Oxford Canal
The Oxford Canal viewed from Napton-on-the-Hill.jpg
The Oxford Canal viewed from Napton-on-the-Hill
CountryUnited Kingdom
Length126 km (78 miles)
Current ownerCanal and River Trust
Principal engineerJames Brindley and Samuel Simcock
Date of act1769
Date completed1 January 1790
Start pointOxford
End pointBedworth

The Oxford Canal is a 78-mile (126 km) narrow canal in central England linking Oxford with Bedworth (between Coventry and Nuneaton on the Coventry Canal) via Banbury and Rugby. Completed in 1790, it connects to the River Thames at Oxford and is integrated with the Grand Union Canal—combined for 5 miles (8 km) close to the villages of Braunston and Napton-on-the-Hill, a canal which soon after construction superseded much of its traffic.[clarification needed]

The canal was for about 15 years the main canal artery of trade between the Midlands and London; it retained importance in its local county economies and that of Berkshire. Today the canal is frequently used for weekend and holiday narrowboat pleasure boating.

The Oxford Canal traverses Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and east Warwickshire through broad, shallow valleys and lightly rolling hills; resembling the bulk of the Grand Union Canal and its branches, the canal's route northeast and then northwest forms part of the Warwickshire ring.

The route

Oxford Canal
000 Hawkesbury Junction - Coventry Canal       
000 Oxford Canal - North
Hawkesbury Stop Lock No.1
4  B4109  Tusses Bridge
Wyken Arm
9 Stone Bridge
14  B4065  Ansty Bridge
15  B4029 
 B4029  Smeaton Lane Aqueduct
Stretton Arm
30  B4027  Fosse Way Road Bridge
Smite Brook
Brinklow Arm (disused)
34  B4102  Easenhall Lane Bridge
Fennis Field Arm
41 Cathiron Bridge
Cathiron Railway Bridge
43 Tuckey's Bridge
Northern End of Former Newbold Loop
48  B4112  Falls Bridge
NewBold Tunnel
Newbold Wharf
50 Cathiron Lane Bridge
Old Railway Bridge (disused)
Rugby Wharf Arm
54 Aqueduct
55 River Swift Aqueduct
Brownsover Arm (disused)
58  A426  Masters Bridge
Rugby Visitor Moorings
59 Boughton Road Bridge
Clifton Arm (disused)
66 Clifton Bridge
69 Clifton Double Bridge
Hillmorton Bottom Locks 2 and 3
70 Hillmorton Yard Bridge
Hillmorton Middle Locks 4 and 5
Hillmorton Top Locks 6 and 7
72 Moors Bridge
Rugby Railway Bridges.
73  A428  Crick Road Bridge
74  B4038  Kilsby Road Bridge
76 Normans Bridge
78 Barby Wood Bridge
85 Navigation Bridge
90  A45  London Road Bridge
Braunston Turn
Grand Union Canal ('GU') south
000 Oxford Canal - Middle
W. End of Wolfamcote Loop
102 Flecknoe Bridge
104 Lower Shuckburgh Bridge
107  A425  Garners Bridge
108  A425  Nimrod Bridge
Napton Junction
Grand Union Canal ('GU') north
000 Oxford Canal - South
109 Coventry Road Bridge
111 Napton Bridge
112 Napton Brickyard Bridge
Napton Bottom Lock No 8
Napton Lock No 9
Napton Lock No 10
Napton Lock No 11
114 Gilkes Bridge
Napton Lock No 12
Napton Lock No 13
Greens Lock No 14
Old Engine House Arm
Napton Lock No 15
119 Marston Doles Bridge
Napton Lock No 16
135 Sherne Hill Bridge
136  A423 
Fenny Compton Marina
137  A423  Tunnel Bridge
141 Boundary Lift Bridge
Wormleighton Reservoir
canal feeder
site of SMA Junction Rly bridge
143 Hay Bridge
Clayton Top Lock No 17
Clayton Lock No 18
Clayton Lock No 19
145 Claydon Bridge
Clayton Lock No 20
Claydon Bottom Lock No 21
Clattercote Wharf
Elkington's Lock No 22
Varney's Lock No 23
Broadmoor Lock No 24
150 Broadmoor Bridge
Cropredy Lock No 25
153 Cropredy Wharf Bridge
Slat Mill Lock No 26
Little Bourton Lock No 27
Hardwick Lock No 28
160 Hardwick Bridge
161A Chiltern Main Line
