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Putting the Basingstoke back on the map


by Dieter Jebens,
Publicity Officer, Surrey & Hampshire Canal Society
[Published 1977]

booklet front cover (23K)

Some waterway maps show the Basingstoke Canal as a broad blue line. Others, less certain of its current status, give it the dotted line treatment. And a few ignore it altogether.

To put the record straight, the 183-year-old navigation is still very much in evidence and though it may be officially described as 'derelict', it is far from defunct. In fact, the canal was still being used for commercial carrying to Woking rather less than 40 years ago and remained navigable until the early 1960s.

The Basingstoke was built to provide a waterway from London to central Hampshire for the development of agricultural trade. But it was never a profitable venture and would probably not exist today but for a succession of speculative owners during the nineteenth century. Various plans were put up to link the Basingstoke with other navigations and so create con­tinuous inland waterways between Portsmouth, Southampton, Bristol and the Capital.

While none of the schemes materialised, local needs helped the canal survive. Such as the construction of the South Western Railway in 1834; the establishment of Aldershot military camp in 1854; and the development of Nately brickworks in the 1890s. All these major undertakings involved the movement of heavy cargoes which temporarily brought trade to the canal.

With the turn of the century, the canal entered the most stable period of its existence. It was bought by Mr A.J. Harmsworth in 1923 and used as part of the family's haulage business until he died in 1947. Two years later the waterway was put up for auction and sold for £6,000.

When the Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society was formed in 1966, the waterway was still privately owned, but fast decaying. Permission was sought to stop the rot, but refused: it seemed the owner wanted to fill in parts of the navigation for re-development. So, the Society embarked on a campaign for public ownership, little thinking it would take eight years to achieve their aim. Finally, after first persuading the two local authorities to take action, and then months of protracted negotiations ending with compulsory purchase orders, Hampshire took possession of the 15-mile western end in November 1973. The 17-mile eastern end, to the junction with the River Wey Navigation, was not acquired by Surrey County Council until March 1976.

The 37-mile Basingstoke Canal starts at Byfleet near Woking. A series of 29 broad locks take the navigation close to the centre of Woking, through Brookwood and onto the military heathland and pine woods to Aldershot. Just over the County Boundary, Ash Lock marks a 15-mile lock-free pound: round the perimeter of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, through residential Fleet and into attractive agricultural land to Odiham, Hampshire. The canal ends in the 1,200-yard Greywell Tunnel which became impassable, following a roof fall, in 1933; the last five miles to Basingstoke were subsequently abandoned.

Volunteers construct a by-pass weir and lay railway for transport of building materials at Lock 25, Curzon Bridge

volunteers construct a weir (27K)

In taking over the canal, both local authorities agreed to restore it to a fully navigable condition. It is a credit to the Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society and a mark of the close working relationship established with the authorities, that the decision was made on the understanding that volunteers would participate. Today working party organisers take a full and equal part in forward planning and implementation.

The Hampshire section is managed by ex-Society Chairman, David Gerry, with a staff of four full-time wardens, reporting to the County Recreation Officer, Colin Bonsey. The Surrey end is managed by Ray Stedman as part of his duties in the Valuation and Estate Department, and he has two full-time wardens. Both Counties have set up consultative committees to maintain contact and safeguard the interests of all potential users. Unlike Hampshire, Surrey has involved the four riparian district councils on a shared cost basis which, in addition, is proving a practical means of smoothing out the inevitable communication problem that tends to exist between district and county administrations.

The cost of restoring the canal was estimated at £346,000 back in 1973, subsidised by voluntary input to a value of £98,000. Inflation has obviously increased the cost but the ability of volunteers to contribute more than just hard graft is proving a balancing factor. For example, the Society's successful application in March this year for a £35,000 grant from the Manpower Services Commission under the Job Creation Scheme. The Commission approved a six-month work programme employing 26 people in recon­structing locks on the Frimley 14 Flight. Led by Frank Jones, the Society's former working party organiser, and with materials supplied by Surrey County Council, it is hoped the team will restore at least three lock chambers.

Tons of Mud

Since restoration began 3-1/2 years ago, volunteers have completed an impressive list of projects. Such as clearing 13-1/2 miles of dense undergrowth and fallen trees from the towpath and 11 miles of offside bank. They have reconstructed two let-off weirs; dug out tons of mud and rubbish under four bridges and, with the help of the Inland Waterways Association, paid for the repair of Blacksmith's Bridge, Dogmersfield. For this, and four other accommodation bridges restored by Hampshire County Council, the Society raised £1,000 to provide hand-made semi-circular capping bricks.

The Earl of Onslow (left) and John Humphries, WSAC Chairman, complete a pair of volunteer-built lock gates at Ash Vale

The Earl of Onslow (left) and John Humphries, WSAC Chairman (17K)

Building lock gates is another skilled task which amateur carpenters have started. Two sets of gates have already been constructed under the direction of Tony Harmsworth, now a canal warden in Hampshire, and his father Mr W.H. Harmsworth. A further four sets of gates, made of greenheart, are currently being built.

Extensive dredging along the summit pound is another formidable task being tackled by volunteers. Because access is often difficult, the Society bought a 70-ton steam-powered floating dredger which was laboriously dismantled, down to the last nut and bolt, and completely overhauled. After re-tubing the boiler, chipping, descaling, re-building and painting the vessel, Watney Mann paid £1,000 for the overland move from Reading to Odiham where it was launched in July 1974.

