The Rivers Isis and Cherwell, Wolvercote Common, the Oxford Canal, a tour through the City Centre with its Colleges & Oxford Castle and its Mound
|Length||16.3 km (10.1 mi), 4 hours walking time. For the whole outing, including trains, sights and meals, allow as much of the day and evening as possible – a minimum of 8 hours.|
|Toughness||1 out of 10.|
|OS Maps||Explorer 180 or Landranger 164. Oxford is in Oxfordshire, 90 km (56 mi) west of London.|
This is an undemanding but enjoyable short Country Walk, ending in an exploration of this historic university city, with its University’s Colleges and the Norman Castle compound.
The walk’s route is easy and entirely level but can be muddy along the path beside the River Cherwell after Wolfson College while after periods of heavy rain, paths beside both the Rivers Isis and Cherwell can be flooded. The walk starts along the Isis to Binsey, a favourite walk for the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (the ‘wind-wandering, weed-winding bank’), who lamented the felling of aspens along the towpath here in his 1879 poem Binsey Poplars (‘the sweet especial rural scene’). You can take a dip here if you want. With Port Meadow on the other side of the river, you walk to the ruins of Godstow Abbey, before coming to the Trout Inn at Wolvercote (a lunch option) then take in a bit of Wolvercote Common before coming to the Plough Inn (a second option for lunch).
After lunch the walk heads south along the Oxford Canal, past some houseboats, then across town and via a footbridge by Wolfson College to go along the River Cherwell through its Nature Reserve, where buttercups are abundant in May. Going through the University Parks, you come to the Pitt Rivers Museum. From here you start your walking tour of Oxford’s historic colleges and famous buildings, winding in and out of lanes and small streets as the walk fits in many of the colleges as well as the Norman Castle Compound with the Castle Mound and the former Victorian Prison (now a hotel), before you stop for tea and finally head for the railway station.
Three separate Short Extensions to the route are possible:
To shorten the walk, you can stay on the Oxford Canal past the footbridge leading to Wolfson College until you reach Bridge 243, beside Isis Lock 2, then take the path back to Oxford Railway station. Alternatively, there are buses from near the Plough Inn back to Oxford, by point  in the walk directions. Or you could miss out the leg along the River Cherwell and instead walk (or take a bus) along Banbury Road back into Oxford. To omit or curtail the tour of the colleges head straight for the railway station once back in the city centre.
The Saxons fording the River Thames with their oxen gave this place the name “Oxen-ford”. Robert d’Oilly took over Oxford in 1066, creating a Norman stronghold. Possibly the first college to be founded was Merton in 1264, although there had been a university for at least a century before this. A tavern argument between townspeople and scholars in 1354 resulted in a massacre, during which 14 inns or halls were ransacked and a number of chaplains scalped. Christ Church College in Oxford was Charles I’s headquarters during the Civil War, with New College cloisters used as a gunpowder store. In the sixteenth century, Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer were burnt at the stake in Broad Street. Gates at Balliol College still show scorch marks from the flames and there is a memorial to these Protestant martyrs in St Giles. The men’s colleges started admitting women in 1974.
There are too many places to visit in one day but you might like to stop at the Pitt Rivers Museum (01865 270 927, free entrance to 16.30 Tue-Sun), which contains shrunken heads and artefacts from around the world, or at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archeology (01865 278 000, free entrance to 17.00 Tue-Sun). Many of the University Colleges are open to visitors and most charge an entry fee. If you attend evensong at Christ Church College (usually 18.00) there is no entry fee. There's also Modern Art Oxford, a renowned art gallery (01865 722 733, free entrance to 18.00 Tue-Sat and to 17.00 Sun).
|Travel||Take the train nearest to 10.00 either from Paddington Station to Oxford, journey time from 56 minutes, or from Marylebone, journey time from 63 minutes. There are up to seven (fast) trains an hour back to London Monday to Saturday, some requiring a change at Reading, less on Sunday.|
There are four good pubs on this walk, before you get to Oxford, the two best positioned ones for lunch are some twenty-five minutes apart.
