Banbury has a significant place in the history of canals, most notably for being the location of Tooley’s boatyard and its association with canal restoration campaigner LTC (Tom) Rolt. However, the relationship between town and canal has not always been easy. Join me today, as we explore the town through the eyes of Temple-Thurston, Rolt, and Pearson, from the comfort of a coffeeshop window seat on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
7th May, Saturday
"Another early start.
At least it is now beginning to get light when Donna leaves for work,
Chalky whites and greys leaching the darkness and stars from the night.
A busy day lies ahead. One from which I shrink.
And so I make another cup of tea and sit on the stern in the chill of first dawn.
The swans are still asleep. The cob tucked beside his mate on the nest.
A breeze ruffles the deep umber water.
A mallard swims over.
Chuckling to me, he eyes me with curiosity and caution.
A swallow swims the air above the water and then alights on a boat's aerial.
I stare at nothing. Hear nothing. Lost on the still waters of the mind.
I want to hold this fragile moment forever, drink deeply from it,
But I don't know how."
You can find out more about the history and current workings of Tooley’s Boat Yard at: Tooley’s Boatyard Trust.
In this episode I cite or read short extracts from:
Michael Pearson (2003) Pearson’s Canal Companion: Oxford and Grand Union, published by Central Waterways Supplies.
L.T.C. Rolt (1944) Narrow Boat, first published by Eyre and Spottiswoode
E. Temple Thurston (1911) The Flower of Gloster, published by William Norgate.
Linda Aubry’s narrowboat themed fabric designs
Linda’s fabric designs, many of which have been inspired by traditional narrowboat canal art, including her toile designs, can be seen on her Spoonflower site: Designs by orangecookie.
In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.
Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence.
Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.
All other audio recorded on site.
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Banbury Town. A wet Saturday early afternoon, but it could be any Saturday afternoon.
Light dances on cobbles in the spindrift of drizzle. The air is warm and wet. The sky is battleship grey and as heavy as steel. Colours from the flower stall splash and leak oilily over the pavement, and people rush past in a flurry of unzipped coats.
I could sit here forever, looking out, at the square, with the aroma of the acidic tang of coffee whirling slowly upwards from the bowl of my cup in lazy, curling whisps. It's a large cup, almost a dish than a cup, in the manner of a lot of coffeeshops these days. And because of it, it passes that optimal point between too hot to drink and tepid in a heartbeat. My coffee, cradled between my elbows on the window counter in front of me is currently in negotiations with how tepid it can get before it can be classed as cold. But I don't mind. The coffee is an excuse, to sit, to watch, to wait, to stare, to drink in the profusion of life, hectically ambling across the square. I am angler who sits beside the river with an unabated rod.
In front of me is the flower stall. The flowers in boxed rows, or skittering in buckets, weep rainbows of colour onto the wet pavement, jewelling the cracks and shining tarmac. There are fewer more beautiful sights than a small-town flower kiosk on a rainy day. To my left, the street slopes very gently down towards the bus station, and the canal. The bus station is actually where the canal-side pub 'The Struggler' stood, that was once the hub of the thriving canal community. Neither bus station or canal are very busy today.
The Oxford canal passes through Banbury, hedged by the lower town on one side and a park and industrial units on the other. Seven bridges cross the canal, road and foot, one of which is a hand-operated lift-bridge and there's a deep chambered lock 29, Banbury lock.
Banbury has long associations with canal history, but they are associations that have not always sat comfortably. Poor Banbury, it's been torn in so many directions, it is not surprising that its relationship can appear, at times, a little conflicted.
Michael Pearson, in his Pearson's Canal Guide for Oxford and the Grand Union, writes,
Pearson, I should also say, does note that the town has undergone a lot of improvements with many things about it to attract the visitor.
However, he certainly is not the first person to have looked somewhat askance at this sprawling market town.
Coming through on the working boat the Flower of Gloster in 1910, Temple-Thurston also didn't think much of Banbury. He was drawn to the picturesque. He spends four chapters on Cropredy, a few miles to the north - a place he clearly falls in love with (and many after him), and just one on the much larger town of Banbury. The problem with Banbury is that it was a working town and working towns prioritise pragmatism over aesthetics and now over yesterday. They constantly need to change an adapt. Temple-Thurston, drawn by the cross made famous in the old nursery rhyme 'Ride a Cock Horse' was disappointed.
His feelings were not helped by an encounter with the proprietor of a curio shop who tried to sell him a fake antique brass tinderbox. When Temple-Thurston challenged him, pointing out it was in fact made in a Birmingham factory, probably, sometime last week, the shop keeper simply brazened it out saying, "Well, even so, the brass it was made from is old."
