On 10th July 2020, Andy Day and I decided to attempt a fastest known time (FKT) on the 83-mile Oxford Canal Walk from Coventry to Oxford. As far as we were aware there was no previous registered time, so we thought this would be a great way of getting our first FKT without too much pressure. I chose this route because it had special meaning to me as I grew up in Coventry after moving their from Cardiff when I was 2 years old. I have also spent the last ten years living in North Oxfordshire at the other end of the Oxford Canal, so this route is symbolic of my life.
For me there was an added motivation because I was coming towards the end of a virtual race from Lands End to John O’Groats (LEJOG). I just needed to run another 83 miles (conveniently) to get the FKT but also finish the virtual LEJOG (endtoend.run – LEJOG Virtual Run). Double the motivation!
Coventry to Brinklow
We started at 6:05am from Coventry Canal Basin after my brother Gareth had taken our pic and we had used the facilities (very nice loo with heater). Thanks Canal & River Trust. We started out at a steady 9 min/mile pace on a good towpath as we weaved out of Coventry towards Hawkesbury junction. The miles ticked by as we chatted, meeting only a few people at that time of the morning. Somewhere along here I managed to hit a pipe with my head as we ducked under a bridge. I was keeping my eyes open for the first towpath closure at bridge 9A (Coventry Canal Towpath Closure), but we kept going and found the towpath to be open all the way to Hawkesbury Junction. 5.5 miles done and in the bag. There are more great facilities at Hawkesbury Junction that we made use of before leaving the Coventry Canal. This is where the Oxford Canal starts and we knew we would be following it for the next 77 miles or so.
After leaving Coventry behind, the canal heads to Ansty and then Brinklow, where I knew the 2nd towpath diversion was located about 13 miles from the start (Oxford Canal towpath closed). The first half marathon completed in just over 2 hours. In this section or maybe the next section I hit my head again, this time on a low branch knocking my sunglasses off my head but no real damage luckily. We did spend a lot of the next 70 miles ducking under overgrown bushes and branches but no more head injuries, so I must have learned my lesson.
This time the diversion definitely existed, so we turned off the canal at Rose Narrowboats and onto the Fosse Way which luckily had a footpath running alongside it. We were still in fairly high spirits as we ran into Brinklow and turned left up the hill past Brinklow Castle. This was the first time we had walked since Coventry, so good to catch our breath. Then we turned left again before rejoining the canal where this towpath closed sign was taken (Brinklow diversion route)
Brinklow to Hillmorton Locks near Rugby
From Brinklow the canal heads towards Rugby going through a 187 metre tunnel at Newbold on Avon. It was pretty dark so I was glad to have the torch on my phone. Skirting round the northern edge of Rugby we ticked along at a good pace (just under 9 min/mile) as the towpath is a wide cycle track on this section. When we reached the Hillmorton flight of locks I suggested to Andy we stop eat a sandwich and refill our water bottles, as next water tap was not until Napton locks. We were around 22 miles into the run by this point. Got some ribbing from mates on Whatsapp for our relaxed attitude to the FKT, but I knew we had a long hot afternoon to get through the remaining 62 miles and the next few sections would probably be overgrown.
But I have to say Allan Anderson’s message was funny, “Si, can you please get Eminem’s autograph…. I bloody love that Dido track #stan”
Hillmorton to Napton
After leaving Hillmorton and Rugby we picked up the pace again with Andy leading for most of this section. I could start to feel my tiredness and lack of sleep from the last few days, as we headed south towards Braunston where the Oxford Canal joins the Grand Union Canal for about 5 miles. Around mile 28 we reached the junction and turned left heading west towards Napton where the Grand Union would branch off towards Long Itchington and Leamington Spa. In this section, we started introducing walk breaks with 18 minute running and 2 minutes walking. We should have started this earlier, as we had not had a break until this point.
We chatted about the Grand Union Canal Race (GUCR), which Andy had entered this year, but unfortunately it was cancelled due to COVID-19. I told him that you run this 5-mile section in the opposite direction and when you get to Braunston you have ran exactly 45 miles, so you know you have another 100 miles to go! My memories from the three GUCR’s is that this one section is where you start to feel tired for the first time and it seems to go on forever. But on this day, with Andy tapping it out on the front and me just following behind it went by in no time. I was surprised to see the turnoff for the Grand Union appear so soon. We went up over the bridge knowing we only had 2 miles until we reached Napton bottom lock and the next water tap. We stopped briefly at a sign for Napton on the Hill. Andy was still smiling but only just.