161 Neithorpe Bridge
162 Hennef Way Bridge ( A422 )
163 Marsh Bridge
164 Tom Rolt Bridge (Cherwell Drive)
164A Footbridge
164B Museum Bridge
164C Tooleys Lift Bridge
Banbury Lock No 29
165 Mill Lane Bridge
165A Bluebird Bridge (Concorde Avenue,  A4260 )
166 Albion Bridge (Bridge Street)
168 Samuelson Bridge (Tramway Road)
170 Haynes Lift Bridge
171 Foxes Bridge
172 Nadkey Bridge
173 Haddons Lift Bridge
174 Grants Bridge
Grant's Lock No.30
175 Stevens Lift Bridge
176 Bushy Furze Lift Bridge
177 Twyford Bridge
King's Sutton Lock No 31
181 Scrooby's Lift Bridge
182 Coles Lift Bridge
183 Sydenham Lift Bridge
186 Haddons Lift Bridge
Nell Bridge Lock No 32
187  B4100  Nell Bridge
Crosses the River Cherwell
Aynho Weir Lock No 33
189 Belchers Lift Bridge
Aynho Wharf
190 Aynho Bridge
192 Souldern Bridge
193 Chisnell Lift Bridge
Somerton Deep Lock No 34
194 Somerton Bridge
195 Meadlands Bridge
196 Somerton Bridge
198 Deep Cutting Bridge
199 Somerton Mill Bridge
Heyford Common Lock No 35
200 Heyford Common Bridge
200A Cherwell Valley Line
202 Single Bridge
203 Double Bridge
Allen's Lock No 36
204 Allens Bridge
205 Mill Lift Bridge
Oxfordshire Narrowboats
206 Heyford Wharf Bridge
206A  B4030  Station Road Bridge
207 Cleeves Bridge
208 High Bush Bridge
Dashwood Lock No 37
209 Dashwood Bridge
210 Northbrook Bridge
Northbrook Lock No 38
211 New Brighton Bridge
212 Old Brighton Bridge
Pigeons Lock No 39
213 Pigeons Bridge
214 Binsey Bridge
215 Caravan Lift Bridge (collapsed)
215A Cherwell Valley Line
216A  A4095  Enslow Bridge
Baker's Lock No 40
Sharing with River Cherwell for 1 mile
217A Cherwell Valley Line
Shipton Weir Lock No 41
219 Shipton Lift Bridge
Shipton Railway Bridge
221 Aubreys Lift Bridge
224  A4260  Langford Lane Bridge
Roundham Lock No 42
Kidlington Railway Bridge
228 Yarnton Lane Bridge
Kidlington Green Lock No 43
230  A44  King's Bridge
231 Drinkwater's Lift Bridge
site of Bucks Junction Rly bridge
tract with upper final junction
Wolvercote Mill Stream from Thames
Duke's Lock No 44
Wolvercote Junction: Duke's Cut
000  A40  road & Oxford tract
233 Lift Bridge
 A34  Western Bypass Road Bridge
Wolvercote Paper Mill (disused)
234 Perry's Lift Bridge
Wolvercote Lock No 45
235 Wolvercote Bridge
236 Ball's Bridge
237 Varsity Line
238 St. Edward's School Bridge
Elizabeth Jennings Way
site of electric lift bridge
Frenchay Road Bridge
240 Aristotle Bridge
242 Walton Well Bridge
Isis Lock Junction
243 Isis Lock Bridge
Isis Lock No 46
Thames & the Sheepwash Channel
000 weir stream and disused
244 Hythe Bridges
Worcester Street Wharf (goods)
245 Worcester Street Bridge
New Road Wharf (coal)
The canal and locks at Hillmorton
The canal and locks at Hillmorton
Geographic map of the Oxford Canal (zoom in to see detail)
Geographic map of the Oxford Canal (zoom in to see detail)

The canal begins in Warwickshire near Hawkesbury Village at Hawkesbury Junction, also known as Sutton Stop, where it connects with the Coventry Canal, a little over 4 miles (or about 7 km) from the centre of Coventry and five miles (8 km) from Nuneaton. Within a mile were the late 18th- and 19th-century coal field/pit and colliery of the small town of Bedworth. From Hawkesbury, it runs southeast through the Warwickshire countryside for 15 miles (24 km) to Rugby.

The route between Coventry and Rugby is level, with no locks, apart from the stop lock at the junction. Parts of this section were straightened by raising and waterproofing in the 1820s; the remains of a more circuitous route (which kept to the chosen contour) can still be seen in places.

