Monday, 25 June 2012

Chichester Ship Canal

The Richmond Arms

For my latest outing it was Father’s Day and so it seemed highly appropriate to design a walk that we could all do as a family rather than a solo outing as I normally do.  With my daughter’s little legs in mind (they are 8 and 5), I thought that the perfect outing would be to explore the Chichester Ship Canal, a short walk of four miles.  We parked in the small village of Birdham and caught the bus to Chichester, getting off at the canal basin just to the south of the City Centre.

Chichester Canal Basin
Although for the most part the weather this summer has been pretty dire, it was a much better day and spirits were high as we embarked on our outing.  The tow path was pretty good too, not suffering too much with the amounts of mud I have had to endure elsewhere on my recent walks.

Rowing Near Poyntz Bridge
The Chichester Ship Canal was a short arm of a much bigger canal network designed to link London with the south coast of England, allowing for the distribution of materials to Portsmouth without using the open sea.  This network was conceived during one of the wars with France, but was built far too late to get any decent business.  

A Quick Breather
This part of the canal left the river Arun at Ford and cut across the open countryside to the north of Bognor Regis, coming out into open water at Chichester Habour where an inside passage route could be used as far a Portsea Island.  The branch into Chichester led off from Hunston to access the city centre itself (for more information please also see my walk at Portsmouth and Arun Canal).  The last shipping to use the ship canal was in 1906 when the canal basin was sold initially to Chichester City Council, who then passed in to West Sussex County Council in 1957.

Peaceful Canal Near Stockbridge
The basin was full of activity, with a group of sea scouts kayaking and messing about in various boats.  More building had taken place in the area since my last visit in 2010 and a new group of swish looking flats had been completed overlooking the south west corner of the canal basin.  With a route like this there was almost no chance of the children getting lost and they were thrilled to be let off the leash and explore further by themselves.  My older daughter was put in charge of her own camera so that she could take pictures of stuff that interested her along the way.  It soon became clear that she took this very seriously indeed and practically every blade of grass was recorded for awhile!

Coot Chicks
Just to the south of the basin is the old Poyntz swing bridge.  This is no longer in its original position but has been lovingly restored and looks to be in great shape in its new location.  It looks to be mostly for decoration these days as it seems to be stuck in the open position all the time.  The next bridge is a much more modern affair, carrying the bulky weight of the A27 Chichester by-pass across the canal.  The tow path takes a route underneath and for about 50 metres the path takes on a dark and dingy course.  This really is the only modern interruption to the sedate course of the canal though.  The onward fairly straight course down to Hunston is a delightful and peaceful route.

The tow path is shared by National Cycle Route 2, the coastal route that connects many of the seaside towns in Sussex.  It proved to be very popular with cyclists and every few minutes we had to stand aside to let them by.  The canal sides were alive with life with irises, blackberries and large clumps of cow parsley among the many flowers in full bloom.  These in turn attracted quite a lot of butterflies, particularly Red Admirals, which seemed to be particularly abundant.

Punting By
About halfway to Hunston we were passed by the small narrowboat that conducts pleasure cruises along the canal.  The crew gave us a cheery wave, which was much appreciated by my girls.  We were also treated to an aerial display by a common tern, which showed some surprising manoeuvres in the air.  It was one of a number of birds that seemed to show interest in us, with sparrows, robins, black headed gulls and pigeons also joining us at various intervals along the way.

Return of Egremont
A couple of less conventional craft passed us as we approached the bridge at Hunston.  These were a couple of surf boards, being punted along the canal by a couple of very enthusiastic looking rowers.  They gave us a wave as they proceeded very quickly towards Chichester.  We took the opportunity of a refreshment stop here to mark the fact that we had walked the first mile of our route.  The path crosses the bridge at Hunston to provide a good view back towards Chichester.  By walking round the house being redeveloped on the other side we were able to regain the towpath.

