River Wey Navigations - the back story

One of the oldest river navigations in the country, the River Wey Navigation was created between 1651 and 1653 to offer Guildford merchants a magic highway to London – the A3 of its day. It was the brainchild of Sir Richard Weston, who came from a family with extensive estates in Surrey and who was determined to make this part of the county memorable for a great engineering achievement.

The River Wey Navigations

The River Wey Navigations is a waterway of almost twenty miles connecting Godalming in Surrey with the Thames at Weybridge.

Until the 17th century the River Wey’s meandering made it all but useless as a practical means of transport. Sir Richard Weston lived at Sutton Place, just to the north of Guildford. In the Netherlands and Belgium, he had seen how sections of canal could bypass sections of rivers and shorten a journey.

A new route to London

Carrying goods by road to London was difficult and only one or two tons could be carried in a wagon drawn by horses. Sir Richard planned to turn the Wey into a navigation to the Thames, with locks to allow for changes in height and weirs to control water levels.

The new route required nine miles (14.4 km) of canals to link sections of river. Twelve locks were constructed along with weirs, wharves and bridges. About 200 navvies completed the work in two years, opening in 1653.

The total cost of the works was £16,000, an enormous sum for the time. Sadly, Sir Richard died in 1652 before the navigation opened.

Carriage of goods between London and Guildford in both directions was on barges built to carry 30 tons, drawn by a horse. Oak was carried downstream to the Thames for use in shipbuilding and corn brought back upstream for the mills along the waterway.

Unforeseen opportunities

In 1666 The Great Fire of London gave a boost to the Navigation when vast quantities of timber were transported to London for the re-building.

In 1760 work to make the four miles (6.4 km) of river to Godalming navigable started. Another 1½ miles of canal, four locks and two wharves were built. By 1764 the River Wey and Godalming Navigations were complete.

The Stevens empire

William Stevens became lock keeper at Triggs lock in 1812 and gradually assumed a more powerful role in its management. By the 1890s the navigation was being run by William and his sons.

In 1845 Guildford railway station was opened enabling travel to London in less than two hours. For a while it remained more economical to transport bulk goods via the navigation but the railway inevitably took some business.

In 1900 the Edwards came to live at Dapdune Wharf in Guildford.  They would build larger barges carrying 90 tons and towed by two horses. The new barges enabled the navigation to remain commercially viable.

After the First World War barges would only travel to Dapdune Wharf for maintenance or repairs but rarely carry commercial loads to or from the town. Licence and mooring fees from pleasure boating provided some income but by the late 1950s it was becoming difficult to balance the books.

What now?

In 1964, Harry Stevens offered the Wey Navigation to the National Trust. In 1968 the Godalming Navigation also passed to them.  For the first time both navigations were under a single ownership.

Today, the National Trust manages the navigations as a leisure waterway. It is run within the guidelines of the Navigation Acts and the principles of the Trust.