Cruising England's Oxford Canal

This month's great read, selected by our editors: Going fast isn't an option on the Oxford Canal—to the delight of all who merrily, merrily cruise this British waterway.

From the February/March 2016 issue of Traveler magazine

It’s Alice’s Day in Oxford, England.

A winged griffin is playing a ukulele on Broad Street, awaiting the arrival of the Red Queen. At the nearby Bodleian Library, a caterpillar dispenses nutritional advice to children in pinafores. In front of the Pitt Rivers Museum, a lachrymose Mock Turtle leads a lobster quadrille dance. Me? I’m standing on the prow of the Hertford, my rental canal boat, trying to take in this annual celebration of the famous literary creation Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Oxford University don Charles Dodgson (better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll).

I lived on St. Barnabas Street from 2009 to 2010, when I was an undergraduate immersed in the eccentricity of Oxford University life. England was still new to me, every day a cultural shock as I tried to reconcile English reserve with my American exuberance—a balance that I still am not sure I’ve struck.

But today I am looking at my university home, which sits 60 miles northwest of London, from another angle entirely.

EAGER FOR AN ADVENTURE, a British friend, Sarah Heenan, and I are spending one week cruising the Oxford Canal, an 18th-century waterway that runs from Oxford north almost 80 miles to Hawkesbury Junction, just north of Coventry. The experience, we’re discovering, is hardly that of Oxford University, with its Gothic towers. Nor is it of Oxford the town, a staid, prosperous place that, for all its academic whimsy, is unfailingly polite and invariably aloof. For narrow-boaters such as us—which, we will see, includes day-trippers, retirees, and liveaboards gliding leisurely from village to village by water—the Oxford Canal embodies a different, less straitlaced, way of English life.

“Along a canal,” explains Heenan, who grew up around her family’s pub in a Cotswolds village, “you say hello to everybody.”

Perhaps as a release from the intensely private nature of English culture—“you Americans do front lawns,” Heenan notes, “we do back gardens”—Brits seem to come alive on the water. After all, the ultimate fantasy of an English pastoral idyll is Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, a classic children’s novel featuring animals dwelling by a river, which was inspired in part by Grahame’s school days on the Oxford Canal.

“Here today, up and off to somewhere else tomorrow!” the book’s enthusiastic Mr. Toad exclaims. “Travel, change, interest, excitement!”

As Heenan and I rev our engine—we’re our own captains after a boat-handling tutorial—we spot an elderly twosome strolling the canal’s towpath. They spy Heenan’s glass of Pimms. “And very good, too!” the woman calls out as we pass.

We raise our glasses to toast her.

Cruising along at three miles an hour, I find myself peering into back gardens, wondering who tends them. Who owns the stone bust of Napoleon? The carving of a rabbit shooting a frog?

I ask Heenan if I’m breaking some fundamental rule of Englishness by looking.

She bursts into laughter. “That’s the most English thing of all!” she says. “Deep down, we’re all really nosy.”

Near the village of Wolvercote, we are preparing to dock when a comely man dressed in a white vest and jeans leaps confidently onto our narrow boat and grabs the tie-up rope.

“Don’t worry,” he says, when we have secured the vessel. “You’re no worse than I was my first time.”

Mike Pitman’s first time was three years ago. Priced out of property in Oxford, Pitman—a documentary filmmaker and musician in his 20s—bought a boat and has lived ever since along the water, part of a community of artists.

“Before living on a boat, I never knew any of my neighbors by name,” Pitman shares. Here on the water, he knows everyone. “Or at least what instrument they play.”

He invites me onto his boat, Songlines, and shows me his Australian didgeridoo—his favorite instrument—followed by an Indian flute.

“I played a duet with this guy under a bridge once,” he says. “When we were done, he gave me his flute.”

Just like that?

Pitman shrugs.

“We look out for each other,” he says, sometimes by monitoring mooring spaces when one of them is away, sometimes by pet-sitting or helping with boat repairs. Another boater, a photographer named Jeff Slade, ambles over. He and Pitman trade news: Two buzzards have taken up residence in a canalside tree; one of the moorhens has given birth to five chicks. Slade shows me a repurposed flowerpot on his own boat’s roof; he hopes the local duck will lay her eggs there.

