After an extremely comfortable night chez Susie I walked out to the start of the Navigations at Thames Lock over Whittet’s Ait, the first of many islands I would walk over today. The lock gives the first sense of the history which is present along the whole length of this 20-mile navigable waterway, from the Thames to Godalming.
In a restored stable where the barge horses used to rest before turning upriver to tow another cargo of up to 80 tonnes, the National Trust has created a small display of information panels about this 400-yr-old transport corridor. The construction of the Navigation between 1651 and 1653 predates the canal network by about a century: the new technology of creating a navigable channel using river water fired up the imagination of Sir Richard Weston (1792-1852), who had to wait out the Civil War before he could begin making reality an idea which had fascinated him since his twenties in the early years of the seventeenth century.
For the entirety of the walk today I crossed and recrossed the Navigation at locks and weirs, often walking on islands created by various looping side-channels, but the river was never far away, winding through its water meadows and fens, or directed under bridges and at angles to settlements and houses.
It is sad to say that it was a startling fact that, right up until the outskirts of Guildford and despite the number of dog walkers out this morning, there was not a single piece of excrement, bagged or unbagged, on the towpath. Nor was there anything much of litter of whatsoever kind, even though I did not see even one litter-bin on the towpath. I wonder whether it was the National Trust which keep the environment here so immaculate, or whether it is those enjoying or inhabiting or making use of the Navigation and towpath who do not litter, or who clean up after themselves. The banks were lined with enormous riverside properties, and there seemed little here to disturb the equanimity of the Navigation as it flowed greenly and dreamily back towards the Thames.
Once the towpath would have been trodden by Wey bargemen leading the horses pulling their cargo towards London, or back upriver. Like me the bargemen and their horses would take four days to walk the Navigation from one end to the other. Now the towpath was peopled with runners and dog walkers. But mostly the towpath itself here was peaceful and uninhabited.
Everywhere were chi-chi moorings at the end of lush, manicured gardens, and barges and houseboats tied sleepily up to bollards. One particularly long and colourful row of barges prompted me to wonder whether this was actually the parking lot for the Duplo precision automated house.
There was plenty of winter wildlife around. Mallards had already paired up and were either poking about in the water weeds and the rushes and reeds at the side of the river or squabbling over territory. At Coxes Mill Canada geese mixed with mute swans and coots, with the occasional moorhen highstepping through the reeds.
The mill pond itself has been returned to the wilds. Here cormorants took off noisily, disturbed by my passing, and herons too on the other side of the mill pond. Black-headed gulls preened themselves on the mill pond or flew up and down river, scanning for fish. But the most common bird, and the noisiest, were the parakeets. Naturalised here since 1987 they have thrived on the waterway, and their raucous screeches disturbed the peace nearly all the way down to Guildford.
I stopped for a while to admire the converted mill buildings, at the side of a lock and weir which date back to 1653, although restoration or repair work on the locks is constantly ongoing, if the dates carved into the lock gates are anything to judge by.
After 5 km the Navigation passes under the huge bulk of the M25, making an aerial concrete curve to echo that of the river below it. Here was the rubbish — the cans, the Magnum wrappers. Here were the poo bags, the discarded crisp packets. But here also was an impromptu gallery: street art like an installation on the piers of the great London orbital which I visited to a soundtrack of the boom of the motorway traffic above my head.
Immediately I left the concrete behind, nature returned. Choruses of blackbirds accompanied me, as though they were singing a part song on either side of the river. A little further on woodpeckers took over drumming different notes out of their oak trees. The willows dragging the tips of their hanging branches in the water were just starting to green up, and the first catkins on the ubiquitous willows were breaking through their protective buds.
The Bluebell left a crew clearing ditches at a junction and puttered along at no more than my walking pace, its bow wave like thick, green, melted caramel. Damage to the riverbanks by the bow waves and wakes of motorised vehicles are the reason for the ultra-slow pace, which is enforced by speed limits.
