BASINGSTOKE CANAL - The Western Length[Published 1977]
|A brief history|
|Greywell and the Tunnel|
|King John's Castle|
|Odiham and Colt Hill|
|The Villager and hisCommon|
|The Hunting Lodge|
|Winchfield and 'Thirty eight|
|Wildflowers of the Bank and Water|
|Woodland Trees and Shrubs|
|Fishes and Fishing|
|Birds of the woods|
|Birds of the water|
A Hampshire County Recreation Publication.
Designed by Peter Davies.
Illustrated by Peter Davies and David Thelwell. [back to top]
It is nearly a hundred and fifty years since the heyday of the Basingstoke canal: by no means a long time when we remember that old men and women alive today might have heard their grandparents talking of their villages, and their childhood in the days before the railways.
This booklet is about the canal that those grandparents grew up with and which they saw fail during their lifetime. More precisely it is the story of just five miles between Greywell and Dogmersfield, yet in this brief length of countryside can be found a wealth of interest both of nature and history.
In so few pages, it is of course impossible to tell the full story, especially in the case of the natural history. As other booklets are published gradually extending to cover the whole length of the canal, each will, like this one, feature a limited variety of flowers, fishes, insects and so on until the series adds up to a vivid guide to the complete ecology, as well as the history of the waterway.
The first idea of a canal link between Basingstoke and London that we know of dates from the late 1760's. This would have been dug along the Whitewater Valley to Reading to join another proposed canal down to Maidenhead, short-cutting the Thames. Opposition was too fierce and six years later new plans were drawn up to join the Thames much lower down by digging a canal into Surrey to connect with the River Wey navigation for a final three miles. The Wey had been canalised to Guildford for over a century and a recent extension to Godalming was proving successful. The new project would require many locks to be built in Surrey but only one in the longer Hampshire length. An Act of Parliament approving the project was passed in 1778 despite much opposition from competing interests, other navigation companies who saw their trade threatened. The Canal Navigation Company that was created, however, could not begin work until ten years later, because of wars and recessions. In Autumn 1788 the cutting of the Greywell tunnel through a chalk hill began.
In contrast to the countryside covered by this booklet that to the east has changed completely since 1850. Up until that time it was a vast heath uninterrupted except by the Blackwater Valley. The Canal proprietors hoped to profit by shipping up to London timber which could be used in shipbuilding and malt, flour and other produce from the farms of Hampshire. On return journeys coal could be sent down as well as groceries, china, drapery and so on. To make this traffic possible they built the Canal, thirty-seven miles long with sixty-eight bridges, twenty-nine locks, and two tunnels along with assorted lockhouses, wharves and warehouses.
The first decades of the Company's operation saw many plans for new canals in all parts of Britain. People even thought of the period as one of 'Canal Mania'. It was soon obvious that the Basingstoke Canal could only survive in the long run by joining another waterway to gain access to another port, either Southampton or Bristol. Nearly every town in Hampshire would have been on a canal had all the local proposals been built. As it was the one major route from London to Portsmouth was completed through Sussex in 1823, and the Basingstoke Canal was left on its own, hampered by competition from carriage by land and sea.
In the 1830's a new and more drastic competitor arrived: a railway from London, which was planned by the Canal Company's own consultant engineer. Boat traffic increased during construction until the inevitable moment of collapse with the first trains.
The 1840's saw the company desperately trying to hold onto business by cutting its charges. In 1854 the Canal Company, about to sell up, was saved for a time by the development of the heathland for Aldershot Camp, for which large quantities of building materials were shipped. The Canal could also safely and easily move military supplies such as munitions direct from the Woolwich Arsenal. By 1865 again, the Canal was clearly failing. The Greywell tunnel had a collapse and the business was now bought and sold frequently by speculators. With lack of maintenance, however, traffic to Basingstoke had died by 1901. A last attempt to reopen the Canal briefly occurred during World War 1 when the army took control of the eastern end to move government stores.