The first of those is The Trout Inn (01865 510 930) in Wolvercote after 4.4 km (2.8 mi). This pub enjoys a lovely setting beside the River Thames and is very popular, particularly with tourists. The pub has extensive indoor and outdoor seating areas and is open all day, every day of the week for food. On weekends it is recommended to book ahead to reserve a table.
On the other side of Wolvercote Common is The Plough Pub & Restaurant (01865 556 969) in Wolvercote Green after 6.2 km (3.9 mi). This pub is more homely than the Trout Inn and less touristy, and is furnished with comfortable sofas and armchairs in the dining areas, one restaurant area being a former morgue. The pub also has a library room, plus an outdoor dining area. Food is served Monday to Saturday 12.00-14.00 and on Sundays 12.00-14.30.
|Tea||You are spoilt for choice for cafes, restaurants and pubs in the city centre. For details consult the Walk Directions below.|
|Updates||No major changes. This edition December 2017|
An earlier version of this walk was published in Time Out Country Walks near London volume 1. We now recommend using this online version as the book is now dated.
After the walk, we would love to get your feedback
Out: (not a train station)
Back: (not a train station)
National Rail: 03457 48 49 50 • Travelline SE (bus times): 0871 200 2233 (12p/min) • TFL (London) : 0343 222 1234
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The directions for this walk are also in a PDF (link above) which you can download on to a Kindle, tablet, or smartphone.
The [numbers] refer to a sketch map which is only in the book.
-  Coming off the London train at Oxford Station, exit the station through its ticket barriers and main ticket office (this involves crossing over the overbridge to platform 3 if arriving from Paddington/Reading). Outside, turn right immediately (i.e.: before going down some steps) and in 50 metres cross over a pedestrian bridge a little to the right, signposted to Botley Road. You turn left on the bridge and left again with a sign for Botley Road to go down some steps to the road, where you turn left, your direction due west.
- In 40m you go under the railway bridge and pass The Corner Cafe & Bar and Got 2 Eat on your right at a road junction. In a further 30 metres you pass on your right The One - Fusion Restaurant and Bar. Cross the road here by the pedestrian lights and turn left, continuing along Botley Road, soon passing the junction with Abbey Road.
- In 20 metres, just before a road bridge, turn right with a sign for the Thames Path, your direction 310°, to go through bollards and down to the towpath beside the River Isis (Thames).
- You now walk along this towpath, with allotments over to your left on the other side of the river and the back gardens to houses on your right. In 330 metres go over a footbridge with metal railings and at the end of the bridge, swing left then right with the path to keep ahead, ignoring the paths beside the Oxford Canal going off to the right.
- Continuing along the path you soon have water on both sides: [!] after heavy rain at certain times of the year this next leg of the walk can be flooded and impassable (unless you are wearing Wellington boots).
- If you find the tow path flooded, and you are not wearing Wellingtons, your alternative route to Wolvercote is via the Oxford Canal. Return to the junction by the footbridge with metal railings and take the path left , soon coming to the Oxford Canal, with Bridge No 243 to your right and Isis Lock 2 adjacent to the bridge. Turn left along the canal towpath, ignore ways off as you pass under a number of road and pedestrian bridges until, after some 3.2 km, you come to footbridge No 236 (Ball's Bridge). There may be a sign for the Plough Inn on the bridge headwall. Leave the canal, turn right over the footbridge and on its far side cross a field on a path which, in 70 metres, takes you to the Plough Inn.
- To continue on the main route along the towpath, when passable: in 550 metres cross a gently arched concrete bridge with handrails and ignore a footpath turning right over another bridge. In a further 300 metres, ignore a bridge on your right-hand side with a path heading towards Port Meadow and instead go straight on over the larger concrete footbridge with wooden railings ahead of you, now with a small marina on your right.
