My ride took me along the southern-most section of the Oxford Canal.
No sooner had I left Heyford did I come across a couple of musicians, one with a violin and one with a guitar, filling the reach with inspiring tunes and a fantastic atmosphere. I felt as though I was disturbing them, so much so that I didn’t stop to photograph them, which is most unlike me: I regretted that for the rest of the ride!
Everyone I passed raised a smile or a wave – all different types of user. Boaters waved as they concentrated on keeping their line; walkers insisted on stopping even though I was pulling over to let them through; anglers (those that were awake!) were happy to chat.
The rural part of the ride – from Heyford through Enslow and Thrupp, past Kidlington and on to Summertown – was not at all busy outside of the marinas and locks. There was usually a boat or two waiting at the locks, and the occasional pair of walkers. There were a few cyclists which was nice to see, probably 25 in the 90 mins that I was riding. Only when I approached the centre of Oxford did it become a bustling towpath.
The towpath surface does vary a little, perfectly good enough for making sensible progress, but I wouldn’t want to be on my road bike! The worst surface was a few previously-muddy ruts that had dried in the sun.
I can imagine that after rain it might get a little muddy and slippery with use. As I neared Oxford, the surface improved with metalled and level tracks, which is often the case near bigger towns and cities across the network.
I’d recommend running with a lower tyre pressure in the dry: 30 psi or less to smooth out some of the bumps.
I met Simon, out to see if his young son would be ok cycling on the towpath. He was happy that the little’un would cope. I would agree that my two young sons would be perfectly happy, so long as the accident-prone one retained his concentration!
Slowing down and taking care is clearly important everywhere, but nowhere more so than at bridges, where visibility is limited and cyclists have the added distraction of avoiding hitting their head on the bridge arch. I almost came to a stop at these points, and if you were not a regular rider it might even be best to dismount each time. In almost all other places, the visibility is good so you have warning of other users and so when to slow down.
I loved the murals under the bridges in Oxford, from the Oxford Canal Mural project, really adding personality to a short stretch of canal, and hopefully symbolising community ownership and engagement.
The canal, as much as any other part of the country, reflects the character of its users, the varied mosaic that defines us as a country, and each canal has a different character and atmosphere. The canals are overwhelmingly relaxed with more smiles the right way up than on the roads and certainly the trains!
In summary, cycling the canals is incredibly relaxing. As with every other way of travelling, there’s little point in being in a rush along the canal, it just doesn’t work and you won’t get the most out of it. The Oxford Canal is very pleasant and relaxing, and one of the most welcoming I’ve experienced as a cyclist, possibly due to the number of cyclists and its proximity to Oxford: one and the same perhaps.
I’m determined to do more of it, and indeed head back on another sunny day to see if those musicians are out again.