Friday, 8 July 2011

The Basingstoke Canal Section One Greywell Tunnel to Ash Vale

Greywell Tunnel
I admit it – I am a fair weather cyclist. During the summer months I actually prefer cycling to walking – it must be something to do with the wind in my face? These days my tolerance for cycling on the road is also very limited so I am on the lookout for trails off road that are not too taxing, offer a bit of history perhaps but definitely score highly on thescenery. I have looked at the Basingstoke Canal as a place that ticks all these boxes for some time now and a summer evening seemed the perfect time to go and have a look.
New Family
When faced with a linear route the vexing question is – which direction should I head? With the canal I was faced with the prospect of heading towards or away from London. I decided on starting at the country end for two main reasons – heading downstream always seems more natural and the sun would be behind me for the bulk of the trip!
Odiham Castle
The Basingstoke Canal was opened in 1794 at the height of ‘Canal Mania’. Sadly, as with so many of the canals that were built at the time, the Basingstoke Canal was not a huge commercial success and after a long slow decline it finally closed in 1932.It lay derelict for many years but was substantially reconstructed in the 1970s and 1980s until finally re-opening as a navigable waterway from the Wey Navigation to Greywell Tunnel, five miles short of its ultimate destination of Basingstoke.Sadly the tunnel hasn’t been restored and it is unlikely ever to be since it has partially collapsed inside.Its length (it’s one of the longest canal tunnels in Britain) and the fact that it now houses a large colony of bats has probably sealed its fate as being too difficult to restore. The five miles of canal to the west of Greywell Tunnel have largely been lost to neglect and redevelopment as a result.
Canal Conference
The cycle ride along the towpath does not start at Basingstoke then, although I have heard that the determined explorer can retrace some of the old section on foot. I began my journey at the pretty little village of Greywell. This is a little off the beaten track public transport wise, but it is possible to reach here by bike from Hook Station in approximately 15 minutes. I discovered that although there are plenty of train services all along the line into London from Hook, there isn’t a through service from anywhere useful except Woking without changing trains. My original intention was to cycle the whole 32 miles in one go. This is certainly a relatively straightforward proposition, but I would suggest that if you do this, do it on your second or third trip, or give yourself the whole day. There is so much to see and absorb along the way that it would be a shame to rush things.
Odiham Straight
I parked in Greywell opposite the Fox and Goose pub, which I was delighted to see sported a Peter Oldrieve sign. The canal starts just a stone’s throw from the pub and for travellers coming in the opposite direction it certainly looks like a nice watering hole to quench a thirst at the end of the journey. Tucked away across the road is the path leading to Greywell Tunnel, almost hidden from view. I wheeled my bike onto the path, which thankfully opened out quite quickly. I could see ahead of me that the towpath below me was going to be quite busy, with several families walking and cycling already. The beginnings were quite narrow, which meant for a lot of stopping. At this rate I didn’t really expect to make very quick progress.
Canal Traffic
Greywell Tunnel on this June day was almost hidden with the lush vegetation that has grown up around the canal. The canal itself is only available for canoe traffic, with bigger boats prevented from getting this far by the vegetation that has been allowed to grow in the canal bed. I imagine this is probably deliberate so that boat owners are not tempted to explore the tunnel! Seeing any distance inside the tunnel from the bank was impossible because of the angle and the vegetation all around.
The first historical find along the canal was Odiham Castle, a ruin now of what was once King John’s stronghold. Used mostly as a hunting lodge, only the circular tower of the keep and a few earthworks remain and it is free to inspect directly from the canal bank. The old place had attracted quite a few families and casual walkers making use of the grounds as a picnic spot. Alongside the castle a family of swans had also taken up residence and the parents were seeing to quite a large number of cygnets, no more than a few weeks old.
Narrow Bridge
Back to the canal and the next couple of miles skirted the village of North Warnborough, effectively a suburb of Odiham (the castle isn’t in the town). Due to the proximity of settlements there were a lot of people about, both cruising the canal on narrow boats but also plenty of other cyclists and walkers. Due to its flatness the towpath attracts the type of person I don’t normally come across in the countryside, such as young families with push chairs and disabled people with electric wheelchairs.Although it was slightly annoying at times to keep stopping for them, I stayed patient and remembered how positive it was that canal towpaths are available to so many groups trying to enjoy the countryside.
Nosy Cows
A long straight section came along just past North Warnborough and it was here that I became aware of the Odiham bypass and the roar of traffic. I was surprised at how intrusive it was, especially compared with my otherwise peaceful surroundings. The sun came out again too here, which was pleasing as for some time the weather had threatened to become just grey and overcast. Passing through thick woods for much of the next few miles it didn’t seem to matter a great deal whether the sun was out or not as the sky was blotted out by the fresh green foliage being sported by the trees alongside the canal.
Tank Traps
The route from Odiham to Fleet is very winding.I think the canal company ran low on money by the time they constructed this section as it mostly follows the contours and there are no locks at all. It certainly runs a lot further than the crow flies!All along this part of the canal the bridges have been wonderfully restored and the canal bed is clearly of cruising quality, with many narrow boats moored along the way and a few that were actually in business too.A number of people had taken to canoeing along the canal, which struck me as a particularly fine way to see the route. As I got closer towards Fleet, I became aware that there were all sorts of concrete blocks lurking in the vegetation alongside the canal.It wasn’t immediately obvious what these might be,but I soon realised what they were when I passed by a half-hidden pill box. Of course they were tank traps! As with so many other waterways in the south of England, the Basingstoke Canal was employed to help out with the defensive capability of the country and slow the enemy down. Seeing these concrete blocks was a stark reminder of how close we came to needing this kind of stuff.
