Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Wey-South Path Section 2 Cranleigh - Billingshurst

Canal Bed

After the appetiser a few weeks ago, I was keen to get back to this path although I knew that the next section from Cranleigh to Billingshurst would require longer than the extended evening walks/ cycle rides that I have been doing during the summer. It has been almost three months since I last did a walk of greater distance than 8-10 miles and so I thought this would be a good one to kick off the autumn season back on my three weekly frequency between days out. In truth it was a late substitute though as I had planned a trip along the seafront, but a forced mid afternoon start had put me off.
Scarcely Noticeable
Billingshurst is not the typical place to begin or end a walk using the Wey South Path, since it is a good mile off route, but it is an easy place to use public transport across a surprisingly remote and rural part of West Sussex/ Surrey. Since the demise of the rail route through Cranleigh, a less obvious interchange between buses is needed in the village of Slinfold. Despite being only about ten miles apart the bus journey between the two ends of the route is approximately fifty minutes, with a fifteen minute wait outside the Red Lyon pub in Slinfold.
In Water
I didn’t get to Cranleigh until almost 3pm, leaving about five and a bit hours to cover the twelve miles along the Wey South path to Billingshurst. At my normally steady 2.5 – 3 miles an hour that did not leave much room for manoeuvre. On reaching Cranleigh I retraced my steps up the Downs Link for a short distance until I regained the canal route just north of Rye Farm. Initially although on the route it was almost impossible to tell for the canal bed was obliterated although the path itself followed the original line. There was no going north along the line of the towpath though, any temptation was quickly extinguished by a warning sign of private property and dogs patrolling. Luckily I was heading south and within a few yards, a very overgrown stretch of canal started, mostly out of view behind a huge thicket of brambles but there nonetheless. I don’t know why but this early re-acquaintance got me quite excited about the exploration ahead.
Improved Section
The brambles eventually gave way to more established hedge and tree growth, enabling me to get down into the canal bed and have a closer look. There was no water and the canal bed was surprisingly wide and shallow. I wasn’t sure if it had been this way when built or had suffered some infilling over the years. As I continued past the very attractive Rye Farm, the canal bed got wetter and by the time I reached Elmbridge there was some very weed choked surface water.
Approaching Dunsfold
Elmbridge is still used by the B2130 road to Godalming and despite the fact that it has not been necessary for the canal for over 130 years, it still appears to be its original width and on occasion must cause a bit of a hold up for traffic since only one car can pass at a time. I also got very confused about the way forward here and thought I was going mad when the map suggested that the route continued due south of the bridge and I was confronted by a very high fence. Eventually I realised that a very high gate at the side of the bridge was actually where I was supposed to go and wasn’t just a private entrance to a garden. Clearly the owner does not want to go out of his way to publicise the route over his land. As it was I felt quite uncomfortable crossing the garden, while a couple of children were playing there. On the right of me where the canal should have been was completely infilled and built upon, leaving the path as the only remnant of the route (presumably a left over right of way?). I was glad to be across the garden and continued southwards. Further along the infilling was obviously still carrying on as a woman was returning with a wheelbarrow from the head of the tipping area. The canal here is being filled in with tree cuttings and any vestige is slowly being removed. I am sure having the hollow would be a pain if you had plans for the land, but I couldn’t help thinking that this behaviour is seriously undermining the effort going on elsewhere to restore the route.
Three Compasses
South of the tipping head and the canal bed was in much better condition, albeit still without water. The sun was beginning to emerge too and the fleece I had been wearing thus far had to go as the air warmed considerably. The official Wey South path did not continue very far along the towpath, and a deviation via West Cranleigh nurseries seemed on the cards. However, the towpath seemed to stretch forward ahead of me with no warning signs of private land or landowners releasing the hounds so I took the risk of continuing (if you follow too, on your own head be it!). It cut out about half a mile of unnecessary and from looking at the map, rather tedious looking walking. I instead enjoyed the towpath and looking at all the plantlife that had slowly taken over the canal bed. Himalayan Balsam in particular covered great swathes of the canal bed and wooded fringes, crowding almost everything else out. The bees and other insects seemed to love the stuff and with big gawdy pink and white flowers, it is perhaps easy to see why.
