The River Cherwell from the Victoria Arms to above Islip

Streetmap: From the Victoria Arms to Cherwell Bridge (A40)

Streetmap: From Cherwell Bridge (A40) to Water Eaton

Streetmap: From Water Eaton to Islip

The Cherwell is shown here on seven web pages:
Cherwell Mouth (from the Isis to below Magdalen Bridge)
Magdalen Bridge
Mesopotamia (from above Magdalen Bridge to the boat rollers)
Upper Cherwell (above the boat rollers to below Bardwell Road Punting station)
Bardwell Road to the Victoria Arms
The Victoria Arms
Islip (Cherwell above the Victoria Arms)
Other pages of interest to punters are:
Bullstake Stream (Other side of the Isis (aka Thames) - for punters to explore)
To Old Navigation (Punt up above Osney Lock and then round to Oxford Castle)
There are also two round trips including going up the Oxford Canal and coming back down via Kings Lock and Godstow

1909: The Thames Story, J E Vincent -

... pass on beyond Marston Ferry (where is a primitive inn with arbours and tea), and between real meadows, thrice welcome in these latter days, for Water Eaton.

The banks become rougher and the river shallower. The Cherwell winds around; there is a section with rather higher current; it passes more houses on the LEFT bank with private punts and other boats; and finally approaches the by-pass from which you will be glad either to turn round or persevere for yet greater beauty.

A40, Northern Bypass Bridge

Bypass Bridge
A solid stone Bridge of double width, built 1934.


Keep left going upstream. The other channel I have not explored. The Bayswater Brook enters the Cherwell to the west of the island

Sparsey Footbridge

1906: Sparsey Bridge, Henry Taunt -

Sparsey Bridge, Henry Taunt, 1906
Sparsey Bridge, Henry Taunt, 1906
© Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive; HT9882

The Bayswater Brook enters the Cherwell to the west of the island

Water Eaton Manor House

1885: Manor House, Water Eaton, Henry Taunt -

Manor House, Water Eaton, Henry Taunt, 1885
Manor House, Water Eaton, Henry Taunt, 1885
© Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive; HT4960

Water Eaton
Water Eaton Manor.

[ 2018: I have been told that the river may be blocked to punts by fallen tree(s) here. If you discover otherwise please tell me! ]

1909: The Thames Story, J E Vincent -

Thus far we must penetrate, in spite of difficulties of navigation over the ford close to the house, [not nowadays] for whoso has not seen Water Eaton from the Cherwell has not seen one of the neatest and most complete Jacobean manor houses in England.
Thirty years ago [i.e. 1879] one might inspect the whole, courtyard, chapel and the rest, for it was occupied as a farm, and the farm folk were kindly. Since then it has been the home of a famous architect, now dead, and it is possibly somebody else's home now, into which one would not like to intrude. But from the Cherwell it is perfect, and worth three and four times the little trouble needed to reach it.
Water Eaton is quite far enough up the stream to go; Islip hardly repays the trouble of winning to it, though the navigation is through scenes of real beauty

[ Those who turn at this point will quote that sentence with satisfaction.
Those who continue will have that certain knowledge of superiority ... ]

Above Water Eaton

The Cherwell gets narrower and faster and shallower and one begins to see why the Oxford Canal did not come this way - even though it looks promising on the map.

Cherwell reeds and swans
Reeds and swans may be your problems.

Swans always seem more threatening than they really are. In forty two years punting I have been threatened and chased several times but only once did a large swan make his mark on the punt by taking a peck at it. And you are armed with an impressive pole. Don't hit the swan - use it to do what he is doing - make a display - make a splash. Swans are cowardly and not particularly bright. But they can be macho. Indeed they are not unlike the average ... ( fill in the word that comes to mind )

Eventually, just when you think it will never arrive, you may see this view:
1885: Islip Church from the Cherwell, 500 yards below Islip weir, Henry Taunt -

Islip Church from the Cherwell, Taunt, 1885
Islip Church from the Cherwell, Taunt, 1885
© Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive; HT4965

The Cherwell bends to the west and then reaches Ray Weir which is the outflow of the River Ray into the Cherwell.
At summer levels a canoeist would have no difficulty surmounting it. The foot of the weir is very shallow with boulders.

