The River Wey was only ever reliably open to commercial use by the construction of the two Navigations. The Wey Navigation opened in 1653, and almost immediately transformed trade in the Wey Valley by providing all-year-round transportation to and from London. Prior to that merchants had to rely on the roads which were poorly maintained and often impassable during the winter months. The Godalming Navigation, opening in 1764, opened up the heart of the valley's clothing industry.
The Navigations brought considerable prosperity to the region, this wealth being generated by the efforts of the barge crews, lock-keepers and Navigation employees.
Here you can find out about the barges and the life of those that worked them. We also explain how locks work, and introduce you to the living-history of the Iona: the last remaining horse-drawn narrowboat plying the river.
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All About Locks
Locks not only keep the canal navigable by maintaining the depth of water, they also significantly contribute to the water management and flood control measures along the valley.
All About the Barges
The original barges plying their trade along the river were not the narrowboats you see today. The commercial barges were enormous vessels 14ft (4.27m) wide and 70ft (21.34m) long and able to transport 90 tons of cargo. Incredibly these were hauled by a single horse or even by bow-haulers, men who could physically move the barges along the river, no matter what the weather.
Life on Board the Barges
Life on board the barges was far from the romantic ideal that may at first come to mind. Often facing great danger, especially during the winter months when flooding and high winds would make navigation extremely hazardous, the men and their families worked long hours to ensure the loads got through.
Iona & Ben
The Godalming Packet Boat Company operates the only remaining horse-drawn narrowboat on the river. A single horse pulls the Iona, converted from a cargo vessel into a touring boat, and enables members of the public to experience the idyll of the river, from the river itself.
The following piece appeared in the National Trust's South East News published in Spring 2008:
A day in the life of Larry Halliday. Discover what it is like to be a National Trust lengthsman on the River Wey.
Q: How long have you worked for the Trust?
Q: What does your job involve?
Q: What do you enjoy most about your job?
Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?
Q: Finally, we hear you are rather popular with the local wildlife. Can you explain why?
Luckily the two Wey Navigations are owned and managed by The National Trust and as long as the public continue to support them in the valuable work they do in protecting the nation's historic structures and landscapes the Wey has a safer future than waterways elsewhere in Britain.
British Waterways, who manage 2,200 miles of waterways have announced (October 2006) swathing cuts including the loss of 180 members of staff. The aim to save £7m over five years will mean that maintenance and new developments are scaled back or put on hold, and it is likely higher fees will be imposed on users of their waterways.
There will be a direct effect on those boat users along the Wey Navigations who link to the British Waterways system, and could result in reduced income for the National Trust of boat enthusiasts who would have considered heading to the Wey.
There are 29,000 recreational users of canals in Britain who will be affected by the decision of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to cut grants to British Waterways. Critics say that these cuts are a direct consequence for alleged Government incompetence over its chaotic rural payments scheme. This had resulted in £200m penalties from the EU for late payments to farmers.
All Change with IWAAC
In 1968 the Transport Act created the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council (IWAAC) to advise the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Scottish Executive and British Waterways on strategic policy for the use and development of over 2,000 miles of inland waterways managed by British Waterways (1).
The government introduced the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act (2) which was passed in 2006. The Act provided for the IWAAC's constitution to be changed to distance it from British Waterways (and hence become an independent body) and for the Council's remit to be expanded to provide strategic advice about the country's waterways. Renamed as the Inland Waterways Advisory Council (IWAC) the body published its first strategic report in April 2007. This report highlighted the success of the adjoining Wey & Arun Canal. MORE HERE
Although neither the Godalming nor Wey Navigation is directly under the Council's day-to-day responsibility, being owned and managed by the National Trust, the new agency will have an impact on adjacent waterways that are linked to the Wey's navigations. The advisory role provided by the Council on strategic advice to the government encompassing all of the country's inland waterways will include the Wey.
(1) British Waterways is a public corporation responsible for maintaining 2,200 miles (3,540km) of Britain's inland waterway network and is sponsored by the government through Defra and the Scottish Executive. The National Assembly for Wales is also in close liaison. British Waterways is the legal owner of the waterways it manages.
(2) As well as forming the new IWAC, the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act which received Royal Assent in March 2006, created a new integrated agency - Natural England replacing English Nature, the Countryside Agency and the Rural Development service - and established a Commission for Rural Communities to provide independent support to rural people .
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