Red Lion at Cropredy – a canal inn with a literary history

The Red Lion at Cropredy lies close to, but not on, the Oxford Canal. Although this village inn predates the canal, it is so close to it that it must be regarded as a “canal inn”. There are signs for it all along the canal through the village and you will find it right next to the church, just above Cropredy Lock. We have enjoyed some good food there over the years and invariably tasted good beer. However, recently a number of different landlords have looked after the place and our experiences have been a bit variable.

My reason for posting about the Red Lion is to highlight its particular position within canal literature, because, to put it simply, it may look a modest and almost unassuming pub but some famous literary figures have “popped in for a pint” over the last hundred years.

The first I would like to mention is E Temple Thurston. I am fortunate enough to own a first edition of his famous “Flower of Gloster” book, published in 1911, which relates his journey by horse-drawn narrowboat along the Oxford Canal, the River Avon and the Thames and Severn Canal. The books opens with the author’s attempts to hire a boat in Oxford and very soon he and his boatman Eynsham Harry are on their way north along the Oxford Canal. Chapters relate their adventures further south at Shipton-on Cherwell and Somerton, but it is not long before they reach Cropredy. There are no less than four (admittedly short) chapters that relate to their visit to Cropredy and there are several charming drawings (see above). In fact one of the few colour illustrations in the book is of Cropredy and the view up the street past the Red Lion (see below). Then there is the chapter titled “The Red Lion –  Cropredy” 
Cropredy, c 1911 from "Flower of Gloster"
Temple Thurston was obviously charmed by it. As he points out, “To the gentlest breeze, a red sign-board swing outside, adding another instrument to the orchestra of sounds which are inseparable from a country village” There was sawdust on the floor and pints of ale on a trestle table and Temple Thurston received a warm welcome from the regulars. He played darts (for ale) with the locals but he was obviously unfamiliar with the game judging by his remarks. He enthusiastically states “is there any club in Britain where upon your first entrance, old members would treat you with such good comradeship as this?”

My second literary visit to the Red Lion concerns a voyage by canoe, again from Oxford, by that pioneer of canoeing William Bliss. I recently obtained a first edition of Bliss’s “The Heart of England by Waterway” which is subtitled “A Canoeing Chronicle by River and Canal”. It was published in 1933 and reports on a series of journeys Bliss took, mostly by canoe but also by rowing boat, over the period from the late 1890s to the 1930s. He records arriving in Cropredy (probably in the late 1920s) and going into the Red Lion for a drink. The description of the episode in the inn starts with him and his companion climbing up two stone steps and lifting the latch to the front door. The same two steps are still the main way into the inn so visiting the pub today you will literally follow in the footsteps of Bliss. He then goes on to record an amusing conversation that he overheard and joined in whilst in the bar.  The conversation is written in the vernacular which makes it difficult to follow at first attempt. Maggie suggested that I try reading it as Pam Ayres might to get my head around some of the phrases and it actually helped. 

The gist of the conversation was that the two local drinkers had a dislike of a local parson. The locals, George Lacey and Oakley, didn’t like paying the church tithe but their biggest gripe was about bell-ringing. It appears that about 15 years earlier a new parson arrived and refused to supply beer to the bell ringers during their practice sessions. The bell ringers considered that after two hours thirsty work they deserved it. The parson wouldn’t consider supplying alcohol in a House of God so they decided to go on strike (although Bliss doesn’t use those words). The bells remained silent and the parson eventually “wore hisself out” and died. Bliss proffered the thought to the two drinkers that he was an inconsiderate person.  Lacey retorted that he was inconsiderate to the end because he died on the hottest day of the year and Lacey, being sexton, had to dig his grave in heavy Oxford clay. Inconsiderate in life and inconsiderate in death was George Lacey’s epitaph to the man.

It appeared that the parson at the time of Bliss’ visit was more reasonable but Lacey had had to promise not to let the ringers get drunk. He is quoted as saying to the new parson “if any one takes a drop too much, I’ll knock him arse-over-tip down them belfry steps with my own fist.” I gather he said that in some jest.

The third of my literary visits to the inn was made in 1939 by Tom and Angela Rolt. It was on the first day of their epic voyage of discovery through the canals of the English Midlands which was recorded in Tom’s seminal book, Narrow Boat. In part one Rolt covers their preparation for the voyage and Cressy being refitted at Tooley’s Yard in Banbury.  Rolt speaks highly of Flower of Gloster when describing their planning and had a copy of the book on his shelf; maybe that is what encouraged him to visit the Red Lion. Part two opens with Cressy leaving Banbury on the 27th July 1939 and heading up the Oxford Canal towards Cropredy. George Tooley accompanied them to Cropredy, where they moored up just above the lock, and then caught the bus back to Banbury. Tom & Angela walked up to the Red Lion and “found a village inn of the best type which has escaped both stuffy Victorianism and the olde-worlde reconstruction”.  They drank beer drawn straight from the wood and tried to decipher a puzzle card which was on the wall. In Narrow Boat the card is recorded as being yellowed by tobacco smoke and reading:

Here’s to Pa!nds Pen Da S
O CI alh OUR in  ha?
Les Smi rT Ha!
ND Fu nle T fr;
i E nds HIPRE ign B eju, St. an
d Kin, dan Devil sPE,Ak of N One.

