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Braunston to Oxford and back

Tuesday 19th April

Our original intention had been to capitalise on the proximity of Easter to the Mayday bank holiday and take eleven days off work, using only four days of annual leave. The Royal wedding on April 29th threw an extra free day into the mix making it a very attractive prospect indeed. Everything hinges on the weather of course but April had turned out to be unseasonably warm and sunny, so much so that we decided to go two days earlier than planned so that we could really make the best of the favourable conditions.

We had ensured that the boat was completely ready to go when we had left her on Sunday afternoon and so it was that on Tuesday, just before four o’clock, we untied Phoenix III and slipped out of Braunston marina. We had a cold bottle of bubbly on board which was immediately cracked open to celebrate this, our first holiday of 2011 and the first big voyage from Braunston.

The late afternoon sunshine was amazing, delicious almost as we made our way along the Grand Union towards Napton. We encountered little in the way of traffic as we chugged along, congratulating ourselves on choosing a week of settled weather for our spring holiday. We are becoming familiar with some of the landmarks and boats moored along this section and soon enough we passed Wigram’s turn where the Grand Union turns right and heads off on its way to Birmingham. Six o’clock found us at the bottom of the Napton flight and with very few boats on the move we made our way up and through the first four locks where we moored for the night. We were three hours into our holiday but already we felt as if we had been out for ages.


Wednesday 20th April

We observed yet another glorious day being created as we sorted ourselves out at seven in the morning. By eight o’clock we had started the engine and were making our way towards the next lock, number 12 on the Oxford canal. The boat behind was also on the move and we were soon joined by a dozen or so young girls who helped us through some of the remaining locks on the Napton flight. It turned out that they were all young carers, children who have to look after their parents for one reason or another. This was their holiday, their break from their normal responsibility, an unnatural situation where the normal role of parental care is reversed. Anyway, they were all bright young girls, very polite and well mannered. We said goodbye to them at Marston Doles but not before we topped up their ice cream fund as a way of saying thanks for their help along the way.

 Marston Doles.jpg




Much has been written about the trip across the Oxford summit and there isn’t really anything for us to add. Our trip was a lovely one on this perfect summer’s day. Blue skies, the odd white cloud at high altitude and a patchwork of green fields interspersed with the yellow squares of the rapeseed crop. We passed through Fenny Compton just before twelve and decided to celebrate the passing of noon with a glass of cold white wine, well you’ve got to justify it somehow haven’t you?

Claydon top lock marks the southern end of the summit pound and we caught up with two boats waiting to descend there. This sort of traffic jam isn’t a problem really, especially on a lovely day like this and locks by their very nature tend to space everyone out so after the first one we weren’t held up again. North of Cropredy we passed NB Bones, floating home of the Canal Boat magazine columnist, Mortimer Bones. We were fortunate enough to find a mooring in Cropredy, arriving as another boat was leaving.

We had lunch after we had secured the mooring, a cool crisp salad with ham which Sue had cooked the day before, accompanied by some fresh bread which she had baked as we had crossed the summit earlier.

Our journey had taken seven hours but when the weather is as good as it had been, it is no effort at all and the time slips by as easily as the water does as it passes the bow of the boat.

We took a walk around part of the village, dropping off our rubbish at the BW facility before visiting the local church and then back to the boat where we spent the rest of the evening before turning in for the night.


Thursday 21st April

We were greeted by another perfectly blue sky when we peered out this morning. We were up and about just after eight o’clock and after we had done our chores, we left Cropredy and headed south. All in all it took us just under three hours to make the journey to Banbury. Despite the fact that it is almost three years since we were last here, we recognised much of the approach to the town.


We were pleased to discover that there was plenty of space near Tooley’s boatyard next to the Castle Quay centre.


We took a walk around the town in the April sunshine before returning to the boat. We had a chat with an old man who told us that he was shopping with his wife and that he had been a car worker in Oxford all of his working life. He told us that he had grown up on Osney island so we promised to take a look at it when we got to Oxford. We felt a little sorry for him when he told us that he had always wanted a boat and that if he could he would return to Osney island.

