Don't believe everything you read on the internet (apart from this blog that is). We almost didn't bother venturing down the Basingstoke Canal, having read stories of poorly maintained locks, rubbish in the canal, low water levels and even lower bridges. We're very glad we braved it and explored this seriously under-used waterway. The Basingstoke has been great!
I must confess things got off to a bad start when we turned off the Wey at Woodham Junction and seemed to virtually come to a halt working our way towards the first lock. The water was shallow and stirring it up with the propeller released murky black gunk and all sorts of strange smells. We were pleased to see another boat waiting to share the locks but less pleased to see it had its stern way out into the canal as the water was too shallow to get into the lock mooring.
After chatting with Richard and Jackie from nb Mad Hatter we got underway up the Woodham Flight and things quickly improved. The flight is attractive, despite a bit of characteristic Basingstoke duck weed (another moan we'd read about) and well maintained.
You have to book passage up the four lock flights on this canal (another of those moans we'd come across) but it's no hardship and does mean you get a private lock keeper who opens up the locks, sticks around to check everything's ok and then seals up the gates after you've gone through. This is done by pouring ash or sawdust down above the top gates so it's sucked into the gaps to stop water leaking out. Our "Canal Ranger" Matt was great.
After the six Woodham locks the canal passes through Woking, which is near where David grew up and is only slightly less unremarkable from the canal than it is from dry land.
The next lock flight follows soon after Woking - five locks up to St Johns. Here we did encounter our only difficulty with a lock on the whole canal as we couldn't get the bottom gates to close behind the boat. Ranger Matt appeared and soon had us on our way - on any other canal this would've involved a lot of head scratching and aimless poking around in the water with poles to find out what was wrong.
As you can see Richard couldn't let Matt do all the hard work so had a good poke around with their long pole to help out.
Next day we climbed the three locks of the Brookwood flight to reach the recently reopened Deepcut flight of 14 locks. This is a lovely flight, climbing through woodland on the edge of Pirbright army camp. You may hear gunfire here and if you really look you can see soldiers in the woods - camouflage gear really doing its job in this photo.
There are wide pools and the locks are easily spaced to walk between - a fantastic flight of locks.
After a night at the Basingstoke Canal HQ at Mytchett we brimmed both boats with water and cleared the roofs of all the usual boating detritus. Richard and David were seen balancing poles across the highest points of the roofs and wielding tape measures down to the water line - why? The remaining moan about the Basingstoke lay ahead!
Nerves were eased by the beautiful scenery around Ash Vale where the canal passes through wide 'flashes' (lakes to landlubbers).
We crossed from Surrey into Hampshire on the Blackwater Valley aqueduct
Approaching Fleet the infamous low bridges loomed ahead of us. Farnborough Road Bridge is the first, and slopes upwards away from the towpath so it pays to go through as far to the non-towpath side as possible. We approached very slowly...
... and crept through, with a few inches to spare on this one. Mad Hatter followed behind and made it through too.
After a couple of all-too-quick miles to calm our nerves we came up to the next challenge - Pondtail bridges. There are two bridges together here and the easterly one is the tricky one, this time it slopes downwards away from the towpath side so you need to hug the towpath going through.
This one was definitely lower but we still had a couple of inches to spare
Low bridge number three, Reading Road South bridge, is reputedly the worst - according to our guide this one is 5'9" high - lower than our boat's highest point.... Fortunately the guide is pessimistic and we made it through with a few inches to spare.
We moored in Fleet to recover from the morning's dramas and to put all the junk back on the roof. Richard couldn't resist getting his tape measure out again and measured the clearance under the bridge at 6'. I should add that this obviously depends on water levels which can fluctuate so it pays to be cautious when approaching these bridges. We not only brimmed the water that morning but had also filled with diesel just before joining the Basingstoke to ballast the boat as low as possible in the water.
The next day was a relative breeze, we had just eight miles to the terminus of the canal. The far end is winding and scenic with a couple of swing/lift bridges to liven things up. We even met another boat at one (a real rarity on this canal with just 100 visiting boats last year).
Around Dogmersfield there has been a landslip and the canal narrows to a one-way system.
After one final 'bonus' lowish bridge which we weren't really expecting (Lodge Farm bridge so boaters can look out for it) we passed Odiham Castle and winded (pulled a U-ie in car-speak) before Greywell Tunnel, the limit of navigation.
Greywell Tunnel is collapsed in several places inside and now home to a bat colony. It has been declared a SSSI so the chances of restoring the rest of the canal to Basingstoke look pretty slim. To see what it's like the other side we walked over Greywell hill, passing the crystal clear water at the eastern portal.
The western portal is somewhat less boat-friendly
and the canal ends abruptly a couple of miles later so that really is it for the Basingstoke. A great trip though and we got to do it all again on the way back.
So we squeezed under the low bridges
Spotted the million pound private jets at Farnborough Airfield
Got chased for about a mile by a seriously angry swan - surely a relative of Mr ASBO who we crossed paths with during our time in Cambridge.
We rejoined Mad Hatter at the top of the Deepcut flight for the journey back down the locks and had a great run back down to Woodham Junction with them. Here both boats are leaving Woodham bottom lock.
In case you haven't guessed, we've really enjoyed the Basingstoke. It was definitely the right decision to explore it and we highly recommend it to other boaters. Don't let the moaners discourage you!
Sharing with nb Mad Hatter really made the trip too, good luck to Richard & Jackie for the rest of their travels. Next stop for us - London!