Basingstoke Canal

Wetter than wet: a trip on the Basingstoke Canal

How “wet” is “wet”?

It’s wet.

It’s really wet.

For mountain bikers, there are essentially three kinds of rain:

  1. Rain that’s not worth bothering about, so I’m not going to bother with it.
  2. Rain that’s coming down so hard that it’s as though every bit of exposed skin is being stabbed with pins, especially your lips.
  3. Rain that, whilst not heavy, manages to penetrate whatever shiny waterproofs you’re wearing and leaves you drenched in minutes.

Somehow, the rain I am experiencing combines the joys of both 2 and 3. My feet are squelching in my shoes, I’ve given up with my riding specs and every time I bunch my fists, brown water pours out.

I’m not even “really” mountain biking.

Am I having fun? No there’s a question. To answer that we need to go back to the beginning.

Like a wet weekend

I have a family member currently residing in a hospice in Woking. When my wife and I visited at the weekend, we went for a walk to decompress afterwards. We found ourselves following a path that led, very quickly, to the Basingstoke Canal. In deepest suburban Surrey, this was a pleasant, verdant surprise. It got me thinking.

What if, instead of driving up the motorway and through the suburbs of Woking, I could ride there? Along the canal?

And thus, the seed was planted.

That night, I went looking for literature. I remembered, from working at Basing House, that the canal used to run through the grounds until they filled it in. How far did it still go? The answer, apparently, is virtually all the way to Basingstoke.

Now I was excited.

Unfortunately, the whole ride from Woking to Basingstoke is about 50km. Too much for a ride home from the Hospice. Instead, I could cut off slightly earlier and head for Winchfield. Now I was looking at a respectable 40km rather than an overambitious 50.

An adventure was about to happen. So I arranged to get a lift to Woking next time I was going up and got ready to ride home.

I was looking forward to it.

Saturn trail, Basingstoke Canal

Blame it on the weatherman

We all know how it works: we check the weather in advance and ignore the bits we don’t like. In my case the bits I didn’t like were the wall-to-wall hosing rain. There was even a weather warning of flash-flooding! Surely that can’t be an issue by a canal.

Surely.

We all do this too: keep checking the weather in the hope that it will change.

It didn’t.

“Oh well “, I said to myself “it will be an adventure.”

So I prepared for a wet afternoon in the saddle. I bagged everything up in dry bags inside the bag. Those dry bags included things like, extra jumpers (in August) and more food. I also took all the bits from my “bag of answers” because there was no way I was being stuck, sopping wet, with a mechanical I could easily have fixed if I’d brought my tools.

Wetward Ho!

(Sorry)

The weather turned out to do exactly what the forecast said it would: varying between “properly raining” and “pouring”. My family duly expressed surprise and declarations along the lines of “I’m glad I’m not going to be out there.

And off I set, ready for a few hours of ludicrously over-biked towpath trundling. It took about two minutes to get my first wet brake squeal. That’s before I even made it to the canal.

The canal is an odd oasis of peace and calm. Whilst you can never forget that you’re riding round the back of people’s gardens there is enough greenery and foliage to ignore it most of the time. I’ve ridden along plenty of urban canals, where you through the relics of Victorian industrialisation. This was completely different. It felt more like there was a small swathe of woodland driven through suburbia. In many places people’s gardens intruded on this but there was a real feeling of verdance (is that even a word?).

In fact, it became increasingly difficult to tell what lay just beyond the banks. Occasional glimpses of paddocks gave the impression of countryside, whilst glimpses of the ends of back gardens gave a more urban feeling. Often they happened at the same time. Working out where I was on the canal became tricky without the waypoints of bridges.

Not only that, but it was chocked full of wildlife. All along the canal there were moorhens occupying the ecological niche usually inhabited by pigeons: that is rooting amongst

I sloped off the canal shortly after starting to answer the call of nature and found myself standing right next to a heron! I was so surprised that I almost forgot to grab my camera and gab a photo of it. The heron seemed entirely unperturbed by my presence. It just stalked out of the undergrowth next to me and wandered off along the path.

