Barging round Britain: John Sergeant on the secrets of our waterways

The former Strictly contestant and political correspondent talks boating, pubs and the architectural feats of our canals

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Since winning the public’s heart in the ballroom, former political correspondent John Sergeant has certainly been getting around. In ITV’s John Sergeant on the Tourist Trail he tried his hand at being a tour guide; for the BBC he explored India by rail in John Sergeant on Tracks of Empire; and his new adventure, Barging round Britain (ITV), sees him take to Britain’s waterways by boat.

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“It’s a classic holiday,” exclaims the presenter, who spent two glorious months cruising narrow boats last summer. Over eight episodes, Sergeant will unearth the fascinating history of our canals, meeting lock builders and families living aboard houseboats, and witnessing incredible architectural feats. “The British canal network is romantic and quite mysterious,” explains Sergeant. “You don’t know where these things are going and then you suddenly come across a tunnel that can go on for a mile – it’s pretty incredible.”

But it was the magnificent aqueducts that really got Sergeant’s heart racing. Travelling along the Grand Union Canal into London, he crosses over the North Circular via a water channel. “It’s mysterious and dramatic,” he says. “It’s every bargie’s dream.”

On one of his eight journeys, the presenter cruises over the spectacular Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, a thin bridge of water that carries the Llangollen Canal over the River Dee in north-east Wales. “It was terribly exciting,” remembers Sergeant. Completed in 1805, this skinny passage is the longest and highest aqueduct in Britain, and took ten years to build. “It’s like a pencil,” says Sergeant. “You look at it and you think, ‘This isn’t going to work,’ because there are no rails or anything. It’s magic.” 

This wasn’t Sergeant’s first go at being helmsman. He frequently sails with his brother, Peter, but admitted narrow-boating was new territory. “We had quite a few near misses,” he laughs. But in true Sergeant fashion he gets stuck in nevertheless: “On each trip I’m overnighting at least once,” he says, remembering a scene with him in his dressing gown on an empty canal. “There’s something amazing about waking up to complete silence. In one place there was nothing – nothing that way and nothing the other way.” Aside from the humorous moments filming, like chasing sheep or gallivanting around with horses, Sergeant uncovers some lesser-known secrets of the canals. In Scotland, between Inverness and Fort William, sits an engineering marvel: the Caledonian Canal.

Built in the Napoleonic Wars, it was meant to give the Navy the chance of a safe short cut,” explains Sergeant. Running 60 miles through the heart of the Scottish Highlands, it creates a channel from coast to coast. “If you see it on a map, it’s like a scar across Scotland. It’s wide enough for two British warships.” In the end, however, the wars finished seven years before the canal was completed, and it was never needed by the Navy. It was used by fishing fleets to chase herring around the coastline on their annual migrations from the Outer Hebrides.

Today, it’s a gorgeously peaceful spot in which tourists can hire boats and explore. “It’s like you are making a secret journey. If you want to stress-bust, it forces you into a different mode and into a different time, because you are living at the beginning of the 19th century,” he says. So he’s keen on doing more shows like this? “I think ‘Barging round Venice’ would be a natural follow-up,” he says with a laugh. Maybe Sergeant’s found his groove. 

Watch Barging round Britain with John Sergeant this Friday at 8.00pm on ITV (not STV, not Wales)


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