Part 1 – The Adventure Begins……
There are few opportunities in our busy lives, to take some time off the day job and spend the time relaxing with friends. Even more infrequently do those days align perfectly with a period of several days of perfect weather in mid-September.
My friends, from California were about mid-way through their European Grand Tour – that would encompass Ireland, UK and France. My role was to choose a uniquely English leisure activity that would keep us all busy for five days in Surrey, before they departed by channel ferry and train to visit friends and relations in Paris.
By chance, the September edition of Canal Boat magazine, featured an article about cruising on the River Wey between Godalming and Pyrford, and so over a meal with another couple of mutual friends, we decided to rent a narrowboat for four nights and see where it would take us.
The River Wey was one of the first rivers to undergo significant man-made improvements to allow the easier passage of cargo carrying boats, between Guildford and Weybridge, where it meets the River Thames. This work was completed in 1653 – a full 100 years before much of the canal network was constructed. Barges carried milled flour, corn, iron and timber from Surrey and Sussex up to the ever expanding London, and brought coal and other heavy goods back to market town of Guildford – which at that time was a settlement of only 1500 people.
There is nothing fast about narrowboating. If you have to do something fast, then your are probably inexperienced and doing it wrong. The speed limit on our waterways is set at 4mph – equivalent to a brisk walking pace. But you will never cover four miles in one hour, there are locks to pass through, and these at worst case may take 20 minutes, sometimes longer if there are fellow boaters ahead of you, and you need to wait your turn. So, at best, you may travel 2 miles in any hour, and you will have all that extra time to take stock of all around you and think about where you are going.
We had a rough plan to leave the boathouse at Farncombe on the Monday afternoon, travel about 10 miles down stream to Pyrford lock, which we hoped to reach by Wednesday lunchtime. Then we would turn the boat around and sail back with the aim of handing the boat back by 9am on Friday morning. The course of the River Wey is conveniently punctuated by riverside pubs, and these would serve as way-points and refreshment stops.
On route we encountered a couple of locks, that fortunately were already full from the last passing vessel and so we could sail right in. With locks set in one’s favour, the process is quite simple. If you have to wait to refill a lock, or you are accompanying another vessel through the lock, the process needs a bit more co-ordination and co-operation. You very soon learn the rudiments of lock-etiquette
By Monday evening we had reached The Olde Ship Inn which is just to the south of Guildford, close to St Catherine’s Hill. It’s a short walk up a steep lane, Ferry Lane, which leads up from the towpath close to the footbridge that carries the Pilgrim’s Way across the river. Here we met up with our other two friends who would be joining us for a couple of nights, and part of the voyage – as work commitments would allow for. We found a genuinely old fashioned pub with exposed timber beams and timber panels neatly dividing the interior into a few small rooms. The five of us grabbed a large table in the corner and studied the menus. They served an excellent home made pizza, and after eating more than our fill, we rollicked down the hill, contented with good food, wine and beer.
St Catherines Hill is a low sandy mound on the bank of the Wey. A ruined chapel, St. Catherines dates from the early 14th century, and is depicted in a painting by Turner from 1808 which is now in the Tate Gallery. (Wikipedia)
Tuesday morning began early, as I had forgotten to cancel my 6:15 weekday alarm on my mobile. An eerie mist had descended upon the river, and highlighted the sunbeams as the sun rose through the trees around 7am. First up, and also because I was sleeping in the galley area meant that I was on tea duty, and with the first rays on sun bursting through the boat windows – I felt it would be forgiven if I started clanking around with gas rings and kettles, and the abrupt whir of the fresh water electric pump.
As we breakfasted we were passed by several rowers in their individual rowing sculls, friendly dogs and their walkers and various brisk commuters either on foot or cycling the towpath.
Suitably revitalised with tea and toast, and with the sun fully up over the river, we set off and covered the last mile into Guildford, passing water meadows on the starboard side and expensive waterside properties on the steep riverbank to our port side.
Soon we were entering Guildford with the rowing club on the right and the Millmead lock approaching us. Millmead lock was empty, and not set in our favour, so we had to tie-up just upstream and refill the lock. Unfortunately there is a weir to the side of the lock, and the river current flowing over the weir made manouvering difficult. Regardless of engine or tiller, our bow was being pulled towards the weir. I resorted to the large boat-pole and somewhat awkwardly punted the bow back towards the jetty so that the bow-line could be secured.
Millmead Lock was our first challenge – not only did we have to go through the whole cycle of fill and empty, but we had a few onlookers including ducks and inquisitive (or hungry) swans.
We pottered into the centre of Guildford and moored up alongside a row of converted old warehouses. A suitable mooring whilst we went shopping for supplies including the essential coffee that my American friends were already twitching for. We dived into a Wetherspoons for a quick caffeine fix, before exploring the High Street and then reprovisioning at the conveniently located Tesco Express.