I know “best kept secret” is something of a cliche, but the fact I paddled for a whole day without seeing a single other craft out on the Basingstoke Canal, is a good indication of just how unused this absolute gem of a waterway is. I expected it would be fairly quick to complete – I allowed two days with one overnight camp, similar to the Wey & Godalming Navigations trip I completed previously. The Basingstoke certainly could be done in this time frame, but it is 10 miles longer than the Wey and with more distractions and portages. So in the end it took me three days with two overnight camps.
I started at lock 1; the junction of the Basingstoke Canal and the Wey. If I were to do it again, I think it would be better to start at the other end – Odiham Castle – and come the other way, mainly because of the lock flights you encounter. It was hard work pulling the fully loaded kayak uphill. But either way round you do it, it’s a delight.
The entire length of the canal is tree lined. I presume this is by design so as to provide shade to the original barges and their horses. The result is this wonderful linear park, and when you go through towns like Woking and Aldershot, you never actually feel like you are in town. The countryside sections themselves are unsurprisingly stunning, and the incredibly low traffic on the canal has made it perfect for wildlife. It’s rare to find this level of quietness, solitude, and nature in the South East of England so close to London.
There is something of a running military theme to the Basingstoke. The route passes by many Army barracks, Ministry of Defense training grounds, and RAF bases. Deep Cut, Pirbright, Aldershot, Farnborough, Odiham – names that are all familiar to British military people. Secondly, there are a variety of World War 2 pillboxes all along the way. Even though the canal had ceased commercial operations by the war, it was believed that if there was to be a German invasion they would use the inland waterways for navigating around the country or proceeding towards London.
One of the Basingstoke’s highlights is the Ash Aqueduct. This takes the canal over a busy dual carriageway, and it’s an odd feeling paddling across it with the roar of the traffic below you.
The upper sections of the canal appear wilder and wilder as you progress, interrupted occasionally by the pretty red-brick bridges built with the canal in 1792. At Barley Mow bridge there is a car park and slipway which seems to be the popular launching spot for paddle craft. This is where to go if you just wanted a few hours paddling on the Basingstoke, rather than the entire 32 miles multi-day trip. I also stopped in the adjoining Barley Mow pub for a cheeky Sunday roast and pint.
The last stretch of the navigable canal is really interesting. I’m by no means the best expert on this, but from what I gather this is an area of special scientific interest due to the underwater flora – forests of alien looking underwater weeds that filter the water to the point of being crystal clear. I’ve never seen anything quite like this on a man-made canal before.
The last place of interest, and the end of the navigable canal, is King John’s Castle at Odiham. It has historical significance – this was King John’s residence and where he rode from to Runnymede on June 15 1215 to sign the Magna Carta.
Although the rest of the canal is not navigable, I walked the rest along the towpath to the entrance of the Greywell Tunnel, generally regarded as the end (or beginning depending on which way you look at it) of the Basingstoke Canal. The tunnel itself collapsed many years ago. But it is now home to hundreds of bats, including some rare species, and in the winter serves as one of Europe’s largest hibernaculums for them.
Here I go off with my cliches again, but there really felt like there was something special about this place – the stretch from the castle to the tunnel. A day later than I expected to complete my trip, there was a gorgeous golden sun setting over the now pure waters of the naturally filtered canal. It’s a place where nature has claimed something that was made and later abandoned by man, and accorded it a unique beauty.
You can watch the short film I made about my journey down The Basingstoke Canal here;