- In 160 metres as the path comes to an end, turn left to cross over a mini Brunel-style iron bridge over the river. On the far side, turn right with a Thames Path sign to continue, now with the river on your right-hand side, your direction 345°. In 25 metres you pass Bossom’s Boatyard on your left-hand side and in 180 metres, just after passing Medley Sailing Club, you walk through a metal gate to the right of a metal field gate and come to a fork.
- Here, if you would like to make a brief tour of the village of Binsey, take the left fork (a car wide gravel track), and in 400 metres walk through wooden gates to the left of a metal field gate and a cattle grid and turn right along a tarmac lane. In 800 metres you come to Binsey (St. Margaret's) Church and walk through a double wooden gate into its churchyard. You'll also find St. Margaret’s Well in the churchyard, to the left of the church. Return from Binsey church to the turnoff for the Perch freehouse, a possible early lunch stop (open all day every day from 10.30) and walk through the pub into its garden and along a path to re-join the riverside 80 metres further along.
- Else ignore the fork left towards Binsey and in 25 metres go through a metal gate to the right of a metal fieldgate and keep ahead, now with fields to your left and the river on your right.
- Keep ahead beside the river and in 300 metres there is a pub sign for the Perch freehouse, a possible early lunch stop (open all day every day from 10.30): turn left along an obvious path and get to the pub in 80 metres.
- To continue your walk beside the river, in 10 metres you go through a metal gate (or a missing field gate). In 1.6 km cross a bridge over a reedy inlet with wooden handrails and wooden gates at either end, and head onwards towards a lock. In a further 130 metres go through a wooden gate beside Godstow Lock.
- In 80 metres, at the end of the lock, go through a wooden gate to the right of a wooden fieldgate and take the gravel track half left. In 100 metres you come to an info panel on the right hand side by the remains of Godstow Abbey. Turn left along the outer wall to the entrance at the far side and walk through the ruins of the compound (only the walls and the chapel remain) to the other end and turn right back towards the river.
- At the river, turn left to cross the grass, your direction 340°. In 80 metres go through a metal gate to come out on to a road. Turn right, to cross a road bridge over the river and in 25 metres, cross another. The Trout Inn, Wolvercote, your next lunch pub option, is on the right-hand side, next to the river.
- Keep ahead along this road along the left hand pavement and in 250 metres cross another bridge over the Wolvercote Mill Stream. Note the memorial at the end of the left-hand parapet wall to two Royal Flying Corps officers killed in a plane crash some 90 metres north of this spot in September 1912.
- 70 metres past the bridge, just after a car park on your right-hand side, and as the road bends to the left by a thatched cottage, go right through a wooden gate, with a toilet block on your right, into Wolvercote Common . Here you turn half left, your direction 105°, across the meadow on a faint path, heading towards a low stone bridge over a ditch in the middle of the field, 230 meters away. [The concrete marker stone 30 metres to the right of the bridge is denoting the boundary of Wolvercote Common and also the Parish Boundary.]
- Cross over this bridge and follow the path slightly left, your initial direction 30°, towards the car bridge visible ahead in the distance. In 90 metres the path passes two small trees, swings right and passes a wooden post on your right, your direction now 60°. You have allotments some 25 metres away on your right and houses 90 metres to your left. In 220 metres, at the end of the houses over to your left and at a path crossing, turn left, your direction due north, heading towards the Jubilee Gate, which you go through to leave Port Meadow in 140 metres onto a road.
- Here, if you would like to make a brief out-and-back detour through the Wolvercote Lakes site, cross the road a little to the right and walk through a metal gate to an info panel. Continue in the same direction along the left hand side of the first lake and in 65 metres turn right towards another info panel and a bench to follow the lakeside round to the left past a bird hide. Later you pass an observation platform and then turn right to cross a two-railed footbridge, soon passing another info panel, just before another two-railed footbridge and the end of the public path. Re-trace your steps to the road.
