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- D.W. Horsfall[Published 1981]

book front cover (22K)


Foreword by Hugh McKnight
Introduction — On writing the biography of a boat.
Chapter 1 —Adelina, from Thy Dark Exile
The finding, raising, and naming of Adelina; her history, from being opened as a Boys' Club by the Duke of Gloucester; moving her to Shardlow.
Chapter 2 — In Friendship's Name
Making the boat more or less inhabitable; fed-upness of colleagues with canal obsessivenesss and method of getting own back; moving Adelina to Burton upon Trent.
Chapter 3 —Hitting the Trail
Journey of Adelina to London, mainly towed by Willow Wren working boats; problems of finding residential moorings in London.
Chapter 4 — All Mod Cons
The next phase of making Adelina into a home; odd plumbing system and sanitation.
Chapter 5 —Duckett's Cut
Life on a canal in the East End of London; peculiar method of access; amiable encounters with the police, and the dog that couldn't climb ladders; decision to move home.
Chapter 6 — The Basingstoke
Brief account of the tribulations of the Basingstoke Canal, and what life on it was like; Floating Homes in a floating suburb.
Chapter 7 — Water Music
Further civilising of Adelina, with description of curious systems of pumping and electric lights.
Chapter 8 —The Canal Press
Account of setting up a miniature printing and book binding activity on board, which culminated in the production of two small books.
Chapter 9 — Memorabilia
The collecting mania and canal enthusiasm combined; filling Adelina with teapots and books; painting her in a traditional fashion.
Chapter 10 — Deep Waters
Narrative of a journey on the remarkable underground canal system (now closed) used in the coal mines established by the Duke of Bridgewater at Worsley.
Chapter 11 — Rallying Round
Recalls some personally memorable highlights of Rallies at Aylesbury, Woking, London; Dinners at House of Commons, attended whilst resident on Adelina.
Chapter 12 — Goodbye
Final account of Adelina as she was just before her owners departed for new country; toddlers on board and their life.
Description of a visit by the family in 1977, the first time Adelina had been visited by the Horsfalls in 12 years, seen through the eyes of 15 year old Amelia.


Bearing in mind the problems of moving Adelina on the fairly busy waterways further north, getting her onto the Basingstoke, then the epitome of a disused canal, was a great deal easier than should have been the case. Arcturus, a narrow boat normally used for tripping on the Wey at Guildford, had been slipped at Rickmansworth (more reason for having a good dry dock in London), and was due to return to her usual mooring about the time we wanted to move. Her owner agreed to give a tow, and was amiable enough to come along the Paddington Arm to pick up Adelina. She was hitched up, and we were off again. Little Anne was left behind for later retrieval.

En route as usual Adelina's interior was in an uproar. There was now far too much furniture for everything to be put on the deck, but the ever present fear of something nasty happening in the bilges resulted in all movables being pulled away from the sides. My experience with badly leaking short boats on the Leeds and Liverpool had convinced me of the merits of sawdust in stopping leaks, once one got the stuff into the fissures. When in position, the particles were drawn in by the water and then swelled up, so preventing the flow from carrying on.

Many a cargo of coal got to Bingley by dint of frequently applying such a nostrum. In Bow, proximity to a furniture factory encouraged prodigality, and we took on board enough sacks of sawdust to keep the Graf Spee afloat. We never debated just how we would have administered the remedy had Adelina sprung a leak in mid Thames. However the sacks were comforting to have, like a collection of large rabbits' feet. The sawdust also burned very well when the voyage was over.

Hanwell was negotiated speedily, the only memorable occurrence being highly aggressive geese at one of the locks, which seemed to resent anyone coming into their particular pound.

As boats came in they sailed out, but fought an effective rearguard action. In Brentford Dock we saw several of our Willow Wren friends, such as the Smiths and the Andersons, and even those hardened boatmen looked surprised on seeing Adelina not only still afloat, but with windowpanes, furnished, and about to tackle the tidal Thames!

Once through Brentford Lock, Adelina took to the broad water as a kitten takes to a ball of wool: she loved the stream but responded speedily and obediently to the helmsman's commands. The voyage was far less alarming than we had expected it to be; even I would have had difficulty hitting one of those lower Thames bridges. However, although the boats were cruising upstream with the tide, their initially buoyant and speedy progress became slower and slower, with Arcturus' engine getting ever more heated and overloaded. A degree of exasperation with Adelina became apparent, her ungainly bulk being understandably blamed for the noticeable decline in speed.

