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Alfold and the Lost Canal

Take a walk through the wildwoods along a derelict canal tow path.

Distance 4.8 miles (7.7km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 164ft (50m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Old canal tow path, field and forest paths. muddy after rain

Landscape Mainly wooded countryside, some views across farmland

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 134 Crawley & Horsham

Start/finish TQ 026350

Dog friendliness On lead in Sidney Wood and Oakhurst Farm

Parking Forestry Commission car park between Alfold and Dunsfold

Public toilets None on route

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1 From the car park, walk back towards the road for 35yds (32m) until you see a track on your left, marked by a concrete post with a small Wey South Path waymark near the top. Turn left, then keep right at the fork 300yds (274m) further on. Cross the tarmac drive at a public bridleway signpost and follow the waymarked path around the edge of Fir Tree Copse.

2 The Wey South Path meets the canal at a gate. Turn left, and follow the tow path for 1 mile (1.6km). Notice the gentle slope as you pass the Arun 13/Wey 10 milestone, deep in Sidney Wood; it's the only clue that this overgrown section was once the site of a six lock flight.

3 A gravelled track crosses the canal at Sydney Court. Leave the tow path here and turn left, following the waymarked route across a bridleway crossroads to High Bridge.

4 Zig-zag right and left across Rosemary Lane, and rejoin the old tow path. After ½ mile (800m) look out for the Arun 11½/Wey 11½ milestone, and continue for 150yds (137m) until the Sussex Border Path crosses the canal.

5 Turn left, and follow the Sussex Border Path for 350yds (320m) until the track bends sharply right. Turn left through the metal field gate, and follow the hedge on your right. A second gate leads you past a little cottage; now, follow the public bridleway signpost that points your way through two fields, and through another gate onto a path leading out to Rosemary Lane. If you fancy a break, you can turn right here, for the ½ mile (800m) diversion to the Crown at Alfold.

6 Otherwise, cross the lane and follow the waymarked bridleway for ½ mile (800m). Now turn left at the public footpath signpost; then, just a few paces past the prominent 'Riding by permit only' sign, turn right up the waymarked footpath through the woods. Fork right a short way further on, then continue over two stiles and follow the path just inside the woodland edge until it bears left and meets the Wey South Path at a waymark post. Turn left, and follow the path to the Sidney Wood car park road, before turning left again for the short distance back to your car.

As you amble through the depths of Sidney Wood along the sinuous tow path of the long abandoned Wey and Arun canal, you can hardly fail to ponder the significance of this overgrown, muddy trench. In the closing years of the 18th century the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. The roads, such as they were, could simply not cope with carrying coal, heavy raw materials and finished goods over long distances. But in southern England, there was an even more urgent imperative. France was in turmoil and the dawn of a new century found Britain engaged in the Napoleonic Wars. Coastal cargoes in the English Channel were at risk and a new route was needed between London and the South Coast.

River traffic had flowed between London and Guildford since 1653, and the River Arun had been navigable to Pallingham Quay, near Pulborough, since Elizabethan times. All that was needed was a link - and it came in two parts. In 1787, the Arun Navigation was completed northwards from Pallingham Quay to Newbridge Wharf, near Billingshurst. Then, in 1813, Parliament authorised the Wey and Arun Junction Canal between Newbridge and Guildford. It opened in 1816 completing the link between London and the South Coast.

The price of coal in Guildford fell at once by more than 20 per cent, and the canal also carried chalk, timber and agricultural cargoes, reaching a peak of 23,000 tons in 1839. But the railways were already coming and the following year, the London and Southampton forged a new link to the South Coast. There was little immediate impact but in 1865 the London Brighton & South Coast Railway opened between Guildford and Horsham, in direct competition with the canal. Within a few years the waterway was out of business and it was formally abandoned in 1871, though the Arun Navigation struggled on until 1896.

The canal lay derelict for almost a century until, in 1970, enthusiasts established the Wey and Arun Canal Trust. Their aim was to restore navigation between London and the South Coast by reopening the waterway from Guildford to Pallingham Quay. As you'll see on your walk, they still have a mountain to climb. Long stretches remain derelict, and many bridges have been demolished. But 20 bridges and seven locks have already been rebuilt, and over a quarter of the canal's original length will soon be fully restored.

What to look for

The act establishing the Wey and Arun Junction Canal insisted that milestones must be installed every half mile along the route so that tolls could be levied accurately. All the original milestones have disappeared, but the Canal Trust is installing new ones at the original locations with a sponsorship scheme raising funds for the restoration project. You'll pass four milestones between Firfield Rough and the Sussex border.

Where to eat and drink

Head for the Crown at Alfold for a friendly, no frills local, although they don't serve food on Sunday or Monday evenings. The canal-side Onslow Arms at Loxwood is open all day at weekends, serving traditional pub food and pizzas.

While you're here

Behind the Onslow Arms at Loxwood you'll find a restored section of the canal where you can travel on board the Zachariah Keppel, a 50ft (15m) narrow boat named after the contractor who built the canal. The Wey and Arun Canal Trust operates hourly trips on Sunday afternoons between April and October.

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