As the sun began to crack open the grey morning sky Fernanda and I decided to walk along the Oxford Canal Heritage Trail, one of the many 2000 miles of canals that criss-cross their way through England and Wales.
These “blue-green ribbons” as they are sometimes called connect a multitude of wildlife habitats, parks, industrial areas as well as the yards and gardens of thousands of residential areas which is why the canals are also referred to as “England’s backyard”.
Early on our walk we met Lucy as she was piloting her longboat through the Isis lock. Lucy sported rock star hair, an easygoing manner and a tattered wool sweater that looked like a Scottish fisherman had bequeathed to her. She opened the first lock to begin turning her boat around and invited us aboard to experience the entire process.
We shared enough conversation with Lucy to learn that due to the high cost of apartment living in Oxford she decided to purchase a longboat as her full time floating apartment. She told us how much she loved the outdoors and the independence that longboat living affords. Once she turned her boat around to head back upriver she bid us farewell with a final request…could we please close the last lock behind her! We gladly obliged and waved goodbye.
The vast and nationwide canal system with its hundreds of locks are one of the greatest engineering feats ever developed on any waterway. These magnificent transportation corridors were critical to the very building of Oxford, and many other cities throughout England, as they were the main bloodlines bringing raw materials.
It does not require a great deal of imagination while walking near this 200-year-old canal to picture the everyday bustle of life when horses pulled working boats full of charcoal, timber and numerous other cargoes to Oxford.
After our pleasant and informative encounter with Lucy were excited to continue our walk upriver. There were dozens of brightly painted longboats with fanciful names parked on the banks of the canal with many of them appearing to be lived in full time. We could see people making breakfast, reading and tidying up as well as tending to their “rooftop gardens”. Yes…even longboat owners maintain gardens. This is England after all!
Families of ducks and swans also call the canals home at times creating turf wars as they acted out elaborate displays of water-bound territorial behavior. It was quite amusing to watch!
As we walked on it seemed impossible that the City of Oxford with all its glorious and historical architecture was only 30 minutes behind us. Once along the canal you are truly transported to a more relaxed, bucolic and peaceful place. Research has shown that spending time by water, whether it be a quick lunch break, daily commute or just a weekend stroll can immediately make us feel happier and healthier. It was working for us!
Halfway through our three-hour walk we came upon a bridge over the canal with some amazing paintings and murals on the surrounding walls as well as the arches under the bridge itself. What a strange and incongruous spot to display public art we thought. That was until we learned that the art was part of a North Oxford community-based project called the Oxford Canal Mural Project. The OCMP began in an effort to remove years of unsightly and unwanted graffiti under the bridges in the area. The effort paid off in spades with the surrounding communities embracing and applauding the project as nothing short of a revival of those sections of the canal that had been blighted by graffiti.
As we continued our walk we learned, through various signage, why this particular canal was built, who built and paid for it and who continues to pay for it today. We reflected on the herculean task of maintaining these precious waterways and the dedicated army of people needed to do so. The year-after-year effort invested in this ongoing process, not to mention the vast amount of capital, exemplifies the amount of pride that the people of this country take in the canals and their infrastructure.
From the Industrial Revolution to the Leisure Revolution the canals continue to grow in importance as valuable destinations for a history lesson as well as a relaxing break from the hectic pace of city life. In London alone more than 10,000 people currently live on boats and over 8 million people live within half a mile from a canal.
While there are many things to do and sights to see when visiting Oxford a stroll along the Oxford canal is one that should not be overlooked. No matter what your proximity to the canals is, experiencing them will make your day.
It certainly made ours.