Eventually the procession stopped and moored at Rich­mond Wharf to allow power investigation of Adelina's apparent reluctance to proceed upstream. She looked innocent enough, so Arcturus was also checked carefully, the vincinity of her propeller being subjected to much prodding and poking about with a boathook.

The investigation revealed a soft and possibly nasty something wrapped around the shaft; but fears of the remains being human were dispelled when the boathook brought up bits of mattress. A volunteer semi-stripped and dived in to make a better examination; a good hour's work was needed before he finally got rid of all the traces of flocks and material lovingly wrapped round the propeller. The mattress may have been someone else's anti-sinking precaution, which either missed or even failed; in which case a boat was somewhere on the riverbed as well; but more likely the remains were picked up in the Hanwell flight.

The Thames locks were luxurious to people accustomed to the hard work of the narrow canals but also, in my view, far less interesting. Lovely too though the Thames is, the Stream of Pleasure lacked the colour imparted to the canals by working boats. The ethos that pairs of boats created on canals used by them was quite remarkable; a unique blend of Tightness and reality. The pleasure boatman, in his turn, then enjoyed the sense of being honoured and privileged when he used those same waterways.

How much more important we feel if we can go somewhere not normally open to the general public but to which, as a special favour, we are admitted. In a stately home, visitors looking round by special courtesy of the family owners, assuming they are still in charge, have a personal feeling of identification and belonging. Such sensation is quite absent in routine group tours of a municipally owned castle. The working boatman created the same atmosphere for the dilettante; and now that he has gone, the canals have lost part of their soul.

The inland waterways of the United Kingdom survive as a scenically spectacular tribute to man's determination and ingenuity; both in building them and preserving them, and long may they survive to provide unrivalled facilities for aquatic revels. But on an extended return visit I made to the canals in 1973, how I longed to feel a slight swaying at the boat's mooring showing something important was on its way, though still quite distant; to hear, perhaps ten minutes later, the faint thump of a narrow boat engine; and finally, after a similar lapse of time, to see a pair of boats appear.

Often an event impressively heralded is an anti-climax when it actually happens; but this was never the case even with the seediest of working boats. When the craft came into view, sitting low and laden or high and empty, they carried, as well as any goods, a sense of tradition, a feeling that Brindley, Gilbert and the Duke were loking over the helmsman's shoulder, glad their waterways were serving the community as designed, and happy to see new uses flourishing.

Came the entrance to the Wey Navigation, and shortly afterwards delight was re-evoked as our pair passed Coxe's Mill, with two or three of the red and green painted Stevens's barges awaiting unloading. They were a satisfying sight. Turf-sided New Haw lock was a novelty; and shortly afterwards the beautiful but depressing looking entrance to the Basingstoke came into view. Arcturus cast off and we were on our own again: back to the towropes.

The Basingstoke Canal might almost be called "The Canal that never was", or, more precisely, "The Canal that never ought to have been". Built during the Canal Mania and actually opened in 1796 when the Mania was at its height, the canal's purpose was to serve the largely agricultural rural areas of Surrey and Hampshire. There were plans to extend the route, via existing river navigations, eventually to the South Coast, so giving access to Southampton. The lime, manure, and timber cargoes didn't make much revenue, the canal was always short of water — and if that seems unlikely try navigating a canal in a drought — and the hoped for link with the South Coast never materialised.

The company went bankrupt in the 1860s but apparently the winding-up was not carried out correctly. The peculiar legal status of the canal came to light only in the early twentieth century, when Surrey County Council at­tempted to take the company to task over the matter of bridges in the Council's jurisdiction. Canal companies, in getting their powers to purchase land, were obligated to give in return numerous legally enforceable undertakings regarding their responsibilities.

One of them was the well known right to navigate; that is any owner of a boat, barge or other vessel could traverse a canal, provided the owner was prepared to pay the required charges. Similarly, the canal company had to build and then repair numerous bridges along their line.

