When the first fee-paying passengers cruised along the Wey & Arun Canal back in 1995, few members could have imagined that Trust would be celebrating 25 years of public boat trips and this year welcoming more than 1,000 passengers on boat trips just in the Christmas and New Year period alone.
The inaugural boat trip on May 28, 1995 – the first time a narrowboat had traversed that part of the canal in 125 years – was for invited guests only on a 1 ¼ mile restored stretch from Drungewick, passing under Barnsill Bridge to Baldwin’s Knob Lock. The cruise also saw the naming of the trip boat used, Zachariah Keppel, after the contractor appointed by the Wey & Arun Junction Canal Company to construct the canal in 1813.
The boat had been donated to the Wey & Arun Canal Trust in 1993. Its first owners were Cyril & Thelma Wood and their son Leslie, from Guildford in Surrey, who named it Elsetee, a mash-up of their names. The family then sold the boat to Nigel Thorne of Ash, who moored it at Gun’s Mouth in Shalford, Surrey. From there it found its way to the Wey & Arun Canal Trust, but the boat was disused and in a sorry state so the Trust transported it by road to Redlands Farm in Plaistow, West Sussex, for extensive refurbishment by volunteers and refitting as a public trip boat.
Thinking commercially, Trust directors saw the opportunity to raise funds for restoration by charging the public to cruise along the canal and so the first public cruises began. These first trips had to be pre-booked and were for 30 passengers maximum, and also included a guided walk alongside the boat trip. Passengers started their half-hour walk at the Onslow Arms pub and then returned by boat, and had another walk back to the pub.
Back then passengers were charged the sum of £3 for the experience – which in 1995 would have bought them two pints at the Onslow Arms.
Special cruises soon followed, with the first Santa cruises taking place in 1998.
As the Trust was to learn, though, it wasn’t always plain sailing operating a public trip boat operation. In 2001 Easter Special Cruises were planned for the first time but had to be cancelled due to foot and mouth precautions. The Onslow Arms was also closed for refurbishment until May (and at that time they provided the only nearby loos).
Today there’s no shortage of conveniences, and the Wey & Arun Canal Trust owns three boats, with the greener and electric powered Wiggonholt taking the majority of boat trippers, instead of the diesel Zachariah Keppel, supplemented by Josias Jessop, which seats nine. Wiggonholt is licensed to carry up to 48 passengers and has been adapted to accommodate wheelchairs with a toilet and access ramp.
The trip boat route has changed too since the first cruises set out. Restoration has seen the completion of Brewhurst Bridge and Lock, Devil’s Hole Lock, Loxwood Road Crossing (a £2m+ project) and Southland Lock, creating a three-and-a-half mile showpiece restored canal section.
Passengers no longer have to walk the canal to reach the boats, but are met at the dedicated Canal Centre, serving as tourist information hub as well as visitor centre.
Trust chairman Sally Schupke says: “Things have certainly moved on in 25 years, but we’re still proud that so many get so much enjoyment from a relaxing cruise to take in the stunning scenery here, along with the thousands who enjoy its towpaths for walking, cycling and riding.”
The 25th anniversary will be marked with special events during 2020 and a programme of public boat trips and special cruises will resume when coronavirus restrictions are lifted.