The canal winds through the northern part of Rugby. It passes through the 270-yard (250 m) Newbold Tunnel. In the churchyard in Newbold-on-Avon remains can be seen of an earlier canal tunnel built in the 1770s. It scales a flight of three locks at Hillmorton about three miles (5 km) east-southeast of the town.

East of Rugby, the canal passes southwest then south. It crosses under the M45 motorway and through broad low fields interspersed by views of wooded knolls and modest hills of Northamptonshire and Warwickshire to reach Braunston.

West of Braunston village centre, by a pub, the canal converges with the Grand Union Canal where both change direction to west-southwest. The latter canal has a major wharf, Braunston Marina, 770 yards (700 m) east and a campsite. The combined canal splits north of Napton-on-the-Hill:

After winding round Napton Hill, the canal ascends the Napton flight of nine locks to a local summit reach, well below the hilltop. After passing an old wharf and a pub at Fenny Compton, the canal enters a long cutting which until some time in the 19th century was a tunnel. This section is normally referred to as a "tunnel straight" or the Fenny Compton Tunnel.

The route between the farms of Priors Hardwick and Fenny Compton was never straightened, and is the most circuitous in the region: taking 5+12 miles (9 km) to cover 2.2 miles (3.5 km) (geodesically, as the crow flies). This coincides with the canal's highest "summit" reach in navigational terms. This reach is the "eleven-mile pound" mentioned in Tom Rolt's Narrow Boat.

The canal then descends the Claydon flight of locks and into the vale of the nascent Cherwell at Cropredy. The canal descends the valley to Oxford.

A canal boat on the canal near Brinklow on the long stretch between Coventry and Rugby.
A canal boat on the canal near Brinklow on the long stretch between Coventry and Rugby.

Banbury has many visitor moorings alongside the historic and modern shopping areas in the middle of town. Banbury Town Council and Cherwell District Council treat the canal as an attraction to be encouraged; examples of its work include an old boatyard which has been incorporated into the town centre: Tooley's Historic Boatyard. About four miles (6 km) south is a lightly settled locality, Twyford Wharf, where narrow boats up to 60 feet (18 m) can be turned. Two villages nearby, Kings Sutton and Adderbury (Twyford), are within 30 minutes' walking distance along the road. Both offer several pubs.

Within Oxford's conurbation, the end of the canal has two links to the Thames:

After 330 yards (300 m) below Isis Lock the Oxford Canal ends abruptly at Hythe Bridge Street near to the current Hythe Bridge over the Castle Mill Stream, a backwater of the River Thames that runs parallel to the Oxford Canal for its southernmost part. The canal used to continue through a bridge under Hythe Bridge Street to a turning basin and goods wharf south of Hythe Bridge Street. It then continued via a bridge under Worcester Street to end in a coal wharf beside New Road. In 1951 the basin and wharves were filled in and Nuffield College has taken part of the site.

The locks on the canal are as follows.[3]

Locks on the Oxford Canal
Lock Number Name Rise of lock
1 Hawkesbury Lock (to/from Coventry Canal) 1 ft 0 in (0.30 m)
2–7 Hilmorton Locks 18 ft 7 in (5.66 m)
8–16 Napton Bottom Lock to Napton Top Lock 49 ft 1 in (14.96 m)
17–21 Claydon Top Lock to Claydon Bottom Lock 30 ft 6 in (9.30 m)
22 Elkington's Lock 6 ft 5 in (1.96 m)
23 Varney's Lock 5 ft 10 in (1.78 m)
24 Broadmoor Lock 7 ft 3 in (2.21 m)
25 Cropredy Lock 5 ft 6 in (1.68 m)
26 Slat Mill Lock 8 ft 0 in (2.44 m)
27 Bourton Lock 6 ft 5 in (1.96 m)
28 Hardwick Lock 7 ft 6 in (2.29 m)
29 Banbury Lock 5 ft 10 in (1.78 m)
30 Grant's Lock 9 ft 6 in (2.90 m)
31 King's Sutton Lock 10 ft 8 in (3.25 m)
32 Nell Bridge Lock 8 ft 8 in (2.64 m)
33 Aynho Weir Lock 1 ft 0 in (0.30 m)
34 Somerton Deep Lock 12 ft 0 in (3.66 m)
35 Heyford Common Lock 7 ft 2 in (2.18 m)
36 Allen's Lock 5 ft 0 in (1.52 m)
37 Dashwood Lock 9 ft 3 in (2.82 m)
38 Northbrook Lock 5 ft 0 in (1.52 m)
39 Pigeon Lock 8 ft 4 in (2.54 m)
40 Baker's Lock 8 ft 6 in (2.59 m)
41 Shipton Weir Lock 2 ft 5 in (0.74 m)
42 Roundham Lock 7 ft 5 in (2.26 m)
43 Kidlington Green Lock 4 ft 9 in (1.45 m)
44A Duke's Lock 5 ft 4 in (1.63 m)
44B Duke's Lock (to/from the Thames via Duke's Cut)
45 Wolvercote Lock 3 ft 8 in (1.12 m)
46 Isis Lock (to/from the Thames via Sheepwash Channel) 3 ft 6 in (1.07 m)