We were looking forward to our evening meal, a casserole made with shin of beef. However, an accident led to Sue dropping the dish on the floor so we found ourselves out shopping again, looking for a replacement. We didn’t starve and after we had eaten we just sat and watch the television before turning in for the night.


Friday 22nd April

With the weather still set fair, we got up and left Banbury behind, under a lift bridge and down through the lock with Sue chatting to one of the town’s homeless at the lock. A short service call and then we were off with no particular goal in mind. We steadily made our way through the well spaced locks as we descended towards the Thames valley. The colours of nature were absolutely beautiful as we made our way through rural Oxfordshire.


We encountered three Australian canoeists along the way but eventually left them behind at Aynho wharf. We stopped for a late lunch at Lower Heyford where we also took on water before continuing on our way south. We soon passed the winding hole which marked the limit of our previous expedition this way in 2008. The afternoon started to lose its heat and our thoughts turned to finding an overnight mooring. We had a couple of incidents at the locks. The first was a day hire boat crew who tried opening top and bottom gate paddles, the second where Sue had to adopt the role of lock keeper and run some water into the pound below the lock to re-float the incoming boat.

Suitable moorings seemed hard to find so we were pleased when we saw that we were able to tie up outside the Rock of Gibraltar pub. The pub is run by a Greek family and after a main course of fish and chips, we indulged ourselves with a home made dessert, Baklava for Sue and a piece of cheesecake for me. Both were delicious and can be highly recommended.

It had been a long day but enjoyable nevertheless, especially when we realised that we were only four hours from Oxford.


Saturday 23rd April

We awoke early but refreshed after a good solid sleep. Our long trip the day before had ensured that we had plenty of hot water for showers before we set off just before eight o’clock. It didn’t take long before we reached Baker’s lock which guards the passage on to the river Cherwell. From here we could see the giant satellite dishes of the earth station.



The river passage was a little disappointing really, the water wasn’t as clear as we expected and the additional width of water was masked by the tight bends that we encountered. Shipton weir lock signalled the end of our river passage and we were back on the canal again. We stopped at Thrupp to make use of the services there. We were soon on our way again and making mental notes of mooring places for our return journey.

At Roundham lock, we caught up with a boat that we had admired in Warwick last summer. We had admired the colour scheme so much that we had, for a while decided to have our boat re-painted in a similar way. Since then we had changed our minds a couple of times but seeing Takara the hotel boat on this sunniest of April days had us re-thinking our plans once again.

From Kidlington down to the terminus proved to be a bind, there are a few locks and some difficult to operate lift bridges but it is the miles and miles of linear moorings which are a problem. Apart from the fact that many are either unlicensed or refuse to display their license, there are so many that are moored close to the locks and lift bridges that it makes it difficult to pass through easily.

We reached our destination just after one o’clock and found the visitor moorings opposite College Cruisers hire base empty and appealing. Once secured we opened a bottle of bubbly to celebrate our journey’s end on this, St George’s day!

In the afternoon we took a walk around the city in the sunshine and enjoyed a part of the cosmopolitan life that Oxford has to offer.


We found these moorings excellent apart from the sound of the railway nearby and the chiming of the bells at St Barnabus’s church nearby.


Sunday 24th April

We’re having a day off!

Easter Sunday and we decided to take it easy with a walk into the city and down to Christ Church meadow before returning along the bank of the Thames to our mooring on the Oxford canal.


We spent the afternoon relaxing in the shade and contemplated our trip up the river the following day, the start of our journey back.


Monday 25th April

We wanted to get to Thrupp so we were up early enough to ensure that we would get a mooring mid morning. This meant a six o’clock start but that was no problem to us and after getting dressed in some warmer clothing than on previous mornings , we slipped our mooring and made for the Isis lock at the end of the Oxford canal. Within minutes we were passing under the railway bridge and on to the Thames. At this early hour the sun was only just popping above the horizon, illuminating the light mist hanging above the river. Our trip to the junction with Dukes cut took just two hours and involved passing through two locks. Unfortunately we were too early to have the benefit of lock keeper assistance and had to negotiate the locks ourselves. Godstow Lock with its electric controls proved to be a bit of a challenge but other than that we enjoyed a quiet trip on the wide and deep water of the Thames.


