the Oxford Canal
Narrow Boat Holiday Hire
This beautiful Canal runs for 77 miles, connecting to the Coventry Canal at Hawkesbury Junction and to the River Thames (or Isis) at Oxford. The South Oxford in particular is considered to be one of the most picturesque and peaceful waterways on the system and has become a favourite for narrowboat holiday cruises.
There are three routes that we particularly recommend -
- The shortest takes you from our marina to Stoke Bruene and back - 40 hours - 17 locks each way (plus 7 optional at Stoke Bruene) - 3 tunnels
- The middle route takes you from our marina to Banbury and back - 53 hours - 25 locks each way - 1 tunnel
- The longest takes you from our marina to Oxford and back - 78 hours - 42 locks each way - 1 tunnel
Construction of this Canal began in 1769, supervised by the famous engineer James Brindley (a bronze statue of Mr Brindley can be seen at the Coventry Canal Basin). Brindley died shortly afterwards and his brother-in-law Samuel Simcock took over and saw the canal to its completion. By 1774 the canal had reached Napton. By 1778, after raising more funds, it progressed to Banbury. Further financial problems meant that the final stretch to Oxford was not started until 1786 and was built as cheaply as possible, with the utilization of wooden lift bridges (right, courtesy of Stephen and Lucy - www.luphen.org.uk) or swing bridges instead of expensive brick ones and deep locks with single gates at both ends instead of the usual double gates. Sections of the River Cherwell where integrated with the canal to reduce construction costs, leading to some tidal stretches, still in use today. The Oxford Canal finally reached its destination in 1789; twenty years after construction began. For 15 years it was one of the most important and profitable transport links in Britain, taking coal, stone, agricultural products and much more from the Midlands to London. The Southern section was then largely superseded by the more direct Grand Junction Canal (now the Grand Union), which was completed in 1805. However, the short section between Braunston and Napton became part of the busy direct route linking Birmingham to London.
The Canal originally meandered around hills and high ground in order to avoid the need for cuttings and embankments and to access as many sources of revenue as possible (the constructors being paid by the mile had nothing to do with it, of course). In the 1820’s it was decided that the section between Braunston and Hawkesbury Junction should be straightened, reducing it by some twenty miles and making the navigation time more competitive with that of the railways. The northern section continued to be well used by freight traffic until the 1960’s, whilst the southern section became something of a backwater and carried mostly local traffic. As a result it escaped large-scale development and few towns sprung up on its banks. It was threatened with closure but, luckily, the use of canals for pleasure craft was just beginning to become popular at this time and this became the South Oxford’s saving grace. Ironically its lack of commercial success was the very thing that kept it unspoiled and makes it such a desirable destination today. It is to be noted that its design and popularity contrive to keep the Oxford narrow and shallow and that water conservation is always an important consideration, with shortages sometimes affecting journey times.
From our stunning base your luxury narrowboat will take you five and a half miles through the outskirts of Coventry to Hawkesbury Junction, a favourite meeting place for boat folk of old and home to the well known Greyhound Inn (its wise to book for meals and, sadly, children are not permitted after 7pm). Here you you turn right under the cast iron bridge and you will encounter your first lock, all of 8 inches! This was a ‘stop lock’ between the Coventry and Oxford Canals, which were originally owned by different companies (right, courtesy of Stephen and Lucy - www.luphen.org.uk). Passage from one to the other was chargeable and the stop lock ensured the boats paused long enough to pay their toll. Some of the old loops provide evidence of the canal’s older, more meandering course, before it was made more competitive with the railways, whilst the M6 reminds us of the nature of transportation today. The landscape quickly resumes its rural splendor, arriving at The Rose and Castle pub at Ansty. Stretton Stop provides some canal style hustle and bustle (beware the swing bridge) before the canal skirts Brinklow Village, site of a former wharf. Brinklow is now a ten minute walk from the canal. Straddling the former Roman Road of Fosse Way (nowadays surprisingly busy) this petty village boasts a Norman motte-and-bailey castle, one of the largest and best preserved in England and a 13th century church. Brinklow Marina is a little further along the canal, again occupying a section its former course. Look out for further evidence in the shape of long abandoned bridges in the middle of fields!
With lock free progress, it takes very little time to reach Newbold, again much coloured by the canal’s 19th century rerouting. This explains why the Boat Inn is nowhere near the canal, and why there are old tunnel entrances blocked off nearby. Newbold’s new tunnel, at right angles to the old one, has a magical light display (right, courtesy of Enjoy Warwickshire - www.warwickshire.gov.uk ) (turned off after dark so as not to inconvenience the bat residents) whilst the village is a good place to pick up provisions. The next place of note is Rugby. Cruising through the northern reaches of the town, the old loops are very much in evidence. It’s quite a walk to the town centre but, naturally, there are lots of eating, drinking and shopping opportunities and, for fans of football with a non-spherical ball, the various museums are a must!