When canals were built, the navigation split adjoining properties, and naturally enough, landowners required facilities to get from one side to the other. Certain of the bridges over the Basingstoke were showing distinct signs of being unable to carry their own weight any longer, let alone that of people wanting to cross over them.

On being asked, presumably politely, to do something about the bridges, the Company of Proprietors of the Woking Basingstoke and Aldershot Canal responded with the original but delightful argument that a statutory body could not simply be sold like bankrupt goods from a warehouse. Consequently the only people with legal responsibility for anything to do with the waterway were the Members of the 1860 board, or undertakers, as they were sometimes called in the Canal Acts.

The Council took the Company to court and found that the argument was valid: the Company had no legal responsibility whatsoever. Short of the trial being adjourned to the local cemetery, with a new body of undertakers being employed to dig up the old body of undertakers, those legally responsible could not be brought to court. Surrey County Council repaired the bridges themselves.

Meanwhile, the canal repeatedly became derelict, was restored, and then became near-derelict again. Students of books on the subject will note that writers such as Bronthron and Bradshaw make reference to the canal being "impassable, but in the process of being restored". Each restoration seemed to end with the company getting in the red and selling out: a fine literal example of pouring money away. The only tunnel on the canal fell in, so preventing access to Basingstoke.

In order to preserve the Company's statutory right to their use of the land, the canal had to be navigated periodically: without a defined minimum usage the canal ground reverted to the original owners. A cinema newsreel of about 1910 recorded the feverish attempt of the canal staff to get a boat to the limit of navigation (then still Basingstoke) within the allotted time. So many men were involved they could have carried the narrow boat over the shallow parts.

Once the tunnel had collapsed, even with the best wills and muscles in the world a boat could not be shoved through a solid mass of earth, so the portion between Greywell Tunnel and Basingstoke was abandoned. A tenuous link with transport was retained by the town's basin becoming the site of a 'bus station.

Below the tunnel the canal grew seedier and seedier and weedier and weedier, and commercial traffic dwindled as the accumulating silt in the canal bottom reduced the payload that could be taken by barges. The once busy timber trade diminished, and eventually only a limited trade in that and in coal to Woking Gasworks remained.

Ann at the
17. Ann at the "elem" in a Hanwell lock.
clutter of narrow boats (15K)
18. A clutter of narrow boats.

During the wars, attempts were made to use canal transport as much as possible: I have a 1918 Government handbook specifically noting that maximum use of available water transport facilities was in the best interests of the country. A similar situation prevailed in the 1939-1945 war, which was replaced by a complete reversal of policy once the war ended. However, this kind of determination, supported by the strong sentiments of the Harmsworth family (who administered the canal from 1923) kept in existence the little trade still enjoyed.

In 1946 the last boat tried to get to Moon's timber yard. By that time the canal was so shallow that, en route, portions of the cargo had to be removed: and with the barge's abortive journey, one hundred and fifty years of commercial navigation ceased. In retrospect it is remarkable that commercial traffic was maintained for so long: the canal was semi-derelict by the early eighteen hundreds, before rail competition was even heard of. In its career to date, the canal has been under fourteen different managements, eight of which went bankrupt.

The last major change of ownership before we lived on the canal took place in 1949 when the canal and associated works were auctioned after the death of A.J. Harmsworth. Considerable public interest was aroused by news of the auction, being stimulated by the rumour that Jack Buchanan, of show business fame, was thinking of purchasing the waterway. There were also fears that because much of the ground was in valuable residential areas, the property would be particularly attractive to peculators.

The Inland Waterways Association established a fund to prevent a takeover of the enterprise by anti-navigation interests. The property was purchased for about £10,000: the canal for £6,000 and associated works for some £3,500, by an offshoot of the IWA fund, which called itself the New Basingstoke Canal Company. For a goodly part of the Company's life, the unforgettable Mrs Joan Marshall was General Manger.

Her policy was quite simple: to try and make the canal stay in the black by encouraging such uses and traffic as were profitable; and whatever the demands or desires of would-be navigators, to resist any use of the canal that would lead to financial losses. A boatowner writing to demand right of entry might not get his demand granted, but would be quite likely to receive a charming invitation to come and have a look at the marigolds round the locks. This seemingly negative policy attracted a good deal of criticism. The Company was accused of resisting navigation: such was not really the case.

