The Oxford Canal from Oxford to Napton

Researched, written and photographed by Jeannette Briggs

The Oxford Canal is a delight.  It was originally constructed by James Brindley in the 18th century, and he sought to link the industrial Midlands with the Thames by making a canal connection between Birmingham and the city of Oxford.  The work was financed by some entrepreneurial businessmen in Oxford who thought that they would gain profits from the carriage of large cargoes through Oxford and then down on to the Thames towards London.

James Brindley started by excavating the canal basin just south of Hythe Bridge in Oxford.  The whole area of the original canal basin is now covered by the ugly Worcester Road car park.  There is currently talk of Oxford City Council re-visiting the idea of opening up the canal basin once more.  the canal was cut along a line running north from the city, and which followed the countours of the land to avoid the necessity of the construction of locks as far as possible.

 

Above: Narrowboat entering the last lock on the Oxford Canal in the city of Oxford - photo courtesy J Briggs

The Oxford Canal actually connects with the River Thames at two points in the city - from the river by Oxford Railway Station in the centre of the city, and also just outside the city boundaries at the Duke's Cut.  The original canal entry is cut at a very sharp angle to the River Thames, and you have to be a skilled and careful helmsman to negotiate the course of the canal under the low bridges that carry the railway just above the cut and then past the old swing bridge until you come to a small lock that gains you entry to the Oxford Canal itself.  To enter this lock with a traditionally long narrowboat is not easy. You have to be able to swing your boat around nearly 180 degrees.  It was because this was obviously not a very satisfactory entry to the Thames that a second method of entering the Thames was found near Godstow.  A short cutting was made between the Thames and the Oxford Canal, and was called "The Duke's Cut" - and this is the favoured route of most boat owners today. 

Above: The junction of the Oxford Canal and the Thames - photo by J Briggs

Above: The canal in the heart of the city of Oxford - photo by J Briggs

If you do choose to enter the Oxford Canal by the lower entry from the river and succeed in turning your boat around from the entry lock here there is just one very small winding hole which will enable you to travel for about 200 yards towards the centre of Oxford by Hythe Bridge and this will - just about - enable you to turn your boat completely around to face north again.  There are very few temporary moorings for boats visiting the city and indeed the this is very much a wasted asset as far as the City of Dreaming Spires is concerned. 

With a little more care and attention by the city authorities this stretch of the canal could be turned into overnight moorings enabling lots of visitors to explore the city by foot instead of clogging up its streets with yet more cars....    British Waterways supply a pump-out station and a small rubbish collection point near here. They have also (controversially) boarded off the former Castle Mill Basin located here (which was where several houseboats used to be moored) because BWB want to redevelop the area for housing.  The resulting vista of the Oxford Canal at this point is obviously spoiled by the hoardings and graffiti on them.  But - be patient if you still want to explore the Oxford Canal - it DOES get a lot better!

Once you travel a short way beyond the confines of the city of Oxford the canal bursts into the countryside and reaches the old village of Thrupp. This is a wonderful place to stop for lunch or a siesta.  The Jolly Boatman pub is right on the side of the canal and it serves great food and a selection of real ales.  You can moor your boat right outside the pub and enjoy the delights there, or you can continue a mile up the cut to the rest of this pretty village where there are further moorings for the visitor.  The row of old canalside boatmens' cottages that you see are superbly renovated - they are mainly holiday homes and of course cost a lot of money to purchase.

   

Above: The Jolly Boatman pub at Thrupp - photo by J Briggs

Above: The Oxford canal at the Jolly Boatman  - photo by J Briggs

You next reach the famous Thrupp lever bridge across the canal - you have to swing and pull on the chain that is suspended from one of the balance beams and this action gently lowers the bridge down across the canal so that you can drive or walk across it.  You have the raise the bridge again of course, so that it does not interfere with the passing canal boats.

 

Above: The unique old chain lift bridge at Thrupp - photo by J Briggs

Above: The delightful scene at Thrupp - photo by J Briggs

The canal also has banks and tubs of flowers lovingly tended by owners of cottages and house boats.  there is also a superb BWB cleansing station, painted in the bright colours of yellow and blue.  This has the full range of facilities for boaters including pump-out, cleansing station, water and rubbish disposal.  Thrupp is undoubtedly self-consciously beautiful, but it deserves its title of the prettiest village on the canal, and it is only 10 miles from the River Thames and Oxford

I must confess to a personal bias at this point - I first fell in love with the gentle charms and limpid beauty of the Oxford Canal over 30 years ago, and a very recent return visit only served to confirm my belief that this is the loveliest of English canals.  Once you leave Oxford and Thrupp behind you the scenic views come thick and fast....  North of Thrupp the canal continues on its way winding through the delightful surroundings of fields and woods, and sheep and cows sometimes paddling in the River Cherwell, which runs next to the canal.  Boaters pass Shipton Under Cherwell, a lovely little village with the Church standing almost next to the canal.