Islip, Ray Weir

Islip Weir
Islip Weir, the outflow of the River Ray into the Cherwell.

Place-Names and Topography in the Upper Thames Country, W. J. Arkell -

A name of special interest is Islip, the village standing both at the gap through which the River Ray leaves the enclosed basin of Otmoor and at the confluence of the Ray and Cherwell. It was Githslepe in about 1050, Gihtslepe in 1065, Ichteslep in 1242. Geht, Giht, Ychte, Ight is the old British name for the River Ray. O.E. slaep means literally 'slippery place', and is connected with O.E. slipan to slip. Ekwall (1936) states that it is related to Middle Low German slepen and Old High German sleifen, 'to drag', and suggests a meaning such as 'place where things are dragged, portage'. A more suggestive cognate, however, is Norwegian sleip, 'rollers for boats' (Alexander, 1912, p. 137), which introduces the idea of a 'slipway' for launching or drawing up boats, and hence perhaps 'ferry'. Before the building of the bridge, Islip would have been well named 'Ight ferry'. There is no other place where the Ray can be crossed, for on one side lies the Cherwell and on the other Otmoor.

1005: King Edward the Confessor [later Saint Edward] was born and baptized in Islip -

On the site of a small inn, known by the sign of the Red Lion, near the middle of the town, anciently stood the palace of King Ethelred;
In the same yard also stood an ancient building, ... said to have been the identical chapel appertaining to the Saxon palace. In this edifice stood a stone font, which tradition had unhesitatingly pronounced to be that in which the Confessor [King Ethelred's son, King Edward the Confessor, 1005 - 1066] was baptized;
[The font bore] the following imperfect inscription in capitals:


1819: Unfortunately - for the multiplication of evidence seems to me in this case to detract from its worth - there is also this from THE NEW BRITISH TRAVELLER, by James Dugdale, LL.D.

The Kiddington manor-house was chiefly built, or repaired, by Sir Henry Browne, in 1673, on the foundations of an old seat, to which appertained a walled park.
In the garden is the font in which it is said King Edward the Confessor was baptized at Islip. The block of stone, in which the basin of immersion is excavated, is of an octangular shape; and the outside is adorned by tracery work. The interior diameter of the basin is thirty inches, and the depth twenty. The whole, with the pedestal, which is of a piece with the rest, is five feet high, and bears the following imperfect inscription:

This sacred Font Saint Edward first receavd.
From Womb to Grace, from Grace to Glory went
His virtuous Life. To this fayre Isle beqveth'd.
Praise .... and to vs but lent.
Let this remaine, the Trophies of his Fame,
A King baptiz'd from hence a Saint became.
This Fonte came from the King's Chapell in Islip.

And here, at Islip weir, I reached my limit. Straight on up the Cherwell (to the west) rapidly became too shallow to follow. It was June with low summer levels. At other times it might be more possible - though against a higher stream would you have got this far?

Cherwell Punt limit
The Cherwell at Islip, almost as far as I could get.

2011: However, I now have an email from Rick who went further. He attached this photo -

Fallen tree stopped progress, one and a half miles above Islip.

Rick wrote:
I only made it 1.5 miles past the river Ray confluence in Islip, I was stopped by a fallen tree painfully close to Kidlington between the A34 and the Bicester Road.
To be honest it was really hard going after Islip ford, I only pushed on because I remembered you had given up at Islip!
After chasing a bunch of ferocious swans upriver, there were even some mini rapids which I doubt I could have punted up in a heavier traditional punt (I borrowed an 18' by 3' fibreglass punt, missing all its fittings and weighing only c.350lb).
So I think you did very well to stop at Islip, after that it's diminishing returns. I only wish the Cherwell were navigable as far as the Oxford Canal - wouldn't it be great to punt up the canal and then drift back down the river?
I went upriver under a full moon and clear starry sky, that was one of the most beautiful experiences I've ever had. In the poor light I don't know how I managed to navigate the jungle between Water Eaton and Islip, but there was plenty of wind behind me on the way up which made ripples which danced in the moonlight. The silence was only broken by the odd wood pigeon or pheasant that startled out of its sleep and flapped away noisily.
I slept under the A34 which although noisy provided welcome shelter from the rain in the morning, and rode the stream back to Oxford in daylight sighting buzzards and roe deer at close quarters, who seemed to ignore me completely as I drifted past.

