Ploughing through the weeds.

Club Paddle on the Basingstoke Canal.  29th November

The club marathon paddle scheduled for Saturday looked less viable as the weekend drew ever nearer. Warning boards in yellow and red hues appearing along the Thames put the final kybosh on the advertised one way trip downriver to the clubhouse and forced a rethink of venue. Phil, our trip leader, settled on a rematch with the Basingstoke canal as we haven’t been there en-masse since the spring. This time though, it was to be at the eastern end of the canal with its plethora of locks, but at least he took pity and settled for only the first six miles of the canal, but which includes six locks… that had to be portaged twice each.

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Nevertheless the Basingstoke is a good choice because despite some of its little foibles like poisonous algae and bridges low enough to scalp the unwary, it will almost always provide reasonably placid water and sheltered conditions even when mayhem reigns on the river proper. We also had to think about recording the trip to count as one of the ‘Locations Paddled’ for the ‘British Canoeing Winter Challenge’ and that Daniel felt that he needed more portaging practice.

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Five of us assembled at New Haw lock on the Wey navigation, started off more or less on time and soon turned right at Woodham junction where the Basingstoke begins. The six locks are all contained within a mile and a half and we approached the first within minutes. We worked our way around the first three without any real problems except that the water in the pounds was becoming increasingly filled with a carpet of sickly-green weed, topped off with a liberal coating of falling leaves. Underneath, the water was quite clear but with a blackish tint from the decayed vegetation.

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The third and fourth locks were close enough together to portage around as one, and had Daniel jogging with his boat on his shoulder between the two. On reaching the top-lock of the flight we took a breather, took on water and biscuits and allowed our arms to regain their usual lengths.

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As we progressed the weed thickened and in several places solid mats of vegetation required careful navigation through and around. At times thicker weed grabbed the paddle blades and care had to be taken not to get the paddle caught under the blanket. Judging by the amount of rattling on the underside of my boat there also seems to be an urgent need in that area of dredging the branches and other debris from the water and a clear out of the rampant weed growth. Daniel’s boat regularly picked up leaves on its prow causing an impressive bow-wave, while Christine’s boat picked up and trailed a wedge of weed around its rudder causing a similarly impressive wave and drag at the rear.

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Although the canal here appeared quite rural we were in fact travelling in towards the centre of Woking. Many of the trees lining the canal still retained a lot of their leaves and were quite colourful despite it being almost December. The towpath is one of the rural amenities that surround the town and being Saturday afternoon was becoming increasingly busy. Named the ‘Saturn Way’ we passed cyclists, joggers, laden shoppers and walkers, and judging by the number of beer cans floating in the weeds it’s also a place for al-fresco imbibing.

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On our right hand we passed by Horsell Common, made infamous by one of Woking’s earlier residents, H G Wells, as the first landing place of the Martian invasion in his book ‘The War of the Worlds‘ and strangely, there did seem to be the smell of burning in the air. Our intended destination was the Bridge Barn pub & Beefeater eatery for lunch. Leading our little pack, Phil and Stuart, now some hundred yards ahead and revelling in a weed free stretch of water, led us past the pub and on to the bottom lock of the next flight about a quarter mile further on. Happy not to have to portage it we looked at it, photographed it and measured its distance from the start, then sojourned to the pub for refreshment.

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The return journey was in much the same vein, but at least by then we knew what to expect. Whereas the temperature on the outward journey had been quite cold the sun was now struggling out and warmed our backs quite pleasantly for most of the return trip. We carved our way through the worst of the weed mostly in single file, and dealt with the locks after another short rest at the top-lock. We arrived back at New Haw at just before 3pm having added twelve miles to our individual tallies and another ‘Location‘ to the club‘s score.

Dave Kew

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