You can discover the Wey & Arun Junction Canal by foot or by boat and by doing so, you’re taking a long leisurely step back in time.
A new way to travel
There was a time, when the UK was crisscrossed by a network of busy working canals and their towpaths. And Sussex was no exception. In 1816, the Wey & Arun Junction Canal opened. These were exciting times. Up until then, you couldn’t get further from London than just outside Guildford by canal, and no further north than Pulborough from the coast.
An industrial success
This new stretch of canal linked the Wey Navigation at Shalford to the Arun Navigation at Pallingham via a series of locks, and for the first time you could transport your cargo from capital to coast and back by canal … a cost effective and safe transport system.
Branching off this, the River Rother was also once navigable to Midhurst, and the Portsmouth and Arundel Canal once navigable past Chichester. The Rother Navigation was constructed between 1791 and 1794. It was 12 miles long with a “state of the art” towpath and eight locks between the River Arun at Stopham and Midhurst.
You can still see one of the locks along with the Beam Pump at Coultershaw Bridge just south of Petworth. In fact, Coultershaw was not only on the route of the Rother Navigation but also on the Petworth to Chichester Turnpike and the Pulborough to Petworth railway. As little more than a narrowing, bend in the road these days, it’s hard to imagine what a strategic and busy position it must have once held.
The end of an era
The new Wey Arun link was a great success and for the best part of 50 years, this 23 mile stretch of canal through the sleepy backwaters of Sussex was a vibrant and busy little network. Then came the trains, thundering through at high speed and relatively low cost and by 1871 the Wey and Arun Canal was closed, its heyday behind it. And for a long time, the canal network was forgotten, slowly succumbing to brambles and disrepair.
A changing landscape
Just after WWII, Tom Rolt (a prolific English writer and the biographer of major civil engineering figures) published Narrow Boat, describing his journey through an abandoned but unspoilt canal world. This book is in part credited with creating a sea change in opinion. Up until that point many of the UK’s canals were threatened with permanent closure. But Rolt’s descriptions helped change the perception of the canals as part of an outdated industrial heritage to something for leisure and beauty. Slowly, there were a series of national legislative changes, and it’s against that backdrop that as long ago as the early 1970s, restoration on the Wey and Arun Canal began by the Wey & Arun Canal Society (which later became the Wey & Arun Canal Trust).
Revival of a forgotten heritage
To date, there is a 3½ mile section of operational at Loxwood in West Sussex which ends at the Drungewick Lock. One of the best ways to discover the Wey & Arun Canal Trust is from the Canal Centre at Loxwood, where its three excursion boats are based. One of these is an electrically powered boat, Wiggonholt, a little wider than a conventional narrowboat and it meanders along this idyllic section of canal offering cream tea tours and Santa tours at Christmas.
Walking the Wey
Today, you could be forgiven for forgetting the noisy, industrial past of the canals as the seductive hum of the canal boats and locks lull you into a sense of serenity. There’s flora and fauna in abundance, an occasional swan and on a quiet afternoon, you’re often lucky enough to have the towpaths more or less to yourself.
The restoration of the canals has also opened up lots of wonderful walks and the Wey and Arun Canal website has a number of routes you can follow. At Loxwood, there’s a pleasant loop you can do which will take you about an hour. From the canal centre and car park, follow the canal until you come to Brewhurst Lane where you go left (by way of crossing the bridge) and then turn right. The path follows the canal for a short distance before it takes you up across a field and into some woods. It’s well signed and eventually, you come out on a farm track that leads you back to Drungewick Lane. You can walk back along the canal towpath from here and the whole walk is just under 5 km. On a bright, autumn day morning, it’s a beautiful start to the day.
You can find details of lots of other walks and narrowboat tours on the Wey & Arun Canal Trust website. They rely heavily on volunteers and charitable donations and their tireless work is a formidable effort to save a valuable and beautiful part of our heritage.
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