We arrived at Napton bottom lock and immediately replenished our water bottles at the two taps. Much to the annoyance of a boater on the opposite bank with her own tap, who complained about people using the ‘their’ water that they had paid for with their license fee. I did get a bit annoyed and put her right, but essentially she was saying the taps are exclusively for boaters! Even if you desperately needed just 1 litre of water.
Napton to Fenny Compton
After leaving behind Mrs Grumpy at Napton bottom lock, we climbed the flight of Napton locks and onto Marston Doles, the highest point on the Oxford Canal. I had warned Andy that this could be the worse section, as it is the least used part of the towpath and is frequently overgrown. I had joked about us needing to bring a machete with us. The canal also meanders for miles without any locks, as it follows the contours of the land. At one part near Wormleighton you see a hill from every side as the canal works its way around.
This was our most overgrown section both underfoot and the overhanging branches from trees and bushes. Not quite as bad as I imagined, but bad enough to hinder forward speed and to make Andy and me curse a few times. We passed the glamping teepee site at Priors Hardwick with me dreaming about lying down in the hot tub they had outside the tent.
We had now covered 40 miles and were coming up to the halfway mark. Around this point we spotted a large grass snake slithering off the towpath into the undergrowth. It was 3 to 4 ft in length and the first one I have seen alive (grass snake reference). Too quick for us to get a picture unfortunately. I think Andy got a scare, as he nearly stepped on it.
About a mile before we reached Fenny Compton Andy went down hard for the second time when his foot got stuck in one of the many holes in the bank/path. It looked bad, as I was just behind him, but luckily he was straight back up with only a few cuts and bruises. After 45 miles we arrived at Fenny Compton. I had been hoping The Wharf Inn would be open, so we could buy a drink, but it was not, so we settled for water out of the tap. Andy took this shit photo of a boat opposite. We also had a sit down on the pub wall to eat some food.
Fenny Compton to Banbury
I was now into home territory for the next 20 or 30 miles, as I regularly run these towpaths when training. We left Fenny Compton and I was so stiff I found it hard to get running for the first mile. But the sun was out and we only had another 6 miles to get to Cropredy where Lucy had stashed a drop bag with a change of clothes and food stocks at my camper van. Apart from a stop for Andy to nip into a field we tapped out a decent pace along here as the towpath became better.
We kept forgetting to take pictures and major landmarks along the canal, but I did get this boring one near Claydon when I was waiting for Andy to catchup and stop frolicking in a field with two women runners. Before long we were running through Cropredy (not taking pics again) and turning off into The Old Coal Wharf where my camper van is parked and where my friend Louie lives. I have to admit my tiredness really overcame me here, as I tried to decide what I needed to pickup. In the end I opted to change none of my clothing and just stuffed my bag with food. But that seemed to take forever. The King of Faff. Anyway 51 miles done and we were on our way again, although it was later than planned.
Banbury is where I live, so on the one hand it was comforting to run on familiar trails, part of my brain was teasing me to stop and go home to bed. As we ran into Banbury town centre I showed Andy, Lucy’s cafe/restaurant, Tom’s Diner, which is due to re-open on 1st August. It is named after Tom Rolt, the person credited with starting the movement to use the canals for leisure purposes and renovate them. This was all kickstarted by his voyage in 1939 in his boat Cressy from Tooley’s Boatyard (opposite Tom’s Diner) to Birmingham. Tom wrote a book about this voyage called Narrow Boat, which was published in 1944. This started the revival of interest in the English waterways and led to the formation of the Inland Waterways Association in 1946 and hence the modern canal movement. Certainly it can claim to have made most people familiar with the term ‘narrow boat’.
Just past Tom’s Diner is Lock 29 where Andy and I took these pictures of us on the bridge
We then refilled our water bottles with another grumpy boater saying we were cheeky for topping up our water here. Maybe they would have preferred us to go thirsty. I knew the next section to Heyford is the longest without any taps, so it was important for us to fill up in this heat. 56 miles in the bag.
