Tony Brown and I beside The Wey Navigation.
Thursday 6th October 2022. Tony and I went for a walk. We go walking together often, along with John Lodge. John couldn’t make it this time so Tony and I decided that we would walk the canalised part of the River Wey from near Wisley. There was no thought of a given distance. We merely wanted a pleasant walk and a pub lunch in whatever establishment we came across.
Walking, It is what us human beings are made for. I remember teaching and learning about the human body with some of the primary school classes I taught over the years I would get the class into groups and each group would lay out a long piece of lining paper on the floor. A child would volunteer to lie down on the paper. Other children would draw an outline around them. The whole group, using books and diagrams as source information, would draw a skeleton within the outline shape, naming the bones. Then muscles attached to the bones and interior organs would be sketched and labelled too. Once the whole diagram had been finished the children had created a life size, detailed diagram of the human body. Muscles attached to bones showed where they pushed and pulled creating movement in any particular limb. It was obvious for all to see that the whole of the human body was designed to move. When we watch the Olympic Games every four years humans jump, run, swim, dive, twist and turn, throw and balance. Every possibility of human movement is explored and employed in the most amazing ways. When we don’t move, we become sedentary. We can lose our full potential. Not moving for a long time affects our brain and moods. We only have to think of our own experience.
Tony drove to my house in West Barnes Lane and came in for a cup of tea and a chat with Marilyn and I. When we were ready , Tony did the driving, we drove down the A3. Once past The Kingston bypass and the Ace of Spades roundabout we get out of Greater London.
“Is this where the fifty mile an hour speed limit finishes? “asked Tony.
And so we accelerated up to seventy miles per hour.
Tony is a smooth driver and we sped swiftly onwards. At first fields and sheds and small industrial units appear on each side. A liminal space, neither countryside, residential or industrial, an in-between world, one type of terrain melding into the other. Then dense woodland, Oxshott Woods, with footbridges arching over the top of us from one side to the other. Sometimes you can see horses being ridden over a bridge. In its full autumn foliage, the A3 feels like driving through a canyon of leafy walls. A pleasant wilderness, a great forest. Of course from an aerial viewpoint and on my satnav I could see villages and towns and farms not far away, but, for that stretch of road you can dream. I like this drive. It’s not just a long black tongue of road leading for seventy miles down to Portsmouth. The sense of forest and wilderness appeals to something primal perhaps inside all of us.
We turned off for Wisley, coming off the slip road on the left and passed under the A3 and drove back up the A3 on the opposite side for a mile until we came to the partly hidden Wisley turn off shielded behind trees and shrubs.
The Wisley Road to Pyrford Lock on The River Wey passes the entrance to the RHS Wisley Gardens on the left. It is a winding road tree lined with some depth of woodland in places but also with fields visible through the gaps in the trees followed by open areas of fields. The road has no pavements. It is just wide enough for two cars to pass. But the blind bends and turns make it difficult to drive along. A driver needs to be fully engaged and fully concentrating on the road ahead. We passed Wisley Church and thought it would be a good idea to visit the church on our way back. It is a small stone built church mostly from the 12th century. We wound our careful way to the Pyrford Lock where the Anchor Pub is located right on the side of the river. A car park next to the river is on the right but we drove into the larger car park on the left across the road from The Anchor.
The Wey Navigation.
We set out We discussed the idea that we would walk along the river and canal for a while and then turn back to have a pub lunch at The Anchor. A lock gate leaking water to the lower level was next to the bridge crossing the river here. A pathway wends its way towards Guildford on the left bank so we started our walk in that direction. Trees still green with leaves, a few turning autumn yellow. The river full to the top of the banks after recent rains, glassy smooth, reflecting the trees and shrubs. It is amazing how walking promotes talking.
“Is the river flowing?” Tony wondered. It looked so still and glassy.
We stopped for a moment and observed the surface. We could see the river moving to our right almost imperceptibly. It was flowing in the direction of the Thames which it feeds at Shepperton Lock near D’Oyly Carte Island.We noticed masses of what at first looked like large clumps of watercress growing profusely on both sides of the river. Again we stopped to look more carefully. We decided that it wasn’t watercress but what appeared to be small lily pads but probably something else entirely. These days an app on your phone can recognise almost any plant, tree or shrub and provide you with information as well as a picture. However Tony hasn’t got a plant recognition app on his phone and I deleted the one I had. I used the app assiduously for a while and then lost interest in it. We will have to wait for another time to identify that particular water plant.
The banks of the river and canal changed as we walked along. Sometimes the banks were those of a river, winding and curving. At other times, especially where there were locks the river was straight sometimes with brick built sides and sometimes with turf sides. I have never seen a turf sided canal before.
Lock gate near Pyrford.