Other riverfolk were in evidence: modern-day bargemen with a dredging crane to keep the Navigation clear and prevent flooding, and a houseboatman doing winter maintenance. He stopped work to shake his paintbrush in mock exasperation in the direction of the laidback chainsmoker at the Bluebell’s helm.
A fraction further on the Bluebell came to a halt and tied up at the Old Parvis yard, where a crane dangled a colossal sling to lift a boat out of the water and cradle it safely in the air.
Maybe that’s an easier place from which to repaint your boat and then leave it to wait out the rest of the winter underneath the boat equivalent of a carport.
Fishing fruitlessly for roach and perch were these two gents, their stations spaced out a little along the riverbank.
They were catching nothing, despite the appetising selection of worms and larvae on the breakfast buffet. It’s much harder in the winter to catch fish, they explained, because the fish’s metabolism slows down and they don’t want to eat so much.
Although we were out into the land beyond the encircling embrace of the M25, I soon became very much aware of the urban context of Byfleet. Pylons reared their heads above the bare oak trees, and the unbroken roar of the traffic in the background was not so muted. Incongruous stands of bamboo masked the bank of the Navigation.
But that was the last of any sense of the urban sprawl, really, until right at the end of today’s walk. The built-up areas of Byfleet and West Byfleet on either side of the river faded away behind me together with their traffic noise, and before me on the far side of the river was pasture grazed peacefully by horses.
On the towpath side I was flanked instead by scrub wilderness about a kilometre and a half wide, a mixture of anoxic fen and acid-soiled heath fenced off with thick piles of brash laid by the NT clearing teams, of rough hazel wattle.
The Wisley golf club straddled both sides of the river, making the waterway one hell of a hazard. Somewhere around here lay RHS Wisley, but there was nothing to be seen of the gardens, probably not at their best at this time of year — and in any case, I wouldn’t have had time to visit properly. But, while I was thinking about flora, I did appreciate the occasional extravagant artistry of the wattle-builder
and the enormous bole of an Ivy-covered oak, its roots rising to the surface of the towpath.
These roots were a singular stumbling block on a path which ran for six hours pretty much smoothly, made of soft but not sticky cushioning mud underfoot, with the occasional lump of flint or chert. However comfortable the path, though, by now I was planning to make a stop at The Anchor at Pyrford lock for a sustaining a bowl of soup. Unfortunately as it turned out the kitchens didn’t open till midday, and the patrons were still chatting over their morning coffees. I had to content myself with a rather lacklustre packet of crisps and carry on to the next pub.
All thoughts of nutritional disappointment disappeared, though, when I unexpectedly came across a square brick tower with a distinctive ogee roof which I was sure was familiar to me. Had I seen it in a documentary about… ? I got my binoculars out of the pocket of my pack and trained them on the blue plaque affixed to the wall. Yes! This was the house where the poet John Donne had lived from 1600 to 1604, at the time he made his disastrously ill-judged marriage to Ann More without the permission of her father, which led to Donne’s incarceration in the Fleet prison. Once a reconciliation had taken place and Donne was freed, the couple was made welcome to stay here at Pyrford Place by its owner, Donne’s friend Sir Francis Wolley.
Three passers-by, out for a stroll, were overly-interested in a bench carved into the shape of a fish, and underly-interested, to my mind, in the tower. After offering to take a photograph of them all by the bench, I’m afraid I couldn’t help enlightening them with a short lecture. And after they had moved on, professing to be determined to look up some of his poems, I took a photo of the bench for good measure.
At Waltham Lock a £12m project is being carried out to create a chain of fish passes to enable eel, salmon and sea trout to migrate up the river to spawn. The weir is still there,
But some of the gates have been replaced to create a passable channel for the fish. I stood a while to watch the textures and shapes made by the water, thinking how these were just the latest in nearly five centuries of diversions and channels and various other engineering projects since the first locks were built on the Wey in the sixteenth century.
A little further on, more evidence of the same was visible in the channel engineering around the ruins of Newark Abbey, away over water meadows full of Canada geese.