- Turn right along the road's right hand pavement and go over the footbridge which runs parallel to a long road bridge over the railway and then the Oxford Canal. Some 80 metres from the end of the footbridge, by a bus stop for services to Oxford, turn right along Wolvercote Green Road . Wolvercote Green on the right is Open Access Land, you can walk through the grassy meadow and exit from it through another gate at the other end right by the next pub, or keep straight down this road. Either way, in 230 metres you come to the Plough Inn (Greene King), your next lunch pub option.
- Coming out of the pub door, go straight ahead (i.e.: turn right if you did not go into the pub) across a grassy area for 70 metres to cross Ball's Bridge over the Oxford Canal. Across the bridge, turn left down to the canal and then turn right along the towpath, your direction 130°, with the canal on your left-hand side and the railway over to your right.
- Walk along the towpath beside the canal and in 500 metres you pass under a railway bridge (no. 236A, carrying the Oxford - Marylebone line). In a further 200 metres you pass some houseboats. There are now rugby and hockey pitches on the left-hand side of the canal. Along the way you pass one swing bridge (no. 238), then two newly muralled brick road bridges over the canal (nos. 238B and 239A). On your right you now have The Trap Grounds, a Local Wildlife Site.
- For a short loop through this enchanting site, turn right along a gravel path, with a pond and some reed beds on the left and a reed-filled stream on the right and a road and some houses beyond. In 100 metres turn left along a wooden boardwalk, keeping the pond on your left. In 110m turn right at the end of the boardwalk along an earthen path at a T-junction and in 80 metres turn right again at another T-junction to in 150 metres continue in the same direction where the boardwalk turns right, to re-gain the canal side path in 100 metres and turn right along it.
- Continue along the towpath and just before the next bridge, no. 240, go through a wooden fieldgate and head up to a road (Aristotle Lane) which you cross to turn left along the opposite pavement over the bridge. But your first shortcut, since the Plough Inn , is not to leave the towpath at Bridge 240 but to continue along the towpath all the way to Bridge 243, where you leave the canal to head direct to Oxford Railway station. But if you cross the bridge, on its far side, after 50 metres you come to a road T-junction with the Anchor pub opposite .
- another option to shorten the walk is to turn right here and keep on going to Walton Street, which leads into Worcester Street and comes out at a large junction with the A4144, where you turn right into Hythe Bridge Street, to cross the Castle Mill Stream and soon get to the railway station.
- The main route is to turn right in front of the pub and in 15 metres to turn left up Polstead Road, your direction 75°, now with the pub on your left-hand side. In 200 metres cross Woodstock Road, slightly to the left, to continue straight on along Rawlinson Road. In 240 metres you come to Banbury Road (where you can take a bus into the centre of Oxford). But cross Banbury Road, turn left up its pavement, then in 30 metres, turn right into Linton Road. In 150 metres you pass St Andrews Church on your right-hand side.
- Continue down Linton Road, ignoring all turnings off and in 210 metres at the end of the road you come to Wolfson College . Turn right in front of the college and follow the tarmac road through its car park and go through iron gates into the garden in 80 metres. Here you follow the tarmac road round to the left, with the college buildings on your left-hand side, and continue straight on, now on a gravel path, to the end of the buildings. The path swings left in 60 metres and in 20 metres you turn right to go over an arched metal footbridge over the River Cherwell.
- On the far side of the footbridge go through a metal gate and in 10 metres, at a path T-junction, ignore the stile ahead, and turn right, your direction 195°, on the riverside walk through Wolfson College Nature Reserve, with the river on your right-hand side.
- In 120 metres you pass the War Memorial Cross on the opposite bank. Your way ahead is now potentially muddy and is liable to flooding. In 140 metres go over a stream on a small railed wooden bridge. In a further 60 metres go through a metal kissing gate and a railed wooden plank bridge over a ditch and turn left, following a footpath arrow, away from the river, your direction 60°.