The Wey River Navigation is one of the oldest types of canal in the country. A turf canal was first constructed along The River Wey between 1618 and 1619 by Sir Richard Weston an owner of the land stretching either side of the river.He built a three mile cut through his land in 1618. The Guildford Corporation petitioned the King to extend the canalisation so that boats could reach Guildford from the Thames.The work was completed in November 1653. This new canal, the idea for which came from visits to the Netherlands, improved the economy of Guildford and mid Surrey well before the Industrial Revolution and the northern canal systems. Wood to rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666 came from Surrey via The Wey Navigation. Stone from quarries near Guildford was moved along the canal and was used for building of St Paul’s Cathedral. Timber, corn, flour, wood and gunpowder moved north along the canal and then down the Thames to London. By linking Guildford and hence mid Surrey to The Thames, exports from Europe by the Hanseatic League, ( a commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns growing from a group of north German towns in the late 12th century) provided wood, tar, cereals, fish, salt and many other items. Wines from Italy and Spain and many other links could be accessed from the trading highway The Thames provided and could be transported to Guildford. From the 18th century the,” triangular trade,” created by The Royal Africa Company involved enslaved Africans from the West Coast of Africa. The slaves were used on the plantations to grow sugar cane and the sugar created great wealth for Britain. Products such as sugar reached Guildford along the canal.
Nowadays our present government is critical of any emphasise on the effects that 18th century slavery still plays today. The fact that we have systemic racism in most large organisations, denied by our Conservative Government, and racist acts and attitudes are still prevalent in our society, can be directly linked to our attitudes and beliefs deriving from our past trade in slaves . I think we have to be aware of that to able to address the issues that occur today and not just say , that all happened long ago in the past. By knowing our history and accepting its consequences we can begin to solve racist problems today. Change only comes about through knowledge and being aware.
The Pathway wending its way along the side of the Wey Navigation is cared for by The National trust. The Trust members these days are divided along political and social factions because of the different attitudes to historical interpretation some of which is linked to our slave trade past and some attributed to how we differ on our views about land management and the attitudes to the countryside as a whole. I am a member of The National Trust. It’s houses, landscapes and gardens are without doubt national treasures and absolutely amazing to be able to visit.The National Trust allows all of us to experience, historic houses and their treasures, historic landscapes such as Capability Brown designed gardens, forests, moors and mountains. They also have to pay regard to current issues about sustainability, the environment, interpretation of our past history and also take into account the effects our past has on our present such as the legacy of colonialism and slavery. Some members think there is too much emphasis on the legacy of slavery. Slavery created the wealth for building many of The Trusts properties and lands. Therefore the role of slavery surely must be part of the interpretation of our past.
With regards to the landscape and the grounds of many of The Trust properties, some think The National Trust should only be involved in keeping the landscapes as they always were. As long as this does not damage our environment they can do that I think. However, some members are divided. They are against the concept of rewilding. The National Trust by its very name has to take into account national issues. It can’t be divorced from the real world. The management of our environment helps us all. The historic landscapes the trust oversees were developed to meet the needs of past times. Many trust members think that aspects of them should develop in line with the needs of today. Originally these landscapes and grand estates were developed to meet the needs of different times.
It appeared to Tony and I that the fields around The Wey are affected by some of these issues. Some fields near us were in a wild and unkempt state. Tony and I talked about food production in Britain. There we were surrounded by fields and marshes much of which did not appear to be farmed.One weedy and overgrown field had a single cow in it. I wondered if this was part of the rewilding happening on some National Trust properties. Some think rewilding is wrong. Tony made the point that Britain needs to grow as much food as it can and be more self sufficient than we are at present. I think both arguments are right . We need to produce food as a country but we also need to nurture and care for nature. Some might think that is sentimental . However, I know this from exploring habitats in school even with young children, that the smallest habitats interrelate by way of ecosystems and there is a reliance on each part for all parts to thrive. Plants rely on the soil and climate,Insects rely on plants, birds and dormice rely on insects. Larger preditors rely on the small animals and so the chain goes on. There are those among us who wonder what all this means for us humans. Healthy habitats and the larger ecosytems affect the air we breath, the water we drink, the standards of food we eat. All of life is connected. If ecosystems are destroyed then in the long run we do indeed destroy ourselves. Rewilding has a very important purpose in sustaining the ecosystms we need to survive, creating those important environmental chains. As humans we need to connect with nature, as Tony and I were doing in our walk, helping us to become stronger physically and mentally. Breathing fresh air and the beauties of nature are good for us in many ways. It makes you feel good and a healthy environment does you good.
As we walked along the river, various locks and sluices have been added and developed over the centuries. One sluice gate near Ripley had a late 19th century date on it . So it is obvious the canal has not remained exactly as it was when first made in the 17th century. The canal has had a history that continues and develops up to the present day. The arguments of one faction in the National Trust is regressive and not helpful and damaging. We need to look at our world in the round..