This is the point where I noticed the telltale squelch of wet socks every time I put my feet on the ground.

That’s a heron

Jump to it!

Leaving behind the suburbs of Woking and Brookwood after a detour through the car park of a doctor’s surgery when I didn’t change bank at the right time, the landscape changed subtly but distinctly. There were very few houses on either side.

Portsmouth is very much the home of the Royal Navy. The army doesn’t really have a “home” but if it did, it would be the area around Aldershot on the Hampshire-Surrey border. Rolling past the back of Bisley Ranges and Pirbright Camp, homes of shooting, I was regaled with the sound of distant small-arms fire. The still verdant growth almost obscured the razor wire that ran along the far bank. It went some way towards explaining the “look” that many of the joggers had along this stretch of the canal.

Jumps in the woods

This is why I was slightly surprised to find a fully-formed dirt jump/pump track complex hiding in the bushes. Just outside the wire. Of course, I rolled in and had a look at it. When faced with someone else’s slippery dirt jumps with massive ponds in every hollow, I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and that lunch was calling.

Instead I sat on a bench and chowed down on my pork pie opposite the infamous Deepcut Barracks.

The lock at deepcut

The view from Deepcut

It takes all sorts

The surface of the towpath proved an endless source of interest. The first stretch was that yellow tarmac that tries to pretend that it’s gravel. Ordinarily I’d begrudge this but today, it had water-shedding properties that I appreciated.

There was also that country park staple of hard packed yellow aggregate topped with half an inch of slushy leaf mulch that went everywhere. I also enjoyed a patch where there were big chunks of concrete every metre or so, giving the path a sort of corrugated effect and giving my suspension a workout.

Later on, I happened upon a section where the shallow depressions had filled to make huge, 2 inch deep puddles that I ploughed through in a wake of spray.

I think my favourite was the bit where everything was covered in several inches of gritty filth that combined the joyous characteristics of offering no traction, stopping your forward progress and spraying that grit right up the inside of my shorts.

Bridge over troubled water

There is something delightfully improbable about aqueducts. In my heads bridges should go over water courses and not the other way around. That probably explains the frisson I felt when I approached the aqueduct that took the canal over a dual carriageway. I took a moment to stop and gaze at the four lanes of traffic disappearing under water. Although, to be honest, there was about the same amount of water running under the bridge as over it.

Bridge over trouble water

It’s not like there can be any more wet

There are stages of wet riding. First there is the “trying to stay dry” stage, where you avoid the deepest puddles in a futile attempt to keep dry. This stage never lasts that long on a really wet ride. Then there is the “minimising wetness” stage where you realise you’re going to get wet but still manual or wheelie over puddles to keep the spray to a minimum and attempt to avoid the worst of the gloop. You might even slow down for things that you’re not certain about. If you’re good, you can probably keep this up for a while. Then, usually about the time the first spray goes up the inside of your shorts and coats your thighs in filth, the “Oh, I just don’t care anymore: it’s not like I can get any wetter” stage begins. At this point, the only way to limit how wet you get is to ride faster and get home more quickly.

In spite of the torrential rain, I managed to keep to stage two for a long time. I put a lot of this down to my shiny new jacket. It’s so shiny and new that I’ve been avoiding wearing it on the bike for fear of getting it filthy (or tearing it), but the forecast persuaded me to think otherwise. Through judicious application of skills and frequent wiping of glasses, I managed to keep myself reasonably comfortable until I got to the end of the aqueduct.

I found myself suddenly out in the open, exposed to the incoming rain and then all bets were off. As were my glasses. There comes a point where specs, even clear ones are more of a hindrance than a help. I reached that point when so much water was running down through my lid that the glasses were in the way of rubbing my face. So, off they went. As a contact lens wearer, the giving up on glasses is an important moment.

People often say that the point when you realise it’s going to be a wet one is when you get the first drip down the back of the neck. I disagree. I found that I reached that point when the first dribble ran down my throat, having gone down my face to get there.

