Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article The Oxford Canal is the copyright of Jim Shead - First published in Waterways World June 1998
The Oxford Canal
"No road could be so solitary as this canal, for in the whole day's journey we met only one fellow traveller". The southern Oxford Canal has seen a vast increase in traffic since 1939 when L. T. C. Rolt, on board Cressy, made his historic trip from Banbury, later recording this observation in his seminal classic canal book Narrow Boat. Much has changed since then but the rural nature of the canal and the beauty of the countryside remain a huge attraction, as do its many villages along the route, the market town of Banbury and the City of Oxford at its southern terminus.
As we enter the canal from the Grand Union at Napton Junction it becomes apparent that this is a narrow canal that really is narrow, and shallow, so slowing down past moored craft is really important. Soon we come to Napton Marina, offering all facilities including boat hire. The canal now loops around the west side of Napton Hill and we see the Napton windmill on the hill above us. The winding hole here marks the start of the moorings for visitors to the village. Although there are usually mooring places free, at busy times it may not be possible to moor before the lock flight. At the bottom of the flight are two water points and rubbish disposal facilities. The last time we went up the Napton flight was a Sunday in July, we had to wait 35 minutes in a queue to get through the first lock. Of course the weekend is always busier than weekdays but another contributor to the congestion is the number of hire bases close to here; two at Napton and more at Braunston, Hillmorton and Rugby. The restriction of lock hours, due to water shortages, did not improve the situation. Progress was slow but the weather was good, the company friendly and the boats interesting; boaters new and old, hirers from Norway and the USA, modern narrowboats, an historic ice breaker - Gorse and the steamer Monarch. All this and one of the most picturesque lock flights in the country.
At the top of the locks we reach the eleven mile summit level which loops and turns and doubles back with the contours of the land until it reaches Claydon, just five miles away as the crow flies. Rural remoteness predominates this section of the canal, as we wind through the fields out of sight of habitation, save an occasional farmhouse. At Stoneton Bridge (No. 127) a footpath leads to Wormleighton village, less than a mile away. We travel over two miles to Shere Hill Bridge (No. 135) and Wormleighton is still less than a mile up the road. After this we soon come to the Wharf pub at Fenny Compton and then Fenny Compton Marina followed by the tunnel. If you thought there were no tunnels on the southern part of the Oxford Canal you were right. Fenny Compton Tunnel was opened out in 1870 but the name remains and its site can be recognised by the straight stretch of narrow canal in a cutting crossed by several bridges. Half a mile past the "tunnel" we come to Boundary Bridge (No. 141), the first of the lift bridges that are a feature of the waterway. It is normally left open, like most of these bridges on the canal, but care must be taken passing through as the bridge is narrow and there is a danger of scraping the top of the boat on the raised bridge which overhangs the water at an awkward angle.
The five Claydon locks take us down from the summit and into the Cherwell valley and the village of Cropredy, two miles and three locks away. From here the canal follows the river valley to Oxford. Cropredy is a delightful village and a popular stopping point, the best moorings are above the lock but there are others further on. Across the bridge from the lock is the 600-year-old church, of local brown stone, standing in a walled churchyard. Facing the church is a row of thatched cottages, built in the same stone and almost as old as the church, and amongst these is the Red Lion, a pub that L. T. C. Rolt enjoyed in 1939 and which remains popular with today's boaters. On the old coal wharf below the lock is a sanitary station with water point and refuse disposal facilities.
Five miles and three locks after Cropredy we come to Banbury, the place where Rolt started his voyage and where Cressy was fitted out at Tooley's yard. The yard can still be seen there (now Morse Marine) but the canal basin has since been turned into the bus station. This area is now the subject of further redevelopment as Banbury's Museum & Canal Heritage Project. There are moorings both above and below the lock and the town centre is just the other side of the bus station. In addition to shopping you may like to try the Banbury cakes or go to see Banbury Cross. The original cross, of nursery rhyme fame, was demolished in 1602, the present one dates from 1858, you must judge for yourself the age of the Banbury cakes but the recipe goes back to Tudor times.