One final point about The Wey path being cared for by the National Trust.As Tony and I walked along there were many pristine and shiny house boats , some anchored at the side of the canal, one or two chugging along gracefully in mid stream. The very use of the canal,not only being used by Tony and myself as a very pleasant walk but the canal is also being used in ways that are appropriate to nowadays. Those arguing for nothing to change have lost out already in the uses of The Wey Navigation.
One of the things I always enjoy on a walk is passing other people.Two ladies of our age , probably in the retirement category like Tony and I walked past us going the opposite way. We naturally moved to make way for each other and none of us broke step. A nod of acknowledgement, a smile, a word or two overheard. It was a fleeting human connection. We have never met them before and they have never met us. We will never see each other again.It is a few seconds of all our lives. Strange to think of our life’s journey and obviously their life’s journey leading to those fleeting seconds. It’s good to acknowledge other humans , a glance, a smile. That is all it takes.I suppose you know you are not alone on this planet.
John Donne lived near Ripley for a short part of his life. As we walked along we came across some large houses partly hidden behind trees and lush lawns. These homes had their own riverside quays to tie up boats . Next to the river on the opposite side we saw a two storey brick built building with a strange, what appeared to be an oriental style roof. Tony thought it looked like a Dutch design. I noticed the brickwork looked weathered and the individual bricks were narrow and wide. From visits to Hampton Court, as a comparison, they looked like Tudor brickwork. The windows, top and bottom were lead latticed in a diamond formation which also leant this building an ancient feel and look. I noticed a plaque on the side of the building. It read,
“John Donne lived here. 1600-1604”
Jonne Donne the poet and Deane of St Pauls Cathedral in the City of London, suffered financial problems at one time in his life and he stayed here as cheap alternative accomodation. This riverside building had been part of a larger complex, no longer in existence. It belonged to his wife’s (Anne More) family. I wonder if he felt inspired to write any of his poetry here?
Perhaps he complained about the sun waking him in the morning?
THE SUN RISING
Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late school boys and sour prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time …
Further on we caught sight of Newark Priory, set in an expansive meadow across the river from us. It was established in 1189 but redeveloped in 1312.The priory is set on a large island and cannot be easily reached. It is not open to the public because it is privately owned. A service is held once a year in its ruins lead by the Bishop of Guildford. It stands alone.The parts that remain are a steeply pitched end wall of what was once a great hall or perhaps the church that once stood here. Other ruined walls of buildings and rooms are clustered there. When you see a ruined place like this thoughts go to what life was like in a place like that when it was a vibrant religious establishment. Tony suggested the priory made its living from mills on the river. The meadows surrounding it could have been used for sheep farming. I read on Wikipedia that the priory also owned land and property in the city of London from which it could exact rents.
After observing the priory Tony and I reached Newark Lock. We stood for a while listening to the sound of rushing water and observing two swans gliding by gracefully. A sign post nearby pointed us in the direction of Ripley Village. I have never been to Ripley before. It has a wide main street. Tudor timber frame buildings are interspersed with white Georgian fronts and Victorian brick built structures. Standing in the centre of the village we could see at least three pubs . The names of the pubs in Ripley all have nautical names. Ripley was on the main route from London to Portsmouth, so many sailors passed this way in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Ship Inn looked inviting but when we arrived at the door it was closed. Further west down the High Street we could see the sign for The Anchor. When we reached it too was a timber frame ancient building. I noticed a small round Michelin sticker on one window as we passed but didn’t give it a lot of thought. We walked into a low beamed room and walked to the counter in front of us. A young lady came to enquire our needs. As I approached her I suddenly staggered to the left. A steep slope in the floor from one level to another caught me unawares. A little embarrassing. Jokingly I said to the girl that the restaurant wanted to keep people off balance. She didn’t take it as jokingly as I meant and pointed out a warning sign below the desk she stood at. The sign was indeed a warning about the slope but it wasn’t at eye level. I think the restaurant was at fault but I laughed it off. Another young lady showed us to a table and gave us each a menu. Looking around it could be seen that different rooms from different connected buildings had been made into one space by demolishing dividing walls. There were lots of nooks and crannies which gave it an old comfortable ambience. We decided we liked it.
The menus were a little,” eye watering.” They were pricey. I remembered the Michelin sticker in the window and asked the manageress about this. The restaurant had been awarded a Michelin approved status. It did not have a Michelin star but the manageress explained that they were obliged to produce food of a Michelin star standard though. Having merely Michelin recognition allowed them to be more experimental and not keep to the narrow menu a Michelin star might require. Then Tony and I focussed more on the prices of the individual dishes, took a deep breath and decided, after a pause and a bit of muttering between us, that we would order food, consoling each other that we didn’t do this sort of thing often. The pricing was double what we would have normally expected to pay , but hey, anyway.
