Unloved Oxford: The Oxford Canal

In a city that’s not short of beardy, alternative types the Oxford Canal still sticks out as a haven for stubborn liberals. Line after line of permanently moored narrow boats stretch out along the towpath from the canal’s stubby end in the city centre to well beyond the ring road with only the occasional break for bridges, locks and the occasional spur. There are ageing tubs that are struggling to stay afloat, swish new vessels coated in bright pink paint and one boat that seems to be suffering from an invasion of cats.

It’s like someone built a community inspired only by the most right-on Guardian columns. Leo Hickman made into boat form.

All along the towpath

And despite being sneaking right into the centre of town this alternative paradise is all but ignored by the student population. No punts, y’see. Which is a shame because even discounting its ultra-liberal permanent residents it’ is pretty quirky – surrounded by curious side channels, oddly placed locks and a towpath that cuts through the city.

Part of the problem is that there’s no visible sign of the canal in the city. Supplies from the Midlands used to idly drift down the 70+ miles of waterway via Tamworth and arrive at the foot of Oxford Castle. But then William Morris, he of motor companies rather than pre-Raphaelite trash, decided to use the money made from building fast cars to buy the rundown and sparsely used canal basin. In the 1930s it was filled in and Nuffield College was built on part of the site – the other is stuck as a car park.

So instead the canal ends in a stub on the other side of Hythe Bridge.

Cats on a boat, yesterday.

Heading north from the centre the canal acts as a thin margin between the Victorian mansions of north Oxford and the new redbrick developments that hug the railway line. At the start it hugs the back of Worcester College’s endless sports grounds with Isis lock and a wrought-iron bridge connecting it with the Oxford segment of the Thames.

The large marshalling yard for the railway pushes close but housing has been squeezed onto even the smallest strips of land in Oxford. And while people are finally moving back alongside the canal it’s also a threat. The endless appetite for development has combined with a government edict for British Waterways to flog off as many assets as they can. A fair cause, except when that involves flogging the site of the only boatyard for a hundred miles, essentially threatening the sustainability of the entire canal community.

Except this group of belligerent boatmen and women wouldn’t give up, fighting a damaging PR battle with the authorities that culminated in occupation of Castle Mill boatyard and a photographer-friendly eviction by the police. They also had Philip Pullman on side to kick up a fuss about the site that helped inspire chunks of the ‘His Dark Materials’ series.

Now it’s just boarded up and the outcome remains uncertain. Temporary measures means that life is continuing as normal for the boatmen. British Waterways have had their plans for sixty-odd flats refused and are chastened, appearing to give up on the whole development. But they still want a few million quid for the site and the council’s too skint to help them. The boatyard remains boarded up.

The boats continue along the towpath for well over a mile past the old Eagle Ironworks as the houses on the other side get bigger. These chunky semi-detached houses of Jericho have gardens that run down to the water, often with painfully tasteful summerhouses or little piers sticking into the canal. Since it was built on the cheap the Oxford Canal lacks permanent crossings and relies on some ageing swing bridges to get you across.

Then without any warning you’re in open countryside. It’s only about twenty minutes walk from the city centre but there’s nothing left around you, just the hint of the village of Wolvercote and the vast expanse of Port Meadow to your left. Nothing disturbs you until you follow a slight meander and an enormous viaduct looms ahead. It turns out that they’re replacing a key part of the ring road, building a new crossing next to the old one and ripping up half the surrounding countryside for the hell of it. The canal plods on through the middle of this enormous building site, the one part that JCBs haven’t flattened to the ground.

Concrete hell versus Industrial Revolution class

Rural Oxfordshire was more forward-thinking than you might think. There’s little specks of old industry all along the canal and disused railway bridges criss-cross the water. The lock-keeper’s cottage south of Kidlington gives you another chance to join the Thames well out of the city but more interesting is the shabby younger brother of the Jericho Boatyard, Alchemy Boats. It’s more Swiss Toni than the bespoke repairs offered at the former site but it looks like that’s the only choice available to Oxford boaters. It’s also implicated in this sorry tale of a sinking home.

I was off to watch some shit football Hellenic Premier League action at Kidlington F.C. and rattled along the bumpy towpath, just about avoiding diving into the water when I hit a few stones in the patchy late Autumn light. Time to get off that route and cycle back on the road. But you should get out there. The Oxford Canal is an amazing, overlooked bit of the city that hides so much. In addition to the boatyard, bridges and locks there’s some great little sights from this old industrial artery. Jericho has the Italianate church of St. Baranabus and St. Sepulchre’s graveyard (more of those in a future post) while the mix of leafy waterway and new houses mean that the area isn’t some grim decaying backwater. Up in the old village of Wolvercote there’s decent pubs and cute cottages. Then there’s the endless meadows. It’s the most pleasant way to escape the bustle  and speed out to the countryside while avoiding the busy roads.

Hey! Students! Get out of the city and into the sunshine!

Alchemy Boatyard, Kidlington

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3 Responses to Unloved Oxford: The Oxford Canal

  1. Sean Spurr says:

    I now believe you can make it as a guardian writer. Keep these Oxford travels blogs going, inspiring me to take some trips out; and also start a blog.

  2. Mike says:

    Your articles OK Jim but I do live on the canal. In a city where rents are generally £1000 flat rate, a professional person and his student partner will find it hard to find somewhere and live comfortably. What I found when moving here was the most welcoming, friendly, generous, trustworthy, talented and interesting community of people I have ever met. I have found a jewel in the glum, hum drum monotony of British life and it is an amazing place to live (in the autumn/spring/summer).

    The man with the cat invasion is a man of 66 years of age who appears to live in filth but inside his boat is his own music studio. He produces a bizarre range of tracks with a variety of different visiting musicians. Each CD he records he leaves on our doorsteps akin to his cat counterparts. He rants and raves about his various, incredibly well told, almost biographical accounts, of how he has fought Japanese emperors and used to be a penguin. Told in such overwhelming detail you believe him. He hides a fierce intelligence and is full of strange wisdom. He leaves you enchanted after a brief encounter. That’s if he likes you anyway…

    I have seen dueling King Fishers on my doorstep, roosting Owls in the early evening, young and old Deer, Muntjacs, Buzzards and Kites. All. From my front door. I know all my neighbours names and they know mine. They are my friends. I had never experienced this before moving here.

    My girlfriend came across your article and was furious, she showed it to me and after reading it through it’s OK. I just thought I would share an insiders perspective to your outside view.

    All the best,


  3. Anonymous says:

    Sorry to be pedantic but they are lift bridges, not swing bridges….

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