Acclaimed actor Timothy West and his wife Prunella Scales have just embarked on their eighth series of Great Canal Journeys on Channel 4, which is accompanied by a book charting their experiences.
“Pru and I have always loved the water – being on it, beside it and sometimes in it, although I’m a terrible swimmer,” he writes in Our Great Canal Journeys. “Yes, we owe a lot of our lives to the water.”
Here, he selects five of his all-time favourite waterways.
1. The Kennet and Avon
“This was our first love and we were very much involved when it was being reclaimed,” he recalls. The canal went through a massive restoration programme in the 1980s and its 87-mile length across the country from Reading on the Thames to the River Avon at Bath and on to Bristol, was reopened in 1990. Tim and Pru were recorded on film as the first boaters to travel the reclaimed waterway.
“We did a bit to help with its restoration. We knew more about it and we’ve lived and worked in various places along its route. It leads to Bristol, my home town, and is a very beautiful canal.
“Visually it has the amazing Caen Hill flight of 16 locks in a staircase, which is quite extraordinary, as well as aqueducts and 200-year-old pumping stations.”
2. The Canal du Midi, France
The Midi, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, provides a route from the Atlantic at Bordeaux to Sète on the Mediterranean, crossing the regions of Languedoc and Roussillon. Its name ‘Midi’ is derived from seeming to provide the warm midday sunlight.
“We first went on it on a hotel boat a few years ago from Marseillan up to Carcassonne. It was like a cruise, only you’re not going so far. It was a very long narrowboat, which will sleep around eight people. I tried to help the crew, being bossy, but I was in the way.”
On the next visit, the couple came upon the city of Béziers, birthplace of the canal’s creator Pierre-Paul Riquet, where there is a statue of him. “There’s a handsome theatre here, too, and up the winding streets to the top of the hill you find the beautiful cathedral perched upon a rock over the gorge,” Tim recalls.
3. The Göta Canal, Sweden
“We went part of the way from Gothenburg on this lovely ship, the Juno, the oldest registered passenger ship in the world. It used to be a steam ship.”
The Göta Canal links two lakes and was created to allow vessels to travel from the Baltic in the east to Kattegat in the west. It has 58 locks to navigate and part of the route has apparently been christened ‘The Divorce Ditch’, due to the navigational difficulties faced by couples venturing on a trip.
“The journey from Gothenburg to Stockholm takes four days and three nights, but we were only on it overnight.” From Sjötorp, they transferred to a cabin cruiser and set out along the Göta. En route, they encountered a Victorian paddle steamer, a floating sauna and Lake Mälaren.
“There’s a lot of woodland on the route,” Tim muses. “Somebody once said, ‘Sweden is really a clearing in the forest’ and it does feel like that some of the time. But at other times, you’re on huge lakes.”
4. The Crinan Canal, Scotland
The couple braved the Atlantic in an old herring fishing boat with a crew, and island-hopped their way through the Hebrides to reach the nine-mile Crinan Canal, on a route known as the world’s most beautiful shortcut. But along the way they encountered terrible weather and initially had to return to Tobermory. “We had about half a week on that because we ran into bad weather, it got quite rough and we had to re-shoot.”
Once at the small port of Crinan, they transferred on to a Clyde ‘puffer’, a steam ship, to begin their canal journey to enjoy uninterrupted views of some of Scotland’s most stunning rugged landscapes.
“The puffers were built in Glasgow at the end of the 19th century and were used to take goods and occasionally people to the outlying islands. They would take cows, post, provisions, furniture and all sorts of things, and they were numbered,” Tim explains.
The canal cuts through an area of virtual wilderness, and was built to save boats heading from Glasgow to the Hebrides, an 85-mile voyage through the treacherous waters around the Mull of Kintyre. It links Loch Fyne with Jura, creating a pathway for ships through the Kintyre Peninsula en route to the Western Isles.
5. The Stratford-upon-Avon Canal
The couple, who both performed in theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon, have had many happy times picnicking on the bank in Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden.
Their route started at Kingswood Junction and ended at Stratford-upon-Avon, although you can go north to Kings Norton where it meets the Worcestershire and Birmingham Canal.
“It has quite a large number of locks which are quite hard work, but it wriggles its way through the countryside. You finally go under a road bridge and come out of the other side where you can see the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in front of you.”
Our Great Canal Journeys: A Lifetime Of Memories on Britain’s Most Beautiful Waterways by Timothy West is published by John Blake, priced £20.
Great Canal Journeys is on Sundays on Channel 4.