Site Records

Site Name: Greywell Tunnel - Basingstoke Canal

OS Grid Ref: West Portal SU708517, east portal SU719515

Sub Brit site visit April 1975, March 1976 & September 2004

[Source: Nick Catford]

The Basingstoke Canal was built to support local agriculture giving farmers access to London Markets. It was authorised by Act of Parliament in 1778 with work commencing in 1787. The canal took seven years to complete, finally opening in 1794 with 29 locks taking the canal from the River Wey at Byfleet in Surrey, 16 miles to a 245ft high summit level above Ash Lock in Hampshire. From here the canal ran on a level plateau a further 21 miles into Basingstoke. At Greywell the canal was taken through Greywell Hill in a 1230 yard tunnel.

During its early years, coastal traffic was disrupted during the Napoleonic wars and the canal was moderately successful handling cross country traffic that would have normally gone by sea; but with the coming of the railways in 1840 most of the small goods traffic was lost. There was a revival during the late 1850's during the building of Aldershot Camp with building materials arriving by boat but this dropped off once the camp was completed and within a few years the canal company went into liquidation.

The canal went through a number of new owners, some with ingenious plans to make the navigation pay its way but all to no avail until the First World War when it was integrated into the national canal network. Under the control of the Royal Engineers it was used to transport large quantities of military hardware to the camps at Aldershot, Crookham & Deepcut but traffic declined at the end of the war and the canal went back into private ownership in 1923 with reasonable traffic levels being maintained up to Woking.

There was a further decline during WW2 and the canal was sold to the New Basingstoke Canal Company in 1949; this was to be its last private owner. The new company tried to raise extra income from fishing and houseboat moorings, and unpowered pleasure craft were encouraged to use the navigation. However there wasn't sufficient income to maintain the waterway and by 1964 it was virtually derelict throughout its length.

Photo:Greywell Tunnel - the east portal in 1976
Photo by Nick Catford

By the late 1960's the canal was considered an eyesore and a group of residents from Brookwood submitted a proposal to the owners that they should form a volunteer working party to clean up the derelict waterway at weekends. The New Basingstoke Canal Company was not impressed with the proposal as it interfered with their own plans to sell off sections of the canal for development.

Despite this set back, The Surrey & Hampshire Canal Society was formed to actively campaign for the Canal to be taken into public ownership and restored for leisure traffic between Byfleet and Greywell Tunnel. Beyond Greywell the canal had been abandoned and in places filled in.

A report was commissioned which recommended that the canal should be restored for through navigation from the River Wey with a rider that navigation should be restricted to preserve the rich natural history along the banks.

Surrey and Hampshire County Councils acquired the canal by compulsory purchase order in 1974 and restoration work began in earnest in a partnership between the two county councils and the Surrey & Hampshire Canal Society. During the week many young people were employed on the canal as part of job creations schemes while at the weekends restoration continued with large numbers of volunteer workers provided by the canal society. The major engineering work was at the Surrey end where 28 locks had to be repaired and in some cases rebuilt.

The canal was officially re-opened by the Duke of Kent on 10th May 1991. Once the canal had been completed the two county councils decided on a scheme of joint management under a new Basingstoke Canal Authority.

Photo:Greywell Tunnel - the collapsed west portal in 1975
Photo by Nick Catford

Prior to the construction of the canal a survey was made of the intended route; there were no plans to build a tunnel at Greywell, instead it was proposed that the canal should loop round the north side of Greywell Hill & Butter Wood. A local landowner, Earl Tylney, raised objections to this route however as it would cut off some of his land so a new route was conceived with a tunnel passing through the hill.

Construction followed the standard pattern for canal tunnels. This involved sinking a number of vertical shafts along the line of the canal with a tunnel being driven in both directions from the bottom of each shaft. It is possible to see where each of these tunnels met as there is a slight kink in the line. All this work was done by hand and candle light.

Legging through a canal tunnel
223 yards of the tunnel had been finished by June 1791 and a year later this had been increased to 635 yards. The tunnel finally opened on 4th September 1794 but disaster struck within six weeks when one bank of the canal collapsed near the west portal; a second slip followed forcing the closure of the canal until the following summer. The tunnel has no towpath, boats had to be 'legged; through while the horses were walked over the top of Greywell Hill. A footpath over Greywell Hill still follows the original horse route.

The tunnel was the second longest canal tunnel in Southern England (longest was Higham on the Thames & Medway Canal) and the 12th longest in Great Britain. At its deepest point the tunnel is 131 feet below Greywell Hill.

Soon after the canal was opened, a 30th lock was built close to the eastern end of the tunnel. The lock had a fall of one foot and it has been suggested that it was built to increase the level of water in the tunnel to aid navigation as the water level in the tunnel was shallower than originally planned.

For further information and pictures of Greywell Tunnel click here

[Source: Nick Catford]

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