The Isis (Thames), The Cherwell and The Oxford Canal

An excellent easy all year walk, 6.5 miles (10.5 kilometres) with an optional River Cherwell deviation (9 miles), read on for the fun we had with that part of the walk. December, misty and cold. Solo with dog.

The River Thames is lovely for most of its path and I’ve walked it many times, notwithstanding Heraclitus who pointed out “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” The Thames is in constant flux and nowhere is this more evident than at Oxford where it has a different name: the River Isis. Isis, goddess of death and resurrection, motherhood and chaos is so much more appropriate than paunchy Old Father Thames.

It is December, cold and misty, no better place to be than by the water peering across to the shadow of geese and cattle as they mooch by the river’s edge. I’m a little sad as I was supposed to travel to Oxford with my daughter but her trip was cancelled so it’s just me and Shovell, Motherhood and Chaos, and the misty murky Isis.

From the station it’s a step to the river and the Thames Path National Trail. The river is very high and speeding downstream. Port Meadow where we are walking is flood plain, it is meant to flood, it is supposed to flood like Runnymede and not be built on. It’s why the heron loves it here. It feels right to be back walking in the English countryside. It’s the first day of advent and it’s the first time I’ve had to wear thermals this season (I have excellent thermals, the very best merino; I love wearing them which is one reason I love the winter).

I’m being buzzed by blue tits and a solitary goldfinch, they look so exotic and brightly coloured. Maybe it’s because mist drains the colour from my landscape that these birds contrast so vividly against it. Later on by a bridge I see the darkest coal tit I’ve ever seen. When I check later I realise it was probably a willow tit, not too surprising with all the weeping willows by the river.

As we leave the bridges behind and get closer to Binsey I hear a plop in the water, maybe a water vole, although it is December. At Binsey there’s a great pub called the Perch, a lovely place for lunch but it’s too early for us. In late Summer this is an excellent spot for bramble picking and watching the hundreds of rabbits who live near the water. The brambles are of course all gone and rabbit field is partly under water, I hope they have dry warrens somewhere.

At the lock I bag a few help yourself bay leaves, and walk up to Godstow and the site of the medieval nunnery, there’s not much of it left, but I’m really pleased to see the sign I love is still nearby, put up by the Local Historical Society, an organisation I’ve never seen anything else from, although I like to think these signs are all over the place and I just haven’t found them yet.

It’s too early for the Trout Inn as well, a rather fancy place that is much loved by Inspector Morse fans (The Perch is more literary, being a favourite haunt of Lewis Carroll). I’m walking across Port Meadow heading for landmarks on the horizon I cannot see, the mist is so thick here. I carry on over towards the canal to the Plough, an excellent down-to-earth pub without a Wikipedia page where you can get a great ham egg and chips for way under a tenner, something you definitely won’t find at the other two. Choose wisely. The Plough even has mulled apple juice and my heart soars.

The mist has cleared a little but it hasn’t cleared much, and the narrowboats are burning logs with smoke billowing from their chimneys, the gorgeous smell of a wood fire. These are residential moorings on the Oxford Canal. In the height of summer there are plenty of holiday boats cruising but today I only see one boat travelling.

After a few bridges I decide to follow a walk I’ve read which takes in the River Cherwell, Oxford’s other river. It’s a bit of a detour but I like the idea of winging along all of its waterways in one swoop. I join the Cherwell at Wolfson College, one of its newest, and the path is very muddy underfoot. It soon becomes alarmingly slippery but I have good boots. It’s at this point Shovell decides to start chasing squirrels and almost has me in the mud. We have a stern discussion and carry on but the path passes through a copse which is a quagmire. I continue, knowing there’s another footpath ahead if things don’t improve. They don’t. Things get worse. We wade through the riverbank heading for higher ground. At one point Shovell is up to his middle but i’m delighted that although my trousers are soaking my feet are dry inside my boots. It’s hard to see where the river ends and land begins, it feels like a challenge so we carry on. But at this photo below we admit defeat, maybe 200 metres from the turn off, but 50 metres and a thousand fathoms away from the footbridge we need. We need a boat.

Reluctantly we retrace our steps all the way back to the canal and head back to the city that way. I’m not complaining. To be honest I’ve absolutely loved being in a quagmire, and walking under water. I haven’t been this wet in ages and it’s a pleasure. I’ve a home and a bath to go to, what do I have to complain about, not that there’s anyone to hear me complain anyway.

The rest of the canal is pleasant and uneventful. Shovell is soaked and muddy and my wet trousers are flapping round my ankles. On the other hand I’ve made perfect time for my train, I’ve plenty of firelogs at home and my feet are still dry which as far as I’m concerned means a respectable score with no more innings and we’ve not been bowled out. I’m calling it a draw.

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Walk info

The GPX for the walk (not including the underwater section) is here. In drier months leave the canal at bridge #240 and make your way at a right angle to the canal to Wolfson College where you go through the car park to join the Cherwell over a footbridge. You can follow the river, crossing back over to University Parks, and wander about some of Oxford’s most interesting colleges, libraries and museums. That walk is fully described in Time Out Country Walks, which details walks within reach of London.

6 responses to “The Isis (Thames), The Cherwell and The Oxford Canal”

  1. A fun adventure, thanks for the journey. ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are most welcome 🤗

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I love that quote from Heraclitus. A damp, misty, wet walk…but I am sure after getting dry and warm it felt like quite an adventure.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It sounds like a nice walk but there’s no way I would tackle all that mud and wet. I love the kingfisher artwork under the bridge and the view in the last photo looks really pretty 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It wasn’t one of my most sensible decisions


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