This is Lee Place (Harsfold) Bridge which carries a farm track and a public bridleway across the Arun Navigation Canal. The canal opened from the River Arun at Pallingham up to Newbridge in 1787, carrying coal and other goods destined for Billingshurst and surrounding villages and bringing farm produce down to markets further south. We are in the beautiful Arun Valley and west from here the old canal runs right alongside the river through a lovely canopy of trees.
You can imagine seeing barges gliding along, under sail or towed by a horse, slipping quietly under the trees with the sun glinting through the leaves – idyllic! But consider other times as well, with a barge full of cargo grounded on the bottom of the canal through lack of water – perhaps for a few days, perhaps longer. The bargee wouldn’t be able to get his goods up to Newbridge, to get his money to take home to his wife and kids. And in winter he might be faced with a deluge of floods: the river often burst its banks, as it still does, turning the whole area into a vast, fast-flowing lake. Canal life was never easy.
The working canal eventually closed and the last barge to pass this spot was recorded in 1888 – a century after it first opened. And that was it for many years. The canal bed returned to nature and the original Harsfold Bridge was replaced by a causeway carrying a farm track and a public bridleway.
The Wey and Arun Canal Trust (WACT) is now slowly restoring the waterway for small pleasure craft and also as a well-maintained ‘green corridor’ for walkers and riders through this beautiful landscape.
The causeway at Harsfold was an obvious bar to any future navigation, so in readiness for when this stretch opens for boat traffic, in 2018 WACT obtained planning permission to replace the causeway with a new bridge.
The new bridge would need to take heavy agricultural vehicles into the surrounding fields and it needed to be available to bring in the harvest each and every year. Right after the 2019 harvest, the Trust started work in October to demolish the old crossing and install a bridleway diversion. Storms during December and January caused the River Arun to flood turning the whole area into a massive lake. Work came to a halt for weeks on end. However, the floods eventually receded and the steel deck for the new bridge was set in place by March 2020 – a significant milestone for the team. But then the Covid pandemic struck, the country went into lockdown and construction stopped – the project seemed doomed! The clock kept ticking towards the next harvest and its autumn deadline and the team were getting nervous. But a commitment had been made, so under strict Covid regulations, work eventually restarted in May with volunteers working five days a week to regain the schedule. This time all went well, and the bridge was completed in time for the farmer to transport the heavy harvest across the new bridge. Relief all round – and great respect and credit to a very dedicated team of volunteers.
Flora and Fauna
The canal and the river are close by at Harsfold and the water banks, adjacent woodland, hedgerows and open farmland provide a rich variety of habitats supporting a wide range of wetland plants and animals. You will see swans gliding effortlessly through the water, dragonflies darting and many colourful species of butterfly. If you look carefully, you may also see some of our rarer wildlife: perhaps a kingfisher or a woodpecker – and in the evenings keep your eyes open for bats. Out in the open you will often see a buzzard high up on the wing and perhaps a pied wagtail lower down hopping along the banks of the canal.
Next Information Posts
Heading south, our next Information Post is Haybarn about half a mile away beyond the sharp right-angle bend in the canal. Enjoy the tree covered canal for the first part before getting into open countryside again on the approach to Haybarn. On this latter stretch you will see the results the Wey and Arun Trust’s hedge-laying team alongside the towpath, part of the Trust’s efforts to keep this green corridor clear and tidy for everyone.
If you would like to help maintain this lovely ‘green corridor’ or possibly get involved in some of our restoration projects, take a look at the volunteers page on the Wey & Arun Canal Trust web site at https://weyarun.org.uk/backdrop/volunteering
Heading north, our next Information Post is at Lordings Flood Gates Lock about half a mile away. The path takes you back into open countryside and the old Harsfold Manor can be seen across the fields. Enjoy your walk.