3000 Years of History in one Surrey Ride
Back in September I set out to write about my ride, along the Wey Navigation, back to London from the Richmond Championship Dog Show near Guildford. My first attempt developed into a piece about showing animals. The second attempt barely saw us past Guildford.
For this third attempt I have put the pictures into the blog first so that I should stay on track. Unless credited otherwise, the pictures were taken by me whilst riding along the towpath.
At the end of my blog ‘Going all the Wey on a Sunny September Evening’, we had just reached Stoke Mill – now home to the Surrey Advertiser. This is quite apt as from 1653 it was used to produce paper. At one time there were seven or eight papermills along the river.
Leaving Stoke Mill the navigation is on the left, separated from the towpath by a line of pollarded willow trees These have various styles of log built supports propping them up, but would be a nightmare to anyone trying to bring a horse drawn barge along this way.
To the right is the Riverside Park. This is about 70 acre of wetland nature reserve crossed by booardwalks to facilitate access and birdwatching. Sadly as it was late afternoon I didn’t have time to visit.
Although still within earshot of the A3, as you can see in this two minute video, once Bowers Lock is crossed there is a real sense of being in the country.
This leads onto the section where the towpath skirts the parkland that surrounds Sutton Place from which is separated by a traditional metal rail fence.
Sutton place is a Tudor manor House originaly built about 1525, but with all the usual changes and additions these properties have been subject to over the centuries. These act as a record of the changes in architectural styles and design trends over time. Historically, it is simply one of the most important properties of its type in the country and Grade 1 listed. The house was visited by both Henvy VIII and Queen Elizabeth.
Currently it is owned by a Russian businessman who is supposedly the richest person living in the UK. Personally, provided he has, and is using, the bottomless money pit needed to maintain properties like this, then I’ve no problem with that. What it does mean , however, is that I can’t just ride up to the front door and ask to take photographs.
An illustration from circa 1700 show gardens and a tree lined avenue The grounds were further landscaped at various times from the Eighteenth Century through to the second half of the Twentieth Century. The design of the formal gardens were influenced by Gertrude Jekyll. The park and gardens have their own Grade 2* listing. The listing document gives a detailed description of the grounds and, should you be interested, can be found here.
The builder of Sutton place was Sir Richard Weston (d.1541) who was granted the Manor of Sutton by Henry VIII in 1521. It was his great grandson, another Sir Richard Weston (1591–1652), who was responsible for the creation of the River Wey Navigation
As a young man Sir Richard Weston had lived in Flanders. Travelling the Netherlands and Belgium, he had seen how sections of canal could join parts of rivers to form navigable waterways. Most importantly he had seen locks working and realised, with locks to allow for changes in height and weirs to control water levels, he could create a navigable waterway from Guildford to the River Thames.
Looking at the parts of the river Wey not included in the navigation, it’s easy to see how useless it must have been for carrying goods prior to this.
In 1635 Sir Richard was appointed one of the Royal Commissioners to oversee the work. After exile on the Continent, made necessary by the English Civil War, in 1651 he gained the necessary act of parliament and construction started.
The new route was completed in only two years. Sir Richard, however, died in 1652 not seeing the opening in 1653.
Sir Richard had, during his enforced stay overseas, studied farming methods and on his return set about improving production particularly from grassland. The evidence suggests that he would have used the revised River Wey to promote grass growth through controlled flooding of the land.
Passing Sutton Place there is a mix of wooded areas and water meadows rich in wildlife. I was fortunate to see a couple of kingfishers.
The Church of St Mary the Virgin, Send, could be seen through the trees creating a picture that has probably changed very little since the canal was built. The church was already more than 400 years old when that happened.
Approaching Worsfold Gates (below) a different kind of tower can be seen in the distance – a lift shaft for a tower block being built in Woking. It didn’t stop the cattle enjoying the evening sun though.
A couple of miles further on and there was plenty of water coming over the spillway at Papercourt Lock. For the next half a mile the towpath was just a track in a field until the road at Newark Bridge was reached.
Looking back towards Guildford from Newark road bridge reveals this set of sluices complete with an attractive tiled ‘roof’. The fitting of electric motors and associated control gear has not detracted from the charm. I appreciate the purpose of the string of plastic strips is to deter birds from roosting; but there was something about this micro scene that made me think Tibet and prayer flags.
Across the road was the site of Newark Mill. Built in the early Nineteenth Century, it was one of the most spectacular mills in the county, if not the country. There are records of a mill on this site going back to 1677 and probably developed to exploit the twin benefits provided by the development of the navigation; a managed water supply and ease of access to the London markets. It was destroyed by fire in December 1966. A contemporary report records that it was burnt to the ground in just one hour.
The fact that there were once 22 mills along the length of the Wey is further evidence not only of this trade, but also the flow rates of the water passing along it. This last mill at Newark exploited that to the full as it had three waterwheels which drove up to eight pairs of stones. No wonder it was such a grand five storey building.
Looking in opposite direction, the remains of Newark Priory can be seen through gaps in the trees. It was built for an order of Augustinian Canons in the second half of the Twelfth Century. Like most of the monastic buildings of the time, it was destroyed in 1539 during the dissolution of the monasteries ordered by Henry VIII.
