Basingstoke Canal

From an article by Dieter Jebens, first published in Waterways number 184:

Authorised by Act of Parliament in 1778, the route was surveyed by William Jessop who was retained as the consultant engineer. The broad canal, with its 29 locks, was built by John Pinkerton and opened throughout in 1794; serving to transport timber, coal, flour, malt and other agricultural products from central Hampshire to London. By the 1820s improved road transport presented serious competition; only one trader remained on the canal and it was deteriorating through lack of maintenance due to the canal company’s financial problems. But trade was revived, ironically by the construction of the South Western Railway, in the 1830s. The canal came into its own again in 1854 to transport materials to build Aldershot Camp. In 1890, the canal was completely restored and deepened to carry bricks from the Nately Brick and Tile Company until it ceased production in 1905.

The canal was also kept alive by a succession of speculative owners who saw the financial rewards in linking the canal with other navigations, such as the Andover Canal or the Itchen Navigation, to provide an inland navigation between London and Southampton, Portsmouth and even Bristol via the Kennet & Avon Canal, to avoid much of the Thames. But none materialised


It was down to one of the canal's traders, Alec Harmsworth, that the canal survived into the 20th century. In 1913 he made the last attempt to reach Basingstoke Wharf with a token 10 ton load of sand. It took his narrowboat Basingstoke three months to reach Old Basing, but the trip upheld the Right of Navigation. Harmsworth went on to buy the waterway in 1922 and ran it successfully until his death in 1947, the year after the IWA was founded.

By this time the canal's trade was restricted to timber and coal delivered from the London Docks to Woking. Following Alec Harmsworth's death his family were divided over their continued ownership of the canal but finally decided to sell it by auction. News of the forthcoming event created widespread newspaper coverage.

IWA's first involvement

Having nailed its campaigning colours to the mast, the IWA was under pressure the ensure the Basingstoke's future as a navigation in the light of local authority moves to close it. The IWA's founder Robert Aickman became personally involved, as did other Association luminaries including L.A. 'Teddy' Edwards who knew the canal well, Cyril Styring, a Sheffield solicitor who offered £2,000 to help buy the canal and Major 'Crick' Grundy who later became manager of the restored Stratford-upon-Avon Canal.

A public meeting was held in Woking in December 1948 at which a Mrs Joan Marshall spoke passionately about saving the canal. She impressed Aickman so much that he invited her to join the BasingstoKe Canal Committee. On the eve of the auction - held in Aldershot on 1 March 1949- Mrs Marshall told Aickman a Purchase sub Committee had been formed and she would be doing the bidding. At that time the IWA had only collected around £3,000 and was expecting the canal to fetch something over £10,000. Aickman expressed his concern to which Mrs Marshall replied: "I think I can make up the difference."

Canal sold

Mrs Marshall's bid was successful and the canal was knocked down for £6,000 - plus properties and land - totalling £9,000. But next day Mrs Marshall told Aickman that she had not made the purchase in the name of the WA but for the Purchase sub Committee which was independent. Sidney Cooke, unknown to anyone except, perhaps, Mrs Marshall, emerged as the canal's saviour to complete the purchase and he formed the New Basingstoke Canal Co. Ltd., of which Joan Marshall was appointed general manager.

After Mrs Marshall left the company in 1964, the IWA took another look at the canal which was falling derelict due to lack of maintenance. A confidential report was prepared and presented to Surrey County Council by the IWA's Chairman, Lionel Munk, David Cooper, a Council Member, and Tim Dodwell, a committee member of the local branch. While the study did not actually propose public ownership, it concluded that the canal would best be run by a commission with the support of a charitable trust.

Society formed

By 1966 the existence of the IWA's report was known to a local member, Jim Woolgar, who agitated for positive action which led to the formation of the Surrey & Hampshire Canal Society. Offers to halt the now rapia deterioration were rebuffed by the Canal Company which, in 1967, put its case for weiring locks and in-filling urban lengths of the canal. In response the Canal Society launched its campaign for public ownership and full restoration in 1968, with the support of the IWA, with the publication of Basingstoke Canal:The Case for Restoration.

The campaign was like a switchback, with troughs of depression and peaks of elation as both Hampshire and Surrey County Councils studied, assessed, reviewed and tried to negotiate with the Canal Company. With universal public support and the Canal Society's pledge to organise voluntary working parties, both councils finally applied for Compulsory Purchase Orders as a last resort. As Hampshire's public inquiry opened in November 1973, the Canal Company suddenly agreed the sale of the 15-mile Hampshire length from the county boundary on Ash Embankment to Up Nately; beyond the 1,230-yard long Greywell Tunnel blocked by a roof fall in the 1930s.


The Canal Society was poised to start work, initially clearing the overgrown towing path. Surrey bought their half of the canal in March 1975 and again Society working parties were soon in action; clearing lock chambers and starting restoration work on the Deepcut 14 lock flight. The 16-year restoration programme became a close partnership between the Society, organising working Parties, and the county councils - supplying materials and undertaking specific projects such as dredging the Surrey length, reinstating a collapsed cutting bank at Dogmersfield and replacing the Whitewater Aqueduct.