Interest in full restoration grew in the 1960's, starting with a narrow boat rally at Woking, and the Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society was founded in 1966. Rapid progress in restoration has been made since 1974 when Surrey and Hampshire County Councils pur≠chased the Canal: the towpath has been cleared, bridges and locks rebuilt and each year an ever growing number of miles of the waterway are dredged.
No better name could be chosen for the modern day cruising boat to remind us of the pioneering years later in the 1780's when the Canal was being opened up. John Pinkerton was the man who, with other members of his family, supervised the many sub≠contractors amongst whom the construction work was shared.
The Pinkertons worked from Odiham because of the greater difficulties at this western end which passed through countryside composed of many farms and private estates, a marked contrast to the eastern length.
One has to admire the achievement of these men, and the surveyors who preceded themóworking without the detailed maps we take for granted, seldom welcomed by landowners, and working on a project delayed for ten inflationary years by war. It was remarkable that the construction costs rose only 65% above estimates.
Landowners could use their power to hamper the Canal, and doubtless insisted on the building of so many bridges. They also objected to the disturbance of their estates (especially their hunting) and feared that drainage would be affected. Because of one landowners's resistance the 'navigators' had to tunnel their way two-thirds of a mile to build the Greywell tunnel.
Today, 200 years later, the beauty of the area and its variety of interest has not been diminished but increased by Pinkerton's work and that of his modern day successors.
The Greywell Tunnel was one of the first places of work and the sight of one hundred men digging the cutting which leads to it brought one traveller to call it 'a wonderful proof of the power and art of man'. Inside flow springs of ice cold water which must have made working very unpleasant.
After one collapse of the tunnel which stopped this major supply, the canal had to be topped up with water by diverting the river Whitewater. When the canal was drying out between the wars the company blamed the new pumping station for lowering local water levels, although it could not prove the point.
At Greywell the horses which had pulled the barges all the way from the London Docks were unhitched and led over the hill to the western entrance. The bargees meanwhile had to 'leg' their way through. This must have been much harder work than opening and closing locks, for the boats on the Basingstoke Canal were much heavier and wider than on most other canals which were built only for narrow boats.
On the banks of the Canal, near the tunnel, was a timber yard and wharf from which timber from the woodland on the hill was shipped.
Walkers who get up to the eastern portal will certainly enjoy a short walk through the very picturesque village with its brick and timbered old houses, its Norman Church and the Old Mill on the Whitewater. A path still crosses Greywell Hill but no longer passes by the tunnel's western mouth which today is hardly visible.
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Closely confined now, by the Canal and the river Whitewater and skirted by one of its own moats, stands King John's Castle. The Canal was cut through the outer baileys with their own surrounding moats so today it looks a much smaller fortress than it once was. What remains is the three storied keep of stone and flint originally having eight sides. It was built around 1207 by King John as a stopping place to rest and hunt while on his journeys from Windsor to Winchester. Detailed accounts of the building work survive so we know that there was a gatehouse, chapel, hall, kitchen, brewhouse, stables, forge, armoury, barn, bridges and various houses. The work was complete in 1212 and in June 1215, John rode from his castle at Odiham to Runnymede near Windsor, to set his seal on The Magna Carta.
The following year, in 1216, the castle was besieged by the Dauphin of France. His army persisted in their siege for fifteen days before the holders of the castle surrended on terms of retaining their freedom. You may well imagine the surprise of the French as the English marched out of the castle: the 'army' that had successfully fended them off for over two weeks consisted of onty thirteen men.
A few years later, in 1232, the castle was given to Eleanor, sister of Henry III and wife of Simon de Montfort. Records of her household accounts during her six-month residence there in 1265 are still in existence today. Written on a roll of parchment these records give us detailed information on what the household necessities were, the kinds and amounts of food and drink that were consumed and the prices that were paid.
The records actually cover a period of great crisis for the family at Odiham Castle for since Simon, with the barons, had defeated King Henry III at Lewes he had ruled England. In April that year de Montfort left his wife at Odiham and four months later he and many others were killed in battle at Evesham by the Royalist Army.
Near the castle the Canal builders had to cross the Whitewater. This was done by inserting some large wooden pipes under the Canal Bed. When these were replaced in 1975 some were still very well preserved.