Ascending the Basingstoke in its then condition was an endurance feat for lock keepers, labourers and navigators. Large tarpaulin sheets had to be placed over the gates, to stop the water leaking out faster than the sluices were filling the chamber; after each lock had been used, a couple of hours work were needed to seal the gates to prevent the pounds running dry; and a genuine water shortage made pounds so low that cruising was liable to continuous interruptions as a result of minor underwater obstructions becoming too near the surface.

To the cry "Repair the canal!" the answer was simple: "Find the money!" Working parties on a voluntary basis tended to be rare and ineffectual, as most people participating rather hoped that the outcome of their work would be a guarantee that the canal could be used freely for navigation. For the reasons already given, the Company was not in a position to give such a guarantee.

On the other hand when the question of residential moorings came up, both Thames and Wey being too crowded for further berths to be made available, as many as wished to come were welcomed with open locks on the Basingstoke. Fishing tariffs tended to be more realistic than those on the nationalised waterways, and although details were never divulged, I suspect that the rates for water supplied by the company were far more appropriate for a business concern than those charged by other waterways.

Vandals were an ever present problem, and the Company, entirely at Mrs Marshall's suggestion, came up with a voluntary bailiff system. The volunteer band even had a junior section, to recruit anti-vandals from the ranks of potential destroyers. Not only children caused damage: several incidents of damage in the region of Aldershot where the canal passed close by military installations were blamed on over-exuberant Royal Engineers. In spite of lengthy legal processes, compensation was difficult to get.

Considering the history of the Basingstoke, the canal's condition prior to the auction sale, and the dim prospects for commercial use, my own sincere view is that, only as a result of the way in which the canal was enabled to survive in the fifties and sixties was there anything left for the County Authorities to take over and restore in the seventies. Navigation is discussed later, but when the possibility of craft movements on a reasonable scale was raised, as for the Woking Rally, every assistance was given.

Large tarpaulin sheets had to be placed over the gates (20K)
19. Large tarpaulin sheets had to be placed over the
gates when using the locks...

20. A cumbersome and top heavy structure
("Floating Homes") on the Basingstoke Canal...

Our ascent of the Basingstoke was peaceful compared with the journey to London and up the Thames; but even so we had to navigate past a formidable clutter of narrow boats, mainly butties, that littered the lower reaches. They were awaiting conversion into "Floating Homes". A private speculator, realising the potential value of the move to living afloat, purchased a large number of disused working boats, mainly in the Birmingham area. These were towed down the canals, up the Thames and so on to the Basingstoke. The whole operation aroused a great deal of interest, and it was whispered that the boats, some of which were fine steel hulls, had cost an average of about £10 apiece.

Once on the Basingstoke, a cumbersome and, to the eye of some, top-heavy structure was quickly popped on top. The houseboats were equipped with most mod cons, and then sold to the house hungry for about £2,000 apiece. The first boat, appropriately named the Joan Marshall, was quickly snapped up by an air steward, and eventually the whole lot were converted and sold. The venture attracted enormous and generally amiable publicity, virtually every glossy magazine in the land and most newspapers carrying a story of the unique solution to the housing problem. Some of the hulls were cut in two and sold as half-boats. Using a single hull to make semis for two small families would have presented problems if each half decid­ed they wanted to move in the opposite direction.

When we arrived only one boat had been sold; but over the next few years the line of advancing boats could be seen, steadily getting nearer and nearer until the closest was only fifty yards away. Somewhat ugly by day, at night the line of floating residences took on a kind of beauty. We used to enjoy a walk down the towpath in the evening, seeing the harsh outlines of the white-painted, clumsy superstructures soften in the twilight, and the lights from windows, rendered multicoloured by the curtains, reflected in the water.

The setting was delightful: immediately ahead of Adelina, only partly obscured by the looming shape of our neighour's barge, was the lock: cottage by its side and traversed by a small footbridge. The barge departed shortly after Adelina arrived, leaving the view completely unobscured. The whole scene gave the impression of having remained unchanged throughout the navigation's near two centuries of life. Even the navigational works had tremendous charm, in spite of the fact that small trees grew out of the lock walls, and some of the balance beams sagged on the ground.

