Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Great Canal Journeys: London

Little Venice
This is not so much a programme about canals as a programme about the sweetness of old age - being retired, with infinite time to go on long trips in a narrowboat, and watch the world go by at a peaceful pace and not having to care. This is not so much a programme about canals as a programme about the curse of old age - not being able to remember where you are going, where you have been or what you had for breakfast, with the world watching you go by at your snail's pace and not seeming to care. For people do not respect age. They tear down boatyards of yore and toss plastic bottles into the waterways, causing pollution that lets luminous algae grow.

Timothy West and Prunella Scales have been taking narrowboat holidays together since their two sons, Sam and Joe, were small boys. Last week they were travelling along the Oxford Canal, accompanied for some of the journey by author Philip Pullman and their now grown son, the actor Samuel West. This week they were in London, which gave a fascinating insight into a watery aspect of the city that far fewer people explore than its lifeblood, the River Thames.

They start on the Grand Union Canal in Brentford, then pass through Paddington Basin. They move on to the cemetery at Kensal Green, where coffins used to arrive by canal and where they pay homage to their dear friend Harold Pinter, who is buried there. Then onwards along the Regent's Canal through Little Venice, the Zoo, Camden and Kings Cross, before heading out to Hackney Wick and the Olympic Park, arriving at the Thames at Limehouse. Like everywhere in London, they witness all walks of life, all forms of architecture, and a simultaneous buzzing clash and cheerful melting pot of cultures. There are modern developments of luxury apartments and office suites, tastes of days gone by in old fishmonger's and riverside pubs, and very rundown areas and derelict warehouses, all jostling together. Each day's journey takes longer than planned, and they end up sailing in the dark, Pru already in bed. The first night they have to sleep under the din of the M40 flyover, but their second berth, next to Three Mills on the River Lea, could not have been quieter.

Aviary at London Zoo from the Regent's Canal
Prunella Scales is suffering from a mild form of dementia, and has a slightly lost-looking and dreamy stare. She seems to function, and is still a dab hand at opening canal locks, but it makes me more than a little sad. Andrew Sachs joins them for the trip from Little Venice to the Zoo, and he reads Pru extracts from his new autobiography, which isn't so much a shameless plug as an attempt to remind her of their time together on Fawlty Towers. Timothy West is endearingly cantankerous, not minding crashing into walls or other boats but not seeing any reason to get out of the way for anyone either. They are the ultimate celebrity couple - modest, unassuming, devoted, happy. I've seen them out and about together at the Proms and the theatre in London numerous times - always charming and well dressed, never showy or attention seeking.

Pru nearly loses her implacability when she gets cross with some Camden litter louts, tutting and shouting "Naughty!", but she is held back from further intervention by the lock keeper, fearing a violent response from the culprit, even in front of a television crew. But soon Pru is smiling again, and her face as she samples weird and wonderful truffles (Marmite, anyone?) in an Islington chocolatier is a delight. Tim is sailing through an 800 metre long tunnel below. Pru is on a shopping spree to buy them lunch, which on their flexible schedule ends up being more of an early dinner, but when it finally does come is the ultimate picture of gastronomy - oysters, prawns, stinky cheese, fine wine. They always seem to have a glass of wine in their hands as they sail. Why the hell not? This is the life, I'm telling you.

I've walked along most of the canals that they explore. Some form part of the Capital Ring circular route, which I have mentioned before. I was strolling around Paddington Basin and Little Venice with a friend when my fiance rang to say that our offer on our Crouch End flat had been accepted, so it is place that symbolises the start of a whole new chapter in my life for me. I've never been cool or grungy enough for Camden Market, preferring the Greek restaurants round the corner. I always felt threatened in the Lee Valley industrial area, possibly from watching too many people fall into canals on EastEnders. (Ironically, Timothy West is now in EastEnders.)

Tim takes the boat off piste (never an elegant detour) to see the site of the original Pickfords removals company warehouse. When Pickfords first started carrying goods by barge in 1778, Pickfords could deliver packages from London to Liverpool in seven days.

They have a celebratory drink with Sir Ian McKellen in his pub, the Grapes, in Limehouse. Gandalf's staff is behind the bar. Then they have to leave their vessel behind, as narrowboats are too flimsy to be allowed on the choppy, tidal Thames. So Pru and Tim are whizzed by motor boat back to their starting point. Tower Bridge opens up just as they pass through, but not for them.

Now, I can't imagine my family would have ever gone on a narrowboat holiday together when we were kids. Far too confined a space for all those arguments and for a brother who couldn't keep still. My dad hates boats anyway, and he can't swim. I don't think it appeals to us now either. Children, deep water, bumpy ride, temperamental lock gates - all a bit of a health and safety nightmare for a nervous parent. And yet canal boat holidays do have that peaceful pace that you cannot increase, come what may. Just let the world slip by, see it all slowly and at leisure, be at one with nature and amazed by what you see. So - ultimate stress or maximum chill-out? You decide.

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