Period Living - Feb 07

Postcard from the Oxford Canal

Take to the canals for a slower pace of life, where an inquisitive swan and the occasional lock are the only things to worry about as Rebecca Fishenden discovers

Gliding silently down river, watching the morning mist gently lift off the fields, it's difficult to imagine how these canals were once the backbone of the Industrial Revolution.

But these now peaceful stretches of the Oxford Canal, flowing southwards from Rugby to Oxford, helped the factories of the Midlands and the North to thrive during the 18th century, as well as supporting rural villages and families scattered along its green banks.

Often financed by wealthy merchants seeking to maximise their profit, ‘Canal Mania' saw packhorses and wagons being put into retirement as mass transportation took a vice-like grip on the country.

Designed by engineer James Brindley, this Rugby to Oxford stretch was opened in sections between 1774 and 1790, with the purpose of bringing coal from his father's mines southwards towards the bustling capital.

Built to the economical contour method favoured by Brindley, the waterway (where possible) followed the natural curves of the land. This meant that expensive locks were kept to a minimum and the canal could call at lots of villages. Today, this makes it the perfect passage for your trip.

However, the golden age of the narrow boat couldn't last for ever, and the railway was hot on its heels. The canals' narrow size couldn't cope with the rapid growth in demand for coal; they were slow; and as they were built to carry goods between just two points, they were unsuitable for an increasingly sophisticated economy. The railways began to flourish and some competitive railway companies even bought up the canals to increase their monopoly.

On the Oxford stretch, a little commerce continued into the I 960s, but now traffic is made up of holidaymakers in brightly coloured barges gliding past families that call the moorings home and it's easy to see the attraction of living on the water. The cosy cabins are fully-fitted with everything you'll need, including central heating, a shower and even floral curtains!

The narrow boats can sleep up to 10 people and although you'll get to know your fellow travellers well during your break, it's not claustrophobic and there's lots of privacy. Being a complete beginner — and a non-swimmer who is hopeless at reading maps — I was apprehensive, but there was no cause for alarm. An intensive half hour tutorial by Rose Narrowboats was all my party needed to set off towards the City of Spires, brimming with confidence. The route is straightforward and dotted with pretty bridges — from small wooden ones built by farmers for their herds to cast-iron creations from the Horsley Iron Works.

It's amazing how quickly we got into the swing of things, even the locks were manageable and passers-by will help out if not. Luckily, the only spot of bother was when a swan spotted our biscuits and hopped on board. Once our shrieks scared him off, the only other moment of worry was who would do the washing up? As I said, just like home!