Messing about in boats

Weybridge
Still on an Autumn tack, I thought I’d share some seasonal shots of the different craft that can be found along the Wey Navigation in Weybridge.
Wey Navigation
Situated on the confluence of the Thames and the Wey, and with the Wey Navigation running through it as well, Weybridge has a lot of watercraft, of all shapes and sizes.
Wey Navigation
I am mostly content to admire them from the towpath, however.
WeybridgeOf course, there could only ever be one quotation for this post:

Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.
– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (1908)

Walk this Wey: Thames Lock

Today’s post is about one of my favourite local places, Thames Lock in Weybridge, Surrey. Thames Lock is the first lock of the Wey and Godalming Navigations.  One of Britain’s earliest man-made navigable waterways, the Navigations, which run for just under 20 miles from the Thames at Weybridge to Godalming, preceded the canal age by a century.  Now owned and managed by the National Trust, the Navigations and their towpath provide a tranquil green corridor through some of Surrey’s most built up areas and a pleasant, easy route through some of its loveliest countryside.

The Navigations were the brainchild of Sir Richard Weston of Sutton Place.  The first ten miles from the Thames were opened in 1653 and extended to Godalming by 1764.  The principal cargo was timber from Surrey’s forests destined for the shipbuilding yards on the banks of the Thames. But the Navigations were also an important route for the transport of wheat, flour and numerous other cargoes, including, in the early 1920s, a number of aircraft from Brooklands.  Today, the Navigations are plied by pleasure boats rather than commercial barges and the towpath is frequented by walkers and cyclists rather than the horses that used to pull the barges.

The entrance to the Navigations from the Thames at Weybridge is misleadingly insignificant in appearance, barely noticeable but for the sign on a post in the river.  Yet it is the location for an exciting passage in local writer, H G Wells’s classic, The War of the Worlds, which concludes as follows:

‘I staggered through the leaping, hissing water towards the shore.  Had my foot stumbled, it would have been the end.  I fell helplessly, in full sight of the Martians, upon the broad, bare, gravelly spit that runs down to mark the angle of the Wey and Thames.  I expected nothing but death.’  (1898)

While not as challenging as evading Martian invaders, finding Thames Lock, where the towpath begins, can be difficult on foot.  A path, known as Church Walk, runs from the side of the Old Crown, a 17th century Grade II listed pub on Thames Street to Radnor Road.  The lock can be reached either via Jessamy Road, which bisects Church Walk or, further along Church Walk, via a small path to the right that leads over a pretty white and green footbridge.

Both routes lead to Whittet’s Ait, an island between the River Wey and the Navigations.  If you follow the gravel footpath beside the public park there, you will come to the lock.  It is a delightful spot, with benches on which you can while away a few minutes or hours watching narrow boats negotiate the lock.   In spring and summer, planters outside the lock keeper’s cottage froth with flowers and it is not unusual to find a local artist at work capturing the idyllic scene.

The towpath begins on the other side, accessed via an iron bridge over the lock. Before crossing, however, it is worth stopping at the lock keeper’s cottage where a free map can be obtained and you can buy a booklet of circular walks along the Navigations.

The present cottage was built by the National Trust in 1975 as a replica of its eighteenth century predecessor.   On the other side of the lock, beside the towpath, stand the stables that used to shelter the horses as they waited for the next barges to arrive.  Now they contain a small display on the history and wildlife of the Navigations.

Next to the Lock stands a development of waterside apartments on what was the site of paper, iron and oil seed mills from 1791 to 1963 when the last of many fires on the site finally put paid to further milling.  One account of the fire describes how the water was alight with the highly flammable oil.

The Navigations are an important habitat for wildlife, from beautiful damselflies …

… to slightly more weird and wonderful critters.

You may even meet an occasional ship’s dog.

Romantic runaways

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Last year I published a series of articles in some local magazines about the Wey Navigation, a historic waterway that runs for 20 miles from the Thames at Weybridge to Godalming, in Surrey, England. I thought I might occasionally feature excerpts from the series in this blog. Today’s excerpt is about one of the many interesting historical landmarks that can be seen from the towpath. This small brick tower can be found on the stretch between Pyrford Lock and Walsham Gates near the village of Ripley. It is an attractive and unusual structure, fourteen feet square, two storeys high with a first floor entrance and a distinctive ogee-pitched roof. Known as the ‘Summer House’, it bears a blue plaque declaring that: ‘John Donne, Poet and Dean of St.Pauls, lived here 1600-1604’. The story of the romantic runaways is about Donne and his passion for Ann More.

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Donne had fallen in love with Ann, the daughter of Sir George More of Loseley Park near Guildford. Ann’s family was too important for her to be permitted to marry Donne so the lovers eloped, when Ann was only 17. This caused a scandal and Sir George organised a search for the runaways. Once they were found, Sir George had Donne thrown into London’s Fleet Prison. On his release, he and Ann were given shelter at Pyrford Place, the home of Sir Francis Wolley, a friend of Donne’s. Sir Francis eventually managed to engineer a reconciliation with Sir George. John and Ann Donne lived at Pyrford Place for a further two years and had the first of their twelve children there. Ann and children lived there for another year while Donne travelled, before the whole family moved to their own home in 1606. It is said that, such was his love for Ann, Donne never got over his grief when she died (having 12 children took its toll!).

It seems unlikely that Donne ever actually lived in the Summer House, which some historians think may not even have been built until later in the century, but the Summer House is in the grounds of Pyrford Place and it is certainly picturesque enough to stand in the imagination as the retreat of a lovelorn poet!

All other things, to their destruction draw,
Only our love hath no decay;
This, no tomorrow hath, nor yesterday,
Running it never runs from us away,
But truly keeps his first, last, everlasting day.

Songs and Sonnets (1611) ‘The Anniversary’

The full text of my article and some more of the images can be viewed here.