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The Oxford waterway

Follow a quiet canal to meet the Thames in Britain's most famous university city.


Minimum time 2h00

Distance 9.5 miles (15.3km)

Difficulty Easy

Suggested map  OS Explorer 180 Oxford

Start/finish  car park in Wolvercote; grid ref: SP 487094

Trails/tracks  surfaced canal tow path , short road section

Landscape  canal through Oxford's fringes

Public toilets  at car park

Tourist information  Oxford, tel 01865 726871

Bike hire  Bee-Line, 61-63 Cowley Road, Oxford, tel 01865 246615

Recommended pub  The Trout Inn, Lower Wolvercote

Notes Steps down to tow path at start (unless you start at Thrupp); unguarded canal tow paths shared with pedestrians; low-arched bridges; busy roads in Oxford.


© Automobile Association 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153

Getting to the start

The ride begins from Wolvercote, which lies just north of Oxford near the junction of the A40 and A44 roads. Follow a minor road from the roundabout through the village to find a car park at a bend on the left.

1 Turning right from the car park, pedal back through the village to reach a pair of consecutive bridges. Leave the road immediately over the first, dismounting to negotiate a flight of downward steps on the left to the tow path .

2 Oxford lies to the right, the way shortly bridged by the railway and then running tree-lined past house gardens on the far bank. The residential suburbs of Oxford spill onto the canal itself, and many boats are permanently moored and serve as accommodation. Further on, wetland and marsh on the right, Trap Grounds, is managed as a nature reserve. Such marshy areas were once common around the old city where willows and osiers provided withies for basket-making. The reserve provides a last local refuge for the elusive water rail, where the timid bird finds secluded nest sites amongst the thick vegetation. Further on, although the surroundings become increasingly urban, the corridor of the canal retains a pleasant isolation.

3 Before long, a cast-iron bridge appears ahead where there is a choice of paths. Take the middle one crossing the bridge and continue on a narrow strip of land separating the canal from the River Thames. The path carries on for a little over 0.5 mile (800m) before reaching the canal's abrupt end at Oxford. Oxford's heart lies to the left, and there is much to see in this distinguished ancient city. However, as some of the streets are very busy, you may prefer to secure your bike and wander around on foot. Return along the canal to Wolvercote after your visit.

4 Following the canal in the other direction from Wolvercote takes you away from the city, passing beneath a couple of starkly functional bridges supporting the main roads. The tow path then crosses Duke's Cut, a short arm that connects to the River Thames. Keep ahead beside the main canal past Duke's Lock, pedalling beyond a disused railway bridge and another road bridge (where National Cycle Route 5 leaves for Woodstock), later reaching Kidlington Green Lock.

5 Another mile (1.6km) lies between you and Roundham Lock as the canal slowly climbs from the upper Thames valley towards Banbury and the Midlands. Later on a small industrial area unobtrusively stands away from the canal, beyond which is a handful of cottages. After passing beneath the A4260, the tow path briefly follows the main road to the Jolly Boatman pub.

6 The waterway then swings away beside the tiny hamlet of Thrupp, where there is another pub and, opposite it, a much-weathered ancient cross. At the top end of the street, the tow path switches banks and the canal makes an abrupt turn in front of a maintenance yard. You can, of course continue north along the canal, but the hard surface later deteriorates making passage difficult. The way back to Wolvercote retraces your outward route.

The Oxford Canal took over 30 years to build, its 91 miles (146km) running up £307,000 by the time it finally opened in 1790. Begun by James Brindley, it took a sinuous contour-hugging route to minimise the locks and aqueducts required. But the economy was double-edged, for although construction costs were reduced, passage time increased, and to stave off competition in the 1820s, Brunel was asked to straighten some of the bends. Financed by a consortium that included Oxford University, the City Corporation and the Duke of Marlborough, the canal brought coal from pits at Hawkesbury near Coventry. It quickly became profitable and managed to survive the steam revolution of the 19th century, carrying materials for the construction of the Midland railways and then reducing its tolls to maintain its share of traffic. Decline, however, was inevitable and by the early 1950s commercial traffic had all but ceased.

Oxford's university is thought to date from Henry II's reign, set up to accommodate English students thrown out of Paris by Louis VII. It comprises 41 separate colleges, many of them founded by rich monastic houses and bishops; Magdalen College was established by a Bishop of Winchester in 1458 and Queens College in 1540 by the chaplain of Queen Philippa, Edward III's wife. A tradition of museums stems from this great seat of learning, with collections on every possible theme. The Museum of History of Science has one of Einstein's blackboards - complete with equations - while the Ashmolean collection includes Guy Fawkes' lantern and Henry VIII's stirrups.

Why do this bike ride?

Oxford is best approached by bike. This uncomplicated ride takes you along the canal from one of its quiet suburbs, where there is a splendid Morse pub on the very banks of the Thames, almost to its heart. For a rural ride, follow the canal in the other direction to the attractive canal-side hamlet of Thrupp.


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