Some thirty years later, Tom Rolt also visited Banbury, but this time it was to pick up his new boat - or, I should say, a boat that was new to him, 'Cressy'. Coming to the town from the Cotswolds, he too was initially disappointed. However, he also had insight enough to recognise the shallow delights of chocolate box Cotswold villages and that the true beauties of working towns like Banbury were often overlooked by passing visitors.
Rolt's comment about the hiddenness of the canal reflects my experience too. - that Banbury (the town) has shared a rather ambiguous and even, at times, ambivalent relationship with the canal. Towns shift and change. By their very nature, canals don't. When we first moved into the area 25 or so years ago, the area around the canal was neglected and suffering from dereliction. Once, when we were exploring the area just prior to moving, we tried to walk down to the cut. However, we were blocked by barriers of wooden boarding, sagging, graffitied. Peering through the cracks was a wasteland of urban desolation and decay. Rolt would have wept. The pride of the town, centred around the Banbury Cross at the top of the town - a Victorian replacement of the original cross and situated on a roundabout on the old A41. Together with the accompanying statue of a fine lady on a white horse, the wide streets and flower beds gave an air of prosperity - although, by that time, a little faded.
That is not to say there was no pride in the canal. Tooley's boat yard was still a magnet to boaters and the association between Tom Rolt and the town was sealed and celebrated in the construction of a new bridge that swept over the canal at the north end of the town was named after him and bears a plaque to commemorate his life and achievements. Although, Pearson is right to point out the irony of commemorating Rolt with, of all things, a road bridge!
But now Banbury appears to be more reconciled with its watery invader. The area around the canal has received a lot of investment. A new museum sits opposite Tooley's yard and offers the visitor brightly illustrated histories about the canal boasting interactive models. Tooley's yard has also been renovated and the little chandlery tucked under the wing of the Castle Quay shopping mall, is always worth a visit and a chat (although check opening times). Before the pandemic, Canal days, attended by narrowboats selling crafts and refreshments, attract large crowds.
Canal often now features in publicity photographs and videos. The area of deprivation and decay, rife with vandalism and drug use, playground of petty and not so petty crime, has been transformed into a visitor attraction. Even this has received recent upgrades with more investment and renovation and building
Retail, the last of Britain’s industry, now line its banks. I can remember, one torrential summer morning, sitting with Donna in a cafe of one of the retail stores that had a panoramic view of the canal beneath us, and watching a continuous stream of drenched boaters working the lock beneath us. The majority seemed to be holiday boats - Banbury is a handy point on the map to head to, before the return trip. They all seemed to be in good humour.
Yes, I think that the town has once more reconciled itself with the canal and the two have found a way to mutually work together. And the latest addition to the mall is a themed eating and entertainment space, described in its promotional literature as ' edgy', called Lock 29.
Outside, the towpath is neat and well surfaced. On summer days, the numerous benches - and in fact any serviceable ledge - are well used for a spot of daydreaming and gongoozling, and to rest legs wearied by retail hell... or should that be retail heaven?
But today, my eye is drawn to the town, with its contradictions of buildings and businesses. The rain has stopped, but the cobbled pavements still glow with the oily lights the leak out of the shop windows and doorways.
I like it here, with my cup of cold coffee. From the vantage of this window seat, in my coffeeshop hide, I could watch the world for hours. The women who pause for a moment to drink in the flower stall blooms. The men in suits who climb the steps to the Market Hall two at a time. The clatter of push chairs and laden buggies with wheels that shimmy. The town hall clock, blind and silent. The lost man that sits below it, his half-rolled tartan sleeping bag lying amid the puddles. Sometimes he asks for change, but mostly he is silent, watching the feet glide past him. The elderly woman in an overcoat feeds the pigeons by the little bandstand, beside the sign that says 'Please do not feed the pigeons'. She is always here; her frayed coat clinging to her bony shoulders. So are the pigeons. A smartly-dressed woman brushes and tuts and shakes her head. The woman in the overcoat takes no notice. Neither do the pigeons.
A woman negotiates a buggy around a knot of people. Her sullen daughter clings grimly to the handle. They both seem to wear clothes two or three sizes too small for them. The daughter looks like a tiny clone of her mother. A life-worn face, pinched and pugnacious, on a young body. The mother's top is faded and stained with coffee... or gravy... or something brown. Her hair is tied straight back, close against her skull, in a lank ponytail. One of her heels is red raw from where it has rubbed against the back of her shoe. When I smile, it is as if no one has noticed her for a long, long time; electricity seems to spark in her eyes and her body jolts, before her eyes quickly slide back down to the pavement that swims with the wash of coloured lights. She cannot see it, but she and her daughter walk on a carpet of liquid jewels.
Now the rain begins again to fall harder as an elderly couple bend down to smell a bouquet of flowers on the stall. They look at each other and their faces break into smiles. The pretty Asian stall-holder sees them and smiles with them.