Surrey's two main river catchments are those of the Rivers Wey and the Mole, both tributaries of the Thames with their sources in neighbouring counties.
See our Countryside Advice pages for more information on boating and fishing on our waterways.
The Basingstoke Canal
The Basingstoke canal was built between 1792 and 1798 and ran for 37 miles from the River Wey near Byfleet to Basingstoke via Woking, Aldershot, Odiham, Greywell and Basing. The canal was the first of the 'agrarian' canals in England built as an easier and cheaper route to transport farm and wood products from central Hampshire, Salisbury, Bristol and the West Country to London. Commercial barge traffic finished on the canal in the 1950s and it gradually slid into dereliction.
The Surrey and Hants Canal Society (now the Basingstoke Canal Society) was formed in 1966 in a bid to restore the canal to its former glory. In 1970 they persuaded Surrey and Hampshire County Councils to buy the canal from the private owners as a public resource. Restoration of 32 miles of the canal, from the eastern end of the Greywell Tunnel to the Wey Navigation, was completed in 1991. The five miles of canal between the Greywell Tunnel and Basingstoke could not be restored due to the partial collapse of the Greywell Tunnel in 1932, and the construction of the M3 motorway – however most of this section can now be followed on footpaths.
The canal nowadays is a hive of activity especially at weekends; walkers, anglers, cyclists and boaters abound. Canal and rowing boats can be hired at Odiham and Mytchett, where there are also trip boats operating, such as the Canal Society's 'John Pinkerton'. The towpath is available for walking and cycling throughout (cyclists must give way to other users).
The Basingstoke Canal is owned by Surrey and Hampshire County Councils and is managed by the partner-funded Basingstoke Canal Authority. Further information about the canal can be obtained from the Basingstoke Canal Visitor Centre in Mytchett Place Road, Mytchett (01252 370073).
The River Wey and Godalming Navigations
The River Wey was one of the first British rivers to be made navigable, and opened to barge traffic in 1653. This 15½ mile waterway linked Guildford to Weybridge on the Thames, with an onward connection to London. The Godalming Navigation, opened in 1764, enabled barges to work a further 4 miles upriver. Today the Wey and Godalming Navigations are as busy as they ever were and are in the care of the National Trust. The visitor centre at Dapdune Wharf in Guildford tells the story of the Navigations and the people who lived and worked on it, through interactive exhibitions. Visitors can see where the huge Wey barges were built and climb aboard Reliance, one of the last surviving barges. The towpath is available for walkers throughout its length.
The Wey and Arun Canal
The Wey and Arun Junction Canal was built to link London with the south coast to avoid goods needing to be routed around the coast. Built in 1813, it left the Wey and Godalming Navigation at Shalford and headed south towards Cranleigh and Loxwood, before joining the Arun Navigation at Newbridge, near Billingshurst, Sussex. However, the canal did not prosper for long as it could not compete with the railways and was closed and abandoned in 1868.
Today the Wey and Arun Canal Trust is in the process of restoring parts of the canal, with support from local landowners and many hours of volunteer effort. The section at Loxwood on the Surrey/Sussex border is now open, with boat trips being offered. The trust is also working on lengths of the canal at Bramley and Alfold.
The towpath is only available for walking on the restored sections or where it has become a public right of way since abandonment. The Wey South Path, a walking route promoted by the W&ACT, uses public rights of way to follow the route as closely as possible.
The River Thames
The River Thames is also navigable where it passes through the north of Surrey. Navigation on the non-tidal River Thames is now regulated by the Environment Agency. Navigation on the tidal Thames is thought to date back to pre-historic times, but weirs used to supply water mills made navigation difficult on the non-tidal river until the 17th century, when locks were built or improved.
The Thames Path National Trail is a long distance route for walkers following the river from its source in the Cotswolds to the sea at Greenwich. On much of the Surrey section cycling is also permitted.