- In 40 metres go through another potentially muddy area along a boardwalk and turn right over a plank bridge, to continue ahead on a clear path, your direction now 145°, rejoining the river on your right-hand side. In 120 metres you go over another railed plank bridge over an area liable to flooding, with the Dragon School on the opposite side of the river. In a further 120 metres, you pass tennis courts on the opposite bank, with Lady Margaret Hall beyond them.
- In 60 metres you go over a concrete humpback bridge with metal railings and a metal gate on the other side and in 240 metres, you cross another such bridge and come immediately to a more substantial, and much larger, concrete pedestrian bridge with metal railings, on your right. Cross over this bridge over the river to enter the University Parks.
- On the far side of the bridge keep ahead, your direction 240°, on an gravel-and-earth path. In 90 metres you cross a path and go straight on, now on a surfaced path. In a further 100 metres, at another path crossing, continue ahead, now back on a gravel-and-earth path. Continue through the University Parks and in 360 metres leave it through Keble Gate, to turn left on Parks Road, your direction 145°.
- You are now about to embark on a Walking Tour of Oxford University’s principal colleges.
- You pass Keble College on your right-hand side, with its lively yellow-patterned brickwork. Just before the end of the college, you pass Pitt Rivers Museum on your left-hand side (its entrance is through the University Museum).
- At the far end of Keble College, turn right to cross Parks Road by the pedestrian lights and go down Museum Road. In 80 metres, where Blackhall Road goes off to the right, keep straight on passing to the side of a wooden barrier, between houses, along a passageway that in 60 metres goes through a bike barrier and winds to the right to become the Lamb and Flag Passage. In a further 60 metres walk under an archway and come out on the main road of St Giles', with the Lamb and Flag pub on the right.
- Turn left, with St Johns College on your left-hand side and the Ashmolean Museum on the other side of the road. 100 metres past the main entrance of St Johns, you pass the Martyr’s Memorial on your right-hand side. You are now on Magdalen Street East.
- In 100 metres turn left into Broad Street [but turn right and continue in the same direction for the shortest route to the train station] . Keep ahead (spot the Anthony Gormley sculpture on a rooftop on the right) and you pass Balliol College on your left-hand side and the Oxford Story exhibition on your right, and later two sections of Blackwells Bookshop on your left-hand side (with the White Horse pub in between). You pass the Sheldonian Theatre on your right and in 65 metres turn right into Catte Street (with the Kings Arms pub on the left).
- In 50 metres turn left on New College Lane and go under the Bridge of Sighs. You now zigzag round with the lane for 400 metres, with New College on your left-hand side. This lane becomes Queens Lane, with Queens College on your right-hand side, to come out eventually on to the High Street, with the Queen's Lane Coffee House on the left. Here cross over the road and turn left along it's pavement, in front of the Grand Cafe.
- You pass Merton Street in 70 metres going to the right, in 40 metres pass the High Street Cafe on the right and in 60 metres, with Magdalen College on your left-hand side, turn right along Rose Lane. In 110 metres go through Christ Church Gates, with Meadow Cottages on your right-hand side.
- 40 metres beyond the gates, go right on Dead Man’s Walk, along the side wall of Meadow Cottages, your direction 305°, with Christ Church private playing fields over to your left and walls on your right-hand side. In 25 metres you pass a notice honouring James Sadler’s balloon ascent in 1784.
- In 120 metres you come to Merton College on your right-hand side. At the far end of this college, do not exit the gates on your right but turn left, with the wall and Christ Church College on your right-hand side and the playing fields still on your left-hand side, your direction due south.
- In 100 metres you come to a broad sandy avenue where you turn right, your direction 265°. In 100 metres you pass the visitors’ entrance to Christ Church College on your right and in a further 60 metres [!] ignore the fork to the right and instead keep straight on along a paved path to go through the War Memorial Garden, in 80 metres coming out on to the main road, called Aldgates, opposite Cafe Loco.
