John Sergeant navigates the Marple Aqueduct: “You feel like you’re in a bath, floating along”

The journalist and former Strictly contestant voyages along Peak Forest, Rochdale and Lancaster canals in Barging Round Britain

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Were you pleased to be Barging Round Britain a second time?

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It’s great and once you get to series two you can relax a bit more and have a bit more fun. You’re more neurotic in the first series. You wonder if it’s going to work and if people are going to like it. We don’t have a script so the programme is very much dependent on the team making it and the people we meet.  

In episode one, you travel across the Marple Aqueduct. How was that?

Wonderful. We had a great guide and from the aqueduct you can also see where the train goes, which is also Victorian. So on a nice day you have this incredible valley, with the water under it and the lovely architecture.

Being on an aqueduct is always exciting because you are on the water, high up in the sky, crossing a valley. It’s much more exciting than being in a car or train crossing a bridge. You feel like you’re in a bath, floating along. It’s such an unusual sensation. And then you look down and see the view. It was just spectacular.

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The Marple Aqueduct on the Peak Forest canal near Marple in Greater Manchester

What is your favourite canal journey from this series?

I did very much enjoy the Lancaster Canal because something unusual happened. The viaduct at Lancaster drained away because it got a hole in the bottom. You don’t think of canals running out of water but this did. There are no locks on the Lancaster canal so if you’re not careful, the whole canal can empty.

We arrived at the aqueduct and there were all these people running about. We saw the ribbed backbone of the canal as it was all exposed. 


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Were there any journeys that took you by surprise?

The sheer number of locks on the Rochdale canals was incredible. In a relatively short distance there were 92 locks because the builders didn’t have enough money to tunnel through the hills. 

In fact that canal ran out of water too and we were beached at one stage. That was surprising, to actually go aground on a canal. We were there at night and it suddenly tipped over. In the morning we woke up and the boat was leaning over and we were beached. We knew it was shallow but you don’t expect to wake up and not be able to move the boat.

John Sergeant navigates the Rochdale Canal

We see you travel all over the country. Did you see any geographical differences in the canals?

Yes, the Peak District was amazing with the aqueduct and the locks. Those canals were concerned with the business of getting rocks down the peaks for the limestone so they could crush it and make mortar. It’s sort of magical. They were dropping huge great loads of limestone. 

The Oxford countryside is beautiful and it’s special to me because that’s where I was brought up. It’s a flat, meandering canal network. It’s like coming home for me.

Which canals are still on your wish list?

There are lots of them. It’s an enormous network in Britain, with thousands of miles. 

In Lancaster you can go out on to an estuary and then back into another canal. I’d have liked to have done that but we finished before we reached the estuary. I just like the idea of taking a canal boat out on a proper estuary.

The Bridgewater canals in Exeter would be lovely to see and we haven’t even visited Norfolk in the series, so that’s another place I’d love to go.

Barging Round Britain with John Sergeant begins on Friday 22nd April, ITV at 8pm


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