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Tourist masses to visit where coal once ruled
Buy this photo » Boater Lizzie Austin, who lives on Golden Dancer
THE Oxford Canal might be 222 years old and have played a major role in the economic and social development of the city – but it is mostly ignored by the people who visit the city every year.
That, however, could be about to change. The canal, created to make money from the transport of coal from the Midlands, is currently having a renaissance, with plans afoot to attract tourists to its banks.
Before we know it the Oxford Canal may once again become a money-spinner for the city.
A few weeks ago Oxford City Council’s executive board considered a planning blueprint for an important stretch of the canal through Jericho. A new community centre, housing and a public square in front of St Barnabas Church – big enough for public events such as markets and street theatre – are among plans included in the Draft Jericho Canalside Planning Document.
These plans for the former Castle Mill boatyard site come after the establishment of a project to promote the canal as a tourist attraction. The Oxford City Canal Partnership has been given £65,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund to create a trail along the canal, complete with a map and guide, a podcast audio trail and website by April.
People’s memories of the canal are being sought so that they can be distilled into this material and stored at the Oxfordshire Local History Centre at St Luke’s Church, in Temple Road, Cowley.
James Clifton, of the Canal and River Trust, said: “It is two main things – telling the story of the canal but also encouraging people to walk along the towpath and discover a superb asset.
“There will be some signs to the canal so that people have got a better idea of where it is and we are looking at installing some information for people coming to it for the first time.
“The canal has always been very popular but it is living and breathing. It is not there to be preserved in aspic.”
The canal certainly has a rich history worth preserving, with its construction sparking nationwide controversy. Tony Joyce, chairman of the Jericho Living Heritage Trust, is one of the people behind the Heritage Lottery-funded project.
He said: “We have always said we think the canal can be a great asset to the city and at the moment it is not made as much use of as it could be.”
City councillor Colin Cook, executive board member for city development and ward member for Jericho and Osney, said these developments could draw more people into Jericho and North Oxford.
He said: “The canal is a hidden gem and anything that allows us to flaunt the beauty of the canal, but at the same time protect its tranquillity and rural nature, is all for the better.
“Improving signage and route-marking both on and off the towpath is something which has been discussed by the partnership, so people who may not be that aware of what is there have a better idea of what there is and how to get there.”
Boater Lizzie Austin, who lives on Golden Dancer, said: “The towpath is busy already. You get students who come here in the summer from all over the place and they leave rubbish here.
“If the bins were emptied more often it could be feasible.
“We do need a boatyard. I am for the boatyard for sure.”
When the canal first opened it brought trade to the parts of Oxford it ran through. Wolvercote Paper Mill, Lucy’s Ironworks and the city’s breweries all benefited.
Now turning the canal into a tourist attraction, as well as developing the Jericho boatyard, could see a similar effect happen again.
91-MILE ROUTE AVOIDED COSTLY JOURNEYS BY SEA
OXFORD Canal was built between September 1769 and January 1790 from Hawkesbury, near Coventry, to New Road at a cost of £307,000.
It was 91 miles in length and the southern stretch between Banbury and Oxford included 28 locks and was crossed by 41 stone or brick wagon bridges and 38 wooden lift bridges.
The canal’s main purpose was to transport coal from Staffordshire and Warwickshire.
Before it was completed, coal coming to Oxford had to be transported at no small cost from the North East to London and then shipped down the River Thames.
Unsurprisingly the canal’s construction was not welcomed by the sea-coal traders nor by the towns on the North East coast, who petitioned Parliament in objection to the proposals.
However, the canal had some powerful supporters, including Oxford University, the Duke of Marlborough and Lord North, MP for Banbury and the then Prime Minister.
When the 1769 Oxford Canal Act was eventually passed it prohibited Midlands coal from being transfered to the River Thames and sent to London.
When the final stretch of the canal was completed, the bells of St Thomas the Martyr were rung and the Oxford Militia Band played as a convoy of barges brought more than 200 tons of coal, corn and other goods to the canal basin.
The canal and the firms along it thrived, but the arrival of rail transport damaged its prospects and by the 1950s trade along the canal had all but stopped.
In 1937 the canal terminal was sold to Lord Nuffield for the creation of Nuffield College, and Worcester Street car park now stands where the canal basin once was.
The canal’s closure had become a real possibility, but poet John Betjeman championed a campaign to save it, and in 1968 it was listed as a recreation and amenity waterway in the Transport Act and saved.
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