Now you skirt the quaint little villages of Lower and Upper Heyford.  They existed before the canal was built, but they each developed greatly because of the passing boat traffic.

 

 

Above: The Oxford Canal at Shipton under Cherwell  

Above: Lower Heyford and the towpath near Mill Bridge - photo by J Briggs

Lower Heyford's wharf was opened in 1790, when the canal was built, a short walk from the village. The village was lively with the water-bourne trade for many years, until the arrival of the railways which killed off the canal traffic.  It is now a place which provides all the basic essentials for boaters, including red diesel and pumpout and rubbish disposal facilities.

Lower Heyford sprang to life again with the bustle of holiday and leisure narrowboats.  The actual village has some delightful thatched cottages, a nice old church and a popular pub called The Bell Inn, which is located in the village itself, a short walk from the canal, and which is one of those beautiful family friendly pubs. 

Upper Heyford is a mile or so away from its neighbour Lower Heyford, and is famous for being the one - time home to one of the largest US Airforce airfield bases in the country. Boaters on the canal were frequently rudely awoken by the roaring sound of huge jet fighters taking off above them as I remember all too clearly.... This has all ceased now because the base closed in 1994, and the village has returned to its former tranquillity. It drops steeply down to the canal from the top road, and has some charming thatched cottages and a little church, before you reach the actual canal and lock. Here there are some lovely quiet moorings. The Barley Mow pub is worth the walk up the street from the canal.

 

    

Above: Upper Heyford Lock - photo by J Briggs

Above: Lower Heyford marina from the railway bridge - photo by J Briggs

The canal now winds its way through some peaceful and not very frequented countryside, well away from villages and any roads - you have to be a boater or walker to appreciate the surroundings here.  The next construction of note on the Oxford Canal is Somerton Deep Lock - so-called because it is just that - one of the deepest locks on the whole canal system.  It demands respect in negotiating its dank and cavernous depths, being well over 12 feet in depth. 30 years ago our cross-collie dog Kim managed to fall off the very top of the "bottom" gate and plunged down into the swirling dark waters below.  He survived only because of some swift and nifty work by my husband with a boat hook round Kim's collar.........

After leaving Somerton Deep Lock you reach Aynho wharf.  (The village of Aynho is about a mile away). At Aynho wharf you can find a nice canalside pub, the Great Western Arms. 

Above - The Oxford Canal towpath - photo by J Briggs

Above - the canal at Somerton Bridge - photo by J Briggs

Continuing north, the South Oxford Canal now enters Banbury, a market town with mediaeval origins, including the famous Banbury Cross, and lots of nice old pubs. The original market cross was constructed over 500 years ago, and was destroyed by the Puritans in the aftermath of the Civil War.  You might remember a childrens' nursery rhyme that goes "Ride a Cock horse to Banbury Cross - See a fine lady on a white horse".  It is thought to relate to a visit to the old market town by Queen Elizabeth 1st. The Market Cross that you see now is a Victorian reproduction.

Alongside the Oxford Canal at Banbury a huge new shopping centre called Castle Quay has been built and expanded recently, and this is revitalising the whole area.  To see the Oxford Canal through Banbury at this point is a delight - moorings and facilities are provided, together with trees, flower beds and wooden benches, and a nice park and play area for children, and you can enjoy the constant passing of pleasure boats right through the centre of this old town.  You can moor here safely and obtain the usual essential supplies like bread and milk.  It was from Banbury that in 1939 L.T.C. Rolt (Tom Rolt) started his epic journey in a narrowboat called Cressey along the Oxford canal,  which he later wrote about into his book "Narrow Boat".  This led ultimately to the formation of the Inland Waterways Association and the salvation of the canal system. To commemorate this fact one of the bridges over the canal has been re-named "The Tom Rolt Bridge" in his honour.