Just as King John's Castle used the water filled moats and nearby river for defence, so we shall learn the Canal was considered for this purpose more than 700 years later. Another dramatic episode, however, happened nearby during the English Civil War when the Roundheads made use of the River Whitewater in the same way. Here, close to North Warnborough Mill, the Royalist garrison of Basing suffered a serious defeat when a plot to burn and pillage Odiham, quartered with Parliamentary forces, was betrayed. The cavaliers were surprised at night by mounted guards and after a furious fight the Royalists' horses fled and more than a hundred foot soldiers were captured, which was a very critical loss during the long siege of 1644.
The Swan Inn by the road over the Canal was popular in trading days among the boatmen. A special room in the back was provided for their sleeping quarters and came to be known as The Barge Room'. Outside, the wooden buildings by the Canal were used originally for stabling the barge horses.
The surrounding farmland along the Canal between North Warnborough and Colt Hill was once part of the Medieval Royal Park at Odiham. In Saxon days it was used as a hunting ground to supply deer and other animals for the inhabitants of a royal palace at Odiham, and later for the new castle west of the boundary. In 1630 there were still 600 deer kept in the park.
The Royal Parkers also used to breed horses here from King John's reign onwards. They were stabled in a building in the park. Record of this is preserved still today in the area called 'Colt Hill'.
In the later 18th Century, about the same time as the Basingstoke Canal was being built, the present day field system of the local farms was being settled. Although the park's land was incorporated into the system, part of the perimeter may still be traced. The original boundary was defined by banks and ditches, and the field system, when laid out, conformed to these same features. Trees have grown along the old banks, however, so today much of the Boundary is instead marked by large old trees, some of which can be seen in the distance from this section of the Canal.
Odiham was one of the major trading points on the route from London to Basingstoke. Next to the east side of the humpback bridge is the site of the old Great Wharf where cargos of coal were delivered. Shipments of fresh produce, timber and chalk from the nearby villages were then sent off on returning barges. For a hundred years loaded carts of chalk must have been a familiar site in Odiham as the supplies were taken from the great quarry to the waterside. However, hopes that the 'Great Heath', ten miles east of Odiham, might be brought into cultivation with lime from this source came to nothing.
The site of a second Little Wharf can be seen immediately on the west side of the bridge by an old brick building which was once a public house called 'The Cricketers'. This pub has since been replaced by the 'Waterwitch', a few doors up the road, recently renamed after a narrow boat which used to trade on the Canal in the 1880's. By the bridge abuttments is another smaller brick building in which the toll office was situated.
Just a short distance east of Colt Hill the Canal passes under a bridge, Broad Oak bridge, one of the last on the Canal to be restored. To its south is a small hamlet with a green, by the same name. Two hundred and fifty years ago, when the Canal was built, there were many of these little settlements in the countryside. Their inhabitants led self-sufficient lives depending very much on their commons: fields and woods they did not own, but were allowed to share.
Across the bridge from Broad Oak lies Odiham Common. Here, as well as on the green, the villagers' cows and horses would be pastured while other woodland parts of the common were coppiced (see page26). The hazel trees especially were used, not only for bean rods and pea sticks but also thatching spars, bunts for firing and logwood. Hazel is the best wood for making hurdles, and crates were once made from plaiting the split rods. A wide range of other wood products would have been made from thr other coppiced trees: ash, birch, maple and holly.
As transport was difficult, having a common close at hand was invaluable, for in it the villager had a supply of feeding stuffs, timber, power (in his stock which would carry and pull for him), fuel and even building materials. There was also mineral extraction. Bricks were manufactured in a brickfield on the common for its woods contain both clay and sand, the two main ingredients of bricks.
So perhaps the villagers found seasonal employment making brick and hurdles and joined in the work teams digging the Canal across their common. Although protests were made at the loss of land, the promise of coal and many other products from London must have seemed an inviting prospect to the neighbouring cottagers.
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One of the most attractive parts of the Canal is a short distance north of Broad Oak, where a small pond lies beside the Canal. This is shown on a map drawn well before the Canal was planned and has the name Wilks Water.
