WE ARE very lucky to have the Basingstoke Canal passing through this part of Surrey. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty, with more than 250 acres of the land on which it was built recognised as sites of scientific interest and nature conservation.

Even though the waterway passes through urban centres, its green loveliness is rarely spoiled by concrete ugliness.

Importantly, the canal provides a close connection with nature, which has been lifting the spirits of many during the past year of life under COVID restrictions. Connecting with nature has been proven to be important for us, mentally and physically.

The canal – which was opened in 1794 – is jointly owned by Surrey and Hampshire county councils and maintained on their behalf by the Basingstoke Canal Authority. It is also supported by a charity, the Basingstoke Canal Society, which was formed in 1966 to save the canal from dereliction and was largely responsible for its restoration.

More than 28,000 hours of volunteer time are spent each year on maintaining the 32 miles of the waterway that are now navigable and conserving the biodiversity. Without volunteers, the society would not exist, and the canal and its natural environment would suffer.

Winter is a busy maintenance season on the canal. The flight of locks at Woodham were identified as requiring repairs and in this case the canal authority engaged a contractor, Kenward Groundworks, to carry out the works.

“These are mostly structural repairs ranging from rebuilding wingwalls, pointing brickwork and re-planking lock gates,” explained the canal manager, Fiona Shipp.

Before the works could start, the fish in the canal had to be removed, place, so that the water could be pumped out.

“This was carried out by a team in dry suits, sweeping through with large nets as the water level was gradually reduced over a few days, with repeat sweeps to ensure nothing was missed,” said Fiona. “All the fish were moved upstream of lock six, at Sheerwater Bridge.

“It’s a harsh job undertaking a fish rescue in very cold conditions but, thankfully, they weren’t breaking the ice this year, as they have had to in the past.

“It’s always interesting to see what we find, whether unusual items on the canal bed or the species of fish. It was good to find some eels, including young ones.”

The contractors are working their way down the locks. Water will not be removed from the sections with houseboats, so additional dams will go in around these sections as works begin on lock 2, near Scotland Bridge, and lock 1, near Heathervale Recreation Grounds at New Haw.

There will be careful water management to ensure the houseboats stay afloat. All these works are due to be finished before the end of March.

Meanwhile, work is under way to replace the steps at Deepcut Bridge, and two new sets of lock gates are being installed at locks 28 and 27, also in Deepcut.

It’s not surprising many more people have been enjoying outings along the canal towpath during the pandemic – more than three times the usual number of local people, according to the canal authority.

“The towpath generally has taken a real hit this year with so much additional use,” said Fiona. “This is even more noticeable during the winter when that extra footfall has a direct immediate impact on the towpath surfacing, especially in areas of Hampshire where we do not have a made-up surface.

“Please ensure you are wearing stout footwear and be prepared for some muddy conditions if you head out for some exercise on the canal.”

Birds of many species are a key feature of the wildlife along the canal, from swans to kingfishers. Swans are easy to spot as they cruise majestically by, but you need to keep an sharp eye out to see a kingfisher.

They fly at lightning-fast speeds across the canal – often just a blue blur – and can be seen perching on a waterside branch, waiting patiently for the opportunity to dive and catch a fish.

With the nesting season under way, birds are becoming increasingly active all along the canal. With the trees not yet in leaf, you might just spy one of these beautiful iridescent birds.

Support your local canal

BASINGSTOKE Canal Society needs people to join up and support its efforts to maintain the canal in navigable condition.

Members enjoy benefits including free and discounted boat trips, volunteers help maintain the canal, while the friends scheme creates a community spirit and information hub for those who wish to enjoy the canal.