Banbury to Heyford
Leaving Banbury was good, as I felt the more miles I put between me and home would mean less temptation to stop. I was also a little disappointed that nobody had come out to say hello or run with us, maybe because we were running a little later than planned. This was my regular training run routes now and the miles clicked by as we went through Twyford Wharf and past Kings Sutton. 60 miles completed.
We were going though our water bottles too fast and I was feeling very tired. As we approached Aynho Wharf I let Andy know that there was a good chance the shop and Great Western Arms pub would be open. As we ran along the opposite bank and looked across at the shop we couldn’t believe it had ice cream and a sign said open. We ran over the bridge and into the boat service yard to find the shop had actually closed at 16:30 and it was now 17:45. The disappointment was hard to contain. We consoled ourselves by topping up bottles from their water tap. I then had the great idea to go and check out the pub and see if it was open. It was! We had the best pint of iced coke ever. I drank half of it straight down and put the other half with the ice in my water bottle. This was the turning point, I had been in a black hole for miles, probably since Fenny Compton. We left there with a spring in our step with me leading and tapping the pace out, still on the 18 minutes running and 2 minutes walking strategy. At Somerton I asked Andy to take my pic next to the iconic Oxford Canal sign.
All of these trails are part of my regular training runs over the last few years, so my feet and mind were on auto pilot. I may have even started to enjoy it a bit. That coke was amazing! We were soon in Heyford topping up our bottles again with 69 miles completed.
Heyford to Thrupp
I felt like we were entering the finishing straight now with only a half marathon to go. Similar to that last half marathon in GUCR along the Paddington Arm, this one was going to seem longer than 13.1 miles. I was glad we had picked up headtorches in Cropredy, as it looked certain we would finish in the dark now.
A couple of miles after leaving Heyford, near Tackley, I realised my watch was nearly out of battery. I had been trying to charge it since leaving Cropredy, but there was something wrong with the Garmin charger. Luckily I had my phone with me, so I started Strava on my phone and pressed stop on my watch.
As we approached Enslow, the effects of the earlier glass of coke was wearing off, so I started dreaming of another one, then we turned a corner and there was a mirage. A boat bar with no customers serving any drink we wanted. They offered us beer, that we declined and instead went for the cans of coke again. Funny, I normally hate the stuff, but in the late stages of very long runs like this, it tastes like nectar. The owner of the bar on a boat was amazed that we had run all the way from Coventry and were trying to get to Oxford that night. They were so sweet. That was our last stop. Yes, we should have just carried on, as this was an FKT, but it made the run into Oxford much more bearable.
We went powering on to the picturesque village of Thrupp where I took a picture of the lift bridge and Andy looking thoughtful.
Thrupp to Oxford
The sun was starting to set and it was a beautiful evening. I knew we still had at least another 6 miles to get into central Oxford. We agreed we needed to push on. Andy was dreaming about chips from a chip shop and wanted to get there before they all closed. I called my brother, Gareth, and asked him to come to pick us up from his house in Coventry. Gareth said he had just left as he was watching my tracker. Most of the rest of the way into Oxford was a bit of a blur, as we skirted around Kidlington and through Wolvercote. I remember reaching Dukes Cut where boats can cut through a short section to the river Thames. A couple of hundred metres past it, we noted we hadn’t taken a picture again. I had my headtorch on now, as it was very dark. Running by Wolvercote Common and Port Meadow we reached Jericho where a tributary of the Thames, called Castle Mill Stream, runs alongside the Oxford Canal. I knew we must be getting close now. We were tired and we missed the last bridge, so we had to cut back when we ended up at a dead end.
Within a few minutes we were there! The terminus of the Oxford Canal appeared out of the darkness marked by a plague on top of a round structure with black and white lock gates sticking out of it. It had been very tough mentally, but never any doubt that we would both make it, in the end.
We finished at 22:17 for a total time of 16 hours, 12 minutes, 7 seconds and a new FKT. Job well and truly done.
I think after that we should launch a campaign to rename the route Oxford Canal Run 😀
Special thanks to Andy Day, my fellow FKT holder and companion for the long day on the Oxford Canal. And thanks to my brother Gareth for getting up at 5am to drop us at Coventry Canal Basin and again for picking us up from Oxford at 10:30pm. They are both stars.
To top it all off, I also finished the virtual LEJOG race. 874 miles in 68 days.