The Waterfront Weekender: The Oxford Canal

The sweeping loops of the Oxford Canal meander through quintessentially English countryside, its slow and leisurely pace making it a perfect choice for a laid-back amble


Once the main transportation link between the south of England and the Midlands, the 77-mile Oxford Canal now offers an idyllic destination for a leisure outing. The waterway weaves its way from the university city of Oxford to the striking spires of Coventry, its meandering route demonstrating engineer James Brindley’s technique of following the natural contours of the land.

Opening in the late 18th century to supply Oxford and the surrounding area with coal, the canal was a busy thoroughfare until the Grand Junction Canal (which later became part of the Grand Union) by-passed the southern section of the route. A number of upgrades were carried out to the northern section, including shortening the route and by-passing many of the loops, but the southern part remains largely unspoilt and is still a testament to Brindley’s charming design.

The Oxford Canal Walk follows the entire length of the canal, but the 28-mile section between Banbury and Oxford allows you to explore some of the best of this scenic waterway, passing through towns and hamlets steeped in history and some of the prettiest countryside the region has to offer.

The City of Dreaming Spires
Ambling through Oxford, known as the ‘City of Dreaming Spires’ is an enchanting experience; seemingly every road and alleyway harbours another historical building or architectural gem. You can get a beautiful perspective from on top of the Castle Mound.

Stock up on picnic supplies at Oxford’s covered market before picking up the canal towpath on Hythe Bridge Street, opposite the Oxford Retreat pub, and following the narrow path between Castle Mill Stream and the canal. You’ll soon pass Isis Lock, which allows craft to pass between the river and the canal. A string of boats line the bank of the canal for the next mile or two.

After a few miles, you’ll pass the Trap Grounds on your left, a six-acre patch of wilderness in northern Oxford that residents have campaigned to protect. The three-acre section of reedbed is especially important for wildlife: it’s home to water voles and slow worms, as well as seven species of warblers.

Continue along the towpath, and you’ll soon pass under the A34 bridge and leave the noise and bustle of the city behind as the landscape opens out into farmland.

Thrupp and beyond
Six miles into your walk you will reach the picture-postcard hamlet of Thrupp, with its quaint rose covered cottages and pair of tempting canalside pubs: The Jolly Boatman and the Boat Inn. At the centre of the village, you’ll find a great example of the classic black and white lift bridges that can be found all along the Oxford Canal – their simple design was part of money-saving measures employed in finishing this section of the canal.

Another example of cost cutting was the utilisation of the River Cherwell for part of the route – the best illustration of this is about a mile north of Thrupp, where the river and canal share the course for around a mile. This is one of the prettiest sections of the route, with the wide waterway sweeping around large tree lined bends, its faster moving waters providing a fascinating contrast with the leisurely pace of the canal.

Around Enslow, the canal and river go their separate ways, just as a beautiful cast iron bridge swoops over the river and the canal branches off towards the village.

The quiet waters
Keep on the canal path and, shortly after passing the popular Rock of Gibraltar pub, you’ll reach Enslow Marsh. Nestled between the canal and River Cherwell, this is one of the largest sedge beds in Oxfordshire. This rare swamp-like habitat, dominated by the sedge plant, is an important habitat for sedge warblers and reed bunting, so keep your eyes peeled and your binoculars to hand.

The next stretch to Heywood is the most peaceful, secluded from houses and roads for much of the way. The route alternates between shaded wooded sections and more open parts where the towpath treads a path between the river and canal, offering an unusual perspective on both waterways. You will also pass several locks on this section and it’s worth taking a moment to look at their construction: the single gates on the bottom of the locks demonstrate another money saving measure employed during the building of the canal.

From Heyford to Banbury
The villages of Lower and Upper Heyford contain some beautiful old buildings with many houses dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries. Keep an eye out for the 14th-century gothic church in Lower Heyford, and the unusual tithe barn built at Manor Farm around 1400.

The path continues to weave through the gentle rolling hills of the Cherwell Valley. After a while you’ll reach the former lock keeper’s cottage at Somerton Deep Lock, the striking building towering over a narrow lock that boasts an impressive 12-foot rise. The opposite is true at the curiously lozenge-shaped Aynho Weir Lock. Built to protect the canal from a potential surge in the waters of the River Cherwell, which crosses the canal at this point, the lock is remarkably shallow – it only has a drop of one foot. It was originally built in 1790 as a standard lock. But engineers soon realised that it wasn’t letting enough water through to Somerton, and so Aynho Weir was subsequently altered to form this rather unusual shape to compensate. The structure is now Grade II Listed.

The canal here is narrow – the waterway squeezing through improbably small bridges – and there’s little in the way of boat traffic. A few miles on, you’ll pass below the M40 motorway twice in quick succession before passing through the industrial outskirts of Banbury. Leave the path at Bridge Street to find yourself at the train station. Alternatively, continue on a few hundred metres to Tooley’s Boatyard, the oldest working dry dock on the inland waterways. It’s been in continuous use since 1790, and in the summer, you can visit the restored workshop to witness the traditional skills used in maintaining boats today. They also offer boat trips and guided walks around the site, so it’s worth planning your day out to coincide with one of these.

Trip planner

While you’re here
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Blenheim Palace is just a few miles west of the Oxford canal. The palace itself is a stunning example of Baroque architecture, surrounded by 2,000 acres of gardens and parkland.

Rainy day
The Pitts River Museum in Oxford showcases the largest collection of archaeological and anthropological artefacts in the UK, with more than 500,000 items including a Haida totem pole and Japanese Noh masks. The museum is open every day and free to visit.

Local food
In Thrupp, Annie’s Tea Rooms, located in what used to be the British Waterways Yard, offer a great range of jacket potatoes, sandwiches and ploughman’s. They also do a tempting selection of chocoholics cream teas. The Great Western Arms in Aynho serve a wide selection of pub classics. For farm fodder, take a small diversion at Nell Bridge Lock to visit The Pig Place, a farm shop that will sell you a cracking breakfast, made from their own pork and eggs.

Wildlife to spot
The waterways around Oxford are a great place to spot water voles, kingfishers and heron. The reed habitat of the Trap Grounds and sedge grass of Enslow Marsh harbour warblers and buntings, and keep your ear out for the squeal-like sounds of the elusive water rail, known as ‘sharming’.

Did you know…?
Banbury is famous for its cakes – filled with currants, mixed peel and spices they are similar in style to an Eccles cake, but oval in shape instead of round.

Boat trips and hire
College Cruisers
Combe Road Wharf, Oxford, OX2 6BL
01865 554343
Narrow boat hire for both short breaks and holidays

Oxford Cruises
The Folly, 1 Folly Bridge, Oxford, OX1 4JU.
08452 269396
Sightseeing tours and river trips

Oxfordshire Narrowboats
Heyford Wharf, Station Road, Lower Heyford, OX25 5PD
01869 340348
Narrow boat hire for holidays and short breaks

Twyford Wharf Narrowboats
Twyford Wharf, Adderbury, OX17 3JN
01295 816025
Located just south of Banbury, offering day hire, short break and holidays.

Public transport
Direct trains run from Banbury to Oxford every half hour, seven days a week. Heyford is approximately halfway along the route, and during the summer there are direct trains running from Heyword station to either Banbury or Oxford every two hours.

More info
Find out more about the Oxford Canal, as well as the Trust’s role in managing the waterway, by visiting our website.

Louise Weir