History of Basingstoke Canal at Probus Club

Dean Wall
Dean Wall

Dean Wall, the Recreation and Visitors Services Manager of the Basingstoke Canal Authority, based at Mytchett, gave an interesting presentation to the group of retired professional and business men at last month’s evening meeting held at Christ Church, Chineham.

With historical records and photographs he was able to show how the original plan was for a canal from the navigable section of the River Wey, that joins the Thames, to pass through Surrey and Hampshire and on to Basingstoke. The aim of the canal was to increase trade between Hampshire and London. Part two of the plan was then to construct a canal from Basingstoke to join the Kennet & Avon canal. This would enlarge the potential commercial traffic but importantly would provide a source of water for the original Basingstoke canal. This never came to fruition and the basin and wharf in Basingstoke became the terminus and is now gone forever within the construction of the Festival Place shopping centre.

Measuring originally 37 miles in length, rising 254 feet from Surrey into Hampshire, it was necessary to build 29 locks. The steepest section at Deepcut (named after the construction) has 11 locks adjacent to the Pirbright army depot. In addition there were 5 lock houses, 69 bridges, a tunnel of 1,230 yards at Greywell, 4 wharves and 3 warehouses. 200 men armed with little more than shovels and wheel barrows took six years to construct this waterway which was fully opened in 1794. The term “navvy” is an abbreviation of the word “navigator” given to the men all those years ago.

Perhaps because the second phase was not built and given the perennial water shortage of the Basingstoke canal which meant that at certain times parts were unnavigable, the canal always struggled to operate on a commercial basis. Materials for the construction of the London to Southampton railway were carried on the canal and once open the railway became an unbeatable competitor. Over the next century the canal slowly fell into a state of dereliction with lock gates rotting, the canal choked with weeds, its towpath overgrown and the collapse of Greywell tunnel. Today 32 miles of it is restored thanks to the formation of the Basingstoke Canal Authority, funded by Hampshire and Surrey together with six borough councils along its route. The canal was re-opened in 1991 and today the Authority employs a team of rangers that carry out maintenance and protects wildlife.

It is estimated that the canal is used by millions of walkers, cyclists, anglers and boaters every year. The Authority manages the balance between recreation and conservation by providing a beautiful facility that offers fantastic opportunities for everyone.

The Probus Club of Basingstoke has a full diary of interesting speakers and potential new members can find out more about the club by looking at their web site http://www.probusbasingstoke.wordpress.com or by phoning their secretary Bryan Harvey on 01256 321473.