Under Construction

Yes, the builder may have had some desire to view the sea,’ he replied.

Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice

Bolstered by two cappuccinos and some stonkingly good poached eggs on toast and more stimulating conversation with John (as well as briefly managing to meet Mandana who as a saintly care assistant gets back from work after most people have gone to bed and leaves for work the next morning before most people have got up on a Sunday), I set off into the grey morning. Long convivial chats last night and the entirety of a huge pizza from the M&S section of the BP garage up the road (serves two), an excellent night’s sleep in an unbelievably comfortable bed, contributed to the fact that I started with a fair spring in my step — a spring which lasted all day. It is only right, having finished yesterday’s blog with a picture of primroses, that I start today’s with the daffodils that greeted me as I turned right out of John and Mandana’s front door. Emblematic.

The place where I rejoined the Wey South Path was marked by a planning permission notice for canal restoration tacked to a tree – and this would prove to be something of a manifesto for the day. Visible further down the road were the works themselves: a brand-new footbridge will raise the future canal-walker above the waterway, which is at present a series of clay-lined ponds filled with milky, calcareous water.

These works are on the edge of enormous Sidney Wood, and the canal route runs right through it. Trees and branches lay everywhere on the ground, felled or fallen, amongst oaks, hollies and coppiced hazel. They covered the wood floor: stark, twisted shapes here, damp, rotting, moss-covered, stumps there,

all providing food and homes for the invertebrates that in turn feed the birds that everywhere in this wood were singing.

At this time of year, the structure of the wood is visible, layers upon layers of life. The dry oak leaves from last year are slow to rot, and the wood rushes and sedges, bramble whips, tendrils of ivy, celandines and bluebells are just starting to push their way up through the leaf litter. Oak trees are layered with fantastic ropes of thick ivy, which in some places are themselves a surface for moss to grow.

Coppiced hazel stems are the opportunity for honeysuckle to grow towards the light.

Unlike yesterday, where the canal was intermittently visible in disjunct, stagnant pools and ditches, here the path of the canal curves quite clearly in an almost unbroken line through the heart of Sidney Wood like a somnolent snake. Sometimes it is deep enough for the Wealden clay to have retained its water,

other times it is carpeted with blackened oak leaves,

and in other places, in the words of the Canal Trust website, it is no more than ‘a stagnant muddy overgrown depression in the ground’.

A sign reminds the walker of the waterway’s vital past and the vitality of its restored future: “Wey and Arun Junction Canal, London’s lost route to the sea”.

The footpath, once a tow path and now a soft, clay footway lined with leaves and moss, is punctuated with Wey-marks recording the names of lost century-old patrons of the waterway.

The soft clay has recorded more recent users of the path who have left less permanent impressions of their passage, hoof prints, paw marks and tracks of walking boots.

In comparison to yesterday, today’s route is far more coherent, with a much stronger sense of identity. Yesterday I must say, I was struggling to piece it all together, whereas today I am definitely following the clear lines of the only 19th century transport route to link London to the South Coast – until the trains arrived. Construction on the waterway had only recently finished when the railway between Guildford and Horsham arrived in 1865, and six years later 1871 it had outcompeted the canal, which was abandoned.

But it is now coming back to life, restored by an impassioned group of donors, fundraisers and practical volunteers achieving extraordinary results.

A vignette of the future

The first sign of completed restoration works on my journey south was Gennet’s Bridge Lock, the northernmost of the Sussex locks (Sussex already!), restored in 2018. Apart from myself, the only other people that I met north of Loxwood were Annette and Mark, throwing a tennis ball into the 5yr-old pond for Bella the flat-coat retriever to fetch.

It was a little picture of what might be along the whole length of the canal, in the years to come.

The signage and information panels along this section of the canal are excellent. They give some sense of the complexity of the restoration work needing to be done to get the canal to a functional state:

Gennet’s Bridge Lock is the northernmost lock in Sussex […]. The boundary is just North of the lock and the Surrey / Sussex Border path crosses the canal here on its 138 mile route from Thorney Island to Rye. Construction started in 2014 and was completed in 2018. The main body of the lock was constructed by our contractor Burras Ltd and then Volunteers from the Wey & Arun Canal Trust completed the brickwork facings and built the bridge over the tail of the lock. The canal North to Genet’s Wood is restored and includes a weir and sluice. This maintains the canal water level between the two locks. opposite is the feeder from the lakes; along with two land drains they keep the water topped up. The temporary earth bund below is due to be removed and the canal bed South restored (the first 200m has been dredged). The culvert (drain under the canal) at the end of this first section is also to be restored in the traditional brick construction to repair the collapsed central section in the canal bed. The lock will have a back pump system and gates fitted in the future. We are extremely grateful to the original landowner for the most generous donation of the land and the canal the lock is situated within, the Trust maintains the section and is liaising with the adjacent landowners to further the restoration of the canal.

A little further on, it was clear that quite a substantial amount of the canal has already been restored near Loxwood — creatively so. Devils Hole Lock sported a picnic table constructed out of two plates of the original gate.

This picnic table and benches have been designed by Roger Richards, a local craftsman, and installed by our volunteers. The table has been constructed using parts of the original gates […], built between 1813-1816. The “L” shaped metal brackets held the top two and the bottom two joints of the lock gates together and the “T” shaped pieces held the centre joints of the lock gates together.

