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Steady Progress on the Wey & Arun Canal

Wey and Arun Canal

A boat ride along the Wey and Arun Canal is a leisurely affair.
As the speedometer shoots past 1.8mph, then rockets up to 1.9mph before relentlessly chasing down the magic 2mph mark, it's not just the walkers who are leaving you for dust. Even the grass looks to be growing quickly in comparison.

In truth, were the boats to go any faster along the canal, it would not only be against the spirit of a canal cruise, but also a disappointingly brief adventure. That's because there is only a three mile stretch of the Wey and Arun Canal to navigate from the visitor centre in Loxwood.

Yet the fact that there is anything at all to enjoy is entirely down to the efforts of hundreds of devoted volunteers. Since forming in 1970, the Wey and Arun Canal Trust have managed to restore parts of a canal that sat derelict for a century.

The Trust now operates numerous boat trips, incorporating a number of restored locks, throughout the week. But they have a way to go until their work is done.The ultimate goal is to restore the entire canal to once again create a network that stretches from London to Portsmouth. London's Lost Route to the Sea...

So what happened to the original canal?

The canal was built from a point on the River Wey, a tributary of the Thames. The canal met the Wey at Shalford, just north of Bramley, and it then went south through Cranleigh, Dunsfold, Loxwood, Wisborough Green, and finally to Pallingham, where it met the River Arun.

It was built so that supplies could be sent from London all the way to the fleet in Portsmouth. During the Napoleonic Wars, travelling around the Channel was a perilous journey, and this canal network was
considered a much safer route!

A chap called Josias Jessop designed the canal and most of the culverts, locks and lock-keepers' cottages, and in 1813 a contractor from Alfold, Zachariah Keppel, was appointed to build it. Workers – who were paid seven and a half pence per day if they were married and three pence if single - used picks, shovels and wheelbarrows to create the canal.

Sadly for Keppel, he misjudged the size of the task and went bankrupt, leaving chief engineer May Upton to take over. The Arun navigation was eventually opened at Newbridge, near Billingshurst, in 1785, and the final link to Shalford was completed in 1816. By then, the Napoleonic Wars were over!

Dave Verrall, the canal centre supervisor, said: "Although the war was over, the canal was used to carry agricultural supplies such as coal and chalk. Gunpowder made at the Chilworth Mills would have been carried along the canal, and we know that soldiers once transported gold bullion along it too. We dream of finding a gold bar during restoration work!

"But when the rail network was built, the canal was deemed too slow. It was formally abandoned in 1871, and the canal was given back to the original landowners, so now it is all in private hands."

Over the next 100 years, the canal gave way to grass, trees and even the occasional housing estate. The A281 Guildford Road cuts through a section of the original canal just north of Dunsfold, and slightly further south the canal was very close to the airfield which now hosts a track used to film BBC's Top Gear.

But in 1970, The Wey and Arun Canal Society (as it was then, before it became a Trust) was formed, with the aim of restoring small sections. Dave said: "The canal was totally derelict, but in places you could see the lock
structure was still there. The work was carried out slowly at first, but the restoration stepped up in the 1990s, when several locks were rebuilt.

"They obviously needed a lot of work done as there were trees growing out of the walls. But volunteers started work in the hope that, one day, this lost route to the sea could be restored."

So far, the Trust has restored a three mile stretch

To the north of the base, which is next to The Onslow Arms in Loxwood, locks have been restored at Brewhurst and Devils Hole. The latter lock was partly destroyed by Canadian soldiers stationed nearby during the war, as they practiced for the Dieppe raids.

To the south of Loxwood, the canal stretches beyond restored locks at Baldwin's Knob and Drungewick, but from there the canal restoration cannot follow its original path. The landowner of that particular stretch doesn't wish for the canal to be restored on his land, so most of the Trust's current projects are towards the Wey to the north, rather than the Arun to the south.

Dave said: It is possible to restore the entire canal one day. We commissioned a feasibility study, whereby an independent company came in and looked at the route, identified the issues and came up with alternative routes where necessary.