The canal rises from Hawkesbury Junction to Hilmorton Top Lock, there is then a 6+12-mile (10.5 km) pound to Braunston Junction, where it joins the Grand Union canal. From Napton Junction the Oxford canal rises again though the Napton Locks. After Napton Top Lock there is a 10+12-mile (16.9 km) pound to Claydon Top Lock, from where the canal falls towards Oxford.

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 construction of the Oxford Canal in 1790 aided Banbury's growth. The shot is taken at Tooley's Boatyard, Banbury.
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 construction of the Oxford Canal in 1790 aided Banbury's growth. The shot is taken at Tooley's Boatyard, Banbury.



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

In 1769 an Act of Parliament authorising the Oxford Canal was passed, having been promoted in Parliament by Sir Roger Newdigate MP, who chaired the canal company. The intention was to link the industrial English Midlands to London via the River Thames. Construction began shortly after near Coventry.

Surveying of the route and initial construction were originally supervised by the celebrated engineer James Brindley, assisted by Samuel Simcock who was also Brindley's brother-in-law. Brindley died in 1772 but Simcock took over and completed the canal. 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 stretch of the canal from Banbury to Oxford was built as cheaply as possible. Many economy measures were used. Wherever possible, wooden lift or swing bridges were built instead of expensive brick ones. Deep locks were used wherever possible, with single gates at both ends instead of double gates.

A stretch of the River Cherwell at Shipton-on-Cherwell was incorporated into the canal. This reduced construction costs, but the behaviour of the river makes the canal more difficult to use. This was a false economy and its adverse effects continue to be felt to this day.

The Oxford Canal reached the outskirts of Oxford in 1789, when a coal wharf was opened at Heyfield Hutt, now the site of Hayfield Road. The final section into central Oxford was ceremonially opened on 1 January 1790.[4]

Commercial use

For the next 15 years 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. Its principal traffic was coal from Warwickshire. It also carried stone, agricultural products and other goods.

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

A much more direct route between London and the Midlands, the Grand Junction Canal, was completed in 1805. Much of the London-bound traffic switched to this faster route, as it avoided the passage of the River Thames which still had many flash locks. This greatly reduced Oxford Canal traffic south of Napton. However, the short section between Braunston and Napton became the link between the Warwick and Napton Canal and the Grand Junction Canal, making it part of the busy direct route between Birmingham and London.

The Grand Junction and Oxford canal companies were bitter rivals. When Parliament considered the Act of Parliament for the building of the Grand Junction, the Oxford Canal successfully petitioned to make the Grand Junction pay "bar tolls" to the Oxford Canal to compensate for the loss of traffic south of Napton.

Traffic from Birmingham had to use five miles (8 km) of the Oxford Canal to get from Braunston to join the Grand Junction at Napton. The Oxford Canal exploited this by charging high tolls for Grand Junction traffic on this short section.

The Oxford Canal was originally built as a contour canal, meaning that it twisted around hills to minimise vertical deviations from a level contour. However, with one eye on the developing railway network, in 1827 Mr. Brunel[Which Brunel?][5] re-surveyed the northern section of the canal between Braunston and Hawkesbury Junction to straighten it out and reduce navigation time. This work between 1830 and 1834 reduced the distance by 14+34 miles (23.7 km). The section south of Napton was never straightened. The straightening challenged[clarification needed] the capacity of three locks at Hillmorton, the first on the canal after the stop lock at Hawkesbury Junction. The solution to the congestion was to duplicate or twin the existing locks at Hillmorton, creating three pairs of two parallel narrow locks, which allowed twice the traffic to pass the lock at any time. The work to double the locks was completed in August 1840. Not only was the capacity doubled, but the time taken was decreased as the locks were narrower. Tests showed that the locks could be operated in as little as 1 minute 20 seconds.