The whole area is being thoughtfully landscaped, with memorial benches (“sit a while with Edna Ashworth, d.2003”) and trees and shrubs planted in living memory.

The banks of the canal hold of the skeletal remains of last year‘s plantlife, sedges and rushes, and the seedheads of purple loosestrife and teasel

and the promise of greenery and flowers in the year to come, the foliage of ox-eye daisies, and pussy willow.

At the Grade II-listed Onslow Arms I thought I might purchase a half-time visit to the loo with a packet of crisps. Unfortunately, I was again half an hour too early for the pubs open, but Louie was a very kind lad, bid me hello, and welcome, and allowed me to use the facilities for nothing.

It’s a beautiful pub outside and in, and has been providing rest and refreshment to the users of the canal since the 17th century. In the canal’s heyday it made the fortune of John Hemmings, it’s publican. Now two Canal Trust narrowboats are moored outside by the small Trust visitor centre, and offer summer cruises through the locks.

Nick told me that this entire section of the canal was re-dug, re-lined with clay and stocked with fish. He was catching roach (“millions of ‘em, there are in here,” he said, as he unhooked and released a tiddler that he had just caught.

The water was clear here, he said, because in the high pressure that we’ve had over the last few days, the sediment sinks a little bit. I can see the difference here, although I’m not sure why further back down the canal it is so silty; perhaps because the works have been more recently completed, and less vegetation on the banks means more erosion?

Everything about the restoration is impressive, from the conception of the project, the varied work of the volunteers in their attention to detail, for example the laid hedges and nest boxes (I watched a nuthatch work up and down a branch of an alder tree), and the obvious craftsmanship and care for the environment, for example in the laid hedges and tree-felling operations.

A number of volunteers have been trained to use chainsaws but they obviously are developing significant environmental knowledge.

The result is the creation of a growing, developing space for people to love and enjoy by restoring rich habitats for biodiversity: it is not just the canal that is being restored, but the whole of its wider corridor and ecosystem.

It’s so exciting to see so clearly delineated over the last three days’ walking the three stages of the canal: what was, in the restored Wey Navigations; what is, in the decay and dilapidation of the canal north of Gennet’s Wood, and what will be, in the massive efforts here to reconstruct the ‘lost route to the sea’.

The construction of the Wey South Path has involved much discussion with local landowners. Some, like Eileen Cherriman near the New Bridge, have donated their land to the Trust,

and at other times the route leaves the canal to skirt around private property, such as moated Drungewicke Manor (originally the rural retreat of the bishops of Chichester in the 13th century and now the home of Genesis’ Mike (and the Mechanics) Rutherford). It was a welcome diversion as it took me a winding way through a long corridor of hazel and oak woodland where I met Julia and her dogs. Thank you, transplanted Lancastrian lady, for the offer of a drink! I’m so sorry I had to hurry on. Our chat was lovely. Enjoy your patch of wood when the bluebells come out.

The long woodlands gave out onto wide-open fields and huge farms.

The footprints of horses hacking along the bridleway in the Low Wealden clay had hardened, making conditions underfoot more uneven and harder work. I felt something of an ant, toiling unseen across the vast agricultural landscape.

Back on the canal I could see with new eyes after the experience of the Loxwood section the potential of the canal for restoration. Willow trees to be cleared

and collapsed sections to be built up so that the historic sluice is lo longer high above the water on the bank.

The New Bridge at Billingshurst marked the end of the walk. I realised with a jolt, though, that this was no longer the River Wey. The Canal route was headed to the sea … and to get there is needed the River Arun.

I still had to reach my B&B, which was off the Wey South Path (now misnamed) in Billingshurst. I followed the canal on a little further then cobbled together some footpaths to reach the Parbrook estate on the edge of town. The final woodland was studded with homemade posters asking people to look out for lost cat Pumpkin. I called and called all through the wood but heard nothing — although at Petra’s house there was soft and beautiful Birman Hattie waiting to greet me.


Fascinating statistics: the first two days’ walks differed in length by 0.04 of a kilometre, and I had walked them in one minute’s difference. Today was 0.6km shorter. The average time it took me to walk a km on each day was 12.38, 12.37, 12.38 minutes respectively. So, consistent to within a second! I am a human metronome.

4 thoughts on “Under Construction”

  1. Looking at the restoration in your photos, along with the length to be restored, my hat is truly doffed to those who have taken this project on. Such determination. 👏👏

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the way you describe your morning routine in such detail! It sounds like you had a great start to your day, and I can completely relate to the feeling of having a spring in your step after a good night’s sleep and a delicious breakfast. But I have to ask, what does the quote about the builder and the sea have to do with your morning routine? Is there a deeper meaning or connection that I’m missing? Or was it just a random quote that you felt like sharing? Either way, I appreciate the literary reference and the way it adds a touch of whimsy to your blog post. Keep up the great writing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Claire. The quotations for this section of the walk are all from a detective novel (of sorts). This walk takes me through three (actually four) counties and I chose a detective novel set in each one to read as I walked. The Wey and Arun Canal was the only route from London to the south coast when it was built (six years before the railway arrived and dun it to death) and hence the quotation about the original builder wanting a view of the sea. So the quotation was about the landscape rather than me!


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