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Guide to the North and South Oxford Canal

Built in the late eighteenth century and quickly becoming the main transport route from the midlands to the south of England, this meandering canal cuts through some of the prettiest countryside in England. The Oxford Canal starts by the River Thames in Oxford and runs for 77 miles to Coventry, just south of the midlands. It is now one of the most popular canals for cruising, noted for its picturesque scenery and narrow locks.

A brief history of the Oxford Canal

Constructed in the late 18th century, the Oxford Canal was designed to link the industrial Midlands with the River Thames by making a canal connection between Birmingham and the city of Oxford. It quickly became one of the most important and profitable transport links in Britain, with the main item being transported being coal from Warwickshire. It also carried stone, agricultural products and other goods.

The canal was constructed in several stages over a period of more than twenty years, starting in 1769. Surveying of the route and initial construction were originally supervised by the well-known engineer James Brindley, assisted by Samuel Simcock. Brindley died in 1772 but Simcock took over and completed the canal.

By 1774 the canal had reached Napton, but the company was running out of money. After raising more funds, construction soon started again and the final section into central Oxford was ceremonially opened in January 1790.

The Oxford Canal suffered in trade when the Grand Union Canal was opened in 1805 as much of the London-bound traffic switched to this faster route but the northern section of the Oxford Canal between Coventry, Braunston and Napton remained an important commercial route until the 1960s, mainly with the transportation of coal.

The canal is now one of the most popular canals on the UK network, being easy for canal boat holidays near London.

Top North and South Oxford Canal Facts

  • Main Line Canal Length

    75 Miles

  • Number of Locks


  • Contour Canal

    Being one of the early constructed canals in the UK, the Oxford Canal was constructed as a contour canal, which meant that it followed the contours around hills, rather than having cuttings and embankments like later canals.

  • Independent

    The Oxford remained profitable until the mid 1950s and independent until it was nationalised in 1948.

  • Oxford Canal Walk

    The towpath of the canal forms the 82 mile Oxford Canal walk.

Route Overview

The Oxford Canal is referred to as having the ‘north’ section and the ‘south section’. The ‘north Oxford’ runs from Hawkesbury Junction, near Coventry, to the Stop House at Braunston – a distance of some 211⁄2 miles. The ‘south Oxford’ carries on right through to Oxford, around 53 miles with no less than 38 locks.

The South Oxford Canal starts at in the heart of Oxford, close to the River Thames. Heading north you’ll break out of the city of Oxford into the open countryside until you reach the picturesque old village of Thrupp. If you’re on a canal boat holiday in Oxfordshire it’s well worth a stop here for lunch or a quick look round as this is a very pretty little village.

Continuing past the famous Thrupp lever bridge, the South Oxford Canal continues on its way meandering through the fields and woods, running alongside the River Cherwell. Boaters will next pass through the little villages of pass Lower and Upper Heyford. They existed before the canal was built, but they each developed greatly because of the passing canal boat traffic.

Lower Heyford’s wharf originated in 1790 when the canal was built and this is the base for the Black Prince canal boat hire base in Oxfordshire. Again, Little Heyford is very picturesque, with thatched cottages, a lovely old church and of course a friendly family pub.

Continuing north, the South Oxford Canal now enters Banbury, a market town with mediaeval origins, including the famous Banbury Cross, and lots of nice old pubs. If you are on a canal boat holiday, Banbury is a good place for picking up essential supplies but if you’re looking for a good mooring spot then continue cruising northwards until you come to the village of Cropredy. This is another very pretty English village that features a 600 year old church, thatched cottages, welcoming pubs and lots of mooring places on the canal.

Travelling north from Cropredy you start to climb the five Claydon locks towards the Fenny Compton “Tunnel” that is no longer a tunnel and on to Fenny Marina, another good place to pick up supplies before you head into a rural section of the canal. After Fenny Crompton, the canal follows the contours of the land and almost circles back on itself after eleven miles, until it reaches the Napton Flight of nine locks, which enable boaters to gently descend to the Warwickshire plain.

Heading north you’ll arrive at Napton on the Hill, home to our Napton narrowboat hire base in Warwickshire.

The northern section of the Oxford Canal begins below Napton locks. You’ll cruise northwards to Braunston, old canal town that’s famous for plethora of boat chandlery films, a small canal museum and a couple of good pubs. The canal continues north to the large town of Rugby. The canal skirts around the edges of Rugby before arriving back out to scenic countryside and past the villages of Brinklow and Stretton under Fosse towards Coventry. Finally the North Oxford reaches the big junction at Hawkesbury, which is the official end of the canal before it joins the Coventry Canal.

Oxford spires

Feats of Engineering on the Oxford Canal

Somerton Deep Lock 

Lock 34 on the Oxford canal is the Somerton Deep Lock and is an impressive 12 foot deep. As a single width lock it feels deep and narrow when descending. It’s not the deepest lock in the UK canal system, with Tuel Lane Lock on the Rochelle Canal at 19 foot and 8 inches foot deep, closely followed by the Bath Deep Lock on the Kennet and Avon Canal at 19 foot and 5 inches deep.

Swing bridges and wooden lifts 

Because of a shortage of funds when building, the stretch of the canal from Banbury to Oxford was built as cheaply as possible. Many economy measures were used such as wooden lift or swing bridges were built instead of expensive brick ones. Plus, deep locks were used wherever possible, with single gates at both ends instead of double gates.

Napton flight

The Napton flight is a set of nine narrow locks, near the village of Napton

canal boat in oxfordshire

Did You Know?

  • Crossing three counties

    The Oxford Canal traverses Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire.

  • Fenny Compton Tunnel

    The Fenny Compton Tunnel is now a long deep cutting, which used to be a tunnel until the mid nineteenth century.

  • Almost full circle

    The route between the farms of Priors Hardwick and Fenny Compton is almost a full circle as it follows the contour of the land, taking 5+1⁄2 miles to cover what is essentially 2.2 miles as the crow flies.

  • Narrow Boat - the book

    ‘Narrow Boat’ is a book by L. T. C. Rolt which describes a four-month trip that Rolt took along the Oxford Canal in the 1940s.  The book is credited with a revival of interest in the English canals, leading directly to the creation of the Inland Waterways Association, which spearheaded the restoration and leisure use of the canals.

Black Prince Cruising Routes

You can cruise on the North and South Oxford Canals, from our canal boat hire base in Oxfordshire and canal boat hire base in Warwickshire. 

Oxford Canal junction sign

Black Prince Canal Guides

Below are links to a few of our other canal specific guides to help inspire you on your next canal holiday: