Wey Navigation

March 2010 by Mark

Back in January, I eagerly opened up my copy of the Portsmouth CC newsletter

and I noticed an interesting item on the trip list.

It didn’t involve the sea, was definitely less than 1/2mile offshore but was still a full blown expedition paddle

that even a non 2* newbie paddler like me could do!

A trip along the River Wey and it’s Navigation, that looks interesting. It was close to home, we didn’t have to drive miles; in mid-March, the weather would be warmer; it involved camping, Sherril would be pleased with that and we could sort out our camping kit for the climbing (and now paddling) season to come. As an extra bonus, I’d get two days paddling fun & fitness and I might even acquire more skills & confidence. The weekend pass was booked in a busy family diary (totalling forgetting about Mothering Sunday!) and we looked forward to meeting some of the other club members who had signed up for the adventure.

I was a little nervous as we hadn’t weekended with other club members and I didn’t know who else was coming. How would the weekend work? What was expected of us? Were there any unwritten club protocols for such occasions? What would the old hands (sorry, more experienced hands!) think about two, over-keen 'Newbies' floundering around in newly acquired and borrowed boats?

I needn’t have worried. First, there was a comprehensive email from Tim Gilby with clear joining instructions, a rough itinerary for the weekend and even the dinner & breakfast menu - I knew he had catered for a great weekend. Saturday morning arrived and we met at Send Scout HQ – a well positioned hut in quiet, wooded grounds right on the bank of the Wey Navigation itself. Further reassurance came with easy introductions from those I hadn’t met before and an informal but thorough briefing gave us all the info we needed for the trip.

On Saturday, we were going to paddle from Send, SW to Guildford and then on to Godalming Wharf, approx. 10 miles (Statute and not Nautical so even easier!). On Sunday we would head north to the confluence of the Wey and the Thames.

Originally built in 1653 to link Guildford with the Thames and London, the Navigation’s barges carried timber, bark (for dyeing), charcoal and fresh agricultural products to the capital, the docks and into Europe. Coal and other heavy goods were transported the other way. The Godalming extension was added in 1758, and amazingly, the Wey Navigation was a commercial success right through to the 1939-45 war (when one of the barges carrying timber to London was machine gunned by a German fighter nearly killing the bargeman’s horse). The last commercial boat plied the waters until the early 1960’s. It also linked into two other canal navigations: Basingstoke and the Adur (to link the Thames with the South-coast and Portsmouth) but both were commercial failures soon after the railways were built. Rather ironic, as they carried the heavy materials for building the very rails which ultimately ruined them. The Wey Navigation is now owned by the National Trust and today is almost self-financing as a leisure facility.

What it means for the leisure paddler is a lovely mix of wide, man-made, raised canal sections linked with natural-river meandering through seemingly isolated countryside while being in the heart of one of the most densely populated areas in Southern England.

We commenced a leisurely pace toward the first of 4 locks on the opening section to Guildford and lunch, chatting amongst the group and getting to know our fellow paddlers. Questions like “What’s that boat?” “Why do you paddle it?” “How does that paddle feel?” all led to so many people swapping boats & kit that it was difficult to tell who was who!

Soon, the first lock approached – it looked picture postcard perfect as we arrived but happiness soon turned to apprehension when I saw the height of the cliff (lock-side) that we had to climb to get out of our boats. How the hell do I get 115Kg of 47yr old, stiff ex-rugby player with dodgy knees out of a tippy sea kayak and up that sheer lock-side, without making a complete & utter fool of myself or a (very large) large splash? I needn’t have worried, everyone rallied round with physical and motivational support and the feat was managed with ungainly effort. By the end of the trip, I was sliding in and out of my boat. More locks followed with excitement at each one as Steve recced every weir to decide if it was 'doable' and if not, could he 'seal-launch' from the lock-side/pub picnic table/steep bank instead? Being new to the game, I kept looking for these elusive 'seals' but missed all the sightings!

I have often looked at the river Wey whilst driving North around Guildford on the A3 and now here I was, getting out at the famous Row Barge Inn to have my lunch and sample a pint of the landlord’s finest...

“Oi, get out of my garden – you can only eat and drink what you buy!” - the aggressive cry from a red faced, blood-shot angry man, whom I later learnt was the landlord. Everyone agreed with his principle – just not his aggressive manner, so it was minus 11 pints for him and a short 25 metre paddle for us to the opposite bank and lunch.