Road Causeway
At Mill Farm I had hoped to continue along the towpath in much the same way as a mile further back, but a big fence ahead of me put paid to that idea and I instead had to make do with the diversion along a nearby road. This emphasised the problems that the would-be restorers of the Wey and Arun Canal will have. If even the rights of way that would once have come with the towpath have been extinguished, what hope is there for a group of people wanting to rebuild the whole canal, fill it with water and potentially have dozens of pleasure boats going backwards and forwards along it? In these days of NIMBYism, people are very protective of their privacy and their land and don’t want the hoi polloi trampling all over it.
Ahead of me the canal bed was devoid of water and almost all structure, but could still be distinguished by the shape of the terrain. As I wandered sadly towards the road I could hear the sound of screeching tyres and a rather annoying plane that seemed to be taking off and landing every few minutes. Initially I thought the screeching of tyres was due to some very bad driving but when it persisted I remembered that I was approaching Dunsfold Aerodrome, where Top Gear is filmed. It all made sense to me now; maybe the plane was also involved in the filming?
Hint of Sunshine
The next part of the canal I reached was a bit of a milestone, since Flash Bridge coincides with crossing the main Horsham to Guildford road and also is the summit point of the whole canal. On the northern side of the road is Flash Bridge, perhaps the best preserved bridge on the route southwards so far. Since it is privately owned I did not inspect it too closely, but at last I felt that the canal was worth exploring not just for a few muddy and weed choked watery sections, but also for some of the remaining infrastructure.
Winding Hole
On the south side of the road the canal looks to be fairly well preserved as it skirts along the southern edge of Dunsfold Aerodrome ( I followed the towpath for some distance until the next overbridge. There was absolutely no chance of exploring that as it was firmly fenced off by British Aerospace, although it is no longer owned by them. Apparently the current owners are trying to develop the site as a housing estate and retail park, or possible Eco-Town. When I crossed the field and rounded the mobile home estate further along I wandered along past the Three Compasses Pub to inspect the canal at this point and was rather surprised to see that the gate still suggested a military presence, such was the tightness of security and warnings not to take photos (I later discovered that a significant amount of test flying still takes place).
Derelict Garage
The Three Compasses was the pub that hosted the opening of the canal way back in 1816 and the owners are probably quite keen on the reopening of the route. The pub has lost not just passing trade from canal boat owners, but also the road in front was completely cut off when the aerodrome was built, severing the original route from Alfold to Bramley and necessitating in a more modern route to the east. Nevertheless the pub seemed quite popular as I passed by on a Saturday teatime, with quite a few people outside having a drink. I’ve no doubt that having a mobile home park on the doorstep helps, and maybe even Jeremy Clarkson pops in for a half of shandy when he needs a rest from the rigours of driving round the test track and pontificating on the various features of the cars he drives.
Sidney Wood
From the Three Compasses, the route follows the road again for a bit, which is fortunately quite quiet since there isn’t much room to get on to the verge. At Cobdens Farm the canal meets the road once again and when operational this must have been the scene of a fair amount of activity since there is obviously the remains of a wharf and winding hole (area used to help turn the narrow boats around). This is a recently restored section and the towpath is available for use, although I wasn’t sure for how far. I instead continued along the Wey South path through the adjacent forest until reuniting with the tow path about a mile further along the route.
