Feeling the need to work off some of the Christmas excess, I hopped on my bike this morning for a ride around the Wey Navigation – a series of canals and rivers running off the River Thames out in Surrey. My wife had gone out with her friend for an equally constitutional (though infinitely more boring – especially for cyclists) walk around Virginia Water Lake in the Windsor Great Park, so it was an ideal opportunity. I was assured by my ever-trusty guide, “Traffic Free Cycle Trails” (see below) that this was a short and interesting ride, though somewhat difficult around the canal towpaths. I decided to attempt the northern end of the navigation, starting in Weybridge, rather than the southern end, which stretches out as far as Guildford.
My ride started in the pub carpark of the “Old Crown” pub in Weybridge. It was deserted, this being Boxing Day at around 9am, with no obvious signage to any cycle paths. Behind me, shown in the photo below, was a rather soggy and flooded island, surrounded by boats in fairly poor condition, with the river running off to the southwest. I assumed this would lead me to the Wey Navigation, and headed off down a narrow alleyway – barely big enough to fit my bike down – following the river’s general direction.
I then came to “Flockton Island”, according to my guide, which was an equally deserted muddy stretch of grass, surrounded on all sides by a swollen river. It was connected to other equally muddy stretches of grass by some ornate bridges, but none of these seemed to lead to any paths I could cycle along. I tried to follow the course of the river a little way, but the only navigable routes I could find were through little residential side streets. These were somewhat charming, being filled with early 19th-century workers’ cottages, but I couldn’t get down to the river – no matter how hard I tried. Lots of roads were strictly “PRIVATE!” with no entry permitted, and I pedalled round in circles trying to find a way through. Every single house was terraced, and after a few minutes, I lost sight of the river altogether. My wife, who was brought up around here, assures me that I’d just “missed” the correct path somewhere around Flockton Island. I decided, instead, to head back to the main road into Weybridge, where I had seen part of the river earlier while travelling to my start point.
I joined the Wey Navigation at a little canal just off Weybridge Road, pictured above. This road gave me two opportunities – to head west, apparently in the general direction of Addlestone, or south – as I had been led to believe the river went. However, the southern path was another “PRIVATE!” road – with “public footpath” written underneath in very teeny letters. Cars were also advised to keep their speed down. And dog walkers to stick to the left. In light of all these instructions, I decided that this road didn’t seem all that “PRIVATE!” after all, and cycled off – now alongside the river proper. I had covered about 3.5 miles by this time, just looking to get my ride started. I bounced down the potholed “PRIVATE!” road, breathing in fresh air and listening to the sound of rushing water alongside me. The ground was wet from recent flooding, and the river looked to be much higher than I imagined its usual level.
After about another mile down the road, I was treated to a good vantage point and a picturesque scene – shown below.
I stayed here for a couple of minutes, letting the vibrations in my legs die down a bit, and took a few photos with my DSLR. I was confident I was now on the right track, and looked forward to seeing how far I could follow the river for. Unfortunately, I soon found out that it wasn’t for much longer – again, at the end of the road, were several houses and an estate – all of which promised me absolutely no access, and absolutely no way of reaching the river again. I had seen a muddy towpath on the other side of the river, but could see no way to get to it – and no obvious bridge leading over there. Cursing my luck once again, I turned by bike around and pedalled all the way back up to the main Weybridge Road.
This time, I followed the canal west towards Addlestone. The road was unusual, in that it sat beneath the level of the canal, which itself was raised up by a large grass verge. The towpath ran up this verge and directly alongside the water. It was here that I made yet another mistake. In all the recent rain, the towpath was like a quagmire. I vainly tried to ride it, acutely aware that I was only less than a foot from the canal water, and saw that other riders had tried to cut a new singletrack elsewhere on the verge in the hope of finding something drier, slightly to the right. I managed to get my front wheel into this dry rut, but my back wheel wouldn’t follow – it stayed firmly in the slippery wet mud close to the canal. Precariously balanced between the hard road below me and the canal to my left, I resembled a speedway rider rounding a bend, riding almost sideways on, just to stay on my wheels! After around a minute, I managed to stop my bike and walk the 200 yards to safer ground. As the guide had said, the towpaths were definitely tricky – and not for the faint-hearted.
I hopped back on my bike when the going was a little safer, and after a mile or so ploughing through even more mud, came to a lock in the canal. Dead opposite was a block of flats, which looked like an old converted mill to me:
I took a short break here just to admire the scenery again, and to take in the sound of the rushing water. I was, by now, up to my knees in mud. My red/black Altura combination had turned into a shade of 70’s brown.
I cut through a footpath, now – for the first time on this ride – helpfully signposted as being back towards Addlestone. I had given up on finding the southern route of the Wey Navigation and wanted to get back into the warm and dry! After crossing through some more fields, gravel tracks and “PRIVATE!” roads (which allowed public access – hmm), I found myself back on the main roads and off towards home. I had failed to find the route I wanted to do, but I had a little adventure in my own way, and seen a whole lot more of this area that I never knew existed. I showed the pictures to my wife and even she didn’t recognise many of the places I had been to. It just goes to show that off-road on a bike, you really do see more of your world; even at this time of year, it might be cold and miserable outside, but there’s always something to see, and there’s nothing quite like being out there on your bike. I might have brought a significant percentage of the canal towpath home with me, got lost and ended up somewhere I never intended, but I thoroughly enjoyed this little sojourn. I’m not sure Mrs TWT’s washing machine will, though.