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
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