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The history of River Wey Navigations

Footbridge over the River Wey and Godalming Navigations, Surrey
Footbridge over the River Wey and Godalming Navigations | © National Trust Images/Derek Croucher

One of the oldest river navigations in the country, the River Wey Navigation was created between 1651 and 1653 to provide a highway to London for Guildford merchants. This feat of engineering was the brainchild of nobleman Sir Richard Weston and was extended to Godalming in the 18th century, before being eventually superseded by more practical methods of transport.

The River Wey Navigation

The River Wey Navigation is a waterway of almost 20 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 north of Guildford on the banks of the River Wey. Sir Richard was interested in agriculture and had seen in the Netherlands and Belgium how sections of canal could bypass sections of river, effectively shortening a journey.

Transporting goods by road to London was difficult and only one or two tons could be carried in a horse-drawn wagon. 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.

Creating a new route

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

Improving connections with London

While the navigation today is a place of tranquillity, humming with the sound of the M25 high above, it was once a vital transport route for Surrey merchants. Crews would be anxious not to miss London tides, working quickly to unload cargoes of grain, timber, coal and even gunpowder.

Every penny counted, and time spent opening and closing locks and weirs was crucial. You can still see the rollers installed on sharp bends that helped the barges get round corners more quickly and easily.

Expanding the navigations

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, and by 1764 the River Wey and Godalming Navigations were complete.

Cogs on the lock gates of Newark Lock on the River Wey, Surrey
Cogs on the lock gates of Newark Lock on the River Wey | © National Trust Images/John Miller

The introduction of railways

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.

But managing the navigations wasn’t always easy. In 1845 Guildford railway station was opened, enabling travel to London in under two hours. For a while it remained more economical to transport bulk goods via the navigation, but the new railway inevitably took some business away from the canals.

Upsizing and repurposing

The creation of new barges in 1900 helped the navigation to remain commercially viable. By this time the Edwards family were living at Dapdune Wharf in Guildford. They built larger barges to carry 90 tonnes, towed by two horses, which attracted more business to the navigation.

By the end of the First World War, barges travelled to Dapdune Wharf for maintenance or repairs, but rarely carried commercial loads. Licence and mooring fees from pleasure boating provided some income, but by the late 1950s it was becoming difficult to balance the books.

The Navigation today

In 1964, Harry Stevens offered the Wey Navigation to the National Trust, and in 1968 the Godalming Navigation also passed to Trust. 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.

A length of canal with Pyrford Lock on the foreground and blue skies above

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