Oxford Canal

From Academic Kids

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The Oxford Canal as seen from Napton-on-the-Hill in Warwickshire

The Oxford Canal is a 78 mile (130 km) long narrow canal in central England linking Oxford with Coventry via Banbury and Rugby. It connects with the River Thames at Oxford, to the Grand Union Canal at the villages of Braunston and Napton-on-the-Hill, and to the Coventry Canal at Hawkesbury Junction just outside Coventry.

The Oxford Canal passes mainly through the Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire countryside, and is often considered to be one of the most scenic canals in Britain.

The canal was once an important artery of trade between the English Midlands and London, but is now highly popular among pleasure boaters.

The Oxford canal forms part of the Warwickshire ring.


The route

The canal begins at Hawkesbury junction (also known as Sutton Stop') where it connects with the Coventry Canal, four miles from the centre of Coventry. From Hawkesbury, it runs south east through the Warwickshire countryside for 15 miles to Rugby.

The route between Coventry and Rugby is on a level without any locks. Much of this section of the canal was straightened out in the 1830s, and remains of the original winding route can still be seen in places.

The canal winds through the northern part of Rugby passing through the 250 metre long Newbold Tunnel, and then reaches a set of three locks at Hillmorton just east of Rugby. In the churchyard in Newbold-on-Avon remains can be seen of the original tunnel dating from the 1770s.

South of Rugby, the canal passes through rural scenery and doubles back on itself for several miles until it heads southwards again passing briefly into Northamptonshire towards Braunston.

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The canal at Hillmorton

At Braunston, the Oxford connects with the Grand Union Canal and heads west. It shares a five-mile stretch with the Grand Union until they diverge at Napton junction where the Oxford turns south towards Banbury and the Grand Union turns north-west towards Birmingham.

After winding round Napton hill, the canal ascends the Napton flight of fourteen locks to a summit level. After passing an old wharf and a pub at Fenny Compton, the canal enters a long cutting which, until it was opened out in the nineteenth century, was a tunnel. This section is still referred to as 'tunnel straight'. The canal then reaches the Claydon flight of locks and descends into the valley of the River Cherwell at Cropredy. It follows the river valley from here to Oxford, descending through a dozen or so interspersed locks.

The section south of Napton junction was never straightened and the summit level is one of the most twisting sections of canal in England. It winds for 11 miles between two points which are under five miles apart. This is the "eleven-mile pound" mentioned in Tom Rolt's famous Narrow Boat.

At Oxford, the canal has two connections to the River Thames. The first is three miles north of the city at Dukes Cut: the second is a few hundred metres from the city centre below Isis Lock (known to boatmen as 'Louse Lock') through a channel called 'the sheepwash'. Three hundred metres below Isis Lock, the Oxford Canal ends abruptly at Hythe Bridge Street. The original terminal basin and wharves lay on the other side of the street but the basin was sold and filled in in the 1930s, and Nuffield College now stands on the site.


The Oxford Canal was constructed in several stages over a period of more than twenty years.

The Act of Parliament authorising the Oxford Canal was passed in 1769. The intention was to link the industrial English Midlands to London via the River Thames and construction began shortly after near Coventry.

Construction was originally supervised by the celebrated engineer James Brindley but when he died in 1773 his assistant Samuel Simcock took charge. By 1774 the canal had reached Napton, but the company was already running out of money.

In 1775 a second Act was passed allowing the company to raise more funds. Construction soon started again and by 1778 the canal had reached Banbury. Financial problems meant that work on the final stretch to Oxford did not begin until 1786.

The final stretch of the canal from Banbury to Oxford was built as cheaply as possible. Many economy measures were used such as the use of wooden lift or swing bridges instead of expensive brick ones. Deep locks with single gates at both ends were used wherever possible, and stretches of the River Cherwell were incorporated into the canal.

The final stretch of the canal to Oxford was formally opened on January 1st 1790. For a short while the Oxford Canal became one of the most important and profitable transport links in Britain, with most commercial traffic between London and the Midlands using the route. Run by the Oxford Canal Company, it transported coal, stone, agricultural products and other commodities.

A much more direct route between London and the Midlands, the Grand Union Canal, was completed in 1805 and much of the London bound traffic used this faster route.

Missing image
The abandoned tunnel at Newbold on the old route of the canal

The Oxford Canal was originally built as a contour canal, meaning that it twisted around hills to minimise deviations from a level contour. However, with one eye on the upstart railway network, in the 1820s the northern section of the canal between Braunston and Coventry was straightened out to reduce navigation time. This work reduced the distance by 20 miles. The section south of Napton was never straightened.

The northern section of the Oxford Canal between Coventry, Braunston and Napton, remained an important trunk route, and remained extremely busy with freight traffic until the 1960s. The staple trade being the transport of coal between the Warwickshire and Leicestershire coalfields to London via the Grand Union. However the southern section from Napton to Oxford became something of a backwater, and carried mostly local traffic.

The canal was nationalised in 1948 and became part of the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive, later the British Waterways Board.

The canal remained profitable until the mid-1950s. As with most of the British narrow canal system, the Oxford Canal suffered from a rapid decline in freight traffic after the second world war. By the mid-1950s very few narrowboats traded south of Napton although one of these was a horse drawn boat, one of the last in Britain to use this form of power.

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A pleasure boat on the canal

The northern section from Napton to Coventy remained well-used by commercial traffic until the 1960s. The southern section was at one point being threatened with closure. However during the 1960s pleasure boating grew in popularity and replaced the old trading boats to ensure the canal's survival to this day.

See also

External links


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