Nearby stands one of the strangest and most attractive buildings of North Hampshire, the 'Hunting Lodge'. This was probably erected in the 1730's to house a gamekeeper working for the Dogmersfield Estate, but was given its very special facade to make a point of interest in the view from a Belvedere in the park which was developed in the middle of the 18th Century. This is the only surviving structure of an extraordinary set of buildings which stood for a mere 40 years, only to be destroyed about the time the Canal was built in the 1780's. At that time the whole area was remodelled in the new Capability Brown style which sought a harmonious natural landscape, one no longer cluttered by such romantic curiosities. The Hunting Lodge survived perhaps because it served a useful purpose, and perhaps because it was cut off from the rest of the park by the new canal.
The 'Hunting Lodge' is privately occupied so walkers are asked not to disturb the peace of this beautiful spot.
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Apart from the Great House all other buildings have gone but fortunately there are illustrations left to show the park. Close to Wilks Water is another larger lake from which a small stream feeds the canal. An even larger lake called Tundry Pond is visible from the Canal south-east of Barley Mow.
Built in an age when grottos, hermits and temples were the height of fashion the park included an octagonal belvedere surrounded by a garden of formal flower beds, while Tundry Pond had a Palladian bridge and on a hilltop stood a small fantasy gothic arch. The park also had its own 'cannal', probably an elongated lake. At the time the park would have been, as for centuries past, stocked with deer, but it also included a village around Tundry Pond which was removed from the new landscaped park. The owner, Sir Henry St. John, was powerful enough to ensure that his park was not disturbed by the Canal, indeed the Canal builders had to construct a bridge over Tundry Pond to allow carriages to pass to the Great House.
The Canal builders were forbidden by Act of Parliament to pass through such a park. Had it been allowed the Canal would have certainly been cut straight across, saving the long deviation by Winchfield.
Passing under the frequent bridges between Colt Hill and Barley Mow greatly adds to the pleasure of this very attractive stretch of the Canal. Most of these have had to be rebuilt and the skill with which this task has been tackled is clear, for modern bricks have been used and carefully matched.
A close look shows that each bridge is quite individual depending on the width of the cutting and the height of the road surface above water level.
Carpenters played an important part in the building and rebuilding of these bridges for a wooden arch is first built and on top of that are laid the bricks.
An important need for a bridge, as for any roadway, is drainage. On some bridges holes have been cut for water which seeps from the surface into the clay filling over the brick arch. During restoration tie-rods and round plates have been put on the bridges to give extra protection against the growing pressure of clay inside that gradually pushes the walls outwards. Under some bridges, where the towpath has been rebuilt, slots have been cut for stop-planks. These allow the Canal workers, from time to time, to drain part of the waterway when for instance they have to clean it out or in an emergency isolate a section.
The number of bridges in such a short distance, with some almost side by side, shows how the Canal builders had to make numerous concessions to local needs. At the time of planning, small hamlets such as Sprats Hatch and another at Pillars were already being killed off by the estate owners for the park, yet they were provided with bridges and others served farmland that would soon be patrolled by gamekeepers and grazed by deer. 'Baseley' and 'Stacey' are both names of farming families of that time. The swing bridges which have mostly disappeared were wide enough to carry a cart but had to be opened and closed by the bargemen. These were counter-balanced at one end and rotated on a set of cannonballs. Three of these, which have now gone, were situated near King John's Castle, east of North Warnborough and at Dogmersfield.
The first of these was replaced in 1954 by a hydraulic lifting bridge which took as long as three-quarters of an hour to raise. Recently as part of the restoration scheme new equipment was installed which will now open the bridge in just 1-1/2 minutes.
From its woodland cutting up to Stacey's bridge, the Canal emerges into a more pastoral landscape, crossing into Winchfield parish. During the later 18th Century the St. John family tried hard to extend their park northwards onto Winchfield land and were only held off after a thirty-year legal battle.
The boundary with Dogmersfield is a small public lane from Sprats Hatch, bordered with occasional great sarsen marker stones.
