Great Canal Journeys: Timothy West and Prunella Scales' top narrowboat trips

The acting duo reveal their romance with Britain's backwaters and share five heavenly haunts

Great Canal Journeys: Timothy West and Prunella Scales' top narrowboat trips
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Timothy West is gaily reminiscing about the time in 1996 he and Kevin Whatley faced a watery grave. “We were doing Twelve Angry Men at Bristol Old Vic and I took a party of actors on the boat down the River Avon – a very swollen River Avon as there’d been a lot of rain.”

Nosing his narrowboat into a lock, it was swept into the adjacent, waterfall-like weir. At the last second a safety bar stopped them toppling over. “Kevin Whately and I were standing on the back of the boat looking very brave but thinking, ‘This is probably the end of our boat and our trip and possibly the production’. The trouble was we hadn’t the force – either from manpower or engine power – to get away as the water was driving us against this bar.”

In the end, a passing canoeist paddled a rope to the opposite bank and flagged down a lorry. The driver attached the rope to his front bumper and ploughed across somebody’s field, dragging the actors out of danger. “It was quite a hairy afternoon,” recalls Tim. “It’s a good thing there was plenty of wine on board!”

Watching Tim and Pru’s Slow Boat you wonder there aren’t more mishaps. At 81, Prunella Scales is still astonishingly nimble: shimming along locks unfazed by the sheer drop either side. Her husband is at the helm and responsible for a few sickening crunches as the boat bounces off the bank.

“Yes, it’s always Tim who steers!” trills Prunella, with mock exasperation. “But I enjoy running up and down because of the wonderful wildlife on the towpoath. And it keeps you fit.”

The couple celebrated their golden wedding anniversary last October with a trip down the River Thames on a paddle steamer the Waverley. Their love affair with canals was ignited in the 1970s, when they borrowed a friend’s boat for a fornight. “We’d never been on a narrowboat before and we just had one of the best holidays of our lives,” says Tim. “It was blissful summer and the two boys [Sam, now also an actor, and Joe] were… how old were they, Pru?”

“Just old enough to help with opening and shutting locks. The great thing was they got so beautifully tired they fell asleep at six and we were able to have a glass of wine and talk.”

They’ve been navigating Britain’s more 2,000 miles of canals ever since, and holidaying on their current vessel since 1989. Pru: “She sleeps seven if everybody knows each other well and nobody snores.” Tim: “She’s showing her age a little bit: I always say, she doesn’t have teething troubles; she has denture troubles!”

In the programme, he talks movingly about their own battles with the passing years and a condition that Pru suffers from – “a sort of mild Alzheimer’s... She can’t remember things very well, but you don’t have to remember things on the canal. You can just enjoy things as they happen – so it’s perfect for her.”

They’re also determined not to let it keep them from the stage. “I always say I want to die on the eighth curtain call,” says Pru. “Eight will mean the show’s been rather a success. I just hope I’m somewhere near the middle and have been reasonably good in the part.”

Pru’s top 5 heavenly haunts

Our canal bot is a sort of weekend country cottage – except that you can wake up to a different view outside the window every morning. When Tim and I were younger, we used to explore the whole network of waterways – up as far as Ripon, in North Yorkshire – the farthest north in England and Wales you can go by narrowboat.

But which waterside haunts stick in my memory?

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Oxford Canal

Out first experience of a canal holiday was being lent a boat on the Oxford Canal in the beautiful summer of 1976. I remember mooring for one evening near King’s Sutton, watching the sun go down and just listening to the water trickling through the gate of the nearby lock. Our two boys, having spent the day working the locks and swing bridges, had collapsed with happy exhaustion. Bliss.

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Avon Canal

For some years we kept our own boat at Newbury on the Kennet and Avon Canal. Various locks on this canal were offered for “adoption” by patrons, and we picked the delightfully wooded Copse Lock, just where the River Kennet joins the canal for a time. A lovely spot.

Stratford-upon-Avon Canal

When you’ve travelled the length of the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal, what an exciting moment it is to come out from under the final road bridge and find yourself staring at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre! Our son Sam lived on our boat for two seasons in Stratford. It was a nice life: play Hamlet, fall into the Dirty Duck, fall into your boat — and try not to fall out!

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Macclesfield Canal

Journeying north once, we left the tomato-soup-coloured waters of the Potteries, and instead of following our intended main route to Manchester, we thought we’d have a look at the narrower Macclesfield Canal. I’m so glad we did. The area south of Congleton, where the canal is carried on a high embankment, offers views of some of the most beautiful countryside available anywhere on the system.

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Crinan Canal

Going even further north, I have to mention the nine-mile-long Crinan Canal in Argyll and Bute, slicing across the Kintyre peninsula to provide a shortcut from Loch Fyne to the Atlantic. We didn’t do it in our own boat, of course — at 4mph it would have taken us about a year — but in the venerable “puffer” steamship Vic 32, aboard which we have taken blissful holidays. Tim is a steam freak — he was in his element!

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