Above: The Oxford Canal at Banbury - photo by J Briggs

Above: The Tom Rolt Bridge across the  canal at Banbury - photo by J Briggs

Leaving Banbury the canal continues northwards and passes the village of Cropredy. This is quite simply a delightful place - an overworked word, but perfectly justified in Cropredy's case!  It is one of those English villages that come complete with a 600 year old church, the Red Lion Pub, which serves nice but expensive food, a row of thatched cottages and lots of mooring places on the canal. BWB provide a sanitary station with refuse disposal facilities and a water point. 

Another nice old pub, slightly off the actual canal, is the Brasenose Arms.

All in all, lots of good reasons to stop here! There was a Civil War battle fought here in 1644 - the Royalist army led by King Charles I met a small Parliamentary force near the bridge, apparently.

 

 Above: Cropredy High Street - J Briggs

 Above: Cropredy Lock by J Briggs


Travelling north from Cropredy you start to climb the five Claydon locks - which are hard work on a hot summer's day... and at Claydon Top Lock you might be able to see the village of Claydon to the west.   You will then will reach Fenny Compton "Tunnel" - except that it isn't!! (a tunnel, that is).   It used to be a tunnel, but it was opened up in 19th century, because it was causing a bottleneck to the traffic on the canal.  The canal was already in financial trouble at this point, because of competition from boaters using the Grand Junction Canal to London. For 15 years the Oxford Canal had things all to itself and enjoyed a period of glorious prosperity.  If you were an industrialist in the Midlands and you wanted to get your products to London the only way by water was down the Oxford Canal and on via the Thames.....Now suddenly, boaters had discovered the new fast "motorway" route to London via the Grand Junction (which was wider and could accommodate two narrowboats in every lock at the same time) - and things were never the same on the Oxford Canal.   Fenny Compton "tunnel" is now a cutting, which is crossed by several bridges.

 

Above: The Red Lion pub in Cropredy - photo by J Briggs


The village of Fenny Compton is a short walk away from the canal, but the wharf is right by the road bridge.  Fenny Compton wharf itself has a pub - The Wharf Innwhich is a delightful old place with leather sofas and a good beer garden.  It also serves excellent food and beers, with good moorings and a water point and rubish disposal point furnished by BWB.

Above: The towpath at Fenny Compton Wharf - photo by J Briggs

Above: Narrowboats using the BWB water point - J Briggs

Fenny Marina is here also, and is a good place for supplies which you will need to obtain here, as the next section of the canal passes through a stretch of rural remoteness you cannot believe you have found in our overcrowded island, with hardly any signs of human occupation.  It is totally isolated - you can see distant glimpses of villages like Priors Hardwick and Wormleighton but they can only be reached by footpath across the flat fields....

The canal now follows the contours of the land and loops back on itself for 11 miles, until it reaches the Napton Flight of 9 locks, which enable boaters to gently descend to the Warwickshire plain.  

The first of these is Marston Doles Lock. As you begin to descend the flight of locks you can see Napton village and the old white windmill standing high on the hill.  The flight is very popular and you can spend several hours just waiting your turn to go through the locks on busy weekends in the summer months.

Finally you reach Napton  Bottom Lock  with The Folly, another nice old pub next to the canal at No. 113, then The Bridge at Napton, at bridge no. 111.  At Stockton Road Bridge you will find Napton  Wharf which is home to Napton Narrowboats,  and there are mooring places at this welcoming base and near here for a well-earned night's rest.

 

 

Above: The  Wharf Pub at Fenny Compton  by J Briggs

Above: Napton Marina from the bridge - photo by J Briggs

You also encounter the lovely brick bridge here and can see the famous white windmill on the hill - the lankmark that all can boaters look for because it indicates the junction with the Grand Union Canal...  The village of Napton itself is a short walk away from the canal, but well worth the effort to visit it!

 

The South Oxford Canal at Napton - photo courtesy Napton Narrowboats and reproduced with our grateful thanks to them.
visit www.napton-marina.co.uk

At this point the South Oxford canal joins with a short stretch of the Grand Union Canal at what used to be known as Wigram's Turn by the old boaters.  There is now a big new hire base here called Wigram's Turn marina,  with mooring and other boating facilities.

After the junction at Napton the South Oxford Canal has to take a "right turn", and joins with what is now known as the Grand Union Canal along a stretch to the Braunston Turn, before it continues on its northern path turning off up north towards Rugby.  The bed of the canal here was actually owned by the Oxford Canal Company, and they retaliated against the Grand Junction Canal people (as they were known then) by charging them excessive tolls to move the Grand Junction narrowboats across their section of the canal at this point.