It’s not until you reach Hillmorton that you remember that canals have locks. There are three here - strange paired locks with a canal boat shaped island between. Stop and eat at Badsey’s Bistro, voted Britain’s best canalside restaurant. There follows over an hour of lock free countryside until you reach Braunston Turn. This junction was built as part of the 1830’s project to eliminate some of the Oxford’s flamboyant twists. Here your continued direction of travel will depend upon your chosen destination, but either way, Braunston marina is not to be missed. Described by Michael Pearson in his indispensable canal guides as "a point of pilgrimage which has captured the imagination of waterway writers, artists and photographers more than almost any other canal location", Braunston is a source of pleasure and inspiration to all canal enthusiasts. The village is also extremely pretty and has a choice of eating, drinking and shopping facilities. Look out for the de-sailed windmill with its panoramic views.
If your destination is Stoke Bruerne you will turn left onto the Grand Union Canal at Braunston Junction, passing next to the marina and on to a fascinating stretch of water. You begin by ascending six locks, (possibly stopping for refreshments just after the second lock at the Admiral Nelson pub) followed by a 2042 yard tunnel (the seventh longest on the canal network) and some subterranean and remote scenery, until you reach Norton Junction. Follow the canal round to the right and you will pass Buckby Wharf, birth place of the Buckby Can (right), an essential water carrying vessel, usually decorated with the traditional ‘roses and castles’ design, used by boaters of old who didn’t have the luxury of a capacious water tank. Seven locks will take your mind off the fact that the M1 is, for a while, your neighbour, until boat and car part ways at bridge 19. Bridge 24 gives access to the village of Weedon Bec, with its wealth of antique shops, pubs and stores. Keep an eye out for the River Nene, which cradles the village. The Grand Union continues until it reaches Gayton Junction, shortly followed by Blisworth. This beautiful village has a church founded in the 12th century and a brand new marina. Its main claim to fame, though, is the tunnel - the longest that can be navigated in England. The 3076 yard long Blisworth tunnel, opened in 1805, is wide enough for two boats to pass, but was built without a tow path. Originally boats were poled through, but this was soon replaced by legging. Leggers had to lay on boards either side of the boat, a dangerous scenario that resulted in several deaths. The horses, meanwhile, had a boat free jaunt over Blisworth Hill. Today the tunnel takes about half an hour to traverse, a thrill for tunnel enthusiasts, but some of our canine customers may prefer the horses’ old route.
The south end of the tunnel opens out at your final destination, Stoke Bruerne (right, courtesy of Stephen and Lucy - www.luphen.org.uk). This popular tourist destination is fiercely proud of its canal heritage and is described in Nicholson’s Ordanance Survey Guide to the Waterways as “the best example of a canal village in this country.” It boasts the Waterways Museum, housed in an old corn mill, featuring a vast range of outside and inside exhibits. Pretty cottages face onto the canal, along with two pubs and an up market restraunt. There is also an attractive double arched bridge and seven locks. This might well be the ultimate destination for a canal enthusiast’s narrow boat holiday. There are winding holes on the northern edge of the village, after the fifth lock or an hour or so further along the canal at Yardley Gobion.
If your destination is Banbury or Oxford, bear right along the Canal, moor just past Braunston Junction and explore the marina and village on foot. A short cruise will then take you to Napton Junction. Remain on the Oxford as it continues to mince and meander round the village of Napton on the Hill in such an exaggerated fashion that the nearby Napton windmill is visible for many hours, from a whole variety of angles! The canal rises above the village by means of nine attractive locks which take it up to one of the most convoluted summit levels on the system. The views here are staggering. The canal zigzags for eleven miles between Napton and Claydon, which are geographically less than five miles apart. The few boats that you encounter will often appear to be traveling on mysterious waterways parallel to your own. This eleven mile pound is mentioned in Tom Rolt’s seminal book “Narrow Boat”, published in 1944.
The canal passes through some beautiful, rural Warwickshire countryside and the bare minimum of villages. The Wharf at Fenny Compton will provide you with great food and some human company, should you feel the need for either. From here on you will often spot the railway running a fairly straight line to Oxford, whilst the canal wobbles backwards and forwards, meeting, crossing and then diverging from its high speed companion. You will enter a long, narrow cutting, referred to by the misnomer of ‘Fenny Tunnel straight’, due to the fact that it once had a roof! Slip over the border into Oxfordshire and on to Claydon, where you will find the Bygones Museum and Tea Rooms. A flight of nine locks ease you down into the valley of the River Cherwell with the last lock situated in the village of Cropredy (above right, courtesy Andrew Denny - www.grannybuttons.com ). This Cotswold riverside village, which won a “Best Kept Village” award in 2005 and the “Number One Waterside Best Village” in 2006, is a popular boaters’ destination. The village has two pubs, a store and a very famous annual music festival! The canal and the river then keep intermittent company as you pass down the last four locks into the town of Banbury. The nursery rhyme, 'Ride a Cock Horse', has made Banbury one of the best-known towns in England. The original ‘Banbury Cross’ was pulled down at the end of the 16th century, to be replaced in 1859 by the present one to commemorate the wedding of the then Princess Royal to Prince Frederick of Prussia. Banbury is also famous for its special fruit and pastry cakes, based on a Tudor recipe. At one time the cakes were exported to Australia, India and America and they are still produced today. Originally a small medieval market town, Banbury has grown, not least due to the opening of the Oxford Canal in 1790 and the arrival of the railway. Today it is its proximity to the M40 motorway that has brought a flourish of industry and commuters. It offers its visitors many fine pubs, a wealth of parks, a large shopping centre and a modern museum. A taxi ride away you will find the Hook Norton Brewery Visitor Centre and the Water Fowl Sanctuary and Children’s’ Animal Centre near Wigginton Heath. There is a 70 ft winding hole just after the town centre.