In 1833 a section of the new line of canal in Barby Fields near Dunchurch was used as a test site for a new wrought iron boat, Swallow, built by Graham and Houston. Drawn by two horses, the boat completed a distance of 1.5 mile in 7 minutes 35 seconds, a speed of almost 12 miles per hour.[6]

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 traffic was coal from the Warwickshire and Leicestershire coalfields to London via the Grand Union Canal. However, the southern section from Napton to Oxford became something of a backwater, and carried mostly local traffic.

Looking from the Oxford Canal towards Jericho, with the campanile tower of St Barnabas Church in the background.
Looking from the Oxford Canal towards Jericho, with the campanile tower of St Barnabas Church in the background.


In 1937 Baron Nuffield (Later Viscount Nuffield) bought the canal basin at Oxford for £133,373[7] (equivalent to £8,798,600 in 2020).[8] In 1951 he filled it in and built Nuffield College on part of the former coal wharf. Coal traffic was relocated to a canal wharf in Juxon Street, in Jericho, Oxford. The goods wharf and the remainder of the coal wharf are now under a public car park that Nuffield College lets to Oxford City Council.

The Oxford Canal remained independent until it was nationalised in 1948 and became part of the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive, later the British Waterways Board.

Many Oxford Canal boatmen and women favoured horse traction long after those on other canals had changed their narrowboats to diesel power. One narrowboat carrying coal on the Oxford Canal was drawn by a mule until 1959 and was the last horse-drawn freight narrowboat in Great Britain. This boat, Friendship, is preserved at the National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port.[9]

The Oxford Canal remained profitable until the mid-1950s, paying a dividend right up until nationalisation. As with most of Britain's 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 and the southern section was at one point being threatened with closure, although the northern section (Napton to Coventry) remained well-used by commercial traffic until the 1960s.


During the 1960s pleasure boating began to grow in popularity and replace the old trading boats, After a fact-finding cruise on the canal, Barbara Castle (Minister for Transport) rejected a proposal for closure.[10]

The canal is now thriving. In the summer it is one of the most crowded canals on the network.[citation needed]

Oxford Canal Walk

The towpath of the canal, with a 5+12-mile (9 km) extension from Hawkesbury Junction to Coventry on the towpath of the Coventry Canal, forms the 82-mile (132 km) Oxford Canal Walk. The 10-mile (16 km) stretch from Oxford to Kirtlington, where the Oxfordshire Way meets the canal, is also part of European walking route E2.[11] The Canal Walk is popular with geocachers with many Geocache sites located alongside the canal.[12]

See also



  1. ^ "Canal Guide (Oxford Canal)". UK: Canal Guide.
  2. ^ "River Thames (Sheepwash Channel)". canalplan.org.uk. UK: CanalPlanAC. Retrieved 15 September 2012.
  3. ^ Collins Nicholson (2006). Waterways Guide 1 Grand Union, Oxford & the South East. London: Nicholson. pp. 139–165. ISBN 978-0-00-721109-8.
  4. ^ "Oxford Journal". Oxford Journal. England. 2 January 1790. Retrieved 24 August 2020 – via British Newspaper Archive.
  5. ^ "Coventry Herald. Friday 28 December 1827". Coventry Herald. England. 28 December 1827. Retrieved 4 September 2020 – via British Newspaper Archive.
  6. ^ "Fast Boats on Canals". Berkshire Chronicle. England. 13 July 1833. Retrieved 4 September 2020 – via British Newspaper Archive.
  7. ^ "Lord Nuffield's Purchase". Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette. England. 25 March 1937. Retrieved 24 August 2020 – via British Newspaper Archive.
  8. ^ UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 2 December 2021.
  9. ^ "Historic Boat Record". Retrieved 23 February 2010.
  10. ^ "New Charter for Waterways". Coventry Evening Telegraph. England. 7 September 1967. Retrieved 24 August 2020 – via British Newspaper Archive.
  11. ^ Ramblers Association: info on Oxford Canal Walk Archived 12 December 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ "A Slight Diversion – Oxford Canal Walk". Geocaching.com. Retrieved 14 April 2016.


Next confluence upstream River Thames Next confluence downstream River Evenlode (north) Oxford Canal Castle Mill Stream (north)