Oxfordshire has plenty of waterways to make use of watercraft not least the rivers Thames and Cherwell, and the South Oxfordshire canal. And for sailing there's Farmoor Reservoir. The canal is only wide enough for traditional narrowboats, while the river can hold widebeam boats. There are three narrowboat hire companies in Oxfordshire - College Cruisers in Jericho and Oxfordshire Narrowboats at Lower Heyford, both on the canal, and Anglo-Welsh at Eynsham on the Thames. Narrowboats are a popular choice for stag and hen parties, and single sex parties can often be seen at weekends sporting Pirate regalia. For more info, Daily Info's guide to boat hire is here
Oxford is of course famously part of the Boat Race
, and from 2015 the women's crews compete on the same day as the men (around Easter). While the race itself takes place in London, you can catch plenty of rowing action locally all year round as the various crews practise. There are two annual inter-collegiate races, both around Christ Church Meadows: Torpids
takes place in late February/early March (floods permitting) while Summer Eights
is late May/early June. Eights is the one you picture in your mind - a forest of boaters, Pimms, and crews milling about by the boathouses.
There are various local sailing clubs including one at Farmoor Reservoir, and Binsey club on Port Meadow. From Port Meadow, or the far bank, you can often see a host of different groups enjoying the flat syrupy stretch of the Thames - picnickers, swimming dogs and children, teens jumping in from bridges, sailors, pleasureboaters, families in Canadian canoes, motorboaters, commercial river traffic, fishermen, and all the people wandering, cycling or blackberrying on the bank.
The rivers do flood, lately annually. When this happens all traffic on the river is suspended. The flow rate is indicated by boards displayed at the locks - green means safe, orange is getting a bit fast, red is dangerous. On orange boards everyone should take care, and only experienced boaters, rowers and coxes should be out. Red boards usually invalidate insurance, so any hireboaters or novices should stay put. Lockkeepers (all the Thames locks are manned during the day) will help if you are stuck. During floods the towpaths and river walks can also become extremely dangerous - around Godstow there are some graphic notices about what happens if you can't see where the edge of the footpath is. On the other hand skating on Port Meadow after a January flood is a great and communal pleasure.
The other danger comes when there isn't enough water - the bed of all local waterways is made up of a patchwork of broken bikes and other unsavoury items. Do not jump in, unless it's somewhere you know positively to be safe, and deep enough at that time of year. Especially do not jump off Magdalen Bridge - there is a rumour this is a May Day tradition, but it is not a true or wise one, and is more likely to land you in hospital than with any kudos. In addition a sea of punts may trap you underwater - people have drowned attempting this ridiculous stunt.
Punts are of course the quintessential Oxford boat, and are a beautiful way to travel. You can hire punts from Magdalen Bridge, Cherwell Boathouse (north Oxford) or Folly Bridge, or free through most colleges, so cultivate those Oxford Uni friends! The Cherwell is the main punting river and you can get certainly as far north as The Victoria Arms in Old Marston, if not beyond (if your time and hiring budget allow). You can punt near the sides of the Thames past Christ Church Meadows and out to The Isis Farmhouse, but to start with we recommend sticking to the smaller channels. Daily Info's guide to how to punt is here
. Punts have the great advantage of being silent (aside from passenger-generated noise...) meaning you can see lots of wildlife. Watch the moorhens and coots nesting at the begining of the season, and revisit their chicks throughout the summer.
Kenneth Grahame, author of Wind in the Willows, is buried in Holywell Churchyard in Oxford. It's not hard to imagine Ratty, Mole, Badger et al frolicking in the edges of the rivers around Oxford, although he was probably thinking of stretches of the Thames nearer Henley. The Thames path is well worth walking, and south/east of Oxford it follows the railway, so you can walk it in shortish stretches and hop on the train back from Goring or Reading. West of Oxford it winds through Wytham and on to the source in Wiltshire. It's now a National Trail meaning it's a well-signposted walking route, and there are official maps (available at Blackwells). And our guide to local waterside walks is here
The South Oxfordshire was one of the earliest canals to be built, begun in 1770, and is consequently winding and narrow. In the 1820s it was very busy, connecting the Midlands with London before The Grand Union, but the fact you could go a whole day within the sound of Braunston's church bells annoyed the carriers, and a more direct new cutting was built which saved 11 miles of meander! Canals everywhere suffered from competition from railways, but were very useful in wartime, not least in providing coal for the colleges. Oxford used to have a huge canal basin, but in 1937 William Morris bought it and founded Nuffield College on some of the site. The rest is under the Worcester St car park.
Some commercial traffic kept going until an extremely harsh winter in 1963, when temperatures stayed below 0 for about two months. The canal froze, locking boats in wherever they were. Fortunately leisure boating was already beginning, and much of the canal network was saved for holiday boaters. These days there is plenty of traffic and many liveaboard boat communities scattered about the city. The towpath is used for fishing, dogwalking, jogging, cycling, and the fact so many people live along it means it is a much safer and more salubrious place than in many cities.
If you're looking to buy a narrowboat or cruiser you'll need to think about where to moor it, or if you're happy to be a Continuous Cruiser, moving from mooring to mooring. This can be a lovely lifestyle, but it makes it hard to commute to work. Moorings in Oxford include Agenda 21 (you get water and sanitation points but nothing else, they stretch from St Edwards up to Wolvercote); Hythe Bridge (expensive, and you get a postcode, electricity, and water); and various different mooring arrangements on the Thames including some private ones.
A powered craft will also need a license, and there are separate ones for canal and river. A residential boat also needs a BSS (Boat Safety Scheme) certificate, which checks things like gas plumbing, fire extinguishers, and anything else vital for safety. Boats need blacking every few years, which protects the hull from rust and wear and tear. The canals are healthy enough environments that a boat's hull will often be covered in freshwater mussells. Other wildlife includes water voles and kingfishers, both regularly seen along the Wolvercote stretches.