Photo: Bridge over Wey & Arun Canal near Brewhurst Mill by Dave Spicer
The 23-mile Wey & Arun Canal – comprising the combined Arun Navigation and the Wey & Arun Junction Canal – was once the national inland waterway network’s only connection to the English Channel. Now known as London's Lost Route to the Sea, the Canal was opened in 1816 as a safe route from the capital to ports such as Portsmouth at times when shipping following the South Coast was at risk from attack by the French navy. The canal route runs from the Godalming Navigation of the River Wey at Shalford, near Guildford in Surrey, to the River Arun at Pallingham, near Pulborough in West Sussex.
It was finally abandoned in 1871. Restoration started a century later in 1971 and since then, more than half the route has been worked on, with 13 locks, 21 bridges and 2 aqueducts restored or rebuilt.
The major project, and the most expensive, to date has been the building of the B2133 Loxwood High Street bridge and the new Loxwood Lock, costing about £2million. There are currently three-and-a-half miles of fully operational canal in the Loxwood area and the Trust has a Canal Centre at Loxwood, where its three excursion boats are based.
The current limit of navigation to the north is Southland Lock, which was re-opened in the summer of 2014. To the south, the navigable section ends at Drungewick Lock.
The next lock to the north, Gennets Bridge on the West Sussex-Surrey border, is currently in an advanced stage of reconstruction. Volunteers took over the project after contractors built the concrete shell.
The first fully navigable section of the canal in Surrey – part of the Summit Level between Dunsfold and Alfold – was officially opened at the beginning of October 2016, at the same time as a new Compasses Bridge. The bridge, at the Alfold entrance to Dunsfold Aerodrome, replaced a 1930s concrete causeway which was blocking the waterway, in a project costing around £700,000.
The opening ceremony was performed by actor and Surrey Hills Patron Dame Penelope Keith, as part of commemorations to mark the 200th anniversary of the opening of the combined canal at the same location.
Currently, only canoes, kayaks and paddle boards can use the mile or so of reopened Summit Level but WACT hopes to run trip boats from a landing stage at Compasses Bridge in the near future.
At the end of 2016, the restoration of the waterway from Shalford to the Gosden Aqueduct on the outskirts of Bramley was in an advanced stage of planning. The design study and environmental impact study for a completely new canal route were substantially complete and the flood impact study was expected to be completed in January 2017.
The project team expects to be able to make a planning application in the first half of 2017, following consultation with the statutory authorities, the public and Trust members. When complete, the ‘Bramley Link Phase One’ will be the second fully navigable section of the canal in Surrey.
As part of its aim to create a 23-mile ‘green corridor’ through the West Sussex and Surrey countryside, the Trust has also created Hunt Nature Park at Shalford, a wetland wildlife area leased from Surrey County Council using a legacy made for use on an environmental project.
The Trust is planning to build a visitor centre in the park during the first half of 2017. There are no plans to staff the building regularly at the moment, but volunteers will be there for special occasions such as guided walks and group visits to the park.
So far, most of the money used to restore the canal has come from donations, fundraising activities and legacies, although it is hoped that a substantial Heritage Lottery Fund grant can be obtained to help re-establish the link with the Wey at Shalford.
For further details, visit the Trust’s website at www.weyandarun.co.uk.