Once upon a time, Britain’s canals were a vital cog in the industrial wheel: teeming, thriving thoroughfares employing thousands and contributing to the health of the economy. No, no, I’m not talking about the 18th and 19th centuries, I’m talking about last week. The industry in question, of course, is the television industry.
Canals these days are absolutely rammed with TV crews pootling about on barges filming gently enthralling programmes. Whether it’s BBC Four’s recent filming and screening of a two-hour canal trip in real time, or Pru and Tim filming their travelogues for Channel 4, or indeed John Sergeant’s similar series for ITV, canals are about as hip as it gets right now. (As a rule, if you want to know what’s hip and happening, BBC Four, Pru and Tim, and John Sergeant are the sources to consult.)
The latter’s series, Barging Round Britain with John Sergeant, begins with a delightful episode in which Sergeant has discovered a stretch of canal that has not yet been covered by rival programmes, seems remarkably free of other film crews, and is both fascinating and beautiful.
Welcome to the Peak Forest Canal, running from Buxworth to Ashton-Under-Lyne.
Related: Top 5 scenic canal routes in the UK
For this foray onto Britain’s waterways network, Sergeant is being towed in a butty, an unpowered narrowboat, by a working barge. The reasons for this are not made clear – has Sergeant been banned from Britain’s canals after a speeding offence too far, roaring along at 3mph? Has his theory that barging is a contact sport rendered him too much of a liability? Anyway, he seems unconcerned, pottering along at a sedate 2mph, watching the world go by.
And why not? It’s a pretty interesting world. The Peak Forest Canal may be only 15 miles long, but it’s not short of history or beauty. First stop is New Mills, where one of the old mills has been turned into a thriving sweet factory for the company Swizzels, who make Refreshers and Love Hearts.
Sergeant is welcomed into the factory with open arms, given a tour, and allowed to help out on the production line. Just be aware, this courtesy is probably not extended to those who turn up without a film crew.
“Ever tempted to eat this stuff,” he asks one of the workers. “No. Not at all. Never,” comes the startlingly off-message reply. “Don’t have a sweet tooth?” Sergeant replies gamely. “No, I want to keep my teeth,” replies the man.
Next, Sergeant meets a lady who has spent the last three years putting three lollies into a sweetie tin. Three into each tin, I don’t mean she’s only done three in three years. That would be astonishingly inept. Although watching John have a go…
From New Mills it’s on to Marple, which once boasted Mellor Mill, the biggest cotton-spinning mill in the world, until it burned down in 1892. Marple is also home to the Marple Loch Flight, 16 deep lochs allowing the canal to drop down 200 feet in a mile. It’s only right that the effort involved in such an endeavour is rewarded – and here, the reward comes in the stately and impressive form of the Marple Aqueduct, Britain’s highest stone aqueduct, soaring 100 feet above the valley below. “This is one of the great sights of Britain,” says a thrilled Sergeant. “Britain at its absolute best.” In short, then, you don’t want to miss Marple. (Sorry, I realise that is grounds for instant dismissal.)
After that, it’s on into Greater Manchester, through Hyde, an area struggling with economic stagnation and rampant unemployment. Here, he meets local boy and former boxing world champion Ricky Hatton, who is doing his best to plough money, hope and pride back into the area with his boxing gym.
Almost inevitably, there is the de rigueur scene of Hatton putting Sergeant through his paces in the gym. If you ever thought Sergeant was inelegant on Strictly, you genuinely have seen nothing until you’ve witnessed him take on a punchbag. Then he gets in to the ring to spar with Hatton…
It’s a lot to squeeze in under half an hour of telly, but while short on time, the show is long on charm. The Peak Forest Canal looks more than worth a visit, provided you don’t mind dodging the film crews.
Related: Top 4 questions about taking a canal boat holiday
Barging Round Britain with John Sergeant, Friday 22nd April, 8pm, ITV