I could see on the map that beyond the ruins lay the Abbey stream, water diverted from the river to supply fish for the monks. Newark lock was constructed here in 1653 by the ruins of an Abbey destroyed in the Dissolution; although the monks’ water engineering remains, there is no trace of the thriving community which supported them, except for the ruined walls of their abbey church. All around stretched an empty fenland wilderness.
As I moved upstream the Navigation sometimes narrowed, by locks or bridges,
and sometimes widened out to enormous expanses of water moving so slowly that the thick cloudbanks, which had been such a feature of today, reflected huge and grey in the water. Unidentifiable birds called invisibly in the reeds.
These were the places where the river joined up again with the Navigation, only to part again and create more tiny islands.
John Jefferies was flyfishing in the Navigation. He had just caught and released a foot-long perch in the Broadmead Cut behind us, another channel running parallel to the main waterway, with the Wey river itself winding through its fenland half a kilometre away. “Like a perfect little crocodile, it was.“ John was fishing with an artificial bait shaped like a feathery black leech, which he made to dance through the water to catch the attention of the resting fish. He was taking a couple of hours break before going back into the workshop: “I make custom catapults” he said.
The Broadmead stretched out away to my right, sometimes grazed by horses and at other times thick with last year’s reeds.
On the other side of the river more impenetrable stands of bamboo rustled paper-like in the rising breeze. Dead oaks rose above them. It was quite eerie. I realised I was starting to get cold, and put my gloves on. I needed to eat.
I ate lunch at a pub in Send, where they had been pollarding the willows. A whole line of bald or Mohawked willows marched down the bank.
After Send the Navigation became extremely quiet. Almost nobody but me was walking the towpath, and the river moved so sluggishly that it appeared to be a nothing more than an unending ribbon of pondwater.
I passed the time by tallying the different kinds of birds I had seen today: a respectable bag. Mute swans, Egyptian geese, Canada geese, white egret, heron, moorhens, coots, many mallards (the most common bird on the water). And woodland birds: woodpecker, blackbird, robin, longtailed tits, bluetits, great tits, grey wagtail, tree sparrows, dunnock, chaffinch, wood pigeons, collared doves, wrens in the margins of the water-filled ditches, crows, magpie and jay — and one red kite.
As I neared Guildford I passed an almost hollowed-out but somehow still living oak. It was girdled with an iron band to stop it splitting assunder. It must have been around pretty much since the Navigation was constructed, drinking the river-water through its old roots.
More stricken trees followed, willows, pollarded and propped
the withies and heavy branches removed in a massive attempt to stop the crack willows from breaking completely apart.
The cut material had been laid alongside the Navigation in the nature reserve to create additional habitats for the vertebrates and invertebrates which will fill it come the spring and summer. For now I walked out a little way into the reserve, because I never can resist a boardwalk.
The reserve was right by the motel in Guildford where I was to stay the night. To get to the building I took a shortcut off the path through a winter wood, sad to see the remains of a camp where people had slept rough, a pop-up tent lying in the water, and shocked to see fly-tipped catering rubbish which looked suspiciously to have come from the Beefeater restaurant next door to the Premier Inn. In stark contrast to the pristine banks at the start and indeed for most of the day, here, human debris piled up. I was most definitely back amongst people now, and the start of tomorrow’s walk will take me right through the heart of this town.
2 thoughts on “The Wey Navigations”
I’m reading this while drinking a late coffee. We walked around RSPB Lodmoor this morning, seeing many water birds. But I think my favourite was not on the water but calling out loudly from within a clump of blackthorn. I have to say, I’ve never seen nor heard a Cetti’s warbler before. I’m very happy that I now have!! We visited RHS Wisley a couple of weeks back and although the gardens were dotted with spring flowers, it was the glass house that caught our attention. I believe the display was mainly to catch the half term family visitors, but many of us older folks thoroughly enjoyed walking the ‘under water”.
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I love your writing and musings Sophie. I admit to not being particularly well read, but your quotes make me want to know more! I love that you gave an opportunistic lecture to the folk on the fish bench (kind of thing I’d do ☺️). The last quote confirms what I’ve long thought about how e bring our chilfdren up. I’ve missed a few days so am looking forward to binge reading!
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