At first these boaters’ attention to nature’s details surprises me. So far on our cruise, the landscape has been overwhelmingly green. Picking out individual shapes has seemed as impossible as picking out brushstrokes in a Monet painting. But as we wend past bend after identical bend, thatch-roofed village after thatch-roofed village, the landscape’s uniformity breaks apart like a kaleidoscope. At the pace the Hertford will let us go—four miles an hour, top speed—it’s impossible to not look at every branch, every leaf, a little longer, a little more carefully. I start to notice the difference between Japanese and giant knotweed, elderflowers and Queen Anne’s lace. A few days ago, all this was a vague notion I had of “countryside.” The canal was a waterway I barely glanced at. Today, each branch, each bush, each bend of the canal contains universes.

IN THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS, Rat tells Mole “there is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

Aboard the Hertford I have little time to mess about. There always is something to do: piloting, mooring, unmooring, filling the water tank. And the routine of locks—enclosures with sliding gates that adjust water levels, enabling boats to travel from lower to higher areas—is the most ceaseless of all. Every hour or so we stop to open one gate, cruise into the lock, slide up the panels (called paddles or wickets) to let water flow into the lock and make the boat rise (we are heading upstream), open the exit gate, then reset everything.

I wonder once or twice what Rat was talking about in The Wind in the Willows. To my surprise, however, the routine soon becomes comforting, a quiet rhythm that gives structure to the meandering of days. I find myself taking pride in winching up a particularly heavy paddle or forcing a stuck gate. I like the tangible, physical results.

The locks, Heenan and I soon realize, double as social hubs, where strangers exchange travel advice or boating gossip, or help less experienced boaters. Arriving at a lock now means seeing familiar faces: the redheaded Scottish family of four; the bachelor party group; Derek, a retiree from Birmingham, who bought a boat when he turned 60 (“better that than a Zimmer frame!” he says, the British term for a walker) and who stays behind to help us close the gate.

It’s just good boating etiquette, Derek says after I thank him. He lives on his boat alone, a rarity given the amount of work cruising entails. But he never worries. “People help me on the locks all the time, so I help them. That’s just how it is.”

Besides, he adds, he’s not in any rush.

Nobody here is.

IT TAKES A FEW DAYS before I understand what “canal pace” means. I had drawn an optimistic map at the week’s outset, circling planned mooring points as I plotted to make it all the way to my arbitrarily chosen destination of Napton on the Hill, some 20 miles south of Coventry, before winding back toward Oxford. It would be a grueling route of seven hours of boating a day (canal travel is measured in hours, given the variables of lock traffic), I’d judged, but doable.

We’re speeding as quickly as the Hertford will allow. If we hurry, we can make the village of King’s Sutton by nightfall. Dusk glints golden on the water as we cruise past Upper Heyford. Sheep nip at long grasses in the shadow of its Gothic church tower. It’s the most idyllic spot we’ve seen on the canal so far, and we’re tempted to stop. But it’s not on our schedule. I turn off the engine anyway.

Heenan pours out our Pimms. A few minutes later, a young man appears on the towpath, walking his dog. As he gets close, the dog sniffs the air, then scampers onto our deck before its owner can stop it. Mortified, he stutters out an apology.

We laugh it off, retrieve the dog, make conversation. Kevin, we learn, is a Heyford local. I invite him to join us for a drink, motivated in equal parts by hospitality and anthropological curiosity. Under normal circumstances here, I know, this would be considered only slightly less brazen than proposing marriage. But we’re on a boat.

For a moment, Kevin looks surprised, even nervous. Then he takes a deep breath and steps on deck. We hand him a Pimms and clink glasses. At last he smiles. For half an hour we drink and talk, about the weather, Heyford life, the canal. Kevin admits he wonders about the boats he sees cruising by. Still, he could never imagine doing it himself. “You’d have to say hello to people all the time, be friendly. We couldn’t have that!”

THERE IS ONE PLACE, Heenan points out, where English people always say hello. The pub, in most small villages the only choice for food or drink, is to locals what locks are to boaters: the one socially sanctioned space where talking to strangers is not only allowed but encouraged. Several pubs are signposted “Open 11 a.m. until close.”

Isn’t that a tautology? I ask Heenan.

“You’ll see,” she answers.

Each pub will have its own character. There’s the Boat Inn, in Thrupp, where locals vie to buy the geriatric pub dog, Ollie, his nightly potato chips. There’s the brick Bell Inn, in Lower Heyford, where an elderly man enters, only to start at the sight of Heenan and me on a sofa. (We’re sitting in his customary seat, another regular explains.)

But nothing compares to the rambunctious energy of the Red Lion Inn, in the thatch-roofed village of Cropredy. Drawings by a local artist line the walls, along with clocks handcrafted by the owner’s father-in-law. In the corridor to the bathroom I find framed limericks riffing on regulars’ drunken antics and dietary misfortunes.

