The Basingstoke Canal towpath is a very well-kept secret – around 30 miles of often blissfully quiet and otherworldly walking through a section of suburban Surrey and Hampshire that is considerably busier for those travelling on more conventional highways and byways. At weekends and evenings, you’ll meet plenty of fisher-folk and dog-walkers. Sections of it are popular family destinations. At other times your only company will be the occasional canoeist shooting past like an eel or occasionally, very occasionally, the craft of a narrowboating enthusiast who has sought the necessary permissions to cruise its length – it’s not well-supplied with water, this particular canal. And if just anybody goes around opening lock gates, well… there won’t be a canal, it’ll all just drain into the River Wey.
The canal itself has an interesting history. Conceived as a way to stimulate agricultural development in Hampshire, Parliamentary approval for the project was gained in 1778 with construction beginning immediately. It was completed and open by the end of 1794 but it did not thrive, falling into disuse even before the construction of the London and South Western Railway, which runs parallel to the canal along much of its length. Commercial use ceased in 1910. As early as 1913 attempts were afoot to ensure it remained open, thanks to a clause in the Canal Act of 1778 which specified that if the canal was not used for 5 years then its land on would be returned to the original owners.
In keeping with the military theme that walkers will observe today, the Royal Engineers took over the running of the canal during World War I, when it was used to train soldiers in boat-handling. A Mr AJ Harmsworth purchased the canal in 1922 and ran boats for commercial use and pleasure cruising. The canal was sold upon his death in 1947 and by 1950 was in the hands of the New Basingstoke Canal Co Ltd. This company did not maintain the canal and by the mid-’60s it was essentially derelict.
In 1966, the Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society was formed to campaign for its preservation – an undertaking that culminated in 1976 with the compulsory purchase of the canal by the County Councils of Hampshire and Surrey. Work started with the Deepcut flight of locks the next year. After about 18 years of restoration, 32 miles of the canal were formally re-opened on May 10 1991. The western section from North Warnborough to Basingstoke remains un-navigable from the point at which it enters the Greywell Tunnel. The tunnel is partially collapsed and is inhabited by a protected bat colony making it unlikely that the tunnel will ever be restored. Some of the former canal basin at the western end has also been lost to modern development in and around Basingstoke.
The canal is now managed by the Basingstoke Canal Authority and is open to navigation, but access is usually restricted due to the very limited water supply and the fact that most of the canal has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The heathland areas surrounding the canal are habitats for many rare species including vipers, lizards and birds such as nightjars. The canal is owned by both Hampshire County Council and Surrey County Council. Until 1990, both councils managed their own sections separately before it was decided that a central body should manage the entire waterway and the Basingstoke Canal Authority was formed.