As we head out of London bound for Basingstoke, we leave the navigable River Wey (the largest tributary of the River Thames) and enter Woodam junction, the Borough of Runnymede and the start of our journey along the full length of the Basingstoke Canal.
The canal was built in the 1790s to take agricultural produce from Hampshire to the markets and docks in London. For our journey, boats would have returned from London carrying coal and pottery.
Today the canal is a sanctuary. An escape into a world where time moves more slowly and a picture of green and calm pervades. Larger boats cruise from the Wey to Woking, though the canal equally attracts canoeists and anglers eager to sample a different pace of life.
This tranquil picture belies the challenges the Canal has and continues to face.
Twice restored from dereliction, thanks to the support of local councils, the Canal also relies on thousands of volunteer man hours. Effort that needs to be maintained for local communities to enjoy the Canal.
In Runnymede alone, volunteers provide over 1800 hours of service each year to maintain the locks and the towpath. This ranges from the regular local lengthsmen ‘walking’ their section of canal and reporting any problems, through teams of volunteers repainting the locks gates.
A huge amount of work also goes into removing non-native invasive species like Floating Pennywort (Hydrocotyle ranunculoides).
Flora native to North America, Floating Pennywort was first discovered naturalised in Essex in 1990; having been introduced to the UK as an ornamental plant for ponds. It is a particular problem for navigable waterways and canals are particularly susceptible, as the plant grows quickly in the slow moving, nutrient rich, warm water. The weed can grow up to 20cm a day forming dense mats of vegetation that can affect navigation (stopping canoes and paddleboards as well as hindering powered vessels), angling and water flow, and can increase flood risk.
It also dominates the environment and ecology, blocking out sunlight and oxygen so that little else survives This has the potential to degrade the many important Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) that have formed around the Canal.
Once the plant takes hold it takes an almost Herculean effort for our volunteers to remove and dispose of.
Our team is aided by a BCA weedcutter. Crewed by BCS volunteers
this machine can take out large mats of Pennywort in one go (up to 250 kg). Though most of the time teams are using canoes to place grappling hooks on the mats and pulling them into the bank for removal.
Bear in mind that the weeds are laden with water, so kilograms quickly become tonnes of weight for volunteers to pull out of the Canal. Who needs a gym?!