Waterside Wanderings (9 miles)
From: A linear walk from the start of the North Down's Way (Hinkley Corner), to the Canal Centre at Mytchett.
Length: 9 miles.
Average Walk Time: Around 4 1/2 hours.
Terrain: As level as it gets with easy route-finding.
Suitable for dogs: Yes.
Look out for: Action on the water in terms of wildfowl, especially on the canal.
If you're after a lovely day out, the weather is sunny, and you don't fancy hills, then this is the walk for you. Add to that the route finding is very easy, and it's got to be a winner! The walk takes in hand three waterways, the River Wey, the River Blackwater and the Basingstoke Canal. So put on your boots, trainers will do if it's dry, and get walking.
Start at Hinkley corner and walk along the side of the A31, until the path dives behind the service station. Follow that until you first reach the infant Wey coming in from your left. Pause a moment and look at this wonderful stream, technically it's the North Wey here, as it has not yet met its Southern branch (which it does at Tilford). Thousands of years ago, this was the start of the river Blackwater, until the ancient Blackwater became blocked at Farnham and the River Wey from Tilford captured its Northern neighbour. Now the Blackwater is shorter, and the Wey has two sources. Anyway, pass Snayleslynch farm and continue. Ignore the footpath along the North Downs Way which splits off right at the Bee Orchid bench, and continue straight on. The path crosses the river and proceeds to High Mill. Respectfully walk past the front of the former Mill, and make sure you close both pairs of gates behind you. Eventually, you reach a T-junction, where you turn right.
One hundred metres farther, and our path turns left again, past Kilnside Farm and the converted Kiln houses. For the historically interested, the buildings on the right, now luxury flats, were build from concrete in the late 1800s! Don't get too distracted; there's a road walk coming up. Continue straight on and pass the Princess Royal pub. Before the A31 was built, the footpath headed due North from here. Alas, even we cannot justify you crossing the busy dual carriageway, so head along the feeder road past the pub, along the pavement. 500m along turn left onto St George's Road, which kindly crosses the A31 for us on a flyover. Immediately after the dual carriageway, continue on the Northward section of St George's Road, but look for a set of steps heading downhill to the right. (Ⓐ on the only direction finding photo).
This leads into the hamlet of Runfold, a historically ancient village which has been cut off twice, once by the building of St George's Road and secondly by the building of the A31. Until the latter, there used to be a humpback bridge that crossed the former railway from Runfold station to Farnham. Now, the house, Runfold House, has given quaint names to the cottages (such as Runfold Bakery, The Coach House and The Milking Parlour), and still exists to be passed and looked at as we carry on. The building dates from the 18th century, although the front itself is 19th. The most picturesque views here are at the back of the house, but alas, they are private.
Continue along the cut, past the feeder road and exit the North end back onto St George's Road. Shortly after, look for Low Lane on the right, which you take. Follow this for 200m, until the T-junction with the Badshot Lea Road, where you again turn right. After another 200m, you cross a tiny stream on the pavement bridge, and the Blackwater Valley path leads off right. Pause a moment at the information board on the corner. The River Blackwater now starts officially in the bog of the Rowhill Nature Reserve to your left. This soggy piece of ground is a haven for bird-spotters, and wildlife lovers, but like so many river sources, is pretty undefined. Anyway, we are picking it up here, about a kilometre from its source. Turn right and follow the paths through the housing estate, always keeping the river on your right hand.
Soon, a set of playing fields open on your left and ignore the path which crosses the river and tempts you right. Our path curves around left and follows the stream. Continue with the park on your left, which gets replaced by a school. Then the path opens out into a housing area, and we actually come face to face with the dreaded A31. Here, you have no choice, but to cross the river and follow a narrow corridor between the river and the dual carriageway. There is a large boarded and concrete fence, but this does little to stop the noise from the road. Don't be put off – better things are to follow soon. Pass a travellers' encampment, and the path brings you to a crossing dual carriageway. Turn left here to the traffic lights, where you can cross in relative safety, and return on the other side to the path again, which strikes off once more Northwards.
On passing a water treatment works, the river suddenly picks up from the discharge and becomes a more recognisable stream. Keep following, and the path crosses the river twice in this section. Always follow the water and resist paths leading you away. Finally, you cannot miss the giant concrete aqueduct going overhead. This carries the Basingstoke canal over the Blackwater and the A31 alongside. The path crosses the river for one final time and winds up a switchback incline to put you on the canal towpath. Turn left.
Opened in 1995, this aqueduct is 134m long. The canal had been restored in the mid-1980s, and some way had to be found to get the road through. An initial proposal of 3 locks down and then 3 locks up again was deemed not feasible, as it still did not offer a way to cross the road. So, the aqueduct came into being. Now, it marks the start of the final third of our walk and the move away from the noisome road that has followed us from the start.
Navigation becomes very easy here – follow the towpath. The route takes you past the fleshpots of Ash Wharf, The Swan pub on the opposite bank, Great Bottom Flash (before getting to Ash Vale Station), then the Mytchett Lake, before finally arriving at the canal centre, which is also on the opposite bank. All these are worth a word or two of their own, but I'll restrict myself to the two waterways. Great Bottom Flash is very shallow – around 1 metre. It is a former lake that was swallowed up by the passing canal. Now two rotting hulks over the far side provide perching places to aquatic birds, and the whole area is worth pausing at for a moment to see what you can see. Herons are frequent visitors to the banks, and you should keep an eye out all the way along.
Mytchett Lake, on the other hand, is man-dug and part of the military facilities on the other bank. It is about 5 metres deep. Buildings near the far side housed Rudolph Hess for a short period after he was captured. Now they form the Army Museum of Military Medicine. You can see cormorants perching on the dead trees as you enter the lake if you are lucky.
If you get to the Canal Centre in 'Office Hours' then there is a footbridge down across the canal immediately past the buildings. Failing that, you can cross on the road bridge before. The canal centre has a shop (for souvenirs and ice cream), a display and some exhibits. There is also a café there which provides fattening all-day breakfasts, to put back the calories you've just walked off. And that is the end of the walk – except it isn't! As the walk was linear, we now have to get you home. Assuming you haven't arranged a pick up, walk back to the last road that crossed the canal and turn right. A small walk takes you to the Mytchett Road, where a bus will ferry you to Aldershot. Failing that, a 20-minute walk back along the canal takes you to Ash Vale station and the train.
That is unless … when we walked this with the festival, we arranged to charter the centre's trip boat, Rosebud, to meet us at the aqueduct, follow us back and then ferry us to the station. Such a pleasant way to end a nice day's walking, and through a mistle of fate, we saw a kingfisher on the way back too. Delightful!
Enjoy your walk, but herons, cormorants and kingfishers are not guaranteed!