Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article The Wey and Basingstoke Canal is the copyright of Jim Shead - First in a monthly series of cruising articles collectively named "Jim's Jottings" this one sub-titled "escape from the Easter Floods" and published in Waterways World July 1998
The Wey and Basingstoke Canal
I look back on my past few years cruising as the halcyon days, when all I had to worry about was the low water levels and restricted lock opening times. Now the drought has ended with a vengeance and floods have bought havoc and tragedy. In the last few days of March I was unaware of the impending changes, as we set off in mild weather up the River Nene. As we came down the Grand Union the occasional showers turned to heavy rain and we heard on the radio the news of various floods throughout the country. A call to neighbours back home confirmed the serious situation on the Nene. They told us how they had placed sandbags around the doors and vents of both their and our home, a precaution that thankfully proved unnecessary. Good neighbours are a great comfort when one spends long periods away from home.
Our journey on the Grand Union continued, wet but otherwise unaffected by the troubles elsewhere. When we got past Rickmansworth the River Colne was flowing fast at the points where it entered the canal and there was also a strong flow on the cross stream below Copper Mill Lock, where there is a canoe course. At Brentford we were to join the Thames to Shepperton where we planned to visit both the River Wey and the Basingstoke Canal. As usual I had phoned Thames Lock, Brentford, to ascertain the time to go with the tide up to Teddington. We set off, just after three o'clock, through the lock, which had the gates at both ends open, as the river was level with the canal, out on to the tidal Thames, which is one of those rare stretches of water that you can navigate for free.
We made good progress with the tide and were soon joined by a large flotilla of cruisers that slowly caught us up and passed us one by one. By the time the last cruiser had passed us we were nearly to Teddington Lock. The cruisers bobbed around with nowhere to go as we rejoined them. As the Launch Lock was already full we followed the remaining cruisers into the Barge Lock. The water level in the lock was high and we must have been raised less than a foot when we were locked through. We moored above the lock and I walked back to get a Thames licence. It had taken ninety minutes to get from Brentford to Teddington and through the two locks.
The next day we started off from Teddington for Shepperton. The river was flowing fast and increased power was needed to make good progress. At Molesey and Sunbury locks the red "Caution Strong Stream" boards were being displayed. It's at times like this that a 42-hp engine doesn't seem too large for a 57-foot narrowboat, as we are able to fight the current without having the engine flat out. The river Wey joins the Thames just before Shepperton Lock and as we turned left the weir pool was one mass of revolving water, pushing us first one way then the other as we crossed towards the quiet waters of the Wey on the opposite side. At Thames Lock we met the hirers of a narrowboat from Guildford Boat House who were disappointed that their planned trip on the Thames had been prevented by the river conditions. Here too we purchased our seven-day licence for the Wey. At this point we had five licences displayed on the boat, two annual licences (one for our home waters and one BW) and three visitors licences (for the Thames, Wey and Basingstoke Canal). This marvellous system of multiple licence authorities should be extended to the roads. If we had one licence for motorways and separate licences for different parts of the country, each with its own licence plates and differing application procedures, I am sure it would go a long way to reducing our over dependence on road transport.
The waters on the Wey were tranquil after the turbulence of the Thames, but this was not to last. Soon we were warned not to moor on the river stretches (much of the Wey is canalised) and at Stoke Lock we were halted by a board announcing "Flood Do Not Proceed". Luckily it was only a short delay before the lengthsman arrived and told us we could go on to Guildford. The next day we went on to the end of the navigation at Godalming, scraping under a low railway bridge on the way. On the return trip we had a little more clearance as the water had gone down a few inches. We were now heading towards a highlight of our trip, a waterway new to us, the Basingstoke Canal.
This canal suffers from water shortages and last year was closed to visitors at the end of April. Obtaining a visitor licence in advance is essential. We went up the six Woodham Locks and found excellent moorings in Woking town centre, ideal for shopping. Many of the lock flights have to be pre-booked and all have restricted opening times. Canal "rangers" are supposed to follow boats through locks to ensure water supplies are safeguarded but in practice we rarely saw a ranger and always very briefly, although one attended very promptly when we found a lock unexpectedly padlocked. The first 10 1/2 miles have 28 locks and pass through affluent suburbs and between wooded banks. The last twenty miles of the canal have only one lock and, we are told by all, the best of the scenery. Unfortunately we only saw about 7 miles of this because we were about an inch too high to get under Wharf Bridge, the summit level being so full that the water was running over the weirs.
On making the return journey from the Basingstoke Canal to the Thames we were only charged £3 for a transit licence on the Wey, which I thought was good value. Now, at the end of April, we are back on the Thames flood bound at Bell Weir Lock. They say the flow is too fast to get under Windsor Bridge. Lets hope for a change in the weather.
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