Understand that the 'ferocious swans' you chased upstream were frightened of you and anxious about being driven into the territory of the next swan upstream. Eventually their fear of you (swans are not very intelligent) is overcome by their territorial fear and they turn and hurtle back down towards you flying through thorn bushes and possibly damaging feathers etc. They are not attacking but panicking!
Ed has now gone one better than Rick -

Ed wrote:
I got further up the Cherwell than your correspondent Rick. This was in Spring 2010, when I saw no sign of the tree that stopped him this year. I finally turned immediately after passing under the Bicester Road bridge.
Above that point the river is straight for a section, with a 50 m long rapid (that looks passable) which settled down into an easier section after that. There's only 400 m available above the bridge until you reach Kidlington Mill, which I can only assume does not have facilities to portage punts.
There is a weir stream that comes in halfway between the A34 and Bicester Road - I did not have time to investigate it, but it looked shallow and muddy (clear of vegetation, though, and potentially just passable). This leads up to another weir onto the upper level, and might be worth investigation.

And now Penny & Martin have gone one better. They came downstream from Thrupp Railway Bridge

Ten explorers aged from 12 to 69 navigated the Cherwell in May 2018, from Thrupp railway bridge to the Vicky Arms at Marston in five inflatable canoes and the dinghy Dolores Empress of Thrupp.
The voyage of approximately eight miles took seven-and-a-half hours and involved threading through, sawing/clipping and over-and-undering at least 30 fallen or partly fallen trees.
But only one portage was needed other than at Kidlington weir.
It was round a large, impassable tree shortly before the river divides approaching Manor Farm at Hampton Poyle and there were easy exit and re-entry points right by the tree.
At the division, the left-hand channel going South was clear although narrow.
More trees followed until the weir which is a major obstacle because of limited entry/exit, this being wired farmland.
A concrete wall by the sill is used by canoeists and re-entry is easy.
A bridge under the Bicester Road was tricky to negotiate because of branches and flood debris, and more almost-blockages by trees followed regularly on otherwise delightful, clear stretches under the A34 and Chiltern Railways line until the lunch picnic spot by the bridleway ford at Islip was reached.
Islip to the Vicky Arms has three tricky tree-blockages on the Water Eaton curve, one only passable by a very narrow passage by the left bank, going south, caused by the tree's uprooting.
We were helped by moderate water levels and a reasonable current.
We reckon that navigating upstream would be possible, though time-consuming, and explorers might prefer a longer portage round the Kidlington weir, rejoining the river where it is crossed by National Cycle Route 51.
Two other members of our expedition came upstream from the vicky Arms to Islip in a double-canoe and made good time with no portages needed.
We hope to navigate the Cherwell between Thrupp and Hampton Gay weir later in the Summer, possible as part of a Beating the Bounds ceremony.
From Hampton Gay weir to the footbridge below Enslow, the river joins forces with the Oxford Canal and is lovely to navigate.
The next stage north is very entertainingly described by two intrepid canoeists here.

Penny & Martin's photos:-

Clear Stretches


Jungle Work

Islip Arrival

Islip Weir and Ford

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1822: The Etonian; Allen le Blanc -

... Mr. Thompson is not content with that mere inert sort of antiquarianism which I see Mr. Bellamy is famous for - I mean stocking a cabinet with curiosities in this line. His (Mr. Thompson's) research is an active one. There is not an old Church, ruined Abbey, or Field of Battle, in the neighbourhood, within twenty miles, which he has not visited, and of whose traditions he has not made himself perfectly master.
He has the very spirit of Columbus in exploring the various streams with which this well-watered county abounds. He has pursued the course of the Cherwell till it has become no wider than a brook; and not satisfied with a day's expedition up the Isis, during which he was several times obliged to draw his skiff over certain disagreeable impediments denominated wiers, he has lately been talking of penetrating as far as Cheltenham, and entertained sanguine hopes of crossing the range of hills in which the river takes its rise, and then dropping down, by some stream, into the Bristol Channel.