This is certainly an easier way than the parallel canal. We almost missed the turn on to Dukes cut, unfortunately there are no sign posts to indicate the direction to take. We then almost missed the second junction which would have had us heading towards the now defunct Wolvercote paper mill but saw the error of our ways in time, much to the amusement of a fisherman at the turn. Minutes later and we were back on the Oxford canal, heading northwards once again. We had breakfast on the move and at half past ten, we tied up at Thrupp, just beyond the famous “Jolly Boatman” pub.

We took a walk to the local Co-op for some essential shopping before returning to the boat where we rested for a while and then got showered, the early start had been a little disorientating but in the early afternoon we were ready for a walk to the BW yard where we dumped our rubbish before treating ourselves to an ice-cream. Our work for the day was not done until I had carried out some scientific research by checking out the two pubs at Thrupp. First of all the Boat Inn and then the aforementioned Jolly Boatman. Once we were satisfied that both establishments had passed muster, we returned to the boat once again happy that our “work” was complete.


Tuesday 26th April

We noticed that the weather had changed as soon as we got out of bed. The temperature had dropped and we could feel the wind moving the boat so we donned some warm clothing and forgot about shorts and sandals. After our traditional early morning tea, we untied and headed towards the BW yard situated just around the corner from our mooring. It didn’t take long for us to complete our essential services and get underway around twenty past eight. As before, we had no particular destination in mind but we did want to get to Banbury on Wednesday morning so anywhere north of Aynho wharf would be ideal. With the Easter holidays over, the traffic on the cut was light and we encountered few boats on our journey northwards. The strong wind blowing from the north east ensured that we were kept cold while we were busy at the tiller fighting its effects on the steering of the boat. W eventually reached Aynho wharf and moored in the last spot before the bridge. We took a walk over to the wharf shop in search of a bottle of wine but we were out of luck. We decided to nip in to the adjacent pub, the Great Western Arms for a drink and ended up staying for the afternoon. We had a few drinks as well as lunch in this the most perfect of pubs. The ambience, the food, the service, the beer, even the toilets scored full marks. In all of our research trips never have we found anywhere to match this place.

After lunch we managed to drag ourselves back to the boat where we lit the fire and just relaxed our way through the rest of the day until bedtime.


Wednesday 27th April

The temperatures were still low although the wind seemed to have abated slightly when we untied and left Aynho. We continued to re-trace our route as we headed north on the Oxford canal towards Banbury where we would hopefully secure a mooring in the town’s Castle Quay area again. We hardly saw anything else on the move, this was confirmed when we passed a stationary vessel whose crew told us that we were the first boat that they had seen, quite remarkable for half past ten in the morning. When we reached Grant’s lock we saw that although the lock was empty, the walls were dry and we realised that we were the first boat to use it since the previous day.

We stopped on the outskirts of Banbury where Sue got off and visited the nearby Morrison’s store before we carried on the short distance to the services just below the town lock. After doing the necessary, we travelled up through the lock and under the lift bridge that marks the entrance to Castle Quay. We found our spot for the night just past Tooley’s, only a few yards away from where we had tied up on our journey towards Oxford. The sun had come out and by the time we had tied up we were able to get the chairs out and enjoy a drink on the back deck in the midday sunshine.


Thursday 28th April

We had a slower start to the day with a bit of early morning shopping thrown in before we set off just before ten o’clock. We chugged our way out of Banbury and although the wind was still blowing from the east keeping the temperature down, the sun was virtually alone in the blue sky making it very pleasant indeed. We had no real travelling plans but thought that we would stop somewhere on the summit pound. The locks from Banbury to the summit are nicely spaced out most of the way up the hill and so we plodded onward and upward until we reached the five locks at Claydon which are relatively close together. There were enough boats coming down to ease our passage through these, the final obstacles between us and the highest point on the Oxford canal, almost 200 feet above the city which gives the canal its name. Once through Claydon top lock, we made our way to Fenny Compton where we tied up next to the Wharf Inn. After a short exploratory trip to the pub, we returned to the boat where we ate dinner and then settled down for the evening. We had only been travelling for six hours but since we had done that without stopping we were quite tired and so we had an early night.