We ordered two pints of the Rebellion IPA brewed at the local Ripley brewery. Local breweries are producing some excellent beers these days and this particular IPA had a lovely light flowery flavour and at 3.7% it wasn’t too strong. We had a return journey along the Wey Navigation to achieve yet.
We both ordered from the A La Carte menu. I ordered a starter of ,”Hand divided Scallops with a raisin and caper vinaigrette.” My main course was ,”Seed crusted venison with a butternut puree pickled blackberries and roast shallots.” Ok I know what you are thinking. “Blimey.” Well, I can report the food was delicious. It appeared on square white china plates. The food was laid out on our plates like works of artwork that Picasso would have been proud of. It looked fantastic, but, disappointingly, the portions were tiny. For my starter the waitress presented me with the plate of scallops and then in a dramatic manner posing like an actress dribbled the vinaigrette sauce in a swirling flourish over the scallops. Of course when you order ,”posh,” food this is what you have to expect. We took our time sipping our pints of IPA. We also took our time eating the food, not wanting to eat it too quickly, reassuring each other how good it tasted. I would love to eat the scallops and the seed crusted venison again but a lot more of it and at half the price. I think we need these sort of experiences even if only once. The waitress who served us and the restaurant manager were both very friendly and helpful and they made for an overall enjoyable, warm, relaxed experience. We ate and drank and then payed the bill trying not to think about the cost.
From Ripley Village we retraced our steps to the weir on The Wey passing an apple tree that overhung the pavement from a field nearby. Perhaps the remnants of an orchard that once grew in this field. Who knows? We tried an apple each. They were sweet and crunchy. A free dessert!
We reached the Wey Navigation and wended our way back along the tow path to Pyrford Lock. The pub at Pyrford Lock, also called The Anchor, has an amazing coffee machine. Chrome levers with a chrome trim encircling the whole machine, catching the light. Hissing and steaming , the coffee machine provided for all the senses. We sat by the river and drank a coffee and ate a scone each. There was a noticeable difference between , The Anchor at Ripley and the The Anchor here at Pyrford Lock. The food at Pyrford Lock is cheap, fish and chips and pie and mash. Perfectly good tasty food but not Michelin style of course. There is nothing wrong with that. It was the atmosphere created by the staff at the Pyrford Lock Anchor pub that was noticeable. The restaurant manager and waitress at The Anchor in Ripley were friendly, warm and smiled, a lot . You could sense they their friendliness and they made us feel good. The Anchor at Pyrford Lock had a stern bar manager who seemed to create anxiety among the two staff behind the bar. The staff seemed to be ruled by fear. Maybe a little of an exaggeration but the difference in the two establishments was certainly stark. The Anchor at Pyrford could learn from The Anchor at Ripley.
On the way back, driving along Wisley Lane we remembered to stop at Wisley Church. It is a small church, almost a chapel ,set back from the road behind some farm buildings. It is an ancient church first built in the 12th century and like most village churches added to over the centuries. Although, as Wisley church is a very small church very few parts have been built on in later centuries . A wooden north porch was added in the 17th century and the church itself was refurbished in 1872 quite recently in the broad scheme of things. The font looked as though it might have been part of the original 12th century church. An original tiled reredos behind the altar was uncovered in the refurbishment of 1872. The thick whitewashed walls of the interior look and feel ancient too. Walking into a country church like this, one of the first things you notice is the stillness and the quiet. The interior feels cool. Any light and warmth from the sun can only penetrate through the beautiful stained glass windows. Being inside a church like this encourages contemplation and thought.
Tony and I spent sometime looking at the various stained glass windows and artefacts inside the church.
Then back into the car and home.
As I have described we walked through and past a number of historic landscapes. The 17th century Wey Navigation, Ripley village with its timber frame Tudor buildings, the lodge where Jonne Donne and his wife lived in the 1600s, Newark Priory founded between 1189 and 1199 and Wisley Church built in the 12th century. It is reasonably easy to find out historical facts about these places. Why were they built? Who used them? We can find artefacts in museums locally and read historical analysis based on documents, archaeology and the artefacts discovered or handed down through time. What we can’t do is know what it was like to actually live at the time these places were constructed and first in use. What was life like as a monk in Newark Priory? What was it to be the person who met and spoke to John Donne? Beliefs , life experiences, relationships, what were they really like? How for instance did a Tudor or a Plantagenet actually feel and think? Nowadays we have historic reconstruction events and the writers of historic fiction use as much as they can to imagine life in a given period. You can begin to get a sense of life then but it can only be a vague inkling with the little knowledge we have. We can’t really know.