Narrow Gauge Pleasure

The Basingstoke Canal Railway

Modern use of the Narrow Gauge

Historical Background

I grew up in Surrey within half a mile of the Thames and not so very far from the River Wey and the Basingstoke canal. These waterways occupied a significant amount of my time as a teenager, fishing in the Thames and cycling or walking for miles along the picturesque River Wey and the derelict, but fascinating Basingstoke Canal.

During this period the Basingstoke Canal began to change as an army of volunteers began work on it's restoration. I witnessed much of this phase as my wife and I set up our first home a few hundred yards from the locks at St. Johns near Woking. On this page I want to share enough of the story of the canal to show why the restoration team built a narrow gauge railway along its towpath and a little about the railway which I stumbled across in my early teens.

The Basingstoke Canal was originally built in the 1770s to carry produce and timber from rural Hampshire to London (via the Wey navigation and the Thames) and coal back from the London Docks to the agricultural areas. The Canal was 37 miles long and heavily engineered with 29 locks, two tunnels and numerous cuttings and embankments. Although it served its purpose the canal was not profitable and was soon overwhelmed by competition first from the Railways and then from the roads. By the time interest in canals revived in the fifties and sixties the canal was the derelict ditch that I knew, it's channels choked with weeds and water levels much reduced, locks were decaying their masonry and timber rotting.

After the heated debate which always seems to accompany the start of restoration projects, canal or railway, in 1966 the Surrey and Hampsire Canal Society was formed to carry out the restoration work.

A train of skips is loaded with silt
Photo Dieter Jebens

The Railway

Like most waterways much of the length of the Basingstoke canal lacks convenient road access, while this is part of the attraction for the visitor on foot, boat or bicycle it presented considerable problems for the restoration work force. Like many industrialists of an earlier era faced with transport problems in confined spaces or difficult country the workers turned to narrow gauge for a solution.

The original introduction of narrow gauge was in the form of twenty yards of track at Colt Hill where dredging was being carried out in 1975. Skips full of silt dredged from the canal were push and dragged along the track to be dumped on a neighbouring area. As the dredging moved further from the dump site the track grew steadily to 800 feet long and man handling became impractical leading to the purchase of a Hudson Hunslet 22hp diesel locomotive. This modest introduction to narrow gauge on the canal was to lead to greater things when the equipment was moved to Deepcut.

Deepcut is an area where I knew the derelict canal well, as a youngster I used to spend hours watching the Moor Hens which nested here and the hundreds of tiny pike which were the only fish I ever saw here. This part of the canal has little road access and runs through woodland making access for heavy vehicles quite impossible. It also boasts a long flight of deep locks which required a huge amount of material for restoration. The railway from Colts Hill was moved here and extended to 1.5 miles length Although it's stay here only lasted a couple of years the little line hauled 7,000 tonnes of building materials to the locks before being moved again.

The railway was used again at Ash embankment which had been drained many years ago and needed complete re-puddling (ie replacement of the watertight clay layer which keeps the channel leak-proof). The track was re-laid along the 1000 yard length of the embankment and used to deliver the 14,000 tonnes of clay needed to make the canal watertight once again.

The canal is now open and although some of the atmosphere and seclusion of the days of closure is gone there can be no doubt that everyone who uses or visits the canal owes a debt to the enthusiasts who were determined to see the restoration project through. Of the railway little trace remains but this little episode illustrates that even in our modern world there are some things that can be done more cost effectively by narrow gauge than any other way.

For further information:

Visit Arthur Dungate's Basinstoke Canal site.

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