Canal Guide

Oxford Canal South

Oxford Canal South

(For information about the rest of the canal click Oxford Canal North)


Above: Aynho Weir Lock (photo kindly supplied by College Cruisers, canal boat holiday operator.

The Oxford Canal from Oxford to Napton

Researched and written 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 contours of the land to avoid the necessity of the construction of locks as far as possible.

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 canal 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.There is 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 popular place for those enjoying a canal boat holiday where you can 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 canal 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 Union 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 rubbish 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.

Elite Cropredy Lock Photo from canal boat holidays operator Napton Narrowboats
Find Napton Narrowboat base on Google Maps

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.


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