ELLIE SIMMONDS gets to see her hometown from a new perspective aboard a narrowboat

I WAS worried a weekend on a canal boat would be a bit tame.

The four-mile-an-hour top speed sounded painstakingly slow.

And the other canal folk I spotted along the way seemed slightly too relaxed.

Even our destination of Banbury – where I spent my teenage years – was hardly exotic.

But there was nothing boring about our time on the Oxford Canal.

I had wanted to try out a canal boat for years and got the chance thanks to Lower Heyford-based Oxfordshire Narrowboats.

We picked up our 57ft narrowboat called Rousham and were shown around what was to be our home for the next three days.

I wondered whether the boat would seem claustrophobic, but ours seemed huge and included a dining table, fully equipped kitchen, two bedrooms and two bathrooms.

We were given a few technical demonstrations about how to turn on the engine, clean out the propeller and fill up with water.

And then we were off – heading towards our first lock.

Now despite in some ways being a very simple concept, we soon learned locks are not quite as easy as they appear.

Picking up my windlass (essentially a key to help open the locks) I had to think quite carefully about which gate to open first and just how to go about it.

And once I’d managed to figure it out I found the gates physically almost too hard to creak open.

But we soon picked up the hang of it – lucky given we had 16 locks to get through during our three days – and found ourselves well under way.

The Oxford Canal was one of the earliest canals to be built in Britain. The section from Banbury to Oxford was finished in 1790, linking the industrial heartland of the Midlands with London.

Coal, stone and agricultural goods filled the barges but the canal, built as a “contour canal”, soon came under fire for being too winding and slow.

And it’s just this rambling nature of the waterway which today makes it one of the most beautiful canals on which to travel.

Having grown up in rural North Oxfordshire I could not have been more familiar with our route from Lower Heyford to Banbury.

But being on the water is surprisingly disorientating and soon I was completely lost. We went through locks I had never heard of just a few miles from where I grew up.

And there were lift bridges and road bridges I had previously never given a second glance.

After a much-needed stop at the Great Western Arms in Aynho we carried on under the M40 and on to Banbury, which turned out to be getting ready for its annual Canal Day celebrations. Now this may sound like a good thing. But for two very novice canal boaters it proved a daunting challenge.

As we neared the town we came back to reality with a metaphorical – and nearly literal – crash.

Banbury Lock is slap bang right in the centre of town and negotiating it, followed by a tricky lift bridge, in front of hundreds of shoppers was not the most relaxing experience.

And once we were safely through, the celebrations meant the sides of the canal were lined with narrowboats, leaving us with just a few inches of space either side.

Luckily by this point our canal skills were honed enough to get us through and we found a mooring to squeeze into for the night.

As we left early the next morning I looked at the other narrowboats with their lovingly tended window boxes and colourful flower pots.

Canal life has existed and adapted for more than two centuries.

And although it is very different now than in 1790, it is hard to see how it won’t survive for centuries more.

The Rousham, which has up to six berths, costs £839 to hire from Oxfordshire Narrowboats for a weekend break in October.
For more information, contact: Oxfordshire Narrowboats, Heyford Wharf
Station Road, Lower Heyford.
Call 01869 340348 or see oxfordshire-narrowboats.co.uk