Winchfield Village is well and truly dispersed. Its core was the Church of St. Mary, one of the finest late Norman churches in Hampshire, which contains memorials to the Beauclerk family, local landowners, who were descended from the First Duke of St. Albans, son of Charles II and Nell Gwynne. Sadly, the church, which can be reached by a footpath from Stacey's bridge,is kept closed when not in use.
By a strange coincidence, close to the motorway at Winchfield stands an old milestone, inscribed 'London 38 miles'. Nearby is the railway station, whose opening was a historic moment for Hampshire and the Canal; the year, 1838.
As the Canal begins to turn eastwards, a long embankment can be seen, which attracted many Hampshire people to come and see the building of one of the first railways in the south. In 1838 the first trains ran up to Nine Elms in London.
Winchfield became very busy for most of the coach traffic from the south and west came to the station to join the trains. Coaches, carriages and even horses were loaded onto the trucks, for the 100 minute journey saved nearly 3 hours! The local boom was short- lived, for next year the terminus was at Basingstoke and by 1840 one could travel from Southampton.
'Thirty-eight' was also the busiest year ever experienced by the Canal, and for four years the little wharf near the Barley Mow must have been crowded with building materials for the railway. A wharf as near to the railway as this must have suffered a dramatic decline when the line opened, whilst others like Colt Hill, rather further away, were not quite so badly affected.
From the canal can be seen another ominous and once hated
landmark, built in 1836: the Union workhouse for the Hartley
Wintney district. The decline of the local main road traffic, as well
as the canal must have forced many into such terrible places. Life
there had to be unpleasant enough to repel the workshy. Families
were kept separate and imbeciles, consumptives and starving,
expectant mothers mixed together and set to work. Happily,
however, today it is used as a hospital where old people are well
To pass Tundry Pond the Canal has been built up on a high embankment, and this is guarded by two pill boxes and a considerable number of heavy brick and concrete blocks. They were part of a very hastily planned defence system built in June and July of 1940. The Basingstoke Canal formed a useful lowland link in a chain which for the most part used steep natural slopes to slow the progress of the expected invasion by Hitler's forces that crucial summer.
Sadly Prince Arthur died only five months after their wedding and Katherine was contracted to the eleven year old brother. Henry, who married her in 1509. In the reformation, which came in the wake of their separation in 1531, Dogmersfield was taken from the Church and came into the hands of the Wriothesleys, the Earls of Southampton. They rebuilt a larger mansion in the reign of Elizabeth, but this was again replaced in the early 18th Century by the great house which still stands today.
The new flush of water down the canal, joining up shrinking isolated ponds, flooding extensive mud patches and marsh areas, followed by the deeper dredging is transforming the balance between marsh, swamp and aquatic plants. Inevitably many species which had invaded the drying or shallow canal may now only be found elsewhere. It will be important that visitors to the area help to protect the flowers that have managed to remain.
Yellow Iris, for instance, may survive on the banks, preferring wet conditions and able to tolerate standing water. It is one of the earliest flowers to appear and its yellow 'flag' is a pleasant feature among the duller sedges and reeds. By mid-summer small water forget-me-nots may be seen along the water's edge, and nearby where it is damp but not wet, may be seen the Great Willow Herb with bright pink petals, and Purple Loosestrife. By September the sausage shaped head of tightly clustered flowers of the Reedmace turns a rich chocolate brown, an earthy colour appropriate to usher in the beginnings of autumn. Reedmace also enjoys swampy situations, rooting itself just by the waters edge.
In the Canal itself we find a quite different type of plant, one that has adapted to life in the water. Some of these plants are rooted in the mud below while others have their roots hanging in the water; some have leaves and flowers that lie on the surface or just above the water; and still others live their lives completely submerged. The Yellow Water Lily and Water Crowfoot are two that float on the surface. Adaptation to the water environment is evident in the Crowfoot by looking at its leaves. The surface leaves are similar to the buttercup, though smaller, while the underwater leaves are streamlined and flexible, allowing the water currents to flow smoothly without damaging the plant.
