TOTAL LOCKS: 70
CRUISING TIME PER DAY: 7 HOURS (43 HOURS IN TOTAL)
Maps & Guides for this route: P7, N1, L17, L18, E1 | Click here buy maps
Gayton Marina is just a short distance from the heart of Northampton, via a 17-lock flight along the Northampton Arm of the Grand Union Canal, but your route meanders northwards along the Grand Union Canal through open farmland. The canal mainly skirts round the villages which dot the landscape, and activity is centred on boatyards and pubs which create occasional diversions from the calm.
The railway runs alongside the canal for much of the way, and just north of Weedon and its two aqueducts, canal and railway are joined by the busy A5 on the old Roman road of Watling Street, and the infamous M1. A brief encounter with the noise of the M1 is ironically thrilling from the peaceful canal, and the four transport routes run parallel as the canal climbs the seven Buckby Locks before reaching Norton Junction where you turn westwards through a magnificent hawthorn-flanked canalscape, diving briefly into the hillside for 2,042yds (1,867m) at Braunston Tunnel.
After descending Braunston’s locks, take time to explore the idyllic canal village, a settlement steeped in history dating back to the Doomsday Book, with its Horseley iron bridges and historic canalside workshops. The canal leads to the sleepy junction between the Grand Union and Oxford Canals, once one of the busiest commercial trading points linking with London. Canal engineer James Brindley built the Oxford Canal in his typical winding fashion, flowing around contours rather than bulldozing a straight course.
When the much straighter Grand Union Canal was built, it stole much of the Oxford Canal’s commercial traffic - but the Oxford Canal fought back by charging extortionate tolls to use its water in the London to Birmingham link between Napton and Braunston. Today its importance has not diminished as it has become a much-loved hotspot for canal leisure seekers and the marina hosts the annual Braunston Historic Boat Rally.
After the hubbub of Braunston, the canal meanders westwards through quiet open country before reaching Napton Junction. The Grand Union now continues north to Birmingham while you follow the Oxford Canal meandering southwards. The appropriately named Napton on the Hill is well-known for its windmill, which dominates the landscape and would have been a useful landmark for traditional boatmen in the commercial carrying days of the canal.
The pretty village has had a windmill since 1543, although the current Grade II-listed windmill dates from the 18th century. Many villagers were employed in the local brick and tile works, and the symbol of a windmill was stamped into the bricks and tiles before being transported away on canal boats. Napton’s 13th-century church, adjacent on the hill, is also worth a detour.
A lockside pub, cottage and outbuildings mark the start of the Napton Flight’s nine locks which carry the canal up to the summit level in glorious surroundings. Look out for the traditional lock hovel where canal workmen used to keep tools and shelter from inclement weather. The hovel by lock 10 is no bigger than a garden shed, yet even has a chimney for the workman’s fire! For extra interest, there are several pillboxes too, as this stretch of the Oxford Canal was an important part of the Oxford and Grand Union Canals Stop Line designed to defend the industrial Midlands in the event of an invasion by German troops during World War II.
The canal swirls its way through open countryside for almost ten miles before the five Claydon Locks drop the canal down towards the quintessentially English village of Cropredy. Mostly a peaceful oasis, the village bursts at the seams in August when hoards turn up for the annual music festival which began as a reunion event after Fairport Convention held their ‘farewell’ concert here in 1979.
A short way south of Cropredy, the railway and M40 noisily encroach on the canal as it makes its way into Banbury. Sung by countless generations of children, the cross of the nursery rhyme was destroyed in the 1600s as Banbury was said to be ‘too far gone in Puritanism’.
The cross which now lies at the junction of four major roads was built in 1859 to celebrate the marriage of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter. Near the cross is a large bronze statue, unveiled by Princess Anne in 2005, which depicts the ‘Fyne Lady’ upon a ‘White Horse’ of the nursery rhyme.
Tooley’s Boatyard in Banbury is the oldest dry dock in Britain. A Scheduled Ancient Monument, it has been in continuous use since 1790 regardless of changes to its surroundings. The boatyard once built and repaired wooden horse-drawn narrowboats, and having served the canals continuously for over 200 years has become a visitor attraction within Banbury’s shopping development. Here two worlds exist in one place, and Tooley’s Boatyard, together with its museum and heritage centre is accessible to visitors from the shopping centre by an entrance akin to a Potteresque leap at Platform 9¾.
The boatyard is also renowned for its connection with Tom Rolt who founded the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) during the 1940s ‘war’ to help keep canals open. Rolt’s narrowboat ‘Cressy’ was docked here before it set off on its legendary voyage around the canal networks. Rolt’s book ‘Narrow Boat’ recorded Cressy’s journey and the publication had an impact that passionately and powerfully helped give a voice to the canals in an era of decline.
Travelling back to Gayton Marina you’ll now retrace your route, enjoying the best sights again from a new perspective.
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