Issue 41 — May 1998
Across the 'bridge to nowhere'
Residential boat dweller Mark Davies invites you to visit the Jericho Riviera.
In 1973 the Oxford Mail called the Oxford Canal 'a half-mile of muddy slum', with the brand new footbridge from Jericho dubbed a 'bridge to nowhere'. In 1974 the Thames Star called it a 'stinking ditch full of weeds, rubbish and empty bottles thrown in by local layabout alcoholics'. A decade later an Inland Waterways Association spokesperson said 'people tell us that they never walk along there because it's so nasty'.
Nowadays that is no longer true. With obvious exceptions, the Canal is an attractive, vibrant place - a green corridor attracting hundreds of visitors each week. Many organizations and individuals can take the credit, but an important catalyst (though I say it myself) was the reassuring presence of the residential boats. In 1989 their owners won a well publicized struggle for the right to pursue their chosen lifestyle with the establishment of the Hythe Bridge moorings. In a letter to the Oxford Times the Jericho Residents' Association said that the presence of the boats 'positively increases the amenity value and security of the canal bank in our area. They have turned an often dangerous towpath into an area integrated with Jericho.'
Today the public face of the canal is changing apace. The Oxford Waterside development is almost complete, and work has started on the northern Rewley Park development alongside Castle Mill Stream. And towards the end of the year building will start on the Orchard Cruisers site at the end of St. Barnabas Street. Given national housing demands this frenzy of building was probably inevitable. But its nature and location were not. To many, the plan to squeeze 50 of the Rewley Park dwellings into the wedge of land bordered by the railway is ill-conceived. And the construction of a new road bridge to provide access from Rewley Road, is surely a bridge too far. A petition in 1995 signed by 900 people, following a huge canal-side demonstration organized by Friends of the Earth, argued that a development so close to both the railway and bus stations should be pioneeringly car-free. Future generations will surely be puzzled by our lack of transport foresight.
A similar lack of vision may be apparent in British Waterways' sacrificing of the last remnants of Jericho's canal heritage - an old forge building, dry dock and stable block on the Orchard Cruisers site. On the plus side, this development, with more housing and a restaurant, will allow new public access to the canal, and also provide the highly rated cruising restaurant, Rosamund The Fair, with the permanent base that proprietor Tim Matthews has long sought. In addition, a new pedestrian and cycle bridge will provide easier access to the railway station.
Another change concerns the new ownership of College Cruisers. British Waterways eventually intend to build houses on this site too, though not until a new location can be found for the yard. This lack of security led Allen Strong to sell the business earlier this year. Undaunted, new owners Charlie and Carys Bruns have arrived with fresh ideas and enthusiasm and want the yard to be considered much more a part of the community. They have given the hire boats a smart new blue and yellow livery and have plans to open a chandlery and craft shop.
To their credit, British Waterways are genuinely interested in consultation. Regional Manager Simon Ainley has established the Oxford Canal Forum, a group of local representatives - including boat-dwellers, leisure-boat owners, anglers, landowners, and councillors. The 'local distinctiveness' sub-group, which is currently biased towards Wolvercote and Walton Manor, would like to include a Jericho resident. If you can spare a little time to offer a Jericho perspective please contact Catherine Robinson (tel. 511307).
For now though, the stretch of towpath either side of the 'bridge to nowhere' remains a reminder of the bad old days - muddy, dark and often a minefield of dog faeces - for which, dear dog walker, you may now face a maximum fine of £2,000. Last year the Council acceded to the request of the Hythe Bridge Arm moorers for a dogmess bin, but another one closer to Jericho would not go amiss. However don't let that put you off. The Canal is still a wonder of benign neglect. Inspect it, respect it, and protect it.