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Jessop's Jaunt: the Basingstoke Canal

A peaceful canalside walk through the heart of Surrey's commuter belt.

Distance 6 miles (9.7km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Canal tow path, generally well-maintained, but some occasional muddy patches

Landscape Gentle, wooded, canalside scenery

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 145 Guildford & Farnham

SU 892533SU 951569

Dog friendliness Good, but scoop the poop

Parking Brookwood Station

Public toilets Mytchett Canal Centre

Notes Park at end of walk and catch train to Ash Vale

1 Park at Brookwood Station, and catch the train to Ash Vale. Drop down the steps out of the station, and turn left up Station Approach. Almost at the end of the road you'll see the canal, down a short concrete ramp on your right. Walk down to the tow path, turn left under the railway bridge, and continue with the canal on your right-hand side.

2 At first, you'll be walking beside the backs of the houses in Ash Vale; then the railway draws alongside, and soon you'll see the canal centre at Mytchett, just across a little swing bridge. Beyond the canal centre you enter the wooded section running almost unbroken to Brookwood. You'll pass Frimley Lodge Park, where enthusiasts operate a miniature railway on Sundays and Bank Holidays.

3 The tow path changes sides at the Guildford Road bridge which, like several of the bridges along the canal, has been painstakingly reconstructed to the original design. Just beyond the bridge, you'll cross the aqueduct over the main London-to-Southampton railway; it was built in 1838, and extended when the railway was widened in about 1900.

4 Next comes the high concrete bridge at Deepcut, heralding the ½ mile (800m) cutting that gives the area its name. It leads you to Frimley Lock, and the start of the sinuous 14-lock flight that leads the canal down to Brookwood. This is a lovely section, shaded by young oak trees, and the locks themselves blend into the landscape like ornamental temples in some stately pleasure ground.

5 Just past the pink cottage at Pirbright Lock the tow path changes sides again, and you zig-zag left and right across Pirbright Bridge. Continue for a further 850yds (778m), until you reach a green lattice girder bridge. Cross the canal here, signposted towards Brookwood, and walk up Sheets Heath Lane to the station where your walk began.

The Basingstoke Canal was built late in the 18th century, to carry agricultural cargoes between mid-Hampshire and the capital. After an early proposal for a line northwards to the River Thames at Bray proved too costly, the present route was surveyed by William Jessop and opened in 1794.

Right from the start, traffic was lighter than expected, and grandiose plans for extensions to Southampton and Bristol came to nothing. Trade picked up during the 1830s, carrying construction materials for the London & Southampton Railway. But the canal was digging its own grave; railway competition simply made things worse and, by 1866, the company was bankrupt. The business soldiered on under a succession of different owners, but the writing was on the wall when Greywell tunnel, six miles east of Basingstoke, collapsed in 1932.

By the mid-1960s the canal had become little more than an overgrown marsh, and the newly-formed Surrey & Hampshire Canal Society began a campaign for public ownership and restoration as a leisure amenity. It was a winning formula, and in 1991 the canal was re-opened all the way to Greywell. The Greywell Tunnel itself has long been colonised by bats and, despite some restoration on the western side, it now seems unlikely that the canal will return to Basingstoke.

While you're there

Not far from the start of your walk is the Basingstoke Canal Centre at Mytchett. Besides the small bookshop and tea room, you'll find a surprisingly good exhibition about the canal and its history. There's a replica canal barge cabin, display boards and interactive videos, together with bits and pieces of canal memorabilia. Finally, you'll leave through a spooky mock-up of Greywell Tunnel.

Where to eat and drink

The Canal Centre tea room at Mytchett offers a nice range of home-made teas, snacks and daily specials, as well as traditional Sunday lunches. It's open Tuesday to Sunday between April and September, and weekends only during the winter. At the end of the walk you'll find the Brookwood Hotel, next to the station. It's open all day, has imaginative menus and Brookwood Best bitter.

What to look for

Just beyond the station subway, Brookwood cemetery is something rather unusual - a kind of overspill town for London's dead. In 1851, when cremation was still illegal and the capital's graveyards were reaching capacity, the London Necropolis Company established this cemetery on Woking Common. It had its own branch railway, with stations for the special 'coffin trains' from Waterloo. Since then, huge areas have been dedicated to the 20th-century's war dead; the sheer scale of the place is awesome, and you can still trace part of the old railway's route through the grounds.

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