The Wey and Arun Canal

The Cooch Memorial Lecture
The Wey and Arun Canal, presented by P. Beresford and J. Woods, on 25th November, 1994 at the Lecture Theatre, Worthing Library.
The President introduced the speakers, Mr. Peter Beresford, who is the Chairman of the Wey and Arun Canal Trust, and Mr. John Woods, the Vice-Chairman and Honorary Secretary of the Trust.
Mr. Woods began the presentation by referring to the Trust, which was formed some twenty-five years ago, with the aim of restoring the canal between the navigable sections of the rivers Wey and Arun, this being part of the national waterway system.
The canal age proper started in about 1760 and had been developed by making navigable firstly main rivers, such as the Thames or Trent, and secondly the tributaries and minor rivers, such as the Wey and Arun. Navigable man-made canals were then built to complete the network, which eventually amounted to some 4,500 miles of waterways.
The Wey and Arun canal is some twenty-three miles long and formed part of the London-Portsmouth Barge route, which was in operation for twenty-four years, being authorised by Parliament in 1813. This route enabled Portsmouth to be connected to London and, more particularly, to Woolwich and Chatham – vital in times of war. It also enabled sailing vessels to use an inland route to London, rather than the long sail along the coast. This reason became less important as steam in lieu of sail was developed. The route was 116 miles long with 56 locks, involving payment of many tolls to the various authorities. It took about four days to complete the journey. The railway between Portsmouth and London opened in 1847 and this, together with the opening of other lines, spelt the end of the canal which, in the absence of any industry in the area, only transported such commodities as coal and timber.
The speaker than reviewed the reasons for undertaking such a tremendous task as restoring this section of the waterway system. Firstly of course it was to enable boats to be used, not for commercial reasons (the gauge was never broad enough for this), but for pleasure. Secondly, it enables walkers to enjoy the countryside. It is surprising that walkers are the biggest users of the canal. It also provided scope for fishermen and it was felt generally by the various conservationist bodies that the whole water environment required attention badly, due to the collapse of whole sections of the waterway.
The speaker then described with illustrations the waterway from the coast to the Wey, which included the length of canal which is the subject of the Trust’s activities. The route begins at Littlehampton harbour, which deals with a trade of sea-borne aggregates, grain and exports. It is the start of a navigable section of the river Arun to Arundel and beyond – this section being used mainly by pleasure craft. It also contains the junction with the old PortsmouthArundelcanal. Thepossibilityofrestoringpartofthislengthisbeingconsidered by the Chichester Society. It is of interest that the Arun is the second fastest flowing river in England and can make some eight knots and requires great care in its use.
The next section takes the river through the South Downs Cut to Houghton Bridge. This bridge dates from the 14th/15th century, the present structure from 1880. It has been rebuilt some six times, due to savage flooding. The river to this point, still tidal, has a minimum depth of eight feet, but upstream it becomes much shallower. After the collapse of the main route, this part of the river remained operational for minor items such as coal, the last barge ceasing operation in 1931.
Another length of river of some interest up-stream of Houghton is a man-made cut at Coldwaltham, which shortened the distance to be travelled on the river by some three miles. This cut contains the only tunnel on the route, some 350 yards long, 13 foot bore, but now blocked by strengthening work to the Brighton and South Coast railway.
The river is tidal to a point above Stopham Bridge, this point being the limit of the right to navigate from the coast. The canal then joins the river, this section being restored by the Trust. The canal structures were in a very bad state in the 1970’s, when the Trust was formed due, amongst other factors, to the use of poor materials such as the lime and mortar mix. Of the thirty-six bridges in the section, only ten remained standing. Nineteen bridges have now been restored, together with six locks. Work on clearing and resealing the water course continues. The work has been carried out in a piece-meal fashion, the programme being determined by the availability of labour and materials. The whole scheme has been subject to an independent report which has confirmed its feasibility, including such items as water supply. For instance, it is calculated that sufficient water is available for thirty-six locks per week, although a scheme for impounding water is being considered.
The work is very labour-intensive and relies on volunteers organised into various working parties, although contractors have been employed on the heavy work of regaining the canal profile and sealing.
At the end of the canal, access to the existing waterway system is available via the navigable section of the Wey.
Mr. Beresford gave a very interesting, although rather brief talk on the arrangements for the setting-up of the Trust and the means of financing and of the overall organisation. He hoped that, armed with the independent report, the remaining work could be funded properly and that this most interesting project be completed.
A vote of thanks was proposed by Ken Lambert conveying the appreciation of the audience for a most excellent presentation. He made the point that the Trust relies on voluntary help to a very great degree and hoped that anyone at the meeting who might be able to help would volunteer.