With his wife assigned to lock duty, Ben Wilkinson stakes a claim to a part of the county we too often forget
As I cruised my way along Oxford Canal I found myself feeling content.
I was competently operating a narrowboat for the first time and enjoying the weekend sunshine like I never had before.
Like many who live in the county I have cycled and walked its towpaths and watched with envy as houseboaters guide their vessels proudly along the water.
I was now one of those people, thanks to Jericho-based family firm College Cruisers.
Our two-day trip would see us travel through North Oxford, Wolvercote, Kidlington, Thrupp, and to the edge of Heyford and back.
My wife Leslie and I would go on to negotiate seven locks (each one twice) and experience life on the canal at a pace (the canal speed limit is 4mph) which gives you no choice but to relax.
As I took control of the boat – named Keble – and left the Jericho boatyard early on a wet Saturday morning I clumsily ricocheted between snoozing narrowboats before I got to grips with the steering.
The speed might seem slow, but it is at that speed you start to notice little things you may not have been aware of – moorhen chicks hiding in the reeds or the scent of elderflowers.
Often the only sounds you hear are birdsong, the rippling of water, and the steady and reassuring chug of the engine.
Taking a large and heavy boat out requires the help of a willing assistant. Often at locks you see the driver slouching behind the controls while his partner cranks and heaves them open.
In the 1800s Oxford’s canal was a vital trade link. Now it provides a thoroughfare for leisure and habitat for wildlife. Kingfishers and herons are just two bird species you can see close up.
It was not until bridge 224a that we encountered the only serious predator on the canal – the stag do. Two huge boats carrying shirtless lager-guzzling men hurtled towards us at 4mph. Ever the considerate boater, I was sticking to the right of the waterway before the second boat veered left and hit us head-on.
But canal boats are tough and the odd knock and scrape will not cost you your deposit.
A lock keeper later told us stag dos were a part of the scenery now. Largely, though, they were harmless and added a dimension to the fun on the waterways.
A key appeal of the canal boat trip is you can more or less stay wherever you want. When we tired we moored next to the Rock of Gibraltar pub, popped a lasagne in the oven and opened a bottle of wine. When morning came we untied the boat and headed off for another day on the water.
Cruising in a canal boat gives you a fresh perspective on a part of Oxfordshire many of us probably claim to know well.
The tricky controls, awkward locks and bridge are all part of the adventure. And adventure is the best word to describe a trip out on a narrowboat.
The Oxford Canal is right on our doorstep and its treasures await you. Let’s not let the tourists and stags have all the fun.
TRY IT OUT
College Cruisers has a fleet of nine boats which sleep between two and 12 people. Prices start at £395 for a short break and the business is open all year round. The boatyard also services privately-owned canal boats. Visit collegecruisers.com or call 01865 554343.
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