- Here you turn right, your direction due north. In 110 metres you pass the main entrance to Christ Church College. In a further 110 metres, opposite St. Aldgates Tavern, you turn right, by the Museum of Oxford, into Blue Boar Street. In 100 metres you pass The Bear pub (Oxford's oldest) on your left-hand side to continue straight on along Bear Lane. At the end of this road in 70 metres go through bollards to come out onto a bend in King Edward Street. Go across it (Oriel Square) for 30 metres and then turn left along Oriel Street, your direction 5°, with Oriel College on your right-hand side.
- In 80 metres cross over the High Street (going through bollards on either side) to continue in the same direction along St. Mary's Passage. The University Church of St Mary the Virgin is on your right-hand side as you continue along a passageway into Radcliffe Square, passing Radcliffe Camera in 40 metres on your right-hand side and the entrance to Brasenose College in another 40 metres on your left. 20 metres beyond this entrance, you turn left, signposted to the 'Covered Market on Brasenose Lane', your direction 255°.
- In 110 metres pass a bollard and turn right on Turl Street at a bend. In 20 metres you pass the entrance to Jesus College on your left-hand side and in a further 10 metres the entrance to Exeter College on your right-hand side.
- In 30 metres turn left into Ship Street (with Turl Street Kitchen on the corner), at the end of which you pass the City Church of St Michael on your right-hand side. Cross over the Cornmarket and go straight on along St Michael’s Street.
- In 120 metres turn left into New Inn Hall Street and in 90 metres pass Morton's Cafe on the left and in another 90 metres, with Bonn Square on the right, you come to a T-junction with High Street. For a detour to Modern Art Oxford art gallery and its cafe, cross High Street and find it in 70 metres on the left. Else turn right along High Street.
- In 30 metres you pass the Art Cafe on the right and in another 30 metres the Cow & Creek pub on the right as you continue along New Road at a bend.
- In 75m turn left across the road and continue past an info panel down a wide paved path between chain restaurants into the Oxford Castle compound, towards the Malmaison Hotel and the 1855 Wine Bar to its left. In 50 meters turn left round the Malmaison Hotel (housed in the former Oxford Prison) and through an arched gateway in 15 metres and in 20 metres veer right with the prison/hotel wall in an open square (with The Castle pub on the left-hand side across it).
- In 15 metres walk down a ramp and in 20 metres past a section of the Old Saxon Town Wall in a display window in the building on the left (discovered in 2003), just before turning right with the path. Turn right again up some steps (or a ramp to the left of it) into the gardens and follow a paved path left, right and left again through the grass.
- In 60 metres turn right by a plaque (explaining that this was the prison's A wing) under a walkway linking the prison (now hotel) buildings [look through the windows on the right and get a splendid view of the central corridor of A wing.]
- Turn left on the other side into a little square, with Oxford Castle Mound on the other side of it (ticketed - recommended - access (£1): buy from the 'Oxford Castle Unlocked' shop on the left-hand side, funds are used for the upkeep of the mound). The Castle Yard Cafe in a little to the left. Turn right to the right-hand side of the mound, soon passing an info panel on the left and in another 20 metres a large display on a right hand side wall with an aerial shot of the castle compound and some more information.
- In 40 metres turn left along New Road at a T-junction, with Nuffield College on the opposite side. In 180 metres, you cross the Castle Mill Stream and in 170 metres, at a main road junction by the Royal Oxford Hotel on your right, with Frideswide Square in front of you and the Said Business School, University of Oxford, over to your right, cross Hollybush Row, then the square, and cross over to the right at a convenient spot to come to Oxford Station over to your right. Reading and Paddington bound trains depart from platform 3, Marylebone bound trains from platforms 1 or 2 to the right.