Book review: Barging Round Britain by John Sergeant and David Bartley

Six years ago he was quick-stepping round the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom… and now John Sergeant, everyone’s favourite mover and shaker, has been slow-boating around the nation’s canals.

Thursday, 12th February 2015, 9:00 am
Barging Round Britain by John Sergeant and David Bartley
Barging Round Britain by John Sergeant and David Bartley

Tomorrow (February 13) sees the launch of ITV’s Barging Round Britain, a relaxing eight-part series presented by Sergeant and exploring some of the best trips amongst over 3,000 miles of canals from the wilds of Scotland, through the industrial heritage of Lancashire to the peaceful downs of southern England.

And to help float your canal boat, set sail with this fully illustrated and fascinating companion book written by author and TV producer David Bartley, and with a lively foreword and chapter introductions by show presenter Sergeant.

Take a journey up the Grand Union Canal, marvel at the workings of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, be inspired by the majestic Caledonian Canal, enjoy the stunning scenery of the Kennet and Avon Canal and revel in the rich history of the Trent and Mersey Canal.

Packed with fantastic photographs, maps and drawings showing views of the canals both past and present, Barging Round Britain reveals the origins and workings of these amazing man-made waterways, the purpose and vision of those who built them and the extraordinary solutions found to overcome the hurdles of landscape and geology.

As Sergeant points out, there is something very British about the way we cherish our canals, a network of pencil-like waterways criss-crossing the country, built to answer the nation’s transport problems but soon overtaken by more sophisticated competition from railways and roads.

This is partly due to nostalgia, the joy of returning to a time when the pace of life was slower, but there is also the need to preserve our heritage and celebrate the achievements and labours of the industrial revolution’s rough, tough workers.

Ironically, there are more craft on our canals today than during their industrial heyday. Born from hard times and grim reality, the waterways were not designed to look good but to do an important job.

Now Britain’s canals have become a true national treasure. Forged in the fire of world-changing historic events – and yet set within beautiful and often breathtaking scenery – they are bursting with undiscovered history and are home to a vibrant community rooted in a unique way of life.

During the epic canal voyage, Sergeant spoke to people who have spent many years living on canal boats, seduced by the mystery of the waterways, the ability to escape everyday concerns and the pleasure of being involved in some way with history.

One of the eight trips undertaken by the Barging Round Britain team was a 127-mile journey down the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, a route which passes through some of Lancashire’s great mill towns like Wigan, Chorley, Blackburn and Burnley.

Despite many improvements, there were still sections scarred by rubbish, and boarded-up buildings crying out for redevelopment, but it was on this canal that the crew saw some of the finest countryside in Britain.

There are the seven impressive Johnson’s Hillock Locks at Wheelton, near Chorley, with timber bridges crossing over the weirs and magnificent views across the countryside, and further along discover the history of Botany Bay, the former mill area (now a shopping centre) so named because the locals may have hoped the wild-living labourers who camped there would be packed off to the Australian penal colony.

Barging Round Britain is a glorious celebration of our industrial history, our beautiful countryside, the people who forged these remarkable waterways and those still working to keep them viable for future generations.

Don’t miss the boat…

(Michael Joseph, hardback, £20)