Since then over two miles of canal, from North Warnborough to Odiham, has been dredged to a depth of 4ft 6in. Some of the work was done by Hampshire County Council with a Hymac, but the major part has been carried out by the dredger and a dedicated team of weekend volunteers.

Up to 800 tons of silt and mud is dredged each weekend and dumped on adjacent fields. Initially the mud was loaded into skips and transported by railway, laid along the towpath. Today operation has been greatly improved with the use of a Bantam tug — one of two purchased with a £1,000 donation made by Johnson Wax of Frimley — towing barges which are offloaded at approved sites by a dragline crane.

In Surrey, lock renovation presents an equally daunting task. Earlier this year, Surrey County Council published a detailed restoration plan with 1981 as the projected completion date. After more than 25 years' neglect, most of the 29 chambers need extensive repairs and new gates. But already volunteers have completed lock 25 at Curzon Bridge and with Nos. 26, 27 and 28 in the process of being restored by the Job Creation team, good progress is being made. In addition lock 24 is being tackled by the Waterway Recovery Group; lock 6 at Sheerwater by Society members, and lock 1 has been 'adopted' by the Guildford Branch of the IWA.

As well as supplying plant and materials, Surrey County Council has dredged the two-mile Frimley 14 pounds and expect to start clearance work in the Woking section later this year.

Below: The Society's steam dredger at Odiham The Society's steam dredger at Odiham (33K)
Job Creation Programme workers at Lock 26 (45) Above: Job Creation Programme workers at Lock 26

Looking to the future, Hampshire County Council published a consultative recreation plan for their section of the canal earlier this year.

Whilst the proposals in general are commonsense to waterways enthusiasts, it has given people living in this environmentally sensitive area a chance to air their views and have a say in how the waterway is used. One of the more immediate projects the plan has helped get approved by the Council's Recreation Committee, is for the Society to operate a traditional style narrow boat, which is nearing completion at Hancock and Lane's Daventry yard. Over £10,000 has been raised to build the 56-passenger steel-hulled boat which, subject to overcoming car park problems, will operate from Colt Hill, Odiham.

Despite the absence of a 'them and us' barrier between the authorities and volunteers, the Society is still pressing for the canal to be managed as an entity under an independent Trust. The Society believes this would not only be the most efficient and economical way to run the canal, but would also generate a greater volume of voluntary input, particularly from financial sources, during the restoration period.

From a group of nine people, the Society has grown to over 2,000 members. With their enthusiastic support, public interest, and the active backing of County Councillors and Officers, the Basingstoke is being put back on the map for a new lease of life as an attractive and valuable recreational amenity. Ten years ago, the cartographers might have been excused for deleting the Basingstoke Canal as an abandoned navigation. But today, although it will be some years before the canal is re-opened, it is dramatically, if gradually, being restored.

Some of the completed work:
Below left: westwards of Swan Bridge.
Below right: John Player's steam launch "Hero" at Colt Hill, Odiham;
the eastern portal of 1,200-yard Greywell Tunnel.
barge west of Swan Bridge. (25K) steam launch eastern portal of Greywell Tunnel (10K)

The Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society welcomes new members. For details, please send a stamped addressed envelope to: Alan Babister, Membership Secretary, 31 Elmsleigh Road, Cove, Farnborough, Hants. For details of each weekends working parties, call the Society's Ansafone on Farnborough 45032.

Society

A non-profit distributing company limited by guarantee. Registered as a charity.
Affiliated to the Civic Trust, Surrey Amenity Council and the Inland Waterways Association
President: The Earl of Onslow.
Vice Presidents: Lady Rachel Redgrave, Julian Critchley MP, Michael Grylls MP, David Mitchell MP, Cranley Onslow MP, The Rev. Lord Sandford, Sir John Verney, Paul Vine.
Chairman: Robin Higgs, 18 Barnsford Crescent, West End, Woking, Surrey.
Vice Chairman: David Millett, 14 Dinorben Close, Fleet, Hants.
Hon. Secretary: Mrs Lise Hamilton, 2 Frome Close, Farnborough, Hants.

removing old gates at Lock 1 (27K) volunteers clearing towpath 25(K)
(top) Removing old lock gates at lock No. 1 (bottom) Volunteers clearing the towpath in Hampshire.
Hon. Treasurer: Peter Fethney, 5 Longdown, Courtmoor, Fleet, Hants.
Society members receive a bi­monthly newsletter giving information about restoration progress, working party dates, fund raising activities and social events including: rambles, boat trips and visits to other waterways, pub evenings, an annual dance, talks and film shows.
New members are always welcome, especially those able to take an active part in the Society. In addition to working parties, volunteers are also needed to help raise funds, give talks and lectures, and assist with publicity, sales and general administrative work.
For membership details, send a stamped addressed envelope to: Alan Babister, Membership Secretary, 31 Elmsleigh Road, Farnborough, Hants.
For working party information, ring the Society's Ansafone: Farnborough 45032 or contact Roger Thomas, Working Party Organiser, 225 Reading Road South, Church Crookham, Hants. Tel: Fleet 20316.

Photographs by Dieter Jebens and David Robinson.

[Note: for current contact details, see Directory]

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Last updated April 2006