The Oxford Canal starts in one of the most beautiful cities in England, awash with spires and towers from its 38 colleges. The waterway is one of the earliest cuts of the Canal Age and was initially designed by James Brindley to provide a direct link between London and Oxford via the Thames. The route of the canal is distinctive: rather than using earthworks to cut through the landscape in a direct fashion, the building of the waterway followed a ‘contour method’ meaning that it meanders slowly through the landscape visiting many small villages and wharves along the way. While some of these loops have been shortened to reduce transit time, many of these original features remain making it a wonderfully slow paced waterway to visit.
Start your walk at Oxford train station, crossing Hythe Bridge before turning left onto the start of the towpath. Stroll through the picturesque university city for a mile and a half, keeping an eye out for water vole burrows in the river bank, until you come to a footbridge across the river. Head up onto First Turn until you will reach Wolvercote Primary School, where a not-for-profit farmers market is held between 10am-1pm every Sunday. Here you can stock up on Indian savouries, Polish baked goods and local charcuterie before heading back to the canal and continuing for another half a mile, enjoying the gently winding turns of the water until you reach the Duke’s Cut – an important link to the River Thames.
This cut was constructed in 1789 and each boat passing would have to pay a shilling to use the tollpath. This money was used to maintain Oxey Mead, an ancient flood plain that has been protected as a meadow since before the Doomsday Book, when ‘lots’ of land would have been divided up among villagers using old cherry wood balls. It is now a nature reserve, bursting with grasses, wildflowers, insects and birds. In short, it’s an ideal spot to stop for a picnic.
Listen out for skylarks ascending around you and keep your eyes peeled for redshank and snipe. The area is also in a haven for butterflies: ringlets and orange-tips are commonly seen here. When you’ve had your fill of food and wildlife, slowly amble back to Oxford and the end of your journey.
Read more about the Oxford Canal on the Canal & River Trust website.