Friday 29th April

Fully refreshed, we were up and about for nine o’clock not knowing what the day would bring. Weatherwise, it was dull and cool as we made our way through the peaceful countryside towards Marston Doles. At ten o’clock we pulled up, switched on the television and watched the royal wedding. We had chosen our mooring because it was the first stretch with steel piling but when we set off a couple of hours later, we discovered that the un-numbered wooden bridge next to us had the inscription “THE WEDDING BRIDGE MMIX” on its far side – coincidence?


(Thanks to John and Fi on nbepiphany for the use of this photograph)

We saw a couple of dead lambs floating in the water, too late to save either of them this year. This eventually led us to wonder if a farmer can count his sheep without falling asleep?

Reaching Marston Doles, we began our descent towards Napton in the early afternoon. The descent itself was fairly painless but that was a matter of timing. Fridays are a big changeover day for the local hire companies and by the time we were passing the engine house arm, the first vessels of the armada were already on the way up. Much has been written about the boat hirers but we are not the sort of people who want to banish their crews from the cut. What is alarming is just how little tuition the holidaymakers are given before they are allowed to set off. We saw one boat crew enter the lock from below, close the bottom gates and then open the bottom paddles! There were a couple of other examples that we witnessed before we moored just above the bottom lock. We were feeling a little jaded by then so we had decided to rest and finish our trip back to Braunston on Saturday morning. After a walk for a coffee and a pint at the Folly Pie pub and shop we returned to our mooring. By now, the queue of boats waiting to ascend the flight was tailing around the corner. All the local fleets were represented; Napton, Calcutt, Kate and Black Prince. The lower pounds were now quite short of water as a result of more boats ascending than descending, probably five up for each one down. Out of interest, we talked to a number of crews to see if we could work out just how much training they had been given prior to their holiday. As we had suspected, the hire companies seem to be more keen on running through their statutory obligations before despatching the boats like taxis off the rank on a Saturday night.

By half past five we had seen enough and decided to change plans and head back to Braunston. We picked our moment and travelled down through the final lock where we used the services prior to our departure on the final leg of the trip. While I was doing the services, Sue stayed at the lock and assisted the first boat in the queue. She managed to discover that the next boat, a Black Prince hire boat, was crewed by two young ladies who were very worried because they had no idea how to use the locks. Sue suggested that I go back and help them through that first lock, giving them a crash course in operation as well as safety along the way. There is of course a limit to what can be taught in such a short time but hopefully their practical lesson would help them on their way. I’m sure that the company in question would say that the girls had been given enough tuition but here they were, only a few minutes from the hire base trying to use a lock without realising that they needed a windlass! I left them to pick their way through the rest of the flight and returned to Sue and Phoenix III.

It was gone six when we were finally underway but the hire boat entertainment wasn’t over. We were following a Napton narrowboat who were presumably on the last night of their holiday. We watched as they suddenly veered too close to the right hand bank where they got stuck for a few moments. A bit of work with a pole and they were free, they then moved forward without realising that a Braunston Carriers hire boat was already part way around the bend and so the Napton boat collided with its bow at right angles and at some speed. Sitting back at a safe distance, we watched this episode unfold but we were not amused, there is only so much of this entertainment that one can take before the joke wears thin. Luckily for us the Napton boat was now grounded on the other side of the canal so once the Braunston boat had passed through we were able to get on our way again. The sun was sinking fast and we had seen no moving craft when the bridges of Braunston turn came into view. When we reached the marina we made a quick turn and then reversed into our berth before tying up for the night.

We had reached our journey’s end with a long and eventful day but we still had time to reflect on the trip before we turned in for the night. We concluded that we had enjoyed great weather, had moored in some great places and enjoyed our time in Oxford itself. Mechanically and electrically, PhoenixIII had behaved perfectly so we declared this trip a complete success.