Redundant telegraph poles appeared to have been used as balance beams on some of the locks: on others the balance beams were made from roughly hewn tree trunks. In some cases bits of branches still stuck out from the main line of the trunk and added their quantum of personality to the overall effect. Looking down the canal in the other direction, the broad shape of the houseboat next door dominated the view; but it was an agreeable and friendly domination. Beyond her was empty canal, well wooded each side and at most times of the year one of the prettiest pictures imaginable.

Gradually over the years the advancing Floating Homes reduced, but never destroyed, the rurality of the outlook, even when closely crowded upon our environs. In the immediate vicinity of the canal, the herbiage was pretty dense, especially in summer; so much so that the housing estates on one side and the school playing fields on the other were completely obscured when the foliage was at its thickest. The towpath was a favourite walk, and usually dotted with fishermen: though I rarely saw anything caught in spite of almost continuous pescatorial activity.

boats on canal (14K)
21. The scene ... remained unchanged
for nearly two centuries...

22/3. L: Small trees grew out of the lock walls...
R: The advancing Floating Homes never destroyed
the rurality of the outlook...

Occasionally horses and motor bikes would use the towpath for a freeway; neither particularly liked but the former greatly preferred to the latter. Our access to Adelina lay through the little copse, and I don't think that in all the time we lived there, I ever lost my sense of pleasure on returning home: firstly through the stout wooden gate guarding our demesne, then along a charming little path, over a small plank bridge that crossed a ditch, at which stage the brightly painted Adelina sign would be seen.

Then along the bank by the side of the boat, and up the gang plank. Frogs were fond of the area and leaped about near the ditch, causing fears of sudden squelching; but happily they always got away. They croaked far into the night with a sound even more sleep-shattering than the deer. A few swans swam about the waterway, returning each year with new clusters of young ones in train. They became used to being fed and when food was not forthcoming, tapped gently but insistently on the hull until rewarded with crusts flung into the water.

My main experience with swans was as a child at Stamford Bridge, on the Derwent Navigation in Yorkshire. At that time the old corn mill was still in operation, grinding meal that was said to be used in the manufacture of dog biscuits. At any rate there was a faded Spratts sign attached to the mill wall. My father knew the miller and therefore (being given special visiting rights), I often used to clamber about the mill when it was in operation.

The mill inspired a curious mixture of fascination and terror; down on the lower floors all was well: the huge cog wheels driving the stones and themselves being driven by the seemingly unending flow of water, were very satisfying. Equally unending yet irresistible stairs took the visitor through ever more deserted floors to the very top of that high building. From the top floor the rumble of machinery, though quieter, assumed a menacing quality, as though the gears were gnawing at the fabric of the building and would one day make the mill fall, like the House of Usher, into the waters below.

Sometimes, for a special treat, I was allowed to try and operate the ratchet-driven sluice gates admitting water to the wheel, and so start the imposing trundling. Water for the mill was impounded in the usual way by a large and attractive dam, at one end of which were sluices and a platform containing mysterious looking devices to raise and lower the gates. Although the flow over the dam seemed to be colossal, the broad pinnacle of the structure provided a good foothold, and under normal river conditions even a child could walk right across the dam top.

Doing so was a great feat when friends came to stay on our boat. They would be taken to have a look at the dam. Casually, whilst they were watching, the host removed shoes and socks, advanced to the ricketty sluice gear platform and then, horror of horrors, actually stepped into the swiftly flowing waters. Having got a good grip on the surface, the show-off then walked unconcernedly (but carefully) right across the top; the thundering water down below adding a drum beat to accompany the act of bravado.

Below the dam wall the Derwent broadened into an attractive lake-like expanse teeming with fish in theshallow weedy waters. The shores nurtured superb, made-for-climbing willows that reachd out over the water, and were highly regarded by all the local children; and in the water was George.

George was a swan, huge, fierce, and one-eyed. The other eye had been plucked out by a fisherman's hook, and the bird, understandably, related anyone seen on its water to the pain of that encounter. The moment a fisherman dared set foot in the water, or a child approached the little beach by the willows, George would set forth from his nest, over on the other side. As he sped across the surface with a terrifying flapping noise, feet skimming in the water, not a soul stayed to question his sovereignty: everybody fled.

