Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Narrowboating: The long and winding water road

Timothy West and Prunella Scales: Raging against the dying of the light.Photo Telegraph

Narrowboats don’t exactly fall into 'the great outdoors' category but for a long time now I’ve had a fascination with the boats themselves and the entire history and culture surrounding what we used to just call barges. Barges themselves are a distinct vessel to the narrowboat, being a broader commercial craft common along main rivers like the Thames. The Narrowboat itself was also at one time a commercial boat, used for hauling everything from timber to coal around the country before the roads killed off the commercial potential. The positive effect of this commercial change however, was the transformation of the humble narrowboat into a recreational craft and a low cost floating home. 

Before the great boom in recreational boating however, the narrowboats fall from favour saw many of our English and Welsh canals fall into disuse and total disrepair. Especially those canals passing through the great towns and cities where the passing of traditional industries which used the canals to transport goods and materials, heralded a transformation which saw the waterways become rubbish filled, weed infested collapsing open sewers!

Thankfully, the canals had its individual champions and visionaries who with the help of volunteers and the cooperation of the British Waterways, dragged these derelict stretches back to life. Amongst those fine upstanding people were the most unlikely of canal volunteers, two of our finest thespians, Timothy West and his wife Prunella Scales.

At the moment Channel 4 is following a series it launched a year ago with a follow up featuring the said actors. I certainly consider it a televisual gem amongst a sea of dross;or should it be a waterway of dross? Apart from the fact that it is beautifully filmed and put together, the programme shows the incredible spirit of two venerable soul mates (Timothy West is 81 and Pru Scales in 83) raging against the dying of the light. Prunella Scales is in the early stages of dementia yet it doesn’t stop her clambering along lock gates and putting her back into heaving them open while her husband takes on the master and commander role on the tiller. Even if he does bounce off the odd passing narrowboat and retaining wall!

By some strange quirk, ITV are also showing a celebrity/narrowboat programme at the moment featuring ex news reporter John Sergeant- ‘Boating around Britain’. Sadly, in contrast to Channel 4’s programme which features two long time narrowboat enthusiasts, The ITV programme falls into the celebrity/travelogue dross category which the channel  appears  to specialize in. John Sergeant is amenable enough, but is so wet and effeminate you can’t imagine he’s ever done anything more taxing than watch cricket. Unlike the grizzled and determined octogenarians on 4, Sergeant gives the impression that he’s a metropolitan fish out of water. Not helped when he emerges on deck in a white bath robe, delicately holding a china tea cup!

Alas, Narrowboating looks like being one of those many interests that I'll never be able to fully experience even if I am prone to tell young people especially,that if I was in their shoes, I'd buy an old narrowboat, do it up and take off into the wide blue yonder.

There’s some great books out there about life on a narrowboat and the vessels place in our history and culture. Amongst these are Tom Rolt’s classic Narrowboat and Paul Gogarty’s canal odyssey, The Water Road.


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