"At Bramley, for example, there is a housing estate on the original canal route. So there are obstacles and we have to think of ways of working around them. We work with landowners, local authorities and organisations such as the Environment Agency at every step. To build a lock we need planning permission, as it is in effect a new structure.

"Perhaps the most challenging part of the process was right here at the Loxwood Crossing, as we had to build a new bridge, with the canal passing under the road (see below). That meant we had to lower the level of the canal.
"Unfortunately, we had already restored Brewhurst Lock to the other side, so we had to modify that in order to make that whole stretch two metres lower!

"Most recently, we have created Southlands Lock. We started work there in 2011 and it will officially open on 21st June. From there, we'll restore Gennets Lock.

"To speed up the restoration process we are working on three different sites. The biggest of those projects will be near The Three Compasses pub in Dunsfold. The canal runs along the side the Aerodrome, so we'll be building a new bridge there. It'll cost about £700,000, but we've started fundraising, and hope to build it in 2016.

"For all of this work, we employ contractors to do the pile driving and install the concrete shell in, and then volunteers do the rest."

The Trust has about 3,000 members

This makes it one of the largest canal trusts in the country.

As well as running cruises for the public, canal boats are regularly chartered by groups, societies and organisations, all helping to raise funds. Occasionally, the Trust is left a legacy too. One such legacy could help create a new nature park at Shalford, the point where the canal will one day link up with the River Wey.

Members all carry out different roles, from organising a crew rota to looking after the walkways, to constructing and maintaining the locks.But one of the biggest groups is the crew. With so many boat trips, numerous volunteers are needed.

There are three boats based at Loxwood. Wiggonholt is a large electric-powered boat built in 2009. It was paid for and given to the Trust by the Wiggonholt Association. Wiggonholt is a small village near Pulborough, and the villagers there thought it would be nice to name and donate a boat.

The boat was designed by Kevin Crawley, one of the Trust's volunteers, and can seat 50 people, is wheelchair accessible and the tables and chairs are moveable. This has seen it used for things such as salsa parties.

The second boat is the Zachariah Keppel, named after the first canal contractor, and it can carry 27 passengers. Those are the two boats used for cruises, whilst the Josias Jessop is a small boat sometimes used as a pirate ship!

Carol Ramplin said: "Being a volunteer is good as you get all of your boating kicks without the expense! There is a pool of about 30 or 40 people who can skipper a boat and another 50 or 60 who volunteer as crew.

"Some love the restoration and engineering side of the work, but others, like me, enjoy the boating side of it.
"We have people like Erik Walker who have devoted much of their life to the canal. I think he must do something here every day."

"Restoring the canal as a lost route to the sea seems a huge task. But we are getting there one step at a time. Perhaps the biggest step, which seemed to make restoration seem more viable, was getting the bridge built here at Loxwood. If you can do something as big as that, you can rebuild locks and rebuild bridges.

"I think canals do have a place in today's society. Canals were originally built to carry goods, and I'm not sure we'll ever get back to that as it's not time efficient, but they are good for leisure and should be supported.
Jonathan likes to say to passengers: 'Thank you for your contributions today. That's another inch of canal we can build!"

Events include Pimm's and Posh Ploughman's Cruises.

Jonathan said: "We have run the Easter, Christmas and Halloween special cruises for some time, and they were always popular, so we thought we would try evening cruises too. We started with the Punch and Picnic Sunset Cruise, and within a week it was fully booked with 80 people on the waiting list. So we ended up running several sunset cruises.

"We keep the costs reasonable, as it raises funds for restoration and acts as a shop window for the canal.
"The Pirates and Princesses Adventure Voyages are a real hoot! The kids dress up, as do some of the parents, and the pirate ship is our 12-seater boat. We fire a cannon off the front of the boat and the children really get into the spirit of it all!"

There is no scheduled date for completion of the canal.

But for the volunteers it is enough that progress continues to be made, at a faster rate than at any time before.
Dave said: "We are speeding up restoration, as if we carried on at the current speed it will be another 100 years until work is complete!

"If we can do some work at the top end towards Guildford, and make a connection at Shalford back to the River Wey, that will connect us to the main canal network.

"That I think would be a terrific achievement."

For more visit https://www.weyandarun.co.uk/

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