Underneath was NB. NO TEACHING ONE ANOTHER TO READ THE ABOVE UNDER FORFEITURE OF A QUART OF THE LANDLORD’S BEST ALE. I will follow Rolt’s example and not give away the meaning of the puzzle.

That evening the Rolts had their first meal afloat. Ian Mackersey in Tom Rolt and the Cressy Years states that it was roast leg of lamb. In Narrow Boat it is referred to as “a veritable banquet in such circumstances and surroundings”.

Looking to the future, let us hope the Red Lion flourishes. Under its current management there is no apparent evidence of the inn’s canal heritage but readers of this post will, at least, be aware of its unique place in waterways literature.





After the fireworks of Saturday night we woke on Sunday in the marina to a hard frost and clear skies. We just had to go boating so we took Albert down to Cosgrove. A lovely short cruise. We moored up, had lunch and then explored parts of Cosgrove we hadn't visited for some years.

Maggie going through the Horse Tunnel at Cosgrove
The journey back with fading light was equally enjoyable, particularly since our daughter Emily, son-in-law Andy and grandson Hugh all joined us for a trip. Great day!
Sun going down near Cosgrove

Fireworks at Yardley Gobion

On Saturday night, November 10th - not the customary 5th, Kingfisher Marina held its annual bonfire night event. It is a great event for "getting to know the neighbours". The neighbours in this case being our fellow moorers.

This year followed the usual successful format. Wholesome food was provided in the pole barn by a team of marina personnel and the fireworks were supplied by all those attending - a bit like a bring-a-bottle party but with fireworks (and bottles). The emphasis for many years has been on buying single impressive fireworks rather than lots because, with many people attending, setting off the fireworks can take some time. Over recent years fireworks have got better and better. The "biscuit box" variety are very suitable.

As usual the team of Jon and Ian from Baxters let off the fireworks and did a great job of mixing and matching them. Below is a short video of the display, The great thing about the marina display is that although it is an amateur display the fireworks are large enough to make an impression because you are relatively close.

Fireworks, November 2012

The bonfire, fuelled by tree prunings, old material from a boat refit and some broken pallets, lasted well into the evening. Unlike one year, when there was high wind and smoke enveloped the marina, the cold still night and plenty of fuel meant there was a hot roaring fire.

During the evening we got to know two families who moor close by who we had not met before. Unlike us, who have moored at Kingfisher for over 10 years, both were newcomers. One couple had started mooring at Yardley a year ago but the others had arrived just last week. That night, like quite a few other boaters, we slept on board.

Spent Fireworks

Water Gipsies by AP Herbert (1930)

I recently purchased a copy of AP Herbert's novel The Water Gipsies. This should not be confused with Annie Murray's much more modern book with a very similar title that covers the "Idle Women" period during WW II and is spelt more conventionally as Water Gypsies.

The Water Gipsies was a very popular novel in its day. It was first published in 1930 and although my copy is also from 1930 it is a second edition. It is the story of Jane Bell who, ever since their mother died, has lived on an old barge moored in the Thames along with her feckless father and her sister. She would like her life to be more like the movies she loves but reality is far from that. She is courted by an illiterate canal boatman, Fred Green, and whilst cleaning the studio of a local artist, Bryan, she develops a hopeless crush that leads her to refuse Fred's offer of marriage. When her father loses his job and takes to gambling on the horses and dogs, her sister Lily takes up with a rich young gambler. Jane becomes married to Ernest a worker on the Underground, whose socialist beliefs represent the only fixed set of ideals in her life. She also acts as Bryan's sometime model and muse. I won't describe the rest of the story but there is tragedy involved and plenty of pathos and social commentary. To my mind the plot is somewhat similar to Thomas Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd, but not as dark.

For canal enthusiasts there are some well described sections particularly when Jane joins in a trip along the Grand Union Canal with Fred Green and his parents working pair. There are also some atmospheric descriptions of life aboard the Bell family barge and sailing small boats on the Thames. Herbert, was of course a lover of the waterways. He was the MP for Oxford University for many years, when the universities had parliamentary seats, was a member of the Thames Conservancy and was also a president of the Inland Waterways Association. The book was so successful when it came out it spawned a musical play, the music from which is still available, and, in 1932, a film starring Anne Todd.

Although The Water Gipsies is definitely a  novel "of its time" since it is steeped in the class system of life between the two world wars, I enjoyed reading it. Many copies of The Water Gipsies are still around and are easily available through Amazon and ABE books. There are some very cheap paperback copies available and also some copies that date from around its first publication. Details of the bibliography of The Water Gipsies, and some great images of the first and US editions' dustcovers, are given on the excellent Old Waterways Books web site.