Sunday, 17 July 2011

The Basingstoke Canal Section Two Ash Vale to Woodham Junction

Leonard Leigh
About three weeks after my first trip to the canal came the second. Having enjoyed the first section so much I was eager to finish the rest and I managed to pick a day that had almost identical weather to the first trip! Having finished at Brookwood last time, I have to say that the last part of the ride between Ash Vale and Brookwood was rather rushed feeling, so I was quite keen to reacquaint myself with the towpath between those two places. I was helped by the fact that the train from West Byfleet actually heads straight for Ash Vale, meaning that the journey from end to end by train was only 20 minutes.
Little Mytchett
Ash Vale station is not an easy one to get out of with a bike as the platforms are high up above the adjacent street (to be fair I think there was a lift but I didn’t use it). Once I had hauled the bike to the bottom of the several flights of steps I turned left out of the station and pedalled back uphill, almost to platform level where I reunited with the canal at the end of the station. I soon realised it was at the abandoned wharf that I had passed by a few weeks previously. On the other side of the railway bridge was a small lake called Little Mytchett, presumably constructed to help maintain a steady water supply through this section.I noticed on the map that some of the lake had been cut off by the railway line being constructed across it –not the first canal casualty of that practice!What was left was very picturesque though and got me in the mood for the rest of the trip nicely!
In Formation Ladies!
Through the wooded section I continued until reaching a railway bridge. Although less than half a mile from Ash Vale station, this was not the line that I had travelled on, but another serving Ash Vale which heads off towards Camberley and Ascot. The canal was quite dark under the foliage and the small basin in front of the bridge was rather grotto like. Yet the other side of the bridge things could not have been more different as the canal opened up into quite a large lake (Mytchett Lake) which seemed to be home to many species of ducks as well as a large number of swans and the ubiquitous moorhens and coots.Across the lake was a large building breaking up the trees and associated with the barracks behind.
Moody Reflections
As the path left the lake behind and passed under another bridge (a road one this time) and then back into a tree lined tunnel. The canal here was quite straight and stretched on for quite a distance ahead of me – a contrast to the early stages where I seemed to be going round and round corners all the time. A little further on was a little section of canal that headed into an adjacent house, perhaps a hotel. It all looked very inviting but sadly I could see little more than a glimpse because of an island in my way. On my left I was joined by the railway I had crossed under a few minutes before. I didn’t initially notice but jumped out of my skin when a train came stealthily behind me when I wasn’t expecting it.
Frimley Lodge Railway
The line continued on my left for a bit but eyes were now on the right bank as I passed by the campsite and visitor centre for the canal. Sadly on both occasions I passed by I was unable to get across the canal to see anything further (the bridge across only opens for certain times of the day). Yet all around was busy – the first time I passed there was a full campsite (unsurprising for a Saturday evening), while on the second (a Wednesday evening) there were still a few customers. Boat trips leave from this point and there was a bit of boating traffic on both occasions. Given the proximity to the campsite there was also a number of canoeists exploring the canal. I should imagine this is perhaps the most popular section of the canal to do so.
Mirror Image
A little further on and I became of a railway line next to the towpath once again. This was not the same line as before however – this was a miniature railway that seemed to be quite extensive. As I followed the line it soon became clear that this was quite a large facility and I was very interested to see the station and shedding facilities at the far end. This was the Frimley Lodge Railway, probably worth a look when in operation. Sadly of course being a midweek evening there was no chance of this being the case. In fact when I found the timetable I noticed that it generally only operates about once a month so a ride would be a rare treat indeed!Everything was well shut up and vandal proof – I guess that could be quite a problem in this built up area.
Standing Proud
A little way past the miniature railway and the towpath comes to an abrupt stop at the next bridge, with walkers and cyclists required to cross the busy road bridge. There is a Harvester restaurant tucked away at the side of the road here – may be a good option if you are on an all day excursion? Onward from the bridge the towpath first passes a cute little lodge house and then across perhaps the most impressive engineering feature of the whole canal, the aqueduct carrying the canal over the railway.Originally this had to cross a double track railway but had to be doubled in length when the railway was increased to four tracks.Probably the full extent of the engineering cannot be appreciated from above but it is nonetheless a little odd having to cross speeding trains on a waterway.
The canal then turns almost right angles and heads into Deepcut, a lengthy section of cutting enclosed by forest. It is actually quite hard imagining the urban nature of the surrounding area, for this section was largely devoid of walkers and cyclists when I headed through on both occasions. In fact the only people I remember on the whole section was a lonely boat travelling through. Given that the locks further on were not functioning I don’t suppose they had gone very far! The cutting was full of butterflies and assorted buzzing insects, all taking advantage of the various nectar opportunities from the flowers all along the side of the canal.
Needs Improvement
At the end of the cutting is a former lock-keepers house – now a beautifully kept country cottage. Alongside is a polytunnel, which presumably acts as a repair shop for narrow boats. The chap in the back garden was very busy sawing wood and took no notice of me. Alongside him was what I suspect was the latest boat project; I guess you would be inspired to do this kind of work in such surroundings! Alongside the cottage was the first of a series of locks which descend the canal down through Pirbright and through a large area of military establishments.This section proved to be very popular with squaddies, with several groups using the canal as a training and jogging course (some were wearing packs and some not).It proved a little disconcerting trying to make sure I stayed out of their way as I descended through the section. As well as the locks, the wooded countryside was extremely beautiful – perhaps the prettiest section of the whole canal length.