Dredging much of the Hampshire length became one of the Society's main projects which involved renovating the steam powered dredger, Perseverance. Restoring lock chambers and building new gates was another major project:Using volunteers for specific locks and unemployed young people, with the introduction of the Job Creation Programme in 1976, instigated by the Society's chairman Robin Higgs and managed by Frank Jones. A disused army swimming pool was converted to a lock gate building workshop which is still in use today.

The concept of canal camps was developed on the Basingstoke Canal, organised by Mike Fellows of the Canal Society and run by Ken Parish of Kent & East Sussex Canal Restoration Group (KESCRG). Other regular working parties came from the Waterway Recovery Group, the Newbury Branch of the Kent & Avon Canal Trust and Southampton Canal Society and the IWA's Guildford & Reading Branch, who adopted Lock 1. The canal was the venue of one of the national working parties, masterminded by Graham Palmer. Dubbed Deepcut Dig, more than 600 volunteers spent a November weekend in 1970 clearing chambers and digging by-wash channels on the Deepcut 14 and Brookwood 3 lock flights. Towards the end of the project the Society employed Frank Jones and the work scheme supervisors full-time.

Restoration of 32 miles of the canal was finally completed in1990 and it was formally reopened by the Duke of Kent on a glorious, sunny day in May 1991 at Frimley Lodge Park; followed by a civic celebrations along the entire waterway to Basingstoke.

The canal today

The canal joins the Wey Navigation at New Haw and immediately starts its ascent through the Woodham flight of six locks towards Woking followed by the St John's Five and the BrookwoodThree flights. In spite of the urban surroundings, it manages to retain the character of a rural navigation. There follows the seemingly remote Deepcut 14 flight over a length of two miles, bounded by the West Country mainline railway and Pirbright army camp.

At Deepcut Top Lock the canal goes into a mile long cutting before crossing the railway and heading south to Ash Vale, passes Frimley Lodge Park, the Canal Centre at Mytchett and along the edge of Mytchett Lake and Great Bottom Flash. The 1,000-yard long Ash Embankment was severed in 1992 to construct the Blackwater Valley relief road (A331) which the canal now crosses on an aqueduct.

Ash Lock is the 29th and final one, starting a 15-mile lock-free pound westward. The surrounding land owned by the army has prevented urban development; even through Fleet the tree-lined canal retains its rural charm which is enhanced by woodlands and fields to the west. From Odiham the navigation passes through open agricultural land: Ending at the Whitewater, winding hole close to the canalside remains of King John's Castle from where the monarch rode to Runnymede to seal MagnaCarta in 1215. The Iast few hundred yards up to Greywell Tunnel - a celebrated bat habitat - are kept free of boats.

Today the canal is run by the Basingstoke Canal Authority (BCA) reporting to a Joint Management Committee set up by the two owning county councils . The BCA has a staff of ten rangers managed by Tony Harmsworth, grandson of the former owner. Since 1991 the BCA has placed two contracts for dredging the canal again from Broad Oak, east of Odiham to North Warnborough, and a number of lock gates have been replaced. Canal Society volunteers have repaired and resurfaced the towpath from Fleet to Dogmersfield. Volunteers have also spent a considerable amount of time clearing and reinstating the towpath west of Greywell Tunnel to Up Nately.

Unfortunately the story does not end here. Ever since it was reopened the canal has been short of water and all the locks, except Ash Lock, have been closed for prolonged periods during the summer. Efforts have been made to alleviate the situation by pumping water from the Rive Ditch at Woodham and from a disused supply at Frimley, to supplement the main source of supply from springs in the bed of the canal at Greywell. Even so, water lost through natural seepage, leakage, and evapor-transpiration - not to mention the 60,000 gallons that drain into to the Wey each time Lock 1 is operated - have necessitated lock closures to conserve existing supplies.

While efforts are being made to find additional sources, back-pumping at lock flights would conserve existing supplies. A bid for Heritage Lottery funding to install a back-pump and a pipeline on the Woodham flight of six locks, among other developments, was recently turned down. But with a commitment of £200,000 from Woking Borough Council and other sources - including fund raising and working parties by the Canal Society - the Woodham project is expected to go ahead soon.

Good cruising

Despite the summer stoppages, the 25-mile length from Deepcut Top Lock to North Warnborough, including Ash Lock, remains open and, with slipways at Mytchett, Farnborough and Winchfield, trailed boats can explore the best part of the canal - which many regard as one of the most attractive in the country and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

For those who do not own a boat or cannot access the canal, Galleon Marine at Odiham have a fleet of narrowboats for hire as well as rowing boats. For parties of up to 50 people, John Pinkerton, a traditional-style, wide beam boat, operated by the Surrey & Hampshire Canal Society, offers 2.1/2-hour public and charter cruises from Odiham or Winchfield. A 12-seater short trip boat and a restaurant boat, Lady of Camelot, operate from the Canal Centre at Mytchett and the 12-seater Painted Lady at Woking.