Date walked: 24th April 2016
Distance: 5.58 miles
Time taken: 2 hours approx
How to get there: Train to Oxford
How to get back: Bus back to Oxford from Yarnton Road (just off the canal – running approx every 10-15 minutes)
Travel costs: Bus to Oxford = £2.10 (+ your train travel to Oxford)
Watch out for: Cyclists towards the city, and most of the way to the A44 on the thin towpath
Highlight: Duke’s Cut/Duke’s Lock
Difficulty rating: 1/5
Walking route map:
Starting (or finishing, depending on your travel direction) in the very centre of the historic city of Oxford, the Oxford Canal spans 77 miles overall – with the other end located at Hawkesbury near Coventry.
The Oxford is a contour canal; this means it flows around the land’s hills and contours and therefore requires fewer man-made elements than most canals. For this reason many consider it to be one of the most scenic and naturally beautiful in the country.
Hannah and I decided to tackle a 28 mile stretch between Oxford and Banbury over three separate days, using the public transport options along the route to take us back to our starting points.
The first stretch involved a relatively short walk of just over five miles, out through the northern half of the city towards Kidlington – a suburb which is thriving due to the recently-opened Oxford Parkway station. Here you can catch a quick train to London Marylebone, as well as the very regular bus services into Oxford city centre.
When you exit Oxford train station a sign tries to direct you left towards the Oxford Canal. However, doing this would mean you would miss the start point on Hythe Bridge Street.
Instead, follow the sign for the City Centre, where you will soon see the start of the canal on the left, opposite The Oxford Retreat pub.
At the start of the canal an information board shows you the route through the Oxford city boundaries, until you reach the A34/A40 ring-road flyovers. It points out where you will see the ten way markers highlighting particular landmarks on the route, as well as the distances you need to walk to get to each one. This, of course, was #1 for Hythe Bridge, and marking the start of the route.
There’s also a map of the whole Oxford canal, showing the entirety of the route and the towns and villages it passes through. You can see it’s proximity to the Grand Union Canal, which, since opening, has drastically reduced the amount of traffic on the Oxford Canal – sounds good to me!
The walk starts with the path between two bodies of water – the Oxford Canal on your right, and Castle Mill Stream – a backwater section of the nearby River Thames – on your left. Some lucky barges are moored on the canal here; I imagine the competition to get a spot so close to the city centre must be pretty fierce!
It’s not long until you reach Isis lock – the first lock on the route and the landmark for way marker #2. A pretty iron bridge crosses part of Castle Mill Stream, which flows into the canal here.
Once over the bridge, you see a sign with an arm pointing to the railway station – this is where you would have ended up coming out if you had followed the canal signs from the station.
Not too much further up the path you’ll reach Jericho – one of the more affluent inner suburbs of the city.
On the other side of the canal, the area is undergoing extensive work as part of the Jericho Wharf redevelopment, with new townhouses, a boatyard, a town square and even new bridges crossing the canal all in the plans. It will be interesting to come back to see this area changes in the next couple of years.
I’ve always thought of Jericho as being home to swathes of zany, middle-aged ex-Oxford University types, who managed to buy houses in the area before the property prices rocketed and became unaffordable for us “ordinary” folk.
A little further up from the Wharf, some of these very houses came into view, with their stunning gardens leading right down to the canal side.
Already starting to open up and become less congested with bicycles (which were frequently whizzing past in typical Oxford fashion towards the centre of the city), we approached the area around St Edward’s school, just the west of the upmarket Summertown area.
Here we saw the first of the manual lift bridges – these were to become a common sight as we progressed along the canal to Banbury. If you’re wondering how they (as well as other types of bridges) are operated, there’s a great guide on the Canal and River Trust website here.
Ahead a railway bridge (carrying trains towards Islip and Bicester) crossed over us, with the graffiti’d bridge reminding us that we were still very much in city territory.
However, after passing through the bridge, we could start to see the rolling Oxfordshire fields off to the left, almost acting as a preview to some of the more rural scenes we’d be enjoying in the miles to come.
Next came Godstow Road bridge, certainly the largest bridge on the route so far. It’s possible to leave the trail here and, if you wish, follow the road along to the Thames Path or the lovely pub which sits on its banks, the Trout Inn for a bite to eat.
With a bit of the “city” section left to go, it wasn’t long until we were approaching the noisy, spectacular sight of the A34 ring road flyover.
I drive over this every day to get to work, exiting at the junction just yards from where the canal passes underneath. Yet I had never realised that this slower-paced world that lay below the bridge even existed!
This is also the point where the A34 crosses the A40, which you can see just on the right of the above photo. This was typically busy with Saturday shoppers struggling to get into the city due to the ever-ongoing roadworks at the Wolvercote roundabout.
Passing under the bridge and with the noise of the roads finally fading, we could start to enjoy more tranquility as we approached what was, in my opinion, one of the highlights of the walk.
Duke’s Cut opened back in 1789 and provides a link from the Oxford Canal to the River Thames, situated less than a mile away. It provides an option for narrowboat users to bypass the slower, more congested area leading up to Oxford if they want to continue their journeys southwards.
If you are thinking about walking to the Thames Path from here however, you’ll be disappointed. The thin towpath which runs alongside the cut comes out over the opposite side of the river. To reach the path itself you need to leave the canal at Wolvercote lock back at way marker #9.
Duke’s Lock pond also sits adjacent to this junction – a wetland habitat which is home to a number of rare birds and animal species.
This area has the tenth and final way marker sign, meaning that, at around four miles walked, the Oxford city boundary had now been crossed.
Whilst the section within Oxford itself had a lot to see and was clearly very historic, I was looking forward to the landscape becoming more rural. And it wasn’t long until we were strolling past fields full of grazing sheep, and bridges crossing the canal leading down quiet dirt tracks.
Despite us being out of the town, bicycles still kept whizzing by us, despite the increasingly thin towpath. It never ceases to amaze me how unwilling cyclists are to slow down around walkers!
Understandably, I was very glad when the final major road on our route lay ahead. The A44 marked the turn-off for the National Cycle Network Route 5, which starts in Reading and runs all the way to Holyhead in North Wales. Cyclists are directed away from the canal, meaning we could finally enjoy a walker-only path from then on.
After passing under the A44 we were starting to close in on our destination of Kidlington. Here the towpath narrowed even more, before being spanned by an incredibly, almost impossibly rickety wooden bridge – number 229 on the canal.
With just over five miles walked and less than two hours in, we were now approaching the final bridge of our stint – number 228 at Yarnton Road.
After passing under the bridge, you can find a path leading to the road on your left. Be careful emerging here as the pavements are very thin. Traffic only passes one way at a time and is controlled by traffic lights.
Turn left and cross the bridge before walking the half-mile or so down Yarnton Road where you can catch a bus back to Oxford city centre, and your starting point.
This short walk seemed to be over very quickly, and it definitely left us looking forward to what was to come. Our plan for stage 2 was to rejoin the canal at the same point in Kidlington, and walk a stint of approximately 10 miles to Heyford, where a train station sits adjacent to the canal.
You can read part 2 of our Oxford canal walk here.