The length of canal between the A3057 crossing south of Timsbury and The Plaza in Romsey (about 1.8 miles (2.9km)) has survived in water complete with the towing path which is a public right of way. This stretch of the canal is known locally as either the “Barge Canal” or, more simply, just “The Barge”. The towing path is often referred to as the “Barge Path”. The length north of the Fishlake Meadows road bridge is designated as an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest).
The Fishlake Meadows Nature Reserve covers much of the land between the Barge Canal and the A3057 Greatbridge Road. The reserve stretches from a point NG Ref: SU355234. WGS84: 51° 00′ 33″ N, 1° 29′ 39″ W. north of the bridge at Belbins and the southern boundary of the reserve follows the road also known as Fishlake Meadows. The reserve is owned by Test Valley Borough Council and managed by the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT). The unique habitats of the meadows established themselves after farming of the land ceased during the 1990s. It is now a wetland, home to ospreys, bitterns and many other kinds of birds. It also supports other species like otters, water voles, 24 species of dragonfly and damselfly, and an impressive variety of plants.
In the 1980s changes were made to the ways the water in the canal was controlled and it is now integrated into the River Test catchment management arrangements. After the removal of Romsey Lock, boards had been inserted into the canal bed in a number of locations north of The Plaza to maintain the water level and improve its appearance. Latterly these have been removed by the Environment Agency supposedly for the benefit of fish movement and even for trout laying eggs! The remains of the canal now more closely resemble an uncared-for stream particularly south of Fishlake Meadows and much if not all fish life seems to have disappeared.
Romsey as a town accommodates a large number of water channels within its boundaries. However, unfortunately many of these are not accessible to the general public. But although this section of the canal is accessible, over the last twenty years or so the Barge Canal has taken on a more uncared for appearance with increasing amounts of weed and reeds growing in the channel with trees and bushes growing on and over the banks of the waterway.
What a much more pleasant feature it could be for residents of and visitors to Romsey if it looked as though someone cared about it. If only it could be properly recognised that the canal was and is a different type waterway from the River Test.
A3057 crossing, Timsbury to Belbins
North of the bridge at Belbins, parts of the path can become very muddy and almost impassable after wet weather especially in winter. The last 320 yards (295m) of this stretch is by the northern part of the Fishlake Meadows Nature Reserve.
Belbins to Fishlake Meadows road bridge
South of the bridge at Belbins, the path was rebuilt in 2019 and a certain amount of vegetation clearance along the canal has been undertaken by HIWWT as part of their work on the nature reserve. The Barge Path is part of the public access to the reserve. Along this much of this length the path is on an embankment a few feet above the meadows. On the eastern side of the canal for about quarter of a mile (500m) north of the Fishlake Meadows road bridge, a recent housing development has been built called Oxlease Meadows.
As part of the Oxlease Meadows development is a car park specifically intended for visitors to the nature reserve and open daily from 8am until 6pm. The entrance to Oxlease Meadows is on the north side of Fishlake Meadows (the road) immediately west of the roundabout in Cupernham Lane. The car park is at the end of the first turning on the left within the estate.
The bridge carrying the road called Fishlake Meadows was built in the 1980s as part of the housing estate south of the road and west of the canal. Within this development, Robert Whitworth Drive was named after the principal engineer of the nearby Andover Canal.
Fishlake Meadows to the Old Road bridge
The canal and the former towing path gently bend into a south-westerly direction from Fishlake Meadows road bridge. The path south of the road bridge is now known as Canal Walk although we’re still beside the Barge Canal. The path as far as the Old Road bridge was given an all weather surface suitable for cyclists and walkers in 2018.
In the third of a mile (0.6km) south of the Fishlake Meadows road bridge there are three footbridges and a concrete bridge at Old Road which gives access to several properties on the west bank of the canal.
For the canal to be of value to residents and visitors to Romsey, the right balance needs to be struck between keeping it effective as a wildlife corridor (which means leaving lots of plant life in the water and right next to the canal path) and also effective as an inviting route for people (which means keeping it sufficiently clear). In 2021, in conjunction with the Environment Agency and the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, a Canal Maintenance Project has been set up to provide volunteers to undertake the right level of maintenance in order to strike this balance. In September 2021, a start was made to clear brambles and overgrown dogwood from the canal between the bridges at Waterside and Old Road.
Old Road bridge to the railway
South of the bridge at Old Road, lie two more footbridges crossing the waterway. At the southern footbridge, Canal Walk diverges from the canal towing path making for the railway station and Station Road into the centre of Romsey.
The line of the canal now gently bends back to a southerly course and reaches the bridge carrying the railway over the canal. The Bishopstoke (now known as Eastleigh) to Salisbury line was opened in 1847 and had to accommodate the barges and their horses that continued to use waterway until it closed twelve years later. Just 80 yards (75m) east of this bridge is Romsey Junction where the remaining portion of the Andover and Redbridge Railway branches south, very much in use.
The railway to The Plaza
About 40 yards (35m) yards south of the railway bridge, a new footbridge, built about 2015, crosses the canal. This gives access to some housing and Romsey Signal Box. This is a building dating from 1873 and a working museum which gives an insight into the life of a railway signalman. Further information can be found on their website.
The canal continues southwards until it and its waters disappear underground behind the Plaza Theatre at the site of Romsey Lock - the first since Timsbury some 2.6 miles (4.2km) away. The Plaza opened in 1931 as a cinema. After a spell as a bingo hall in the 1970s, it closed in 1982 and was bought by Romsey Amateur Operatic and Dramatic Society and converted to a theatre opening in January 1984.
Romsey Lock was located where the vehicular access on the west side of the theatre now is. It seems to have been covered over in 1930/1 when the Plaza Cinema was built with the canal’s water culverted under the access. From Ordnance Survey mapping surveyed in 1865-6, the site of the Plaza was a brick field complete with a brick kiln right next to the canal but the revision of 1895 no longer shows either feature.
The original bridge over the canal carrying the road to Winchester was demolished in 1862.
The Plaza, Romsey to Ashfield
The canal ran south from Romsey Wharf along or beside what is now Southampton Road for around ¾ mile (1.2km). Originally the turnpike road from Romsey towards Southampton ran through Broadlands Park, less than ¼ mile from the big house. When the scheme to convert the canal into a railway was being promoted the park’s owner and prime minister, Lord Palmerston, saw a way of moving the road away from the park.
The railway’s promoters wanted to use the existing Romsey station on the Eastleigh to Salisbury line. This meant that their line had to approach Romsey from the south further east than the canal as the waterway was too close to the station. The owner of the land needed happened to be Lord Palmerston. Agreement was reached that the railway could be built east of the canal provided that the railway company built a wall on the east bank of the waterway and a new road, now called Southampton Road, outside the wall. The canal was closed in 1859, and after financial difficulties the new road opened in 1864 and the railway the next year.
The “Mile Wall” ends at Southampton Lodge (formerly known as Ashfield Lodge) where the new road joined the old turnpike road which is now a private drive into the park. Ashfield Lock was situated just behind the lodge and to the north of the drive.