Narrow Boat moored just below Pirbright Lock
The Basingstoke is one of those canals which has an interesting mixture of a waterway that is working, and a ‘lost’ or derelict section. Other canals with a similar situation include the Ashby Canal and the Lancaster Canal. Whilst the Basingstoke Canal was re-opened in 1991 after two decades of restoriation work, it must not be forgotten that the epic voyage undertaken by Alfred Harmsworth beyond Greywell Tunnel in 1913 was an early precursor for the canal restoration movement. Just few years earlier, a letter to the Hampshire Observer in October 1911 began, “Every resident along the thirty-seven miles of the Basingstoke Canal must hear with dismay of the probability of its being allowed to run dry and then converted into building sites and market-gardens. Without a doubt, however, this will happen and the canal will cease to exist unless some very active steps are immediately taken for its preservation,” obviously prompted concerns about the closure of the canal, and by October 1913 a Board of Trade application was expected to be made, forcing the closure of the canal if it had not been used for at least three years. The canal’s owner, Mr Carter, asked Alfred Harmsworth to undertake a trip to Basingstoke to show that the canal was still indeed in use. This, a trip of 20 miles, took almost two months just to get as far as Basing wharf and back, the last three miles of that taking up the better part of four weeks. The courts had fortunately by then decided that the canal was private property and therefore not subject to closure under the 1888 Railway and Canal Traffic Act. It is difficult to go back much further than these events in terms of the need for restoration. Despite this epic voyage, eventually most of the top 5 miles of the canal was lost to redevelopment, beginning with the sale of Basingstoke Wharf in 1936, disposal of other sections for agriculture or houses, and ending with the severance of the route by the M3 at Hatch. The total length of the navigable section is just under 31 miles. The total length of canal was 37 and a quarter miles.
The Basingstoke, termed one of Britian’s most beautiful waterways, and despite the loss of its top end, was fortunate to escape the fate that befell a lot of other canals, and the focus on the restoration of the canal in the 1980’s, with mega-events such as the famous ‘Deepcut Dig,’ organised by the Waterways Recovery Group and others, certainly helped to set the ball rolling for the restoration and upkeep of our canal system. Looking around our canals, and the regeneration that they have brought to many areas has demonstrated that despite being artifical waterways, they do have a role in maintaining the fabric of our countryside and our towns, and the Basingstoke Canal is a prime example. It is a pleasure to walk on, or even boat along if one has the opportunity, the wildlife and aquatic life is abundant and full of variety, and botanists would not be disappointed either. There are around 26 species of dragonfly, and 102 species of water plant. This however has meant that the entire canal is designated a SSSI and so limits on the number of boats using the canal are imposed. A report from Liverpool University suggests however that as the Basingstoke had few boats, it was surprising that the variety of flora and fauna was not as great as expected when compared to toher canals that had far greater boat traffic. A great alternative to boating is to walk along it, and being within easy reach in many places from the main line out of London Waterloo, the canal is handy for day walkers from the capital.
In the past I have referred to the excellent official Basingstoke Canal Website (www.basingstokecanal1.freeserve.co.uk) It seems to have ceased altogether so all references to it in this guide to the Basingstoke Canal have now been removed. There’s meant to be a new official site (www.basingstoke-canal.co.uk) but so far its not active.
This towpath guide covers 32 miles of the Basingstoke Canal, from the River Wey Navigation to Greywell Tunnel.