Above: narrowboat joining the Grand Union from the Oxford Canal  - photo by J Briggs

Above: bridges at Mill House junction of North Oxford with Grand Union - photo by J Briggs

At the Braunston Turn the Oxford takes a route off to the north, and it is thereafter more correctly known as the North Oxford Canal from here on.  If you look over to your right as you turn up towards Rugby and Coventry you can see Braunston village, which rises up the hill in front of you, and which is a "proper" canal village and has several old pubs like the Millhouse, The Wheatsheaf and The Old Plough. for thirsty boaters.


Above and right: Braunston village and marina - photos by J Briggs

 

Braunston also has shops for those essential supplies like milk and bread, and a stunning church with a spire on top, clearly visible for miles around. Braunston is full of boat chandlery firms, and shops selling canal and "boaty" things, like The Boat Shop, Braunston Boats, Braunston Chandlers, Midland Chandlers, Union Canal Carriers and - of cours -  Braunston Marina itself.  You will pass under one of two delightful old cast iron bridges in black and white, which carry the towpath across the canals - see picture. You turn left up the North Oxford canal to go towards Rugby and Coventry.

As you enter this northern section of the Oxford Canal you will note immediately that its route seems to be simpler to navigate, being basically much straighter than the South Oxford section you have left behind you.  This was because the canal owners had the route drastically shortened, by straightening the route between Braunston and Hawksbury to try and improve journey times. 

The canal joined the one which comes down from Coventry, and carried huge amounts of limestone, coal, grain salt and steel in boats down to the Braunston Turn and thereafter down to London via the Grand Junction Canal (now the Grand Union).  This section of the North Oxford canal remained busy for far longer, and was viable long after commercial traffic ceased on the South Oxford section.

 

 

Above:  the North Oxford canal at Willoughby bridge by J Briggs

Above: The Oxford Canal near Hillmorton by J Briggs

You can moor near Bridge 73 for The Old Royal Oak, a nice old canalside pub, which serves meals to boaters. The canal is crossed here by both road and rail bridges, complete with incessant noise from the high speed trains and lorries on their way to the nearby M6/M1 junctions.

Before long you reach the Hillmorton Locks, on the outskirts of the town of Rugby. This is a flight of three locks which drops the canal down towards the former British Waterways Board workshops sited by the bottom lock - there is also a little brick built footbridge here which is interesting.

 

Above: The Oxford Canal from Clifton upon Dunsmore bridge - photo by J Briggs

Once past Hillmorton, the next canalside settlement is at Clifton Wharf. Apart from the usual boating facilities they also have a useful shop for groceries. The village of Clifton rises steeply up above the canal, and there are several pubs here like The Clifton Inn.

Hillmorton itself is a bit of a disappointment - the town of Rugby has virtually swallowed up this part of the countryside, and the houses and industry here have turned their backs on the canal, instead of developing it as a great natural asset. Fast noisy trains and the traffic from the nearby M45 are now constantly with you, and you are overlooked by the huge radio masts on the hill above the canal.

Past Clifton and on the swing around Rugby you next pass the Rugby Wharf arm off to the left where Willow Wren Cruisers and Viking Afloat have their bases, and you then enter the little village of Newbold, where there are two interesting canalside pubs called The Boat and The Barley Mow.  By now you have left Rugby behind you and are travelling in nice countryside once again.

 

Above: The North Oxford Canal near Newbold photo by J Briggs

After Newbold, there is a short tunnel, built at the time the whole route of the North Oxford Canal was being improved.  It was actually cut wide enough to have a towpath on both sides - a real luxury in those days... 

The canal continues towards Coventry, running north west past villages like Brinklow and Ansty.  Anstey grew up alongside the canal and has a little pub which is a favourite for boaters called The Rose and Castle Inn, but sadly this area has been affected by the proximity of the motorways.

Finally the North Oxford reaches the big junction at Hawkesbury, which is the official end of the canal before it joins the Coventry Canal. Here there is a lovely old canal pub called The Greyhound which faces the junction bridge so boaters can moor up and have a pint whilst watching other boaters make a hash of trying to turn their long narrowboats round the difficult bend underneath the bridge.  This markes the official "end" of the North Oxford Canal.  

I hope that by now you may have read all about the Oxford Canal and be inspired to travel it yourselves.  From personal experience I know that you will not be disappointed!!!

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