I am doing elsewhere an illustrated essay on the southern end of the Oxford Canal. I love it dearly, and the purpose of the main work will be to encourage visitors to walk it. This is the alternative view.
It looks very sad at the moment. Some of that is beyond mending – the visual illiterates in the Oxford Planning Department have seen to that, abetted by supine councillors too weak to argue with them. Some things involve established rights or other things beyond the power of anyone to fix, at least in the short term. It would not take much, however, to restore some of its charm.
Be clear that I am not urging major works here. The last thing we want is the dead hand of local bureaucracy making a major project out of this, with twee “features”, daffodils in straight lines and a boastful entry on someone’s CV. It just needs a little tidying up.
The former canal basin south of Hythe Bridge Street is a subject in itself which I will cover separately. We start where the canal was rudely cut off across the road. The first thing you see is a large fluorescent-green bin. Waste facilities are needed here, but why make the bin dominate the entrance? And why not empty it more frequently, instead of leaving it to overflow? If every visitor from the West can see that there is a problem here (and it is about the first thing they all see), why can’t the Council?
Beyond the bin is the grafitti, on the wall of the cheap-looking building at the end of Worcester College.
Oxford City Council says it is willing to clean it but that they cannot get permission to do so. Worcester says this will just give the artists a blank canvas – hardly a reason for declining the Council’s offer, if indeed they have done so – and mutters about growing some bushes. Nothing gets done.
A little way up the canal, opposite the attractive line of boats, we come across a little dam in the stream.
Oxford City Council is presently terrorising its residents over litter and rubbish collections. I will duck (for now) the arguments raging over that, and just observe mildly that the rules which apply to us must apply also to things like this. Here is a closer look:
The villain here is, I suspect, the Environment Agency. The City Council has the same power over them as it does over the dropper of sweet wrappings. Why not use it?
The whole stream needs a tidy up – nothing major, just good house-keeping. I live upstream from here and often get junk mail from the Environment Agency about the risk of flooding. My interest in an unimpeded flow is more than aesthetic.
On past the lock, where the prettiest canal foot-bridge in the world sits amid neglected borders and a cheap and nasty housing development. It would be much enhanced by a gibbet dangling the rotting corpses of a planner, the developer and the architect.
We come to a floating shanty-town of derelict but inhabited boats in a muddy swamp.
This is a difficult one. The boats are not aesthetically pleasing, but it was not a pretty stretch even before the cheap-skate housing was put up opposite (what an opportunity was wasted here!); there is a long tradition of inhabited boats here, and the boat-dwellers keep it reasonably clear – compare the once-beautiful stretch by St Edward’s School which now looks like an elongated Steptoe’s yard. If I had the choice, I would keep the boats and demolish the houses.
I think, however, that someone might take responsibility for this boat:
If it were left by the road-side, someone would remove it. I suspect that everyone feels that this stretch is the responsibility of someone else. Remember it, though, when some officious little jack-in-office from the Council tries to fine you for dropping litter or for putting something in the “wrong” bin.
It is all over-shadowed by what is opposite – what used to be Castle Mill boat yard. British Waterways, supposedly the guardians of this stretch of canal, have turned amateur property spivs. They turned out the boat-yard after fierce resistance and it now looks like this:
Their plan was that one of the down-market volume builders would shoe-horn a shoddy little development in here. The opposition includes Philip Pullman, Oxford City Council, a determined band of water-borne Swampies, and everyone with a real interest in the canal and canal use. The British Waterways suits just see it as an investment opportunity, a cynical realisation of assets. A new plan, still including 55 flats, makes some gestures towards the canal heritage. One wonders why BWB did not think of that at the outset, and try to carry the populace with it instead of provoking an expensive and bitter fight.
I save the worst till last. Just before Walton Well Road, you come to where Lucy’s factory stood for generations. To your left is a new development of houses and flats. Not unattractive in itself when viewed from the canal, its true awfulness only appears from the other side. It blocks the views of Oxford’s towers and spires from Port Meadow. It is not clear whether the planners knew that it would – were they too dim to notice or do they just not care?
Worse is to come. An enormous block of “luxury dwellings” is building on the right bank:
The planners certainly knew what impact this would have on the skyline. One of the councillors voting on it lamented the loss of the view from Port Meadow – but voted for it anyway. What hope does Oxford have with people like that responsible for it?
This stretch of the Oxford Canal remains a peaceful and beautiful place to walk. Its slow ruin – a combination of deliberate decisions by ignorant people and gradual neglect – is a metaphor for Oxford as a whole.