It was built on a slightly raised piece of land with water channels created around it to provide for the drinking, cooking and sanitary needs of the incumbents. Near the weir there is an eel trap which had probably been constructed by the canons. I don’t know if they were also partial to a drop of beer, or even if the order allowed it, but the hedges alongside the priory site were full of hops.
Moving along I came across the scene above with everything seeming so tranquil and still.
About a mile from Newark Mill are Walsham gates and weir. This is one of seven sites along the Wey Navigation on which the Environment Agency is spending a total of £8 million. This will upgrade the weirs to maintain navigability, and enhance the flood management capability to help protect towns like Guildford. As part of the work they are also creating features to assist fish and eels in bypassing these obstructions and so maintain or enhance the biodiversity of the Wey.
The works at Walsham Gates meant that the tow path was closed. The diversionary route of about a mile crossed local meadows and a golf course before re-joining the towpath.
This diversion involved riding up the drive of the rather spectacular looking Ockham Mill which was built in the early 1860s.
The listing document describes it as: “… built in a neo-Norman style. Red and brown brick with yellow brick dressings, glazed brick decorations to mill, brown brick to Millstream House. Slate roof under ridge cresting on mill, plain tiled roof over house. Mill:- 4 storeys with decorative bands over each floor, – dentilled billet band to first floor, floral plaques over second floor and corbelled, dentilled eaves. Gable end to lane: lozenge shaped panels to gable flanking gabled and weatherboarded hoist tower at gable apex extending down to second floor and resting on corbelled braces. “
Couldn’t have put it better myself.
The discovery in 2013 of the Ockham Hoard, a collection of bronze-age items confirms that the area has been occupied for at least 3000 years. A record from 1296 refers to two water mills at Ockham.
Those of a more philosophical bent will be familiar with Occam’s Razor first proposed by the Mediaeval philosopher William of Ockham.
Once the towpath is regained it only a short distance to Pyrford Lock and The Anchor pub. No surprises in there being a pub where canals and roads cross, especially if there is a lock or a wharf where barges may have stopped for a while. My only reason for mentioning this pub is the sign below which was besides the main entrance. My thought, as soon as I saw it was: “I’d rather have raspberry ripple ice cream”.
This is also a good point to leave the canal, if cycling, to visit the RHS Gardens at Wisley.
From here onwards the Navigation threads its way between West Byfleet and Byfleet, whilst the River Wey keeps to its original route around the East side of Byfleet. There is one short last wildish section before the sound of the M25 begins to impact and more waterside properties appear.
Parvis Wharf is currently used as a boat yard but has had various uses since being built probably in the mid Eighteenth Century to serve six local mills. It is the last of the rural wharves to remain intact. The fields and hayrick in the picture below evidence how rural the original location was; and are now covered by the M25.
The building in the picture above (the left-hand building in picture below) was originally built as a store about 200 years ago but is now known as the Grist Mill. This comes from the inter war years when the upper storey was added and used by Surrey Grist Mills Ltd to produce animal feed. Before that it had been used as site to build ERA cars which were then raced at Brooklands which is only a couple of miles away.
There are records of aeroplanes being shipped from the wharf which, during World War II, gained the reputation of being somewhere lonely troops could find ladies who would entertain them.
As I left Parvis Wharf I cycled past the heron below, no more than metre behind it. When I dismounted and walked towards it to take this picture, it turned its head, managed a haughty slight lift of its supercilium, and returned to watching the water.
Soon the Basingstoke Canal (above) branches off opposite the M25 overbridge. The pillars supporting the motorway have become canvases for urban art or, depending on your perspective, graffiti.
From here to New Haw lock there are moorings all along the far bank whilst the towpath is flanked by a road.
Past New Haw the more rural feel returns for a short distance and the old flour mill at Coxes Lock is reached. Noted for its huge millpond, it dates from around 1776 and was built by the ironmaster Alexander Raby. Initially it was operating as an iron mill producing hoops for use by coopers.
From 1829 it was milling corn and part was a silk mill, although the latter was soon abandoned. Corn milling continued until 1983.
This picture is from a postcard produced by the Avis Publishing Co. of Birmingham and dates from about 1905.
The mill was developed over time. In the 1890s a water turbine was installed that was capable of developing 40hp. Later a steam engine was introduced and replaced water power. In more modern times steam was replaced by electric motors.
The Navigation was used to deliver grain until 1969 when the grain terminals at London Docks and Tilbury were closed.
The mill had long had its own railway sidings and, judging by their capacity, the bulk of the traffic for many year would have been by rail. The state of these grain hopper wagons suggest the loss of this traffic to lorries was imminent.
A few minutes pedalling took me to Town Lock and the bridge at Weybridge
The navigation skirts the town but passes some exceedingly well manicured gardens
There are a number of weirs, sluices and water courses to be passed or crossed before arriving at the Thames Lock which is where the Wey Navigation joins the River Thames.
At the Thames lock there is a shed with a small display in it about the history of the River Wey Navigation.
Having stopped to take photographs along the way, and it being well into the evening, I made my way to the Thames path and rode it to Walton-on-Thames where I took to the roads for a faster journey back to Hampton Court station where I was able to take the train for the rest of my journey.
Somewhen I will go back and ride the last part of the navigation from the North Downs Way to Godalming – just to finish the job as it were.
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