The Oxford Canal’s economy drive becomes apparent with the proliferation of lift bridges (many are chained open) and single gated locks, as it keeps company with the River Cherwell. Sadly, it also has a passing acquaintance with the M40 part of the way. Other than that, the landscape mostly consists of picturesque meadows, woodland, church spires (King Sutton’s rises 198 feet above the ground), pretty cottages, wharfs and weirs. At Aynho Weir lock the River Cherwell crosses the canal. The lock is a curious diamond shape in order to take more water from the river. This shallow lock is followed by Somerton Deep, one of the deepest narrowbeam locks on the system. Between the two locks, at Aynho Wharf, the excellent Great Western pub offers good food and is of interest to rail and canal enthusiasts alike.
Canal, river and railway plait their tree lined way through the lovely old villages of Upper and Lower Heyford. A short walk from here is Rousham House (built 1635), landscape Gardens and Park, a must for fans of William Kent and largely unchanged since the 18th century. You are welcome to bring a picnic, but not your children or dogs! One of the features, a sham ruin known as the 'Eyecatcher', can be seen from Heyford Common Lock. A few more locks and some sharp bends will keep you on your toes as you progress through the idyllic, wooded landscape of the next seven miles. Inspector Morse aficionados will start to recognize locations and canal side pub connoisseurs can choose between the celebrated Rock of Gibraltar and The Boat. Between Baker's Lock and Shipton Weir Lock, again shallow and oddly shaped, the channel widens as canal and river merge and the forces of a natural waterway can be felt.
With Oxford just a few miles away, the landscape becomes increasingly more urban. Just after Dukes Lock to your right you will see Dukes Cut, built by the Duke of Marlborough in 1789 as the original link between the new canal and the Thames. There is one more lock and three lift bridges before you reach the visitor moorings between bridges 242 and 243 and you head off to explore the City of Dreaming Spires. Less than quarter of a mile further along, the Oxford Canal ends abruptly at Hythe Bridge Street. At one time it continued under two bridges to a turning basin, goods wharf and coal wharf which were filled in 1951 with Nuffield College now standing on part of the site.
Oxford is famous the world over for its University and its historical significance. The area has been established as a town since the 9th Century. A favourite home of royalty and scholars, today’s Oxford is a bustling cosmopolitan city. As a boating enthusiast you are obliged to take a punt on the Isis (the stretch of the Thames that passes through Oxford) but there is plenty more of interest. There are lots of historic buildings to visit including the castle, Blenheim Palace and over thirty colleges which make up the University. Museums, such as the Science Museum on Broad Street, the Natural History Museum on Park Road (home to the remains of a dodo) and Ashmolean Museum, the oldest in Britain. There are lots of attractive parks and gardens, an open top bus tour, a covered market, innumerable places to eat and drink (the Lamb and Flag has connections with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and E. Morse whilst the Q.I. Cafe may be quite interesting to bookworms), cinemas, theatres and shows, to mention just a few.
Those of you on Elan, Dee or Taw Valley will be able to turn in the 50 ft winding hole just before bridge 243, but larger boats will need to pass through Isis Lock (known to boaters as 'Louse Lock', right, courtesy of John Eade) and turn just beyond there. For the adventurous and experienced you may wish to return to the Oxford Canal along the Isis and up through Duke’s cut, with its sharp bends, current and weirs. If so you will need to acquire a Thames short stay license from British Waterways. Carry on through Sheepwash Channel and turn right onto the river. Here I would like again to quote from the eloquent Mr Pearson, whose poetic insights I cannot hope to match. “The next reach is spellbinding. Soon the tree-lined banks open out to expose the full extent of Port Meadow where cattle and horses graze against a skyline of Oxford’s dreaming spires. Godstow Lock intervenes, but then it’s well worth mooring to the grassy bank upstream of Godstow’s ancient stone bridge to explore the ruins of the nunnery where Henry II’s mistress, Fair Rosamund, died. Or, considering the needs of the inner man, repairing to the famous Trout Inn, overlooking the adjacent weir stream.” After King’s Lock turn right once again, along Duke’s Cut and back to the relative simplicity of the Oxford Canal.