One of my favourite walks in our area is along the banks of the Basingstoke Canal, starting usually at the Visitor Centre at Mytchett, just a cock’s stride from Frimley Green. There is a rather nice pub along the towpath if you feel that your exertion warrants a reward and in the summer there is a surprising amount of river traffic.
As a mode of transportation I have always been a bit ambivalent about canals. They have always seemed to me to be the equivalent of a cassette tape, more viable for listening to music on the go than vinyl but really just marking time until the real deal, digital format, came along. Insert horses, canals and trains as appropriate and you will get the picture. The mid 18th century saw a boom in canal construction and an Act of Parliament was passed in 1778 approving the construction of the 37 mile Basingstoke canal.
Perhaps this was to be an omen of the struggles to come but construction did not start straight away. The restraints caused by financing the attempt to put the American rebels back in their box delayed work for nine years. When work did start – the contract was awarded to John Pinkerton – it took just six years to complete and connected Basingstoke with Weybridge on the river Thames. Consisting of 29 locks, a 1,230 yard tunnel (Greywell to circumvent Tilney Hall), 69 bridges, 5 lock houses, 4 wharves and 3 warehouses connected it cost £154,463 to construct – twice its original budget – although it is said that most of the work was accomplished by 200 men wielding shovels.
The idea behind the canal was to facilitate the movement of agricultural produce from Hampshire to the metropolis. Timber, flour and chalk went up to London and coal and fertiliser came back the other way but tonnages were below expectation and the venture was never profitable. Inflation affected prices and improvements made to the local roads made alternative means of transportation more competitive.
Plans were mooted in 1810 to link it to the Kennet and Avon canal to extend the reach westwards came to naught. Ironically, the need to transport materials for the construction of the London to Southampton railway in the 1830s – ultimately, the canal’s death knell – and the construction of Aldershot Military Camp in 1854 and the brickworks at Up Nateley kept it going but by 1866, no dividends ever having been paid out to shareholders, the canal was declared bankrupt.
It then fell into the hands of speculative owners who seemed more interested in selling worthless shares to gullible investors than rekindling the fortunes of the canal. Indeed three ended up in chokey. The last boat reached Basingstoke in 1910 carrying 10 tons of moulding sand. Another attempt to reach the terminus was made in 1913 to stave off an abandonment order, the boat setting off from Ash Wharf with five tons of sand and three weeks later had only reached Old Basing.
A legal technicality and the outbreak of the First World War gave the canal a temporary reprieve and the Army took it over deploying German prisoners of war to keep it navigable. The last cargoes from Aldershot were 22 barge loads of aircraft spares from the Royal Aircraft Factory in Farnborough to Woolwich Arsenal in 1921.
By the mid 1960s a combination of silt, decay, vandalism and overgrown towpaths had rendered the canal derelict. Only thanks to the phenomenal efforts of the Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society who over 19 years dredged the section between Odiham and Fleet and the County Council who dredged the five mile stretch from Fleet to Aldershot has the canal regained some of its former glory, being officially reopened on 10th May 1991.