Doing the drowned rat

Time was a-passing and home didn’t feel like it was getting any closer. It was time to move up through the gears from “rolling along” to “getting a move on”.

Unfortunately, this was also the point where the vegetation went from being scenic to being in my face. For the best part of a mile I was constantly ducking to get under low branches. Up, down, up, down, up and then down again. I was riding along on the flat with my saddle dropped in an effort to keep going. It was one of those moments where you think: “if it goes on like this for the whole way, I’m not sure I can cope”, when suddenly it relented and everything opened up. I was now going at a pace only slightly short of “time trial” in order to make time and get home.

Many of the bridges had signs that suggested cyclists dismount. A simple dropped saddle seemed to deal with the issue (after a slight helmet ding going under the first bridge). Then I came to one where the letters were significantly bigger. I realised why when my handlebars cleared the bridge by about a foot, if that. So I crawled under next to the bike and emerged in Fleet. That burst of speed had made significant distance. There was a way to go, but that feeling of being a long way from home and not having enough time began to recede.

Max headroom

A lot like blue sky

I pressed on. The pressed on, even the ducks had gone into hiding. I felt like I’d broken the back of it though. I began again to appreciate the scenery. I’m a sucker for a swing bridge and this one was a lovely little example. Not to mention that it was shaded from the rain. I was surprised by the Second World War stop line that appeared from the undergrowth on the far side like a line of cartoon teeth. I stopped to take a picture and was genuinely surprised when I realised that the bank I’d leant the bike against was actually a pillbox! It appeared that I had stumbled across some fairly significant fortifications as evidenced by the four further pillboxes along the next mile or so of canal.

Crouching tank traps, hidden pillbox

This section of the canal had a number of interpretation panels highlighting the wildlife or heritage delights that might be glimpsed. One of them showed (as they always do) a kingfisher perched on a post. I snorted. I may have seen about a hundred moorhens, I may also have met an unlikely dozen herons (apparently they are quite relaxed except for when then hear wet brake squeal), and a flock of sand martins near Aldershot as well as the usual gulls, swans and cormorants. I was happy with that haul.

I rolled into a section where they were fixing the bank after a landslip. I say fixing, the diggers were singularly motionless and their drivers notably elsewhere, but at least I was spared another diversion. I wondered what the dull thrush-sized bird on the revetments was when it took off. The dullness was transformed momentarily into an iridescent flash of royal blue as the bird resolved itself into a kingfisher! I stood corrected and gobsmacked. That was worth the wait.

Train in vain

However, this was the point where I bid farewell to the canal and set off for the station. The road section was mercifully short and Winchfield station was reassuringly easy to find.

Somehow I had contrived to arrive 10 minutes ahead of schedule after 40km of riding. Unfortunately this meant I had about 25 minutes to wait until the train arrived.

The station had the feel of being the scene from an Edwardian or wartime story where the main character is dropped off after visiting family in the country. It was probably quite a nice place to wait until they closed all the facilities. It was noticeable that I was the only one at the station and the novelty wore off fairly quickly. Extra layers were donned and all the food in my bag consumed while I waited.

When I got on the train there some raised eyebrows from the other passengers as the grit monster and his steed appeared. They were highly entertained by the sight of me picking up a copy of the evening Standard, carefully opening it up to the centre page, equally carefully placing it on the seat and, somewhat gingerly sitting down.

Happy riding face

So, did I have fun?

Actually, yes I did. There is something brilliant about a slightly daft adventure. Even if it’s only daft because of the weather you do it in. That sense of overcoming adversity that you’ve heaped on yourself is a joyous one.

The Basingstoke canal is also an unexpectedly nice ride. It might go through some of the most identikit places in Britain, but somehow manages to be a pleasant and scenic experience. It’s also a nice place to go with people who aren’t “mountain bikers”.

At some point I’ll tell you about the cow murals as well. Now though, it’s time to go home, have a shower and get dry.

Posted by BackPedalling Andy

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