Banbury marks the halfway point on our trip, both in miles and cruising time. From here it is just over 24 miles to both Napton Junction and Oxford. There are 7 more locks from Napton than there are to Oxford, but the first leg of the journey contains both the lock flights, which in practice are quicker to work than individual locks. Averaging my actual journey times over several trips gives a figure of less than 14 hours for either leg of the voyage, and this includes waiting time at locks on the occasions when it occurred.
South of Banbury the tall spire of King's Sutton church can be seen for miles, the church stands on a hill and the fifteenth century spire rises 198 feet above the ground. The village too is worth a visit but is separated from the canal by the Cherwell, the best access being from Twyford Bridge, a 1 1/2-mile walk from the village. Above Aynho Weir lock the River Cherwell crosses the canal, flowing in on the east side and out on the opposite side over a weir just above the lock. The lock is a curious shape, like a diamond with the points cut off, and it is thought to be designed so that it can take more water from the river while only allowing one 70 foot narrowboat, at a time, to use the lock. Certainly this is a very shallow lock, having only a one-foot fall, while the next lock is Somerton Deep. At Aynho Wharf there are all facilities and next door is the excellent Great Western pub.
Continuing down the valley, past Somerton, we come to first Upper then Lower Heyford, both beautiful old villages but not ideal for shopping. The last time I stopped at Upper Heyford I found only one shop "The Early Keyboard Agency", ideal for villagers who need to pop out to buy a spinet or harpsichord but not a great help if you run out of milk. For the next few miles the villages are away from the canal side. At Enslow Bridge the Rock of Gibraltar pub stands, with gardens beside the canal. At the next lock (Baker's) the channel widens as the canal joins the Cherwell for a mile. We leave the river at Shipton Weir Lock, another shallow and strangely shaped lock, similar to Aynho Weir Lock. Shipton church can be seen beside the canal at Shipton Bridge, but on the opposite side of the canal a footpath leads across the fields and the railway line to the little church of Hampton Gay and beside it the ruins of the manor house. There is no road access to this point, the church in the middle of the fields is isolated, but not neglected. I tried the door, it opened and inside everything was neat and clean and exuded the atmosphere of things past. A painted wall sculpture shows Vincent Barry, in 17th century dress, kneeling with his wife and children to pray.
The next bridge, at Thrupp bend, is one of the lift bridges that is not kept open, so someone must go ashore to open the bridge before we make the 90º turn to go through. Even before Inspector Morse came here to investigate a murder Thrupp was well known to boaters because of the bend, the cottages facing the canal and the old Boat Inn, which has been refurbished recently. The suburban sprawl of Kidlington can be seen on the east bank between the next two locks then gives way to open country down to Duke's Lock. Below Dukes Lock is Dukes Cut, built by the Duke of Marlborough in 1789 to link the new canal with the Thames. It was not until 1796 that the Oxford Canal Company built their own link to the river, at Isis Lock. This short cut remains a popular route to the Thames as it bypasses the last three urban miles of the canal. Continuing on, past Dukes Cut and under the bridges of the busy ring roads, we soon come to Wolvecote Lock, the last before Oxford, then the rows of residential boats that gather at the edge of most waterway towns and cities. There are three lift bridges before the canal terminus, one of them an electrically operated bridge that serves a canal side works. The end of the canal is marked by College Cruisers' boatyard followed by Isis Lock, which leads to the Thames. There is a short length of canal beyond this but it is fully occupied by well-established residential boats, many of them with mailboxes and tiny gardens, and the space at the end will only allow small boats to turn. There are usually a few spaces to moor near Isis Lock and it is only a short walk into the city centre.
Our journey, which started in the quiet Warwickshire countryside, ends in the University City that did so much to promote the building of the canal. An urban end to this rural journey. A once neglected canal is now one of the busiest in the country, not just because it is a convenient link between the Midlands and the Thames but because it has a unique charm and character of its own. Many take this route, few are disappointed.
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