TV blog: Great Canal Journeys

Benjie Goodhart / 18 March 2016

Timothy West and Prunella Scales are the perfect travel companions for a journey along Sweden’s Gota Canal.

The first holiday I ever went on with the woman who has the good fortune to call herself my wife was a boating holiday around the Norfolk Broads. It rained a lot, we kept crashing the boat, and I got stuck in a toilet with a floor space the size of a postage stamp for two hours while maintenance came and rescued me. And it was still one of the happiest