A plant that lives totally submerged is the Canadian pondweed. This plant has had an interesting history in England. Brought over from North America, it took a fast and strong hold, choking many of the rivers, canals and drains, seriously hampering water transport and drainage. The Government quickly set up a clearance programme but it did nothing to help because each cut piece of Pondweed grew into a new plant! Luckily, and for no apparent reason, it eventually receded of its own accord, but it is still prevalent along many waterways.
The progress of the dredging along the Canal, the clearing of the towpath, and of course the arrival of many more visitors will cause many changes to the natural history along the Canal, some beneficial some not.
To the north east of Colt Hill visitors can find one of the most wooded stretches of the Canal. In the woodlands change, although slow, is surely at work. Here 'mixed coppice' grows, now airy plantations of pole-like bushes and trees rising from chopped-off stumps. After several years the poles are cut and the new stems regrow.
The decline of the traditional woodland crafts has led to neglect of the hazel, maple, birch, alder and ash mixture which were all managed in this way.
Properly worked coppice woodlands have a thick undergrowth, which includes many low scrambling plants, and this provides ideal nesting sites for Nightingales, Blackcap and Warblers as well as Dormice. Without frequent cutting of the poles the undergrowth gradually dies down, and the open, and far less hospitable wood results.
The Canal banks have come to support a good variety of trees and shrubs. Hawthorn, for instance, was planted beside the towpath between Colt Hill and North Warnborough. It was, to begin with, worked into an effective hedge that would keep the barge horses from wandering into the neighbouring fields. With commercial decline and disuse, the once frequently recut thorns have grown into ancient looking trees whose flowers, in turn, 'support' insect life.
The hedges and canal banks have seen a succession of other flowering plants filling the gaps, growing in shelter and exploiting the damp soil. Fast growing willows for instance, thrive near the water and their pollen laden catkins are visited by insects from Easter on. Incidentally, infusions made from the bark of the willow were used by country people to recover from fevers and have been found to contain salicylic acid, the active ingredient of asprin.
Among the many flowering shrubs is the Guelder rose, an attractive one that also favours damp places. It is sometimes called water elder, and its flowers grow in a small white head. When autumn comes, the leaves turn dark crimson and clusters of blood red berries with a pungent odour form. Three other rose shrubs can also be found: Scrambling, Dog and Field Roses. Not only do insects exploit the pollen, and devour the growing leaves, but birds feed on the autumn fruit.
The numerous flowering plants, coupled with the water habitat, serve to attract a great many insects to the Canal. The wild flowers provide nectar for some of the insects, and the insects, while gathering this food, in turn pollinate the flowers. Butterflies appear to prefer pink and purple flowers, adding their own touch of colour as they flutter from flower to flower. The sulphur-yellow male Brimstone is usually the first one to be seen in the spring, coming out in early March. The Red Admiral appears when the weather becomes warmer, making the trip to Britain from the Mediterranean countries. Other kinds to be seen along the Canal include early Orange Tip, Comma, and abundant small Tortoiseshell.
Dragonflies and Damselflies are also abundant here, their slender, colourful bodies shimmering in the light as they dart about in the weeds. Though very similar in appearance, they can be distinguished from each other by body size, wing shape and wing position. Dragonflies are conspicuously larger and stouter with dissimilar forewings and hindwings that are held open even at rest. The Damselfly, on the other hand, have two pairs of similar shaped wings, that are folded back over their bodies when they land. The Damselfly also tend to stay closer to the water's edge while the Dragonfly covers much more territory, especially when it is hunting for food. Both are carnivorous creatures with tremendous speed and agility which helps them to catch other insects while in flight, as well as to escape from danger.
One of the excitements of being by any stretch of water, the sight of fish rising to snatch an insect is also a pleasant reminder of how interdependant the world of nature is. Fish, insects, flowers, birds, and trees all together produce a wonderfully rich and interesting environment which can be improved even more by careful management.
As the dredgers press along the canal the growing water has been stocked with fish. From the few isolated stretches where water had survived Pike have been able to spread and are certainly feeding on the newly imported fish. Amongst others three different kinds especially suited for still, shallow freshwater have been selected. All of them are coarse so that from mid-March to mid-June angling is illegal to protect the fish until after the spawning period.
