A life­long pas­sion for Europe’s wa­ter­ways

As Prunella Ti­mothy Scales West con­tinue and their amaz­ing ad­ven­tures on cap­ti­vat­ing canals, he tells Han­nah Stephen­son about his favourite routes at home and fur­ther afield

Belfast Telegraph - Weekend - - TRAVEL LATE -

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,” says Ti­mothy re­calls.

The canal un­der­went 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.

Ti­mothy and Pru were recorded on film as the first boaters to travel the re­claimed wa­ter­way.

“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,” Ti­mothy says.

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 Sete on the Mediter­ranean, cross­ing the re­gions of Langue­doc and Rous­sil­lon.

“We first went on it on a ho­tel boat a few years ago from Mar­seil­lan up to Car­cas­sonne,” Ti­mothy says.

On the next visit, the cou­ple came upon Beziers, birth­place of the canal’s cre­ator, Pierre-Paul Ri­quet, where there is a statue of him.

“There’s a hand­some the­atre too, and up the wind­ing streets to the top of the hill you find the beau­ti­ful cathe­dral perched upon a rock over the gorge,” Ti­mothy re­calls.

3. THE GOTA CANAL, SWE­DEN

“We went part of the way from Gothen­burg on this lovely ship, the Juno, the old­est reg­is­tered pas­sen­ger ship in the world,” ex­plains Ti­mothy.

The Gota 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, and part of the route has ap­par­ently been chris­tened ‘The Di­vorce Ditch’, due to the nav­i­ga­tional dif­fi­cul­ties faced by cou­ples.

“There’s a lot of wood­land,” Ti­mothy says. “Some­body once said, ‘Swe­den is re­ally a clear­ing in the for­est’ and it does feel like that, 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. 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,” Ti­mothy says. The canal cuts through an area of vir­tual wilder­ness, and was built to save boats head­ing from Glas­gow to the He­brides, an 85mile 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

Ti­mothy and Prunella, who both per­formed in the­atre at Strat­ford-upon-Avon, have had many happy times pic­nick­ing on the bank in Shake­speare’s For­est of Ar­den.

The route starts 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 wrig­gles its way through the coun­try­side” Ti­mothy says. “You go un­der a road bridge, come out of the other side and 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, £20. Great Canal Jour­neys is on Sun­days on Chan­nel 4

CRAZY FOR CANALS: Caen Hill on the Ken­net and Avon Canal. Right, Ti­mothy West and Prunella Scales and Gota Canal lock. In­set below, Canal du Midi

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