Those same regulars hold court from 6 to 10 p.m. at the bar, engaging in sometimes raucous mockery of one another. When I ask the barmaid about the pub’s rumored ghosts—Cropredy was the site of a 1644 battle during England’s Civil War—a gray-haired biker in a bandanna cuts in before she can answer:

“She’s the one who is ’aunted!”

An elderly liveaboard boater named Mick—who, I learn, lost his business, declared bankruptcy, and realized that “they can’t send collections if you’re always moving”—takes it upon himself to help me understand a proper village pub.

“When I came in here, I hit my head on those”—he points out the low ceiling beams—“and the barmaid, instead of helping me, laughed.” He waits for me to get it.

“That’s what a proper pub is! People taking the mickey out of you, teasing you, even if you’re a stranger.” English people, he insists, are as open as anyone else; they just need an excuse to show it. “Why do you think English people talk so much about the weather? It’s ’orrible, and we know it’s ’orrible. It just gives us a reason to say something.”

I tell him about our dawdling in bucolic Upper Heyford, and he remarks, “That’s nothing. It took me three and a half weeks to get here—I saw a field full of cows I liked.”

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Outside the Red Lion, church bells begin to ring the 11 p.m. hour. We’re approaching closing time, but tonight’s patrons show no signs of leaving—and the barmaid just continues to chat with everyone.

“When they close, they close,” shrugs Mick.

We don’t exchange numbers—there’s no phone signal—but Mick invites me to look for him on our return voyage. I will find Mick again, at Cropredy Lock. He’ll grin, wave, then cruise on.

IF A PUB—England’s great equalizer, where rich and poor, locals and transients come together—has an opposite, it’s the stately country manor, or estate. These days many historic English manors, often the homes of aristocrats, open their doors to the public. They are, I learn, where the English go to indulge in that most English pursuit: peeking into the private lives of others.

Of the three or four manors we pass, it’s the palatial Rousham House that most piques my interest. This 17th-century residence, still lived in by descendants of the original owners, is visitable only by appointment, but the acres of gardens are open daily. Among the most celebrated landscapes in England, they were designed in the 1700s by the architect and artist William Kent, who pioneered the “natural” landscape.

“This is the ultimate English domestic fantasy,” says Heenan, “the private garden that feels like it’s in wilderness.”

We are only a 15-minute walk from the canal, but in this riotously colorful floral setting, we find ourselves in the heart of Alice’s labyrinth. Passages wind through hedges, past hidden fountains, toward purpose-built “ruins” and Grecian arcades that lead nowhere. I watch a lone peacock sashay in front of the entrance to the round pigeon house, which echoes with the coos of pigeons and doves.

Still, it’s the residents of Rousham House who fascinate me. Passing the front door, I search for clues to the inhabitants within. “Home Rule,” says a sticker on the front door, which also features an EU flag with an X drawn through it. “British Subjects, Not EU Citizens,” another states. I sneak a glance into the windows. Everything is museum-perfect—paneled walls, oil paintings, gold brocade wallpaper—except one touch: the most outstanding collection of ugly porcelain figurines I’ve ever seen.

I think of Heenan’s insistence on English nosiness, and smile. Englishness has rubbed off on me after all.

OUR LAST NIGHT ON THE HERTFORD, we moor in north Oxford—and I am back where I began, a short walk from my old university quarters. I feel almost regretful. Seven years in England, I think—what else did I miss? How much time did I waste, failing to follow and explore this path that started in my own backyard?

A thrush flutters down to my feet. Once, I might have scared it away. But a week on the water has left me slower, more careful in my movements. The bird lets me approach and photograph it at close range before it vanishes against the gold of sky.

I make out the charred remains of bonfires in the grass around me. I wonder if they belong to Mike Pitman, to Jeff Slade, to the boaters who have made the canal their own.

Then I remember a plaque I’d seen along the nearby Thames River, part of a local initiative to record oral histories.

“My father was a great plant lover …” it reads. “We spent a whole afternoon by the river at Godstow in the beautiful spring sunshine, searching the meadows for birthwort which we didn’t find. I thought it was a real waste of time, but now I look back on that afternoon as a lovely day spent with my eccentric Dad.”

I understand. On the water there really is no such thing as a waste of time.

TARA ISABELLA BURTON wrote about visiting Paris in the guise of a modern-day flaneur, in our story “People-Watching in Paris” (October 2015), also photographed by frequent contributor JOHN KERNICK.

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