The Oxford Canal is without doubt, one of the canal network’s most picturesque waterways. It lazily deliberates across a wonderful landscape, taking you with it through 77 miles of mainly peaceful and rolling countryside. This ‘narrow’ canal joins the Midlands canal system at Hawkesbury Junction, close to the city of Coventry. At the southern end, it meets the River Thames in two separate locations in the world famous city of Oxford. Oxford itself was founded over a thousand years ago.
During the early industrial days, the canal was remarkably the main transport route from the English midlands to the south of England. This was then superseded in 1805 by the more direct Grand Union Canal fed by traffic from Birmingham and of course, Nottinghamshire via the GU’s Leicester Line. The Oxford Canal though is now one of the most beautiful and popular cruising canals. In other words, there are lots of boats and it is busy! A ten to fourteen night holiday canal boat cruise around the Leicester Ring even takes in a section of the ‘Oxford’.
The canal itself, which in the main passes through the three counties of Northants, Warwickshire and Oxfordshire was constructed early on during the frenetic period of "canal mania". This waterway is a contour canal and therefore, its path follows the contours around hills. Later on, canal construction avoided this contour method of ‘cutting’ the canal. Time and cost factors dictated by operating experience led to more direct routes employing cuttings and embankments as integral elements within the building process.
The course of the Oxford Canal meanders around the contours of the land and is very winding in places. In fact, it could easily be mistaken for a river in some places, such is its character. A good example of this is clear when cruising in the Napton area. Only a few miles in the distance is the Napton Windmill yet whilst cruisng the canal, perhaps on a holiday narrow boat, the windmill is visible for hours and from so many different directions as the canal performs its twists and turns across the landscape.
The northern section of this stunning waterway starts not too far below Napton locks and the nearby town of Braunston, an old canal town, well worth a visit during the day. As commercial competition increased, the very twisting section of the Oxford Canal near Rugby was straightened out in the nineteenth century. In so doing, the length of the original section was cut by almost half. The current structure comprising the Newbold Tunnel is at right angles to the original one lost through the straightening process. The local council in Rugby together with British Waterways, the current custodian of the waterways, has created a very effective 'Circle of Light' in the tunnel.
The actual construction of the Oxford Canal was not a straightforward affair. It was carried out in over a period of more than two decades in a number of different stages.
Permission to allow the Oxford Canal to be built was given by an Act of Parliament in 1769. The Parliamentary campaign had been promoted by Sir Roger Newdigate MP. The joys of position and power meant he was also the chairman of the Canal Company and it was intention to link the highly industrial Midlands with London. The connection would be ensured through using the navigable River Thames from Oxford. Construction began shortly after near Coventry at what was to become Hawkesbury Junction.
The famed canal engineer, James Brindley, originally surveyed the route. He then went on to supervise the initial construction stage, ably assisted by his brother-in-law, Samuel Simcock. Unfortunately, Brindley died in 1772. At this point, Simcock took over the reins and he (eventually) completed the canal. Within a couple of years though, the canal having reached Napton, the company was starting to run out of money.
The ‘House’ was then called upon again to pass a second Act of Parliament that allowed the company to raise more capital. Construction was re-started and the canal reached Banbury by 1778. This medieval market town, by the way, has some very attractive pubs for today’s discerning ale drinker. However, it wasn’t the local ale houses that stopped work. Further financial problems meant that work on the final stretch to Oxford did not begin until 1786 and this was only after much upheaval.
It was then that a second Act of Parliament was passed to allow the company to raise more funds. Construction then re-started and by 1778 the canal had reached Banbury, a medieval market town with some very attractive pubs for today’s discerning ale drinker. However, further financial problems meant that work on the final stretch to Oxford did not begin until 1786 after much upheaval.
This section of the canal from Banbury and on to Oxford was then ‘cut’ as economically as possible. When it was possible to do so, rather than build the more expensive brick bridges, wooden lift or swing bridges were built. Deep locks were installed when possible too. These had single gates at either end instead of double gates. Further, a section of the River Cherwell at Shipton-on-Cherwell was‘canalised’ and then incorporated into the canal structure itself. This certainly reduced construction costs at the time.