John Betjeman: - would you believe this as a book title? -
Oxford University Chest comprising a Description of the present state of the Town and University of Oxford with an itinerary arranged alphabetically.
In his section - An Approach to Oxford -

The approaches to Oxford are the worst thing about it. None of them prepare you for a vision of a home of learning nestling grey among the elm surrounded meadows.
I have made a mistake. There is one route, too circuitous and too laborious to be taken by any but the most romantic minded.
You turn off the main road from High Wycombe just beyond Wheatley and make for Chipping Norton. After a few miles you branch left by shut-in lanes through grey Elsfield downhill to Marston. Here you take the footpath to Marston Ferry.
[The Victoria Arms]
At the ferry you board a punt or rob roy [canoe] and paddle down the stream of the Cherwell to Magdalen Bridge.
The Cherwell is as romantic as it ever was – willows, meadows in which fritillaries have been found, a few boathouses and tea gardens with parents pouring out for self-conscious undergraduates.
Under willows you will see punts moored close into the bank. The intellectual head of an undergraduette appears above the cushions, the pipe smoke of her admirer winds up among the leaves. A gramophone plays a dance tune.
Gradually the subtle variations of a Bach fugue break in upon the dance. A punt rounds the corner, full of clever looking men in grey flannel trousers and shirt sleeves - sleeves of what shirts setting off what Czechoslovakian peasant-art ties! - this probably contains one of the younger dons with some promising pupils. Soon they will all be off on a reading party to the Pyrenees and when they return very few of them will be on speaking terms. But let us not look into the future while we can see so much of the past.
As the shouts of the boys and the encouragement of the swimming instructors die away from the bathing place of the Dragon School behind us, the river takes a turn at a discreet female bathing place, and part of Oxford University is before us. We are in the University Parks, where, of an afternoon, games are played on those dreary levels of sparse grass. In the distance Keble College pricks the skyline with its turrets and iron decorations.
The river is spanned by an elegant footbridge, which humps itself like a Magpie Moth caterpillar (Abraxas grossulariata). The effect is quite Japanese. This is the prettiest bridge for miles, a delicate piece of engineering unspoiled by 'architectural additions'.
Hoarse shouts, splashes, and screams sound above the thunder of a weir. We are at Parson's Pleasure, the open-air bathing place. There may be many parsons there, for all we can tell - clergymen are a great feature of North Oxford - but everyone is naked. Bodies lie stretched on the grass, looking up between the poplars, pipes jammed into mouths, sunlight dappling bald or long-haired heads.
We pull the boat over the rollers and the Cherwell winds on through the meadows of Mesopotamia to Magdalen Bridge. A gravel walk follows the river. Earnest students walk briskly along it, airing their brains before an evening's study. Snatches of conversation float down to us - 'Herodotus ... first class mind ... an alpha man - Aristotelian ... Hegelian ... Economic'. The conversations die away.
The river bends. The banks are steep and scooped away by the narrow stream. The trees of Addison's Walk hang over us. We are shut in by mud and grass.
Somewhere about here it is, that you can hear the bells of Oxford better than from anywhere else. The sound sifted from the motor traffic carries across the meadows. I cannot particularize the bend in the stream without going in a boat to show you. It is some yards from Magdalen Bridge for the roar of the main road traffic is scarcely audible. Then you have to be spared the blaring of portable gramophones. But there is such a bend and no time is better to hear the bells than shortly before six on a still summer evening.
One - two, One - two, One - two. New College Tower is calling to choral evensong. Elsewhere college chapels and little high church places of worship where a lonely vicar will run through evensong to an old lady from North Oxford, keep up an insistent tinkle. Then Magdalen Tower breaks into a chime quite near, one two three four, four three two one, one two three four, four three two one. This sets the bells going all over the town. Finally the heavy boom from Tom Tower, Christ Church strikes the hours and puts an end to the dispute. Now the bells start for evening chapel at Magdalen and somewhere a church tower, probably Carfax, strikes a belated six to defy the thunderings of Tom.
People have noticed these bells across the Oxford rivers for years. At the end of the eighteenth century, Cowper's friend, the Reverend James Hurdis, Professor of Poetry, thus remarked them:

So have I stood at eve on Isis' banks,
To hear the merry Christ-church bells ring round.
So have I sat too in thy honoured shades
Distinguish'd Magdalen, on Cherwell's brink,
To hear thy silver Wolsey tones so sweet.
And so too have I paus'd and held my oar
And suffer'd the slow stream to bear me home,
No speed required while Wykeham's peal was up.

