The Oxford Canal Walk: Hiking a Marathon to Banbury Cross

On Tuesday April 27th 2021 at 08:00, I bade my wife and son farewell, left my house and walked out to the Oxford Canal. The plan was simple: to hike to Banbury from Oxford.

I could not remember the last time I had walked further than fifteen miles in a single day. Back in 2012 I had hiked part of the Via Fracignena from Mortara to Piacenza – but I could not remember the daily distance I had covered. I did, however, remember that the fatigue I had experienced after a full day of walking was of a somewhat different variety to the generally predictable tiredness which accompanied distance running.

Polar 2

My aim was to hike the marathon distance of 26.2 miles in eight hours or less. Ultimately, thanks to an unwanted detour at the start of the hike, I ended up covering approximately 29 miles in approximately nine hours. I turned off my Polar watch at the 26.2 mile mark as its battery was running low and I was concerned that I might lose the whole session if I did not save it promptly. I had activated the GPS tracking when leaving my house in Summertown at 08:06 – and turned it off at Lock 30, Grant’s Lock in Twyford, Banbury at 16:03.

Hike

My morale was dented when, having walked out like Laurie Lee and joined the canal, I realised that Towpath Improvement Works were taking place between Bridge 230 (A44, King’s Bridge) and Bridge 235 (Godstow Road, Wolvercote Road Bridge). For safety reasons, the towpath was closed to the public. My hike was less than half an hour old and I had already been blown off course.

Canal Closed    Detour

Not really knowing where I was going, I walked along Duke’s Cut and Oxey Mead. I crossed the A40 Northern By-pass Road and was mightily relieved to find a trail leading towards Yarnton. I was back on track! Well, sort of. I wandered across some private land (Keep Out!) that I think belonged to Yarnton Manor, before arriving at The Turnpike on Woodstock Road. I took a right and walked a mile back down along the road, hoping that I would have passed the points where the canal was closed. I had done. I triumphantly re-joined the canal. Now I was back on track!

I wore Asics Gel Nimbus 21 running shoes. They had fit well when my wife had bought them for me but were now a bit too tight for my liking. My feet seemed to be getting wider. The balls of my feet started to hurt round about the five mile mark, a result of their rubbing against my socks. At the thirteen mile mark I stopped to apply some Vaseline – something I really should have done when I had first felt the rubbing.

The hike did me the world of good. It gave me clarity and a renewed sense of connection with the world and its inhabitants. I was able to purge myself of some petty resentments and see certain issues from a new perspective. I also felt a real sense of achievement afterwards. As I walked along the canal, I listened to audiobooks (William James and George Orwell), podcasts (Joe Rogan) and a Spotify playlist which my brother Sean had, at my request, painstakingly cultivated for me with assistance from his son, my nephew Conor. My brother had often made compilation tapes for me when I was a teenager, and listening to the playlist I felt a sense of fraternal gratitude.

At the beginning of the hike I frequently paused to photograph scenes of interest, but as the miles clocked up, I focussed more on arriving promptly at my destination. The self-imposed tunnel vision meant I was unable to fully appreciate the last few miles of the yomp. I had eaten two boiled eggs for breakfast and consumed two bananas and two pears on my way. I had also taken a couple of Pro Plus caffeine tablets to put a spring in my step at the half-way mark. I took only two five minute breaks, walking almost constantly.

By the time I arrived in the centre of Banbury I could barely walk. Hiking a marathon had not been as demanding as running a marathon – but it had definitely been tougher than running a half-marathon. I glanced up at the fabled Banbury Cross, the most recent rendering of which had been erected in 1859. The main Banbury Cross was said to have been taken down around 1600. I checked-in to my hotel, The Mercure Whately Hall, hobbled up the stairs and ran myself a hot bath. It had been my plan to hike back to Oxford the following morning – but that was out of the question. The blisters on the balls of both my feet were massive and very painful. I was clearly completely out of practice when it came to long-distance walking. That was OK though, at least now I knew exactly where I was at in terms of hiking fitness. I resolved to complete another thirty mile hike within the next month.

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