Welcome to Birtley and to this particularly lovely stretch of the old Wey and Arun Canal. Birtley is an interesting location where three transport arteries come together with the main Guildford to Horsham road, the old Guildford to Horsham railway and the old canal running virtually alongside each other. The road came first, dating right back into history but after the Bramley and Rudgwick Turnpike Act of 1757 the taking of tolls allowed proper maintenance to be introduced, so it could carry the increasing traffic levels of the 18th century. But there was no internal combustion engine at that time and everything remained horse-drawn.
Canals soon started to appear in the Midlands and North: a pack horse could pull less than a ton on a road but that same horse could pull 30 tons or more on water – it was a no-brainer! The canal through Birtley opened in 1816 connecting the River Wey in the north with the River Arun in the south. It carried produce from Sussex farms to wider markets and it carried coal and other goods into towns along its route; it also carried gunpowder from Shalford for the Navy in Portsmouth and Petworth Marble for buildings in London and a myriad other items.
Technology then took another turn and railways started to appear. Physically squeezed between the turnpike and the canal, the railway at Birtley opened in 1865. The canal couldn’t compete and it closed in 1871, not long after the opening of the railway.
Restoration of the Old Canal
The canal is now slowly being restored by volunteers of the Wey and Arun Canal Trust – not just for boats on the water but to provide a well-maintained bridleway along its length: a ‘green corridor’ for everyone to enjoy. The canal also provides new habitats for wildlife on and in the water and along the adjoining path, generally enriching the whole environment.
Here at Birtley you will see two handsome new lift bridges and a lot of clearance has been done to open the paths up as leisure amenities for all. Further south centred on the old Sussex village of Loxwood, you can see our flagship project where a three mile stretch has been reopened for small boats and canoes – go down sometime and have a look and perhaps book yourself on one of our trip boats to see the canal from the water: you will find cream tea runs in summer and Santa cruises at Christmas.
Just stand back and look: take in the scenery in front of you, isn’t it wonderful? This long stretch of canal is peaceful and tranquil with tree cover allowing sunshine to glimmer through. It is interesting to see the different heights of the ground with the old rail track sternly looking down on the canal from above, and the canal in turn peeking down to the Cranleigh Waters, a seemingly huge distance below.
You will often see moorhens and dragonflies and in spring and summer there are wild flowers everywhere – each season brings its own unique mark. It is the sort of place where Ratty and Mole and their friends from The Wind in the Willows would have a picnic on the canal bank – watch out for them but don’t disturb them, it would be rude to interrupt tea!
Imagine standing here in the days of the old canal: a barge might go past taking coal up to Bramley, effortlessly towed by a sturdy horse. Another, under a spritsail, might quietly glide past taking groceries and provisions down to Elmbridge for transhipment into Cranleigh. A third barge might be moored up opposite, delivering chalk to the farmer’s kiln which was located just across from where you stand now. The chalk would be roasted to make quick lime which was then used to make much needed fertiliser for the farmer’s fields. In its heyday in the 1830s, the canal was quite busy through here.
A Circular Walk
In their retirement, the old canal and the old railway no longer compete but have actually come together to provide a lovely circular walk down the old canal bank and back up the track of the old railway – the two new lift bridges enable walkers and riders to cross the waterway easily. A map of the walk can be seen on the display board by Birtley lift bridge 2. Alternatively access more details of the walk on our website. https://weyarun.org.uk/backdrop/birtley1
Many other walks can also be found on our website. Locations of other "Information Posts" can be found on this link.