Rosebay Willowherb
At Hunston, the canal does a sharp right turn. This betrays the fact that this was once a junction of canals, although the onward route towards Ford is now completely filled in and lost to history. Fortunately the Ship Canal is still in good shape and so we continued on towards the sea enjoying the plethora of flowers as we did so.

End of Navigable Section
About half a mile on from the former canal junction is another transport relic – the old bridge from the Selsey Tramway.  Only the bridge abutments remain but it doesn’t take too much imagination to work out where the route would have gone as on the towpath side a long straight, if rather overgrown, path heads off into Hunston Village and would once have gone on to the small town of Selsey.  The old railway was a short-lived and troublesome affair, being built on the cheap and not very passenger friendly.  It succumbed to road competition fairly quickly and had a service life of only about twenty years.  Flooding and breakdowns were a constant problem and the number of wayside halts on the journey probably made for very slow journeys.
Racing Along the Towpath

Not far past here was the end of the navigable section of the canal and we passed the narrow boat heading back in the opposite direction around here.  The numbers of walkers and cyclists had also dropped off, which made life easier as far as monitoring the children.  The picture taking from older daughter had lost its novelty by now too and I seemed to be carrying camera and younger daughter’s rucksack in a bid to keep the speed going!  Eventually we came to a road, where the canal had been filled in with the road foundations, presumably a good many years ago.  It wasn’t an easy road to cross as it was strangely busy for a ‘B’ road.
Extra Large Dandelion Clock

On the other side, the canal seemed to be at a lower level, suggesting perhaps that the road had originally marked a lock that no longer exists.  A little further on and we had a lengthy encounter with a cormorant, which fascinated the children no end as they watched it preen and clean its feathers.  Eventually it flew off with a languid kind of flight along the route of the canal.  This part of the canal proved to be a very hot section as the sun was fully out now and there was little shade.  As soon as we could we stopped again for a snack to perk up the kids and continued on our way through a delightful section full of trees sporting blossom still.
Chichester Marina

The next road that we reached was the one that we had used to get back to Chichester on the bus.  Again this was super busy and not so pleasant to cross.  However, we were by now reaching the ¾ mark of our walk and in the home straight.  We crossed over and headed along the side of the road into the large marina at Birdham.  This was perhaps the least pleasant part of the walk, although walkers were catered for and the traffic into the marina was quite light.  On the way we saw the biggest dandelion clock we had ever seen (although to be fair I think it might have been another plant with a similar seed head).  The canal here looked quite sorry for itself, with weed choked sides and looking a long way from being navigable.  Yet as a wildlife corridor it is probably invaluable since much of the surrounding countryside is now given over to arable farming.
Houseboat Norana

At Chichester Marina, the character of the walk completely changed.  Gone was the quiet and peaceful countryside and with it came the buzz of yachting folk.  The marina itself is a sea of masts of some very large looking craft.  I suspect many millions of pounds of boat traffic is tied up in the marina, although strangely given the type of day it was, the numbers left in port were a little surprising.  More interesting perhaps than the lines of yachts were the flotilla of houseboats moored along the last part of the canal route.  Most were moored on the south side of the canal, with some curious little moving platforms used by the boat dwellers to reach the parking area on the other side.  We were rather tempted by one houseboat that was for sale, but the price rather put us off!  Although no doubt a wonderful place to live in summer, I suspect that it would be pretty awful during the winter months.
Birdham Pool

At the end of the canal was Saltern’s Lock, which allegedly still works although looking at it I have my doubts.  We crossed over the lock and wandered down towards Birdham Pool, where another huge collection of sailing craft are stored.  The sea of masts just proved to me what a popular pastime yachting is, especially in this part of the world.  We had finished our route along the canal though and so all that was left was to walk the half a mile or so back to Birdham Church, where we had parked earlier in the day.  The girls had a wonderful time on the walk and it proved to be a good little project for both of them, enabling them to feel as if they had achieved something without being too much for them to handle.

Birdham Church

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