However, be aware that the unpredictability of the river itself makes this section of the canal more difficult for boaters to use. This was a definite false economy at the time, the adverse effects of which continue to be felt to this day.
In 1789, Eureka! The Oxford Canal finally reached the outskirts of Oxford itself and a new coal wharf was opened at Heyfield Hutt. This was then followed by the final section into central Oxford. This was joyfully opened on New Year’s Day, 1st January 1790.
The subsequent decade and a half was witness to the Oxford Canal becoming one of the most important and profitable transport links in Britain. Most commercial traffic between London and the Midlands used the route. Principal traffic was coal from Leicestershire and Warwickshire but also included stone, agricultural products and other goods.
However, serious competition was not far away. A much more direct and therefore quicker and cheaper route between London and the Midlands, the Grand Junction Canal (to become the Grand Union) was completed in 1805. The majority of the London-bound traffic subsequently switched to this more efficient route, thus avoiding the passage of the River Thames.
The immediate effect was to vastly reduce traffic on the Oxford Canal, south of Napton, at a stroke. However, the short section between Braunston and Napton did become the crucial link between the Warwick and Napton Canal and the Grand Junction Canal (Grand Union), making it an integral element in the busy direct route between London and Birmingham.
It is not difficult to see why the two companies involved, the Grand Junction and Oxford enterprises were bitter rivals. When Parliament considered the Act of Parliament to facilitate the building of the Grand Junction ( later the GU), the Oxford Canal company was successful in its petition to make the Grand Junction pay tolls to the Oxford Canal to compensate for the loss of traffic south of Napton.
Traffic to Birmingham had to use the five mile section of the Oxford Canal to get from Braunston and then to join the Grand Junction at Napton. The Oxford Canal Company therefore was able to fully exploit its position. In so doing, the company compensated itself by charging exceptionally high tolls for Grand Junction traffic on this short section, incurring good income and at the same time, the wrath of the Grand Junction and its customers.
In 1937, the future Viscount Nuffield purchased the canal basin at Oxford. In 1951 it was filled in to allow for the building of the Nuffield College on a section of the former coal wharf. Coal traffic was then relocated to a separate canal wharf in the Jericho area of Oxford, quite often seen in the television adaptations of Colin Dexter’s ‘Inspector Morse’ and the subject of many disputes between boaters and the authorities in recent years. The goods wharf and what remained of the coal wharf have both now disappeared under a public car park that Oxford City Council leases from the Nuffield College.
Yes, without doubt, the Oxford Canal, overflowing with charm and character is now thriving again.
The Oxford Canal was still paying a dividend right up until it was nationalised in 1948 and it remained profitable even during the early years of nationalization. However, in common with most of Britain's narrow canal system, the Oxford Canal experienced a fatal decline in freight traffic following World War II. In fact, by the mid-1950s, there were so few narrow boats trading south of Napton that the southern section was threatened with closure. During Harold Wilson’s tenure as Prime Minister though, the incumbent Minister of Transport, Barbara Castle, rejected a closure bid. This followed a fact finding mission where she saw for herself the potential and evidence of a new growth in leisure boating. This was the same Barbara Castle who later became involved in the Ford Dagenham industrial dispute that led to equal pay for women.
Amazingly, the northern section of the Oxford Canal between Coventry and Napton continued to operate as an important trunk route, remaining extremely busy with freight traffic until the 1960s. The staple traffic continued to be coal from the coalfields of Warwickshire and Leicestershire transported to London via the Grand Union Canal. However, the southern section from Napton to Oxford really became a backwater and carried only local traffic in the main as it awaited the explosion in leisure boating.
As already indicated, the Oxford Canal is now thriving. During the summer months, it is one of the most crowded waterways on the canal system. Look out in particular for the old canal village of Thrupp, Blenheim Palace (the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill), the massive USAF base between Lower and Upper Heyford and the quite remarkable ‘Ladder Bridge’ near Wormleighton which is constructed entirely of wood and famous especially for its ‘sag’. Folk music fans will love Cropredy, a tiny two pub village, subject of the odd television documentary that hosts Fairport Convention and thousands of fans every August. It is also the site of the well known Civil War battle in 1644. Further, it has been voted the UK’s most popular waterside village.