Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Walking an old canal

Last week-end saw my other half and I joining a walk organised by the Railway Ramblers along the route of the Portsmouth and Arundel Canal from Barnham to Chichester. OK, so it's not a railway, but the club does include the occasional walk along other old transport routes.

The canal has a fascinating history. The impetus for construction was the Napoleonic War in the opening years of the 19th century: goods going from London to the naval dockyards at Portsmouth usually went by ship and followed the coastal sea route, and were vulnerable to French raids. The canal was part of a route built to provide an inland alternative.

The first part of the canal crossed Portsea island to connect Portsmouth to Chichester Harbour. A second canal ran from Chichester Harbour into Chichester, and from a junction at Hunston another arm ran to Ford and the river Arun, which was used to navigate north to Pallingham. There, barges used the older Wey and Arun canal to strike north towards London. Construction began in 1818 and was completed in 1823, but the undertaking was never a commercial success: the Napoleonic wars had ended, coastal shipping had resumed and the advent of the railways from 1846 onwards provided unbeatable competition.

With the exception of the section to Chichester, which survived until 1906 (and is currently partly navigable and being restored), the rest of the canal was abandoned as early as 1850. As a result, some of the route has disappeared altogether, although enough artefacts remain to make it enjoyable both to walk and to see some industrial archaeology – many parts are still ‘in water’, although very heavily overgrown. It's also incredibly rural as a route, and the hedgerows are full of wild flowers, insect and bird life. Some of the flora is not quite so friendly though - 2m high nettles and the odd aggressive bramble meant I was glad to have worn long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt!

The other joys of the route were that we saw plenty of other items of interest: the mediaeval churches at Barnham and Merston; the late mediaeval Manor House at Barnham; and, perhaps best of all, the former canal-side pub - The Walnut Tree - at Runcton, where some real ale and a ploughman's lunch went down very well indeed...

I should add a thanks to Railway Ramblers for being so friendly and organising such a lovely (and informative) day out!

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