One fisherman did hold his ground and try to brave the bird: luckily he got away with only a broken arm. From that time on until George's death during the Second World War, the fish had an easy time in George's manor. The Basingstoke swans were different: gentle and loyal, their reappearance every year was looked forward to with pleasure by everyone on the pound.

On two occasions only did tragedy come close to our little community; on both occasions when suicides chose the vicinity to end it all. I can't blame the poor souls: such a scene of quiet calm must be very soothing to a person weary of life, and the nearness of the water tempting to those in that state. We didn't know either person: one was a simple woman, not really part of the community. Her sad soaked body on the towpath, being examined by the police who pulled her out, made a pathetic sight that still haunts the mind.

The other was an old man, recently widowed, who left his daughter's home simply saying "Don't bother to look for me". Thinking he was going for a long walk, nobody did; but some time later our neighbours heard a strange bumping against their boat, went out to investigate, and found the body of the poor old chap. The police were called, and the usual investigations made; but the deed was what he wanted to do. I cannot think of a pleasanter spot in which to end one's days: though the method of doing so may be repugnant to those not involved.

The neighbours, two elderly German ladies, took the discovery with equanimity. They even sang for my benefit, when telling me of the finding, a German song traditional under such circumstances. The song refers to a body (originally, that of Rosa Luxembourg) being found in the Landwehr canal, and the singer instructs the finder to give it to him, but not to press it too hard (accompanied by graphic gestures at that phrase). The two septuagenarians made a delightful and memorable picture, bobbing up and down in unison and shuffling about the main cabin in carpet slippers, singing exuberantly:

"Es liegt eine Leich im Landwehr Kanal,
Lang ist das her, lang ist das her,
Gib sie mir mal her, aber driick sie nicht so sehr"
Their rendering made a surprisingly cheerful requiem for such a sad event.

During the years we lived on the Basingstoke, with the exception of the Easter Rally [see Ch 11], and infrequent but intrepid expeditions by the members of the Wey Cruising Club, there was no traffic past Adelina, save on the occasions that a Floating Home was taken upstream for dry-docking.

The first flight of locks was the Woodham flight of six, separated by pounds of varying length. Adelina and most of the Floating Homes were moored above the second lock. A houseboat with hull requiring attention was taken up another couple of locks to a short pound in the flight. The pound was selected partly bacause refilling did not use a great deal of water, but more probably because the location was secluded.

The spot was, for example, well out of sight of the masses of commuters streaming over the footbridge two locks down. They would, without doubt, have commented unfavourably on the appearance of the canal since the houseboats came along. Numerous railway sleepers were, with a good deal of effort, placed on the dry canal bed; carefully and laboriously shored up to give a level foundation; and accurately spaced at intervals to ensure that a hull resting on them would be adequately supported.

The bottom gates were closed and precious Basingstoke water unstintingly poured into pound and lock. Up rose the water level; then the boat in the lock and finally, alas, as the pound filled, the sleepers as well. Their heaviness had given a false impression of their density, and as the waters rose so did the sleepers, for no-one had thought it necessary to secure the massive hunks of wood to the canal bed. Boats and sleepers mingled lazily and amiably as they met in the filled pound, and the repairing team's only recourse was to empty out the water and start all over again. This time stakes were driven into the puddle [clay used to line canals] and the sleepers lashed to them.

The first we knew of the affair at our mooring was an unprecedented rise in the canal level. There had not been any rain, though contrary to expectations heavy rainfall often led to a decline in the canal level. The first impression was that someone had left a sluice open in the top lock and the six mile long Woking pound was in the course of being drain­ed. A quick walk up the towpath revealed the true state of affairs. From then on the sleepers remained massively staked into the canal bottom, and when not in use presented a puzzle picture ("what can those be for?") to the numerous weekend walkers along the canal bank. The rumour even circulated that the canal was about to be turned into a railway. However, all the boat-dwellers went to look, and marvel at man's inability to distinguish between mass and density.

Once a boat had been docked and the canal drained, the sight was even more remarkable. The occupants had, of course, to remain on board — the boat was their only residence — and continued a placid, if anything slightly more stable, existence than usual. The canal bed usually sported a luxuriant growth of reeds and grasses, growing nearly to boat height, which suggested transportation of the African Queen filmset to the Basingstoke Canal. The vision gave rise to speculations among the permanently land-based that the whole canal was about to be drained and the numerous houseboats placed on solid foundations.

