Our journey began at Napton and having booked a very comfortable Duchess 4 narrowboat from there we decided to travel South down the lower half of the Oxford Canal which stretches between Napton and the historic university City of Oxford. This particular waterway is renowned for it’s quiet and very rural surroundings, mostly farmland or woods, and for the abundance of lift bridges along the route – the vast majority of which are left open so that you can pass through them undisturbed. The sound of birdsong fills the air and ducks and moorhens mother tiny chicks which trail along after them on the canal.
On our first day we cruised from Napton to the small village of Fenny Compton, which has a canalside pub called ‘The Wharf’. Between the two villages is a flight of nine narrow locks, taking very little time to fill up, the first of which is manned by a lock-keeper who will very kindly shows you the ropes. After the locks, the route is lock-free all the way past Fenny Compton and down to Claydon and follows the winding contours of the land, with some reasonably tight bends and some rather narrow bits where there used to be old tunnels or lift bridges that are no more. The Wharf has two watering points to enable you to re-fill your water tank if you wish to. The pub has a restaurant but also has a takeaway menu for people who wish to eat on their boats instead (breakfast is served there from 10am).
From Fenny Compton we travelled first of all to Cropredy, which is a very attractive, traditional English village with some lovely old cottages, an historic church, a ‘general stores’ and two pubs – The Red Lion and the Brasenose Arms, which is rather well-known for it’s fabulous Sunday Roast. From Cropredy we cruised down to Banbury through 3 well-spaced-out locks (a couple of which were quite stiff to turn), past Tooley’s Historic Boatyard into the centre of the town where there is a lift-bridge to open following by a heavy lock, which you will be required to work with quite an audience of spectators. There are numerous narrowboats moored up in the town centre itself, so you must travel very slowly past them to avoid disturbing the occupants. We moored up after the second bridge, where we could easily walk to a large ‘well-known supermarket’ for provisions. There are lots of shops, restaurants and tea shops to visit in Banbury and attractions including a medieval church, a theatre, gallery and museum.
The next day we set off for Aynho, which took us through another 4 locks (including a diamond-shaped lock) and 10 lift bridges (all open) each separated by pretty countryside, fields of cows and sheep, and pretty cottages with their flourishing Summer gardens. The canal meanders lazily along with cattle and their calves kneeling down to drink from the water nearby. Aynho is a very small village with a boatyard and a pub. The boatyard offers basic provisions and has a water point. The pub – ‘The Great Western Arms’ – is very well known for it’s excellent food and was awarded Best Pub of the Year in 2011.
From Aynho, we planned to travel down past Upper Heyford and Lower Heyford to Gibraltar where we would stop for the night before continuing to Thrupp. There are just 3 locks to do between Aynho and Lower Heyford, but as you approach the village, there is a chain lift bridge – where you pull a chain down to lift the bridge up – which was quite heavy to keep open. When the lift bridge is down, a road leads directly into the village which was lovely, with thatched cottages and a 17th Century inn called The Bell, which was full of character. Stopping at the boatyard at Lower Heyford to say hello to friends, we decided to walk up to the shops in the next village and on the way, got an extraordinary view of the very stately Rousham House (c1635).
From Lower Heyford there were just three more locks until we reached Gibraltar. There are lots of ‘live-aboard’ boaters around this area and once again you need to slow right down as you pass them, which adds to your journey time. The rain started just as we moored up and we donned our raincoats and wellies to walk to the nearby Rock of Gibraltar pub.
On the next morning, travelling South again towards Thrupp, we found that there were red boards out at the locks, warning us that the River Cherwell (which made up part of our route to Thrupp) was high and flowing fast. We found it quite daunting as we made our way to the first turning point (winding hole) just down the River and decided not to proceed to Thrupp after all.
However, our return journey was very enjoyable once again, travelling through the tranquil countryside, surrounded by cows, sheep and wildflowers; winding our way around the canal and through the open lift bridges. On our last evening, there was no room outside The Folly Inn at Napton (which looked very welcoming) so we stopped at The Bridge instead. The menu sounded very nice, so we had a starter, just to keep us going until dinner on the boat, then in the morning we slowly trundled back to Napton Marina to return our boat, having very much enjoyed our peaceful and idyllic surroundings as we travelled along the South Oxford Canal.