Parrot Inn and The Queen Victoria at Shalford; The Three Compasses at Alfold; The Sir Roger Tichborne at Alfold Bars; The Onslow Arms at Loxwood; and The Bat and Ball and The Limeburners at Wisborough Green.

Walks leaflets can be downloaded for free from the WACT’s website at weyandarun.co.uk or bought at a small cost from their canal centre at Loxwood. The Wey-South Path is on sale at the centre and can also be ordered via the website.

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