Surrey Route Guide
Leisure/Family Loop: Basingstoke Canal and Blackwater Valley Path
Words and Images: Hugo Gladstone
The western fringe of Surrey is not the most obvious place to head out around on a leisurely jaunt. Essentially it's a vast conglomeration of towns which stretch from Farnham in the south, through Ash, Frimley, Camberley and Sandhurst, to Crowthorne in the north. Just across the Hampshire border, garrison town Aldershot and aviation centre Farnborough add to this sprawl. Roads, railways and vast built-up areas dominate. Of the few bits of nearby countryside that have not been concreted over, most are the reserve of the military. It's where they practice shooting and blowing things up.
I have to admit that some of the appeal of the featured route is that it's juxtaposed against all of this modern clutter. Composed of pleasant, leafy waterside trails that thread an intricate path through all this maddening development, there's a sort of oasis quality about it. OK, it may not have the inherent prettiness of one of two other options in Surrey, but part of its beauty lies in its context.
The other big draw of this route is that it's almost entirely traffic-free, yet manages to form a nice bite-sized loop. Usually the linear nature of redundant railway lines and canal paths means you end up having to retrace your steps. Not here.
The route is about nine miles around and forms an elongated oval. Shaped by lengthy stretches of the Basingstoke Canal towpath and the linking Blackwater Valley Path, there is only a very short road section linking the two trails at the circuit's northern end. Save the odd ascent and descent of an embankment, the route is entirely flat and well surfaced enough for hybrid and touring bikes.
Although conceived as a thoroughfare for 18th century agricultural traffic, the canal is nowadays a corridor of calm with its own ambience, pleasantly hemmed in by overhanging trees.
Riding alongside the water you're oblivious to the rest of the world's nonsense. As roads and railways cross above and below the channel, you're literally on a different level. Ambling along the towpath, the only combustion engine you'll likely come across is the slow ticking over of a colourful pleasure boat happily idling along the canal. Maybe you'll exchange greetings with the skipper.
Despite its river-based orientation, the Blackwater Valley Path is surprisingly different in character - nonetheless it's still a chilled affair. There are only snatches of the river's trickling head waters to be seen as, instead of following its banks, the path leisurely meanders around thickets, angling ponds and flood meadows.
Little wooden bridges add a touch of character and information boards highlight features along the way. At several points along the path there are old gravel pits that have been turned into nature reserves. At Hollyburn a meadow sits on a former waste tip now given over to wild flowers.
If you fancy a drink or some food, then call in one of the outlets along the route. At the north end of the canal section there's a pavilion at Frimley Lodge Park complete with play areas and miniature railway. About halfway down the canal on the opposite bank there is also a tea room at the Basingstoke Canal Authority Visitor Centre. On the opposite side of the circuit The Quays near Coleford Bridge offers a restaurant and bar with views looking out over a watersports lake.
Where do we start?
We really couldn't ask for better connections to this loop. It is criss-crossed by three different railway lines and runs parallel to the A331 dual carriageway, just a stone's throw off the M3. For the sake of clarity, these directions start from North Farnborough station although stations at Frimley, Farnborough and Ash Vale are all also within five minutes of the route and directly connect the area with Reading, Guildford, Reigate and London Waterloo. North Camp station is even better situated with the Blackwater path cutting through a corner of its car park. If driving you could park here but a better option -especially on weekdays- is near the lakeside at Coleford Bridge.
From North Farnborough station get yourself onto the un-built-up side of the railway and follow the paved path onto the pedestrian bridge straight over the dual carriageway. Keep straight ahead and you'll be led onto a narrow, well-surfaced bridleway, across a railway and then along a residential road.
This next section is the most complicated part of the route and it's really not very complicated at all.
Fork right when the road meets a junction, then fork right again (just past the distinctive thatched barn) to go down one side of Frimley Green. A quick left then right at the next junction (or shortcut through the pub car park opposite) puts you onto Guildford Road. Along here you climb over a railway bridge before the road rises up again to cross the Basingstoke Canal. Turn right just before the bridge and you'll join the towpath.
From here the directions couldn't be simpler. Just follow the canal south until it comes to a spectacular bridge where the channel passes over the dual carriageway. This modern aqueduct is well worth a look but the turn off is just before it, signposted "Blackwater Valley Path". (Don't make the mistake of following the sign for the Blackwater path after the bridge as this heads in the opposite direction).
The rest of the ride is a case following the same signs until you're back under the bridge which brought you across the dual carriageway from North Farnborough station at the very beginning of the ride. If you have trouble recognising it, look out for some colourful graffiti on a pillar to your right hand side.
To return to the station, keep following the path around to the right and it will take you up on to the bridge. If, however, you started and are finishing the ride elsewhere: follow the path right at the first junction and then left at the next (i.e. heading directly away from the dual carriageway). This will put your onto the narrow bridleway that takes you over the railway line and towards Frimley Green.
Words of warning
While the vast majority of the circuit is traffic free, the canal towpath does run without barriers alongside deep cold water. Particular care should be taken when passing underneath bridges along here; the path typically curves and narrows, sight is obscured and the surface is often a bit greasy.
If you lack confidence in any of your party's ability to not wobble off into the water dismount for the dodgy bits or stick instead to just riding on the Blackwater Valley Path. For the most part this is better surfaced and presents very little opportunity for impromptu swims.
Great care also needs to be taken at the railway foot-crossing near Frimley Green. To best cross this safely: dismount, use your ears as well as your eyes, cross one at time and always make sure your exit is completely clear before starting the crossing.
More of this
If you want more than the ten miles of traffic free riding outlined here, the Blackwater Valley Path continues south for a couple more kilometres beyond the bottom of this circuit. As for the canal: well, the world's your oyster. From the southern end of the circuit, it heads all the way west to Basingstoke. From the northern end it heads east to Woking and Byfleet where it joins the Wey River Path. This in turn connects to (a short cycling permitted section of) the Thames Path and the Downslink track to the South Coast.