With a bump we knock into the cluster of boats round Magdalen Bridge; thread our way through cushioned empty punts shaded by Magdalen Tower.
So by willows, lovers, intellectuals, boys, bathers, bells, we have come right into the High Street of the University City; what more appropriate approach?

Elsewhere John Betjeman tacked a few of his own lines onto that poem he quoted above (somewhere, in transmission perhaps, the words have changed):
On the New Buildings, Magdalen College -

Let me go on in Hurdis's blank verse
So very blank and to the point and terse;
He was a fellow once and in his time
Deeply loved Magdalen and avoided rhyme
"It is enough for me to hear the sound
Of the remote exhilerating peal
Now dying away, now faintly hear,
And now with loud and musical relapse
Its mellow changes huddling on the ear.
So have I stood at eve on Isis' banks,
To hear the merry Christchurch bells rejoice,
So have I sat too in thy honoured shades
Distinguished Magdalen on Cherwell's bank
To hear thy silver Wolsey tones so sweet.
And soon too have I paused and held my oar
And suffered the sweet stream to bear me home,
While Wykeham's peal along the meadow ran."

1890: As to the bells of Oxford, Betjeman is not alone: The Royal River -

Nowhere is midnight so late as in Oxford.
It is announced from so many towers at so many moments by bells of the most various tone and cadence; but by all, even to the most maundering and belated, with the same precise conviction, as if one could hear all the lecturers saying the same thing in their own words -
It is midnight here, now.
And faint and loud another and another awakes and insists -
It is midnight here, now.
Through the middle clamour the chime of St Mary's drops down three pathetic steps and climbs up through the same intervals. The University is older by another hour.

On your way back, after passing Magdalen Bridge, go round the other side of the sports ground by the Botanic gardens. On the RIGHT (seen as coming upstream) bank is St Hilda's College. Rejoining your previous route just above the Jubilee Footbridge.
When you come to the old mouth of the Cherwell go straight on to see the main exit of the Cherwell onto the Thames (or Isis as they insist round here)
I was chatting to my passengers one day near the mouth of the Cherwell when one of them looked around and remarked -

Isn't nature wonderful! How beautiful it is left to its own devices, away from the hand of man!

With which sentiment I would heartily have agreed, had it not been that I was thinking at that very moment, that every inch of river of the last few miles travelled that day, was man made, the result of many centuries of water commerce and milling, weirs and locks, and in particular that the last section of the Cherwell is the New Cut - actually a canal, cut to bypass the tortuous old mouths of the Cherwell and thus relieve flooding!

1884: Construction of the new Cherwell Cut, Henry Taunt -

Construction of Cherwell Cut, Henry Taunt, 1884
Construction of Cherwell Cut, Henry Taunt, 1884
© Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive; HT02723

As you laze along this beautiful tree lined section, give a thought to the labourers who dug it out by hand! The photo shows no trees at all here in 1884. I have to admit that nature has done a pretty good job on the banks of the said canal.
The whole river from Cricklade to Teddington (and of course beyond in both directions) is very much an artificial creation. Nature reasserts itself and adapts - but essentially the river is a work of art. It was shaped by monks and millers and bargemen, by the requirements of their monasteries and water wheels and weirs and towpaths.
And now all that has gone and what remains is the water supply for London, and the boating leisure industry, together of course with the river activities - fishing and rowing and sailing and punting and walking. Fortunately all these together have been able to attract enough money to keep the Thames in excellent condition from the boaters' point of view!
Our thanks to those who help to maintain it so well.
Long may it be so -
Where Thames [ and Isis and Cherwell ] Smooth Waters Glide.     John Eade