The River Wey – Natural Beauty Meets Man Made Wonder

There are many inland waterways on my list to conquer, and the first on that list for this year was the ancient River Wey and its adjoining man made appendages; The Wey & Godalming Navigations. Exploring both the natural river and the man made cuts in my kayak and travelling solo, I was not disappointed! A wonderful combination of some of the earliest examples of canal engineering meet wild, fast flowing backwaters; there is something for everyone, and something for every type of craft whether traditional narrowboat or something small and human powered like mine.

National Trust - River Wey Navigations

Wey & Godalming Navigations

Distance: 20 miles (32km) / Time: 2 days (with overnight camp)

While the Wey is navigable by canoe and kayak upstream of Godalming, I started my journey where the official Wey & Godalming Navigations begin, and where most recreational boaters launch from. Specifically this is at Godalming Wharf, which has ample and easy launching for all kinds of crafts and abilities. It is also conveniently right next to a large supermarket so you can stock up on snacks or whatever you need before you set off.

This section between here and Shalford (where the Wey connects to the Wey & Arun Canal) is The Godalming Navigation and is the younger of the engineered sections, opening in 1764. This is a calm and pleasant stretch with few locks/ portages through handsome countryside. The cut is shady and tree lined, and accompanied by walkers and cyclists on one side with herds of cattle on the other.

From the open countryside and woodland, suddenly the imposing chalk hills of Guildford emerge and human activity on both the river and its banks increases. The river passes right through Guildford itself, the largest town on the route. There are a number of opportunities for a riverside pint and bite. Distinctive Victorian industrial wharf-side architecture serves as a reminder of the once thriving trade on this waterway. This is probably best represented at Dapdune Wharf, a well preserved example of the Wey’s industrial past.

Back into the Surrey countryside out of Guildford, and the older of the engineered sections – The Wey Navigation. Opened in 1653 this was one of the very first man made navigations in England. This is reflected in the not-quite-river-not-quite-canal feel of the Wey. Worsfold Gates are the first of two sets of flood gates on the cut, and to the unknowing eye appear like a decommissioned lock. Their function though, is to divert water down the weir after heavy rainfall, to prevent flooding of the navigation and thus keeping traffic (and trade) moving.

There’s a wonderful almost medieval atmosphere to the next stretch of the river – at this point much more ‘river-like’ than canal, as it winds through open blustery grassland. Streams and tributaries puncture the main course adding to the wildness. Turning a corner revealing the ruined 12th century Newark Priory, surrounded by open marsh-like land, dead trees and cawing ravens was like something out of Game of Thrones!

Newark Priory
Newark Priory

This heralds the longest man made section of the Wey, (with the least locks). There is no understating how pretty this section is. The only thing I dare say spoils it, is the ever increasing traffic noise from the nearby M3 and M25 motorways which crescendo to a constant roar by the time you get to Byfleet. Shame. The highlight of this part is passing the Elizabethan poet John Donne‘s summer house. It’s easy to see how this setting inspired him (in the days before motorway traffic noise obviously).

Just before New Haw is the entrance to Basingstoke Canal, another waterway I’ve paddled the length of and also recommend. With car tyre noise now at maximum, you pass under the mammoth M25 overpass, which at water level is like floating through an art gallery of colourful intricate graffiti. It lets you know in no uncertain terms that you are leaving country for town.

The iconic 19th century mill at Coxes Lock (which I believe is still in operation) is one of the last and best sights to see on the Wey. Then it’s on through the salubrious town of Weybridge itself, with its beautiful riverside homes and gardens that one of modest means such as myself can only dream of. This part of Surrey is often called the “Beverly Hills of England”. One day.

Coxes Mill, River Wey
Coxes Mill

At Town Lock, in the heart of Weybridge, the wild river (see below) rejoins the main navigation. Then Thames Lock marks the end. As the name suggests, this is the junction of the Wey and the River Thames.

River Wey (Wild Section)

Distance: 5 miles (8km) / Time: 4 hours

Backing up a bit to Walsham Gates, and the Wey splits in two; the man made cut and the natural course of the river. Large and powered craft such as narrowboats are not suitable (and wouldn’t be able to access it anyway). SUP’s (Stand Up Paddle boards) are also better off staying on the cut from here rather than the natural river, which is fast flowing in places with lots of low trees. It is however, perfect for kayaks and canoes!

Approximately fifty meters downstream of Walsham Gates I found a convenient place to land then portage over to the natural river. This area is used for a private angling club, so if you see any anglers then be polite and respectful, and perhaps find somewhere a bit further downstream so as not to disturb them.

Once on the water I was being pushed along gently by the flow of the river. It’s nothing too exciting – easy enough even for beginner paddlers, but fast enough to just steer the boat if you aren’t in a rush and want to take in the beautiful scenery and wildlife. Which you should.

The course goes through the Royal Horticultural Gardens at Wisley, so the flora and fauna surrounding you on your way is simply stunning. I drifted through swarms of electric blue dragonfly through thick bush, with wild rhododendron smattering the banks with neon pink. The water is quite shallow pretty much all the way to Weybridge and is mostly crystal clear. A variety of flowering weeds and water lilies are like underwater gardens, and there are occasional thick clusters of reeds that serve as hiding places for water-fowl. I spotted one kingfisher on route, and I doubt it was a particularly rare sighting here.

There is only one portage to be aware of. I made the mistake of just aimlessly following the river and not consulting any map, so I eventually hit Byfleet Mill which is now private property and not portage-able. Before the property at Byfleet Mill, the river splits off to the left into what looks like a small creek. It’s fine (and quite pleasant) to paddle down here until you come to the weir. Then it’s easy enough to land and portage over the road and relaunch. There are signs and it is obvious.

Then it’s plain sailing all the way to the end. The banks become higher, the number of bridges and man made structures increase, and you can feel that transition from wildness to civilisation. You pass Brooklands Museum and if you look you will spot some of the museum’s aircraft overlooking the river, as well as the derelict concrete racing track banks which hosted some of the earliest Grand Prix races. Take care under some of these bridges though, as one or two have become strainers for driftwood and debris. There are also underwater obstructions you’ll need to keep your eyes peeled for. Rescue from the bank would be difficult here, so take care not to get into trouble.

Emerging from Brooklands, you can see the towering aforementioned Coxes Mill in the distance. Activity on the water increases thanks to a canoe club and this seemingly being a popular spot with swimmers. Finally seeing the first moored narrowboats on this section is a clear sign that the end of the route is approaching. I always end up chatting to other paddlers and river users in the area of Town Lock, it’s a friendly part of the river.

I completed my journey at Town Lock where I got picked up. You could however do this route as a loop, returning not the way you came (which would be too challenging against the current) but by portaging Town Lock and going up the cut back to Walsham Gates. If you wanted to continue your journey, carry on downstream to Thames Lock, joining the River Thames near Shepperton Lock.

More…

I’ve made two videos about my journeys down the Wey, one for the man-made navigations (with overnight camp) and another video on the natural course of the river…

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