In writing this memoir, my original intention was to end the period at the time we finally left Adelina, in autumn 1964. In the case of the turbulent Basingstoke, however, some divergence from this rule is desirable. Once again the canal is being restored; but this time, hopefully, for keeps. As a commercial waterway, the Basingstoke was never a success, and even at the height of the Canal Age could neither extend traffics nor make adequate profits. The only period goods-carrying made a reasonable profit, was when supplies to build the railway alongside the canal were transported by water. Once completed, the railway finally ended any real chance the canal had of being an important transport route.

However, on the amenity scale, the Basingstoke Canal must be rated very highly. The derelict but still beautiful water­way passes through populous suburbia, linking population centres with rural areas; and though heavily locked in the lower reaches, the top pound extends for many miles, almost entirely amidst exquisite scenery. Connected to the waterway is a large lake, Mytchett, a beauty spot in its own right. Mytchett Lake's accessibility from the canal adds a unique charm to both lake and canal. Moreover, Thames and Wey are both so full of boats that even non-residential moorings are increasingly costly, crowded, and hard to find.

Steam dredger at Colt Hill (16K)
21. Steam dredger at Colt Hill Bridge (1977)...

Anne and Adelina on the Basingstoke (13K)
22. Together at last!
Anne and Adelina on the Basingstoke (1962)

Much of this potential was threatened when the management of the New Basingstoke Canal Company made serious attempts to dispose of portions of the canal for "redevelopment"; that sinister word meaning anything from the destruction of chunks of an ancient town to turning playing-fields into housing estates. The manoeuvring started some years after Mrs Marshall had left the scene. In 1966, a group of nine persons, aware of the canal's potential, and probably even more aware that an eleventh hour status had been reached, resolved to do something about the situation: and so the Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society was born.

"The Nine" were a mixture of militant IWA members and conservation-minded local people. From such small beginnings, great events have followed: not least noteworthy being the growth in strength of the Society itself. By 1968, 600 members had enrolled and by now, including members in affiliated bodies, the membership probably tops 15,000. Active campaigning by the newly formed body, with strong support from the Inland Waterways Association, was directed towards bringing the canal under public ownership.

dia: restoration progress (1980) (25K)
26. Progress on Basingstoke Canal restoration work....

The Canal Society were untiring in their efforts, and finally, lobbying Members of Parliament; collecting 15,000 signatures on a petition; and building two pairs of lock gates, all had their cumulative effect. The struggle was often bitter and, apparently, from time to time hopeless. However, by 1973, both Surrey and Hampshire County Councils had applied for compulsory purchase orders. Hampshire in fact gained their 15 mile portion in 1973: Surrey took over theirs in 1976. From 1973, the canal has been a hive of activity as voluntary workers eagerly started the work of restoration. Progress is best summed up by reprinting a map and report published in the April 1980 Newsletter of the Society. The facts are impressive: 70% of the canal dredged; 17 of the 29 locks either fully restored or being restored; new bypass chan­nels built round 17 locks; certain of the bridges given face lifts; and a lifting bridge even having been electrified.

Although voluntary labour is playing a key role, financial support is also vital. The two County Councils each make a contribution, estimated to be about £50,000 per annum; and restoration has qualified for grants under the Job Creation and Work Experience Schemes. To date, the Manpower Service Commission has granted the Society some £350,000. However, the axe is hovering over such grants, and if progress is to be maintained, financial support from other sources is essential. Bringing the Basingstoke back to navigability is possibly the most ambitious project of its kind currently under way. Re-opening could take place in 1985/86, provided the input of all kinds, voluntary effort and financial, continues at the present levels.

Organisers of the working parties extol the virtues of a family day in the sun, stressing that though the work may be arduous, the fellowship and sense of achievement are tremendous: and so they are. Our own working parties on the Basingstoke, carried out in anticipation of the Woking Rally, were memorable sessions, and hopefully played some part in the continued survival of this strange waterway. It seems now certain that all this new activity, with the backing of those permanencies, the County Councils, will result in one of the loveliest waterways in the South of England being preserved for future generations. Good Health and Strong Arms to the new canal builders!

Ch 7: Water Music


Last updated April 2006