The countryside eventually gave way to town as I approached Fleet, by far the largest settlement I had yet encountered. The housing alongside the canal was discreet to begin with and barely noticeable, but as I got closer into town the housing came right up to the canalside. Many of these folk living alongside the canal were enthusiasts with small boats moored outside the bottom of their gardens. I wonder how many of these are used regularly?
Lazy Days
A little further along and I came upon the unmistakable smell of hamburgers cooking. I wasn’t quite sure where the smell came from but soon discovered it when I passed by the very busy and popular looking Fox and Hounds pub, possibly a canal inn originally but now full of Saturday night families having a meal out. The hubbub from the pub soon passed and much of the canal towpath was quite well insulated from the town through which it passed for the rest of the time. At one point I broke off from the canal to look for a shop, but chose the wrong moment, for no opportunity yet existed.
Beyond two modern looking bridges that I later found out accommodated a roundabout the canal once again plunged into countryside. The surrounding area was rather different to what had gone before Fleet however, as the canal now entered the heathlands of north Hampshire and Surrey. The surrounding lush fields filled with livestock were replaced with pine trees, tracts of woodland and areas of open heather. This part of the country has been used for a variety of military uses over the years and the first reminder came shortly after when I passed by the airport of Farnborough.This was originally a military airport, but is now privately owned although the Air Accident Investigation Branch is still based there.It is most famous of course as the venue for the international airshow which is hosted there annually. Just beyond the airport the canal seems to boast a new mooring facility, still looking very new and shiny and probably only just completed!
Military Bridge
I could tell that I was entering an area used extensively by the military, not just from the fencing alongside the canal, designed to ensure that foot traffic kept to the towpath, but also the increasing number of supremely fit men and women running along the towpath! The infrastructure for the previous uses of the canal also came into evidence now, with wharves and winding holes becoming more common.I suspect that many of the military establishments were once served with goods along the canal. In between squaddies I did manage a magical encounter with a young heron here.It was fishing for its dinner just across from me and appeared not to worry too much about my presence.I observed it for some time, steadily getting closer before it finally got spooked and flew off. This section of the canal is presumably well-known for its wildlife for Hampshire County Council had placed many interpretation boards at regular intervals explaining what the walker or cyclist could see along the way.
Once safely past the military stuff, the canal crosses the Blackwater Valley dual carriageway, which by-passes the towns of Aldershot and Farnborough. It was a little surreal walking across the aqueduct that was created for the purpose. The ambience of the canal is still very sedate, while below cars and lorries roar by at speeds that would have been unheard of by the builders of the canal. This section of the canal was characterised by the number of fishermen both on the canal itself and on adjacent lakes. There were lots of people settling down for the evening with their tents and picnics ready to while away the long hours between bites.
Blackwater Bridge
The Blackwater Valley is also a natural corridor for other transport routes and as well as crossing the motorway like road, I also passed by two very busy railway lines as well as a host of other busy roads as I entered Ash Vale. Once past the fishing lakes far below me (the canal crosses the valley on a fairly high embankment),I once again entered an area of housing. The canal itself was quite well wooded in places and many of the houses had some pretty substantial gardens. One in particular made me smile as the residents had strung up a hammock alongside the canal. I could think of fewer places that would be so good to relax and read a book! Other houses had a narrow boat moored at a private dock at the end of the garden. It must be lovely to get in and go when the mood takes you!
At the end of the built up section I passed under a bridge similar to the one I saw on the Grand Union Canal at Uxbridge where a pillbox had been built into the parapet. They do look curious and not terribly defendable – perhaps it was a good job they were never used in anger. A little further beyond and the canal opened out into a lake known as Greatbottom Flash – a lovely looking spot that was beloved of local birdlife. I assume this feature was put there to help with water storage and keep the canal flowing.
Pillbox Bridge
Just beyond Greatbottom Flash I came to Ash Vale station just behind a disused wharf. This is where I finish my write up this time, although for the record I did continue on to Brookwood, about 4 miles further on. However, in the fading light I didn’t get great pictures from that section, so I decided to duplicate that section when I came back to complete the route.
Greatbottom Flash
The Basingstoke Canal is a delightful trip and could easily be managed as a full day trip. At 32 miles it isn’t too far to cycle, but the route does not deserve to be hurried. Keep it slow and you will see plenty of wildlife and history along the way as well as taking in all the sights and sounds of a working canal. Train connections are pretty good, although be warned that to take a train from West Byfleet at the London end to Hook will almost certainly involve a change of train at Woking. Brookwood to Hook is direct, hence my reason to continue to that station. West Byfleet has a direct service to Ash Vale, hence the break of journey here. It doesn’t matter if you duplicate the section between Ash Vale and Brookwood, for it is probably the most scenic section of all, and you’ll be glad you did it twice!


  1. Nice write up. I worked for a while in Odiham (which is also worth a visit, a beautiful old village) so used to go for a lunch time stroll along the canal from Odiham wharf.

  2. Thanks Jon! I was absolutely enchanted by the canal. Odiham looked very pretty when I drove through - sadly it wasn't on the cycle ride but another opportunity to visit might arise soon. Part 2 of this trip to follow hopefully this week.

  3. What you say about the history of the Brookwood Necropolis Railway is largely correct, except that this was located on the south side of Brookwood station and did not cross the Basingstoke Canal. The one which did so, via the bridge which you mention, was the branch line to Bisley Camp and Rifle Ranges, which also left the main line near Brookwood station. This was reserved for use by the military, and closed in 1952.

    1. Thanks for your correction Graham, that is very interesting.
      Kind regards