Access Bridge
The next section was a joy as the route follows the towpath through Sidney Wood. In fact, I didn’t know it at the time, but apart from a few short diversions, the path now follows the side of the canal for getting on for six miles. As I wandered through the woods I could now see the vision of the Wey and Arun Canal Trust. Restoring this section is surely not a pipe dream but will become reality in the next few years, since much of the canal bed is intact and the route positively beautiful. By now most of the cloud from earlier had burned off and I was treated to a lovely early evening woodland walk. I passed by another winding hole and a section that was obviously once governed by some long disappeared locks, since the level of the canal abruptly changed at one point. A little way past here and I reached a large fenced off house, which was a bit of a surprise. This house, and the old lock keepers cottage a little further south are likely to be the cause of the most serious obstacle to restoring the route through here. It is unlikely that the homeowners are going to want to restore the route immediately past their houses, and the Trust are thinking seriously about re-routing the canal entirely here.
Awaiting Restoration
The path diverts away from the towpath for a short distance before coming to High Bridge, where the tow path is regained once more. The line of the old canal is obvious through the back garden of the old lock keepers cottage (now rather bigger than the original house!). I now left Sidney Wood and continued alongside the canal bed all the way to Loxwood and beyond. This is a section undergoing restoration and active work seems to be going on in a number of places, since I passed a number of warning signs about the path being closed. Fortunately I managed to get through without being inconvenienced in any way, but some sections have no real alternative routes so it would have been tough on me if I had come across any closures. In one place the bank looked as if it had been repaired to help with water tightness, while further along the lock at Devils Hole was undergoing what looked to be the final throes of restoration to help connect another section for cruising.
Work Underway
At Loxwood, the dry canal bed suddenly gave way to the very newly restored section under the B2133, which only opened in May 2009. This was a major obstacle to progress northwards from the adjacent Onslow Arms, since the road was built across the canal bed many years ago, completely severing the north and south sections. To enable the road to continue its present course without a level change (and maintain visibility along the route), the canal profile had to be altered to enable it to cross underneath the road.
Loxwood Improvement
The Onslow Arms is a very popular pub and is the point that most visitors will get top see the restored canal. Boat trips are run from here to help get people interested in the route and act as a fund raising opportunity (restoring the canal looks like it is hideously expensive!). It was pretty quiet as I passed, probably because of being a Saturday night. However, there were a few dog walkers about ambling along the towpath. This section makes for a very pleasant walk and seeing the canal properly restored here gives a lot of hope for the future.
Onslow Arms
As I meandered around the canal I came upon the Wiggonholt, the electric boat now operated by the Canal Trust, which was taking out a group of enthusiasts. I couldn’t help but smile as most of their cameras were focused on a very bemused looking swan going about his business on the canal. I crossed the Drungewick Aqueduct shortly after, another obstacle overcome a few years back which takes the canal over the River Arun. Sadly, this was to be the last of the towpath walking for the day, for beyond the lane bridge next to the aqueduct, the towpath forms a dead end and for onward walkers like me another lengthy diversion was ahead.
Zecchariah Keppel
By now I was also getting quite concerned about the time. With all the route problems earlier and the stopping and looking at features along the route, I was faced with the prospect of darkness falling before I got to Billingshurst. My camera battery had also died and so I decided that I would hot foot it to Billingshurst as quickly as possible, not stopping too much to look at any further features but save them for another day. However, I had not appreciated how much further it would be and the relative difficulty of the route (including a fairly scary section of road walking along the B2133). It was another hour between Drungewick Lane Bridge and Billingshurst and by the time I reached the car I got back just after the sun had set.
Improved section
This is a most enjoyable day’s walk, spoiled only by some fairly unpleasant road sections that are unavoidable but mercifully quite short. Eventually as more of the canal becomes restored hopefully there will be rights of access along the towpath and as and when this becomes reality this will make it a very enjoyable route indeed. As I wandered along the towpath I felt as if I needed to come back along here on a five year frequency to see how much progress has been made!
Open Sesame
In addition to my additional Flickr pictures of my walk (click title to view), you might also like to look at the excellent site where there are more pictures available. Some of the winter pictures of the section through Sidney Wood make for a good contrast with mine from high summer.
Evening Trip

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