Rhododendrons and Angry Swans – Colt Hill to Mytchett

Club Trip, 31 May 2014, Colt Hill to Mytchett

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Saturday 31st May’s club trip was slated as a slightly longer than usual paddle on the Basingstoke canal, from Colt Hill near Odiham, sixteen miles to the visitor centre at Mytchett. Organised and led by Phil, those joining the party on this historic waterway were Christine, Amanda, Adam, Daniel and your scribe, Dave. Sixteen miles is well beyond my comfort zone, but as the weather forecast predicted a bright sunny day and more importantly, no wind to speak of, the trip seemed to offer a pleasant, if exhausting day out. With this in mind, personal preparation for the trip to prevent a poor performance consisted mainly of ‘carb’ loading with a Spag-Bog the evening before, followed by porridge in the morning and going equipped with chocolate Wagon-Wheels and litres of Lucozade on the day.

The 37 mile canal was completed in 1794 with the prospect of opening up trade between Hampshire and London, but its commercial success was never fully realised. Eventually it fell into disrepair and commerce had all but died out by the early part of the 20th century and by the 1960’s the canal was largely un-navigable. Today the canal is managed by the Surrey and Hampshire Canal Society. The society was formed in 1966 by a group of concerned enthusiasts who petitioned and lobbied Surrey and Hampshire councils to purchase the canal and organised volunteer labour to refurbish the waterway, locks and buildings. After years of work they managed to get the canal operating again for recreational use.

Getting kayaks, cars and people in their right places to start off went well, although on the journey down the sky changed from blue to a grey heavy overcast colour. Throughout the day it alternated between clear/sunny and overcast. After group photos and suitable discussion on which direction along the canal we were to head!, we were able to make a start, more or less on time. There proved to be absolutely no flow whatsoever and the water was covered in places with a layer of pollen from the overhanging trees.

The waterway was very green and very leafy. In places the trees banked up on opposing sides making it feel as if you were travelling the river at the bottom of a gorge. The green aspect was leavened only by brilliant purple and mauve Rhododendrons cascading down to where yellow Iris’ stood out on the water’s edge. In passing we could make out the occasional Pillbox, overgrown and mouldering in the bushes, and ‘Dragons Teeth’ concrete fortifications, reminders of the last ditch defences built in the 1940’s against invading armies.

We met with very little other traffic, perhaps two or three other kayaks and a couple of houseboats which left a feeling of isolation and tranquility. Passing one of the club’s other favourite watering holes, the Barley Mow at Winchfield, we were paddling into unbroken water with bridges, trees and sky almost perfectly reflected in the water. The restriction at Dogmersfield where a landslip of the embankment during the winter has reduced the width of the canal by half was taken in single file… carefully.

On the down side there was much floating debris in the water, some of it quite substantial and submerged just below the waterline that made the boat shudder when an inadvertent collision occurred. It was clearly prudent to take the centre line along the channel where houseboats had gone before and cleared the way.

We reached our first planned stop at the Fox and Hounds at Church Crookham for lunch, where we took an outside table. The meals on the menu were all quite substantial, and I’m not convinced of the benefits of eating a full meal half way through a trip. For me, it sits heavily when the paddle is taken up again, and seems rather like nobbling a greyhound by feeding it bread pudding before a race. Nevertheless, we resumed our journey amply fed, watered and rested. At this point I thought it prudent to break into the Lucozade to sustain tired muscles in the latter half of the journey.

We ploughed onwards, taking it a little easier at first while lunch settled. After a half an hour or so we were getting back into our stride when our leader who knows an angry swan when he sees one, sounded an ominous warning, ‘That’s an angry swan’. We allowed Daniel to go first, giving it as wide a berth as was possible within the confines of a canal. I followed a few yards behind and found it approaching with intent, all puffed up, head back and making a bow wave as it headed directly for me. I tried my usual tactic when close up to sizeable wildlife, of talking to it in as reassuring a voice as I could muster and thought I’d got away with it as it turned to one side and behind me.  But, not so, there was a loud ‘bang’ as it clouted the rear of the boat making me paddle all the faster. Luckily I didn’t have to join the elite club of those who have plumbed the depths of the Basingstoke canal while testing their BA’s!

After getting past the rather more urban area of Fleet and passing around the end of the Farnborough airfield, the paddle took us through long, straight stretches of canal with heavily wooded banks and water like molten glass. After a time the paddling seemed to become almost hypnotic, keeping up a reasonable pace on the straights and resting around slowly curving bends.  We arrived at Ash Lock and took a short break before the surreal experience of crossing the aqueduct over the A331 dual carriageway.

Turning northward onto the last leg toward Mytchett we passed along the side of the oddly named Great Bottom Flash, a large lake on the right hand and found our way out again on the far corner. Shortly afterwards we entered an even larger lake, which this time at least had the course of the canal staked out along its western edge. Here we knew from the number of canoes, kayaks and inflatable boats we were closing in on the finish at the Canal Centre. We finally arrived just too late to catch a hot drink at the centre’s cafe which closed at 4 pm.

We retrieved cars and kayaks and were back at Bell Hill by 6 pm. Altogether it had turned out to be a fine day out and our thanks go to Phil for a well organised trip.

Dave Kew

The nice grassy area at Colt Hill was our start point

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Amanda setting off from Colt Hill
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Dan with his new paddle
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Dave in his speedy Lance with red and blue stripes
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Dave and Amanda paddle steadily towards the lunch stop
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It was sunny and still
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Amanda and Dan pass one of the many old brick bridges
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Chris and Adam bring up the rear of the group
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Adam having a laugh
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Angry swan
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The still day made for great reflections
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Trees reflected in the sunlight
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More reflections
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Adam passes one of the many colourful banks of rhododendrons
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Rhododendrons in full bloom
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World war II pill box to keep the Germans away.
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The strange light makes this scene look like a Turner painting
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Amanda and Christine
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Lunch stop at the Fox and Hounds
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Dan goes past the very angry swan
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Dave gets past but the swan is chasing him
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In the next moment the swan lifts out of the water and steps on to the back of Dave’s boat, attempting to swipe him with one wing, luckily he misses and Dave stays upright to make his escape
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Christine and Amanda approaching Ash lock
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Ash-lock the only portage of the day
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Crossing the aqua-duct over the main dual carriageway from Farnborough
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The traffic rumble past below
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Oblivious to the canal and boats passing overhead
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The group head on towards Mytchett
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