The loveliest local rivers and lakes for summer days
Extreme heat? We've got the answer: get down to your local waterway for a cooling paddle/SUP/boat ride and a picnic or pint (of Pimms?). Here's the best places to launch or hire your own.
When the mercury is rising and an icy Diet Coke just isn’t doing it, there’s no better way to cool off than take to the water. Whether you want to go on it or in it, we’ve got rivers and lakes galore in Bucks and Oxon.
Where to launch your board or boat
Time to dust off that lockdown purchase… no, not the puppy… the inflatable canoe/kayak/paddleboard. We’re seeing them all over the counties – but where are the best places to launch your craft or, if you don’t have the kit, where you hire one? We know, we know!!
Thrupp in mid Oxfordshire is a good spot for launching a canoe, kayak or paddleboard onto the Oxford Canal, as it’s relatively gentle, with plenty of places to stop off for a break, picnic or slap-up lunch. You can park by Annie’s Tea Room, just outside Kidlington, then it’s a short walk to the canal. You can paddle north or south from here.
There are locks in both directions and to the south is the Jolly Boatman pub or even closer, The Boat Inn. Alternatively, park near St Mary’s Church in Kidlington and walk through the wooded area to the Cherwell River. There’s an entry point near the pedestrian bridge that leads to the village of Hampton Poyle. The Oxford Canal is a 75-mile stretch of canal with 46 locks and includes great little stop-offs like Thrupp, Cropredy and Aynhu.
You can kayak, canoe and paddleboard on the Thames at Port Meadow, which stretches from Jericho all the way to Wolvercote. Park at Port Meadow Godstowe Car Park (get there early on sunny days). You can paddle down to the lock and carry your boat around it or turn back. Another option is to give the Wolvercote Loop a go – going down the Thames from Wolvercote then through to the Oxford Canal via the ‘Sheepwash Channel’, before returning via the Duke’s Cut just north of Wolvercote. It’s just over six miles in all.
You can canoe/kayak or paddleboard on another of Oxford’s waterways – the Cherwell River, getting in at Water Eaton near Cutteslowe. Park just off Water Eaton Rd, and walk around 100m to the river. From there it’s a four-mile paddle to the The Victoria Arms in Old Marston, though it’s upstream heading back…
At Clifton Hampden you can pop into the River Thames close to Clifton Lock and tackle the five-mile paddle upstream to Culham. Parking is very tight so get there early. The Barley Mow pub, which features in Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, is just up the road.
Minster Lovell is a pretty Cotswold village near Witney. You can launch a craft into the Windrush River, though it can be fairly shallow at times of low rainfall. There is a small parking area at St Kenelm’s Church and some atmospheric English Heritage ruins to explore.
Buscot Weir near Faringdon is a popular swimming and watersports spot because of the easy entry into the water, large picnic area and the proximity to Buscot village car park and the excellent village shop/tearoom.
Wallingford Bridge and nearby Shillingford both offer good spots from which to drop into the Thames. Wallingford’s ‘beach’ has a positively Med vibe on a sunny day with it’s picnic meadow, ice cream van and nearby lido (included in our lidos round-up here).
The stretch of the river close to The Barley Mow, in Clifton Hampden near Abingdon, also has several decent swimming spots. Meanwhile, Oxford-dwelling wild swimmers should head to Port Meadow just north of the town centre, a stretch of the Thames so magical it inspired parts of Alice In Wonderland, no less.
The Flower Pot pub near Henley on Thames has a slipway five minute’s walk away from which to launch. There’s a bit of free parking down Ferry Lane, or at the pub for paying customers.
If you reckon the sailor’s life is for you, there are a number of members-only lakes in the area – Oxford Sailing Club at Farmoor Reserve is one, and the The Three TTTs Watersports Club at Standlake is another. It’s a veritable aquatic country club, with tennis court, clubhouse, log cabin chalets and caravan sites alongside the water skiing, fishing and boating.
Where to hire a kayak, canoe or paddleboard
There are more watersports to try at Westhorpe Lakes, Marlow, than you can shake a soggy set of bikini bottoms at, with paddle-boarding among the most popular. You can hire boards from Marlow Open Water Swim for £20 per hour, or if you have your own lying about (let me check the garage) it’ll cost you just £5 an hour.
Fancy teaching the kiddos a new skill this summer (or learning one yourself)? Push the boat out – literally – with family kayaking courses at Longridge. This outdoor activity centre in Marlow is run by the The Adventure Learning Charity, and offers a range of water-based activities on the Thames, from canoeing to paddle-boarding. Space is tight as groups are small, so get in touch early to book.
If you want to tackle the Oxford Canal or River Cherwell but don’t have your own boat or board, you can hire from Thrupp Canoe and Kayak, just outside Kidlington.
Watersports are very much a go at Willen Lake, which last year launched a flashy new reception area plus smart changing rooms and showers. There’s windsurfing, sailing, kayaking, pedalos and wakeboarding available.
Moose Canoe Hire has a base at Bisham with canoes, kayaks, SUPs and ‘mega SUPs’ for the party crowd. From the base it’s a 1.5 hour paddle to Hurley village which has two pubs (The Rising Sun and Ye Olde Bell) – a short walk from where you get out of the water at Hurley lock.
Another hire option is Benson’s AV Boats which has kayaks and paddleboards (including the ‘monster’ for 8-12 people) as well as electric boats (for more boat options, see below). It has a new second site now open in Abingdon that also has fishing boats available and you can even do a one-way kayak hire, which is a leisurely six-hour paddle (or not) downstream. Boats cost from £85 for two hours and take four or 10 people. No need to pack a picnic – there’s the perfectly placed The Waterfront Cafe – it has great views, a vast menu of homemade food and there’s a toddler pool just a few metres away (you can also launch your own craft from here though you need to get here early to get a parking spot nearby).
Prefer to go old school? You can hire a boat or punt from Magdalen Boat House or Folly Bridge in Oxford or Cherwell Boathouse – the riverside restaurant at the latter is lovely, plus it’s less touristy than some of the central Oxford eateries.
The gin-palace option
If that sounds like too much sweat, Wallingford’s Pure Boating has electric boats for up to 11 people that you can drive down to Benson Lock or towards Moulsford. What better way to arrive at The Beetle and Wedge, two hours downstream, than on the water. Boats cost from £55 for an hour. Hobbs of Henley also has an extensive self-drive fleet, or if you’re really looking for the easy option, take a cruise and let someone else take the strain. If you’re ready for liveaboard life, Cotswold Boat Hire offers shortbreaks on self-hire boats and day hire, costing upwards of £60 for two hours.
It’s not all about the Thames – the Aylesbury Arm of the Grand Union Canal was completed in 1815 to transport coal and such like and then was promptly put out of business in the 1840s by the railways. But no matter. It now provides a scenic waterway through the town and you can experience it first-hand by jumping on The Little Trip Boat at the Aylesbury Basin and taking the one hour and 15 minute trip through two locks and back again. There’s no catering on board but you’re welcome to bring your own snacks. It’s good enough for us. £12 for adults, £8 for children.
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