Post lunch, I was feeling confident; got one-over the nasty landlord, drunk on sobriety and hot lentil soup, I slipped balletically back into my boat for the next leg to Godalming only to be baulked at the second stroke of the afternoon. No problem, I thought, just back stroke hard on your left side and you’ll avoid the other boat - rather intuitive really? Intuitively, I knew something was very wrong when, upside down, I looked up at the water surface from beneath and I started considering my options! Scream? Nope, I was still sucking on my camelback mouth piece. Wet-exit? Nope, this is a flat canal for Pete’s sake, no one will ever take me seriously again (Oi, I heard that!). I guess I will just have to roll back – it worked, wow! Only, now I’m missing a very expensive pair of designer sunglasses that previously looked so cool perched on the top of my head! (More skills!)

The rest of the afternoon passed with a change from rural to imposing historical industrial landscapes, an insight into parts of Guildford rarely seen from dry land. It’s funny to think of this Surrey market town as a port but the first paved streets of the borough were actually paid for by less than a year’s harbour dues from the canal boats tying up to it’s wharfs – it must have been quite a thriving port!

Not content with upsetting the local landlords, the thugs amongst the group stole some poor lad’s football and a 2 mile canoe polo game ensued. I’m not sure who won, but it wasn’t the poor boy left crying back on the wharf at Guildford? (I jest!).

After all that paddling, rolling, polo and lock portages it was a tired group who shuttled back to the Scout HQ in Send. Dusk saw the lights come on, the tents go up and the smell of the evening’s food enticed everyone to Chez Tim. His signature dish of Coq au Tim, followed by Tart au Pomme avec custard Anglais chaud was accompanied by candle light, sherry by the blue bottle, fine wines and ales. Tales of 'derring-do' were recounted under the cabin’s swinging storm lantern, as the ship ploughed it’s lonely furrow to the pole (sorry, wrong book, but you get the picture!).

Tim’s café kicked-started the day with a full, English while vehicles were positioned for the end of the day and the Pompey team set off towards the great frozen wastes of the North (Surrey & the Thames). The now familiar, unspoilt countryside slowly gave way to suburbia and the gardens of the rich & famous. The weather played ball with probably the sunniest day of the year so far, highlighting the beautiful remains of Newark Priory, looking ghostly and eerie in the early morning mist. I almost expected to see the Famous Five & their dog Timmy, picnicing at the next lock having solved a dastardly crime in the secret tunnels under the Priory remains (the sinister case of the missing Ginger Beer!) The highlight of all the locks had to be Coxes Lock (unfortunately, Mike & Vicky and their double battleship had left us on Sunday after breakfast). A dubiously “Doable” weir enticed a certain Mr Earl to flex his muscles and his river racer as he negotiated the biggest drop of the trip, overlooked by Sunday Paper reading inhabitants of the stylish loft apartments above. I would of course have followed but being one pair of sunglasses down already I decided to let my protege have the limelight! (More skills and confidence acquired!) As we approached the final lock where the Wey met Old Father Thames, mass group apprehension ensued – no one had BCU/British Waterways licences and the lock keeper was standing authoritatively in his cottage doorway. Would this be a repeat of the Row Barge Inn? “Keep a low profile, he may not see us?” whispered our bold leaders. “Oh yeah, 11 kayaks from Pompey on a canal in leafy Surrey – give me a break!” “Oi!” came the shout. “Oh blimey, here we go?” “Not that way…….through the gate over there and have a great day. You going far?!” He had directed us directly onto the launching pontoons of the Shepperton Rowing Club, making our get-in to the Thames much easier. Proof that there are still plenty of friendly people around!

The Thames! Another ‘First’ for me. I’ve been over it on bridges, been under it on the tube, been on it on Corporate entertainment boats, been alongside it sipping a glass of wine but now here I was actually paddling my own P&H Capella on it, awesome! Of course, life does not always run smoothly and we still had to negotiate, the rather easy (sic) tide-race of the Shepperton weir and the massed ranks for the Shepperton Canoe Club junior section - actually more nerve wracking than the weir itself! Once again, I used my newly acquired skills & confidence to give plenty of room for the old hands to play in the rough water (I’m not losing another pair of glasses!) and we eased our way gently down stream to the get-out at Walton on Thames.

We’d made it! The promised burger-van was there but it saw no custom from the Pompey team – breakfast at Chez Tim was just too good an act to follow. A swift shuttle back to Send to collect cars, a final tidy of the hut and we were away to join our families for the rest of Mother’s Day. Tired limbs and sun burnt faces told us we had covered some miles over the really enjoyable two days - everyone’s smiles said it all.

What can I say – a great weekend. Great paddling. Great surroundings. A great idea and great organisation by Tim. Thank you! If you haven’t yet been on a club trip, you should – it’s great!

Apologies to all actually present on the trip – the normal provisos apply: Any resemblance to persons living, real or otherwise will be strictly denied. No pets, children or sea kayakers were harmed in the filming or writing of this report. No liability will be admitted or compensation paid for emotional distress for missing a great weekend – tough! Come to the next one and see for yourself!


Jim Sheads Wey guide