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Canoeing the Oxford Circuit with Iris Murdoch

July 7, 2015

River Thames & Oxford Canal

Iris Murdoch lived in or near Oxford for over 50 years, and almost all her novels involve some sort of ordeal by water, albeit none in the upper reaches of the Thames. She knew the river and canal well.

On November 3rd 1952, at the height of their brief love affair – he died 16 days later – she walked in Port Meadow with the anthropologist Franz Steiner (more about him here). In June 1953 she moved to a basement flat at 24 Southmoor road, the house owned by the controversial radiation and cancer epidemiologist Alice Stewart (more about her here), and acquired a canoe; she surely paddled this route. Later still she and her husband John Bayley skinny dipped near the A34 bypass bridge.

The free car park, between Wolvercote village and Godstow has access to the eastern channel below the weirs. Paddle past the Trout Inn channel to turn up the main stream and enter Godstow lock.

0 miles – Port Meadow car park


0.2 miles – Godstow lock


0.25 miles – Godstow bridge. Scarred by motorboat collisions!  Abbey left.

P1060457    P1060228   Godstow_Abbey

0.4 miles – A34 bypass bridge

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Elegy for Iris, (p1) by John Bayley:

“For years now we’ve usually managed a treat for ourselves on really hot days at home in the summer. We take the car along the bypass road from Oxford, for a mile or two, and twist abruptly off onto the verge – quite a tricky feat with fast-moving traffic just behind. Sometimes there are hoots and shouts from passing cars which have to brake at speed, but by that time we have jolted to a stop on tussocky grass, locked the car, and crept through a gap in the hedge.

I remember the first time we did it, nearly forty-five years ago. We were on bicycles then and there was little traffic on the unimproved road. Nor did we know where the river was exactly; we just thought it must be somewhere there. And with the ardour of comparative youth we wormed our way though the rank grass and sedge until we almost fell into it. Crouching in the shelter of the reeds, we tore our clothes off and slipped in like water rats.  A kingfisher flashed past our noses as we lay soundlessly in the dark, sluggish current. A moment after we had crawled out and were drying ourselves on Iris’s half slip a big pleasure boat chugged past within a few feet of the bank.  The steersman, wearing a white cap, gazed intently ahead.Tobacco smoke mingled with the watery smell at the foot of the tall reeds.”

Possible spots?

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1 mile – Kings lock


Just upstream of the lock, “Duke’s cut” leaves right.

P1060211   P1060464   P1060465   P1060466

1.5 miles – junction with the eastern Thames stream. Keep left. Follow the signpost.

P1060467     P1060469    P1060468

1.7 miles – A40 bridge followed by railway bridge over Duke’s cut lock

P1060472    P1060473    P1060474

1.8 miles  – towpath bridge followed by junction with the Oxford canal. Turn right.

P1060475    P1060477   P1060478

1.9 miles A40 bridge followed by the first of three lifting footbridges

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2 miles – A34 bypass bridge.

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2.4 miles – lifting footbridge 234. This one had a minstrel on it.

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2.5 miles – Wolvercote bridge and lock. Followed immediately by the adjacent Wolvercote footbridge

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2.75 miles – Wolvercote Green Field bridge.  The Plough left.


3.25  miles – Wolvercote railway bridge

wolvercote railway bridge

3.5 miles – St Edward’s lifting footbridge. No 238.


4 miles – bridge 238B Elisabeth Jennings Way bridge


4.2 miles – Frenchay Road bridge


4.4 miles – Aristotle bridge

aristotle bridge

After a few hundred yards the houses and back gardens of Southmoor Road line the left bank.

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No. 48 is about 500 yards after Aristotle bridge as the canal kinks very slightly left, marked by two large weeping willows.  We found two old Oxford ladies launching their canoe from an adjacent garden. They didn’t know that Murdoch had once lived nearby.

IMG_20150523_135358752    IMG_20150523_135918420

4.75 miles – Walton Well Road bridge


5 miles – Mount place footbridge

mount place footbridge

5.5 miles – Footbridge over Isis lock. Land right and portage over the bank into the Castle Mill stream. Turn right in the pool below the lock to enter the Sheepwash channel, which immediately passes under Rewley Road bridge and a railway bridge, before joining the Thames

IMG_20150523_141619078_HDR    IMG_20150523_152145305_HDR   IMG_20150523_152258240_HDR

5.75 miles – Footbridge and junction of the Sheepwash channel with the Thames. Turn right upstream. Mark the channel entrance if paddling this trip in reverse.

IMG_20150523_152339716_HDR    P1060236

The riverside path passes over various other side channels

IMG_20150523_152533956_HDR   P1060234

6.5 miles – Medley footbridge. Port Meadow right.

P1060233    IMG_20150523_153743973

8 miles – At the upper end of Port Meadow take the right channel back to the car park. Or better still the middle one past a boat house, and under a wooden footbridge to the Trout Inn.

IMG_20150523_160816673_HDR    IMG_20150523_161121985_HDR

Iris loved pubs and must have visited this one. It’s famous now as one of Inspector Morse’s drinking holes. Finally, don’t miss Wolvercote community orchard (click here).

Jim Thornton


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