For the pike this comes very early in the year. The other introduced fish: the Crucian Carp, the Tench and the Perch follow from April. These fish produce tens or even hundreds of thousands of eggs which are left sticking to water plants, stones and roots.
In a very short time the eggs develop into embryos up to half an inch long. From then on their individual characteristics develop until each becomes a fascinating sporting challenge to the fisherman.
The Crucian Carp differs from the much loved Common Carp in its smaller size, and lack of barbels, the sensitive organs of touch and taste hanging from the mouth. It dwells mostly at the bottom of the Canal among the weeds where it hunts for food, including small aquatic fauna and the larvae of various insects. It can be very difficult to locate for the angler. Although less than half the size of the Common Carp, the Crucians can very easily interbreed with them.
The Tench is another, but very different, member of the Carp family, with a high body, oval cross section and very small scales. They can grow up to 2 feet in length and live by routing about on the bottom eating insect larvae, crustaceans and snails. They have tasty fat flesh and are very popular with anglers who wait eagerly for early morning of June 16th to try and catch this fish. The mature Perch, perhaps the most handsome of coarse fish with splendid colours and sharp spines is not easy to catch, and puts up a good fight once hooked. Perch live gregarious but nomadic lives. They eat voraciously anything from eggs to other fish. They have excellent flesh and anglers compete keenly to catch larger specimens.
Both Perch and Carp have been, and still are, important in the farming of fish. In 1332 when the park of Dogmersfield was owned by the Bishop of Bath and Wells a theft from the fish ponds was taken so seriously that the 'sons of iniquity whose names are unknown' were threatened with excommunication! Today the fishing in the Canal is protected by restriction to membership of the Club who have stocked the water, the Basingstoke Canal Anglers Association.
The supply of insects, the availability of trees, and the water with its fish, all help to attract a large number of birds to the Canal, varying from woodland birds to waterfowl. Of the woodland birds, the songs of the various warblers are easily heard, though the birds are difficult to see. The Willow Warbler's song is a pleasing rippling sound becoming louder then quieter: se-se-se-see-suu-suit-suit-sueet-sueetew which is repeated several times a minute.
The Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff are both small and very similar to look at, the first perhaps more yellow and green in colour. Both arrive in spring from the south, the Willow Warbler from tropical and Southern Africa, the Chiffchaff from North Africa and the mediterranean. Chiffchaffs have their easily recognisable chiff-chaff chiff-chaff song and prefer woods with rich undergrowth, where they are ceaselessly active darting after insects or early on making their nests from dead leaves, moss, stalks and feathers. A mechanical drumming sound is a wonderful advertisement for the Great Spotted Woodpecker with its boldly pied plummage. This can most frequently be heard in March when the birds are mating. They seldom come down to the ground, living mostly on grubs which they root out of bark crevices with their long sticky tongue.
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Of the waterfowl the Moorhen and Coot are the most common. The moorhen is easily spotted from a distance with its red beak and face patch. The sight of the female leading her brood through the canal is a familiar one in early summer, though they are quick to take shelter in the reeds, where they nest, at any disturbance. They can also stay hidden under water for a long time by gripping the vegetation and keeping just their beak above water. Both moorhens and coots eat mainly vegetable matter supplemented with slugs, snails, worms and even small fish.
Coots are similar but have a white frontal shield and bill. They are better divers, able to stay below water for up to thirty seconds.
The Little Grebe or Dabchick may also be seen on the canal. A curious habit of the dabchick is for the female to carry her chicks under her wing, diving from the floating nest to take her young out of danger. Not surprisingly the chicks quickly become skilled at the arts of diving and underwater swimming. The young have attractive striped markings and in summer the adults develop chestnut plumage on neck and throat. Wary of people, and quick to dive they may be difficult to see. Quiet walkers may be rewarded by hearing their rippling trill.
This booklet has provided just a sample of the great many interesting stories to be found in this quiet part of Hampshire countryside. Much more awaits discovery whether by exploring more carefully, speaking to the local residents or searching for written records and maps. The following publications used to write this booklet may be of interest:
London's lost route to Basingstoke, P. A. L. Vine.
Last updated April 2006