Cinnabar Moth Caterpillar
The big disappointment for me on this section was the state of the canal. So far along its length the canal was in really good shape following its restoration 20 years ago. Now though several of the locks were out of action and as a result the canal was holding little, if any water. Even some of the balancing ponds were just a sea of mud and the couple of miles through this section had a strong smell of river mud as a result. It was all very disappointing, although I at least made very quick progress due to my earlier decision to travel in this direction. That meant that I was heading downhill all the way, which was rather more pleasant than the alternative!
Deepcut Locks
Just shy of Brookwood I came upon another well preserved canal cottage, with what looked like some abutments of a railway bridge opposite. I later learned that this was the remains of the so-called Necropolis Railway, which once connected Brookwood Cemetery directly to Waterloo Station in London. Brookwood Cemetery was envisaged to become London’s main burial ground in the late Victorian years, when cemetery space in the capital became ever more scarce. Because of public health fears the cemetery was located some distance from the city, but within easy reach by train. The short branch line from the main line at Brookwood carried special trains for mourners using special tickets from Waterloo. The line did not survive the Second World War due to its poor state.
Deepcut Lock Keeper's Cottage
This point marked the point at which my overlap from Day 1 to Day 2 finished and from here on I only completed the section once. The canal had levelled out for awhile after all the locks I had been past. It took on a gentler feel once again passing through woods and a few suburban houses on the edge of Brookwood. In the distance I could hear the rumble of the rush hour trains but all was peaceful on the canal itself. In fact apart from a bridge that I had to cross with heavy traffic, the whole section was like an oasis of calm passing through the madness of the M3 corridor.
Foot Crossing
The next road bridge was preceded by quite a large winding hole and someone had taken advantage of the extra space available by mooring a rather homemade but very new looking houseboat. It looked like quite the place to live! I swapped sides again at this point, having to cross yet another busy road. I later discovered though that I could have done so by going along the pavement on my side of the road and ducking under the bridge on the other side of the canal. A useful tip if the road is as busy as it was for my trip!
Returning to Nature
After ploughing along another wooded sectionbordered by some very nice looking houses I came upon St John’s village, which seemed to be a very attractive little place. Part of Kiln Bridge, which I had to cross to get back on the other side of the canal again, was built as a pill box. I’m not sure these looked terribly useful or easy to defend. Perhaps it was a good idea they were never put to the test! I passed down another flight of locks beyond Kiln Bridge and this section seemed to be a particularly popular spot for evening strollers and dog walkers, which meant that I couldn’t make the downhill sections really count for me which was a bit of a shame.
Peaceful Swan
As I headed in towards Woking, boats started appearing on the canal once again. I had seen relatively few of them for awhile, perhaps as a result of the Pirbright locks being out of action. Alongside the canal were many more houses and the odd pub, which made full use of their location by having the beer garden overlook the water. The couple I passed looked very nice places to while away a summer evening and natter with friends over a pint.Woking itself soon became apparent when hi tech looking buildings started appearing on the canal side.In no time at all I was right in the town centre, passing by what looked like cathedrals of retail at the local shopping centre.It was rather surprising that the canal occupied a corridor that was so close to the heart of things.The railway, coming some years later, had to settle for a less convenient corridor. I was grateful to the Swingbridge Community Payback people for keeping this section maintained as it could very easily be vandalised and ruined by anti-socials, perhaps even the sorts of people doing the punishments!
Kiln Bridge
The Woking stretch went surprisingly quickly and by now the canal had a more open feel about it as it passed less salubrious housing than is normal alongside, together with a very busy looking play area. I’ve got to be honest though, the canal was also getting far less interesting as it headed in towards London. The section between Woking and Shearwater rather passed me by and I was able to get up quite a lot of speed along this section as I wasn’t stopping every five seconds to look at something diverting!
Woking Shops
At West Byfleet I descended another section of locks, not all of which were in great shape, before finally reaching the bottom of the descent from Odiham. The last section of the canal seemed to be home to a mixed bag of houseboats, some very attractive, others bordering on the derelict. Some were imaginatively decorated and built, while others were just slab sided and dull. It seemed like a proper community though, with gardens built on their side of the canal and the public definitely not welcome.Just past the boats was my final destination – the junction with the Wey Navigation and possibly another trip in the near future.Woodham Junction was rather an anti-climax however – it is all rather overshadowed by the monstrous M25 viaduct that passes overhead almost and the railway line that has been a constant companion.
Perhaps because of the London end of the canal it might be better to do the trip the opposite way round, although there is no denying the pleasure of cycling downhill through the locks! The Basingstoke Canal is delightful for just about its whole length and well worth a summer evening trip. Apparently it gets a bit muddy on the towpath during the winter so probably only worth a walking trip then. For serious cyclists, the whole thing could easily be managed in a day, but remember that there is a bit of a cycle from Greywell Tunnel to Hook, which is the nearest station. I might well have a go at doing the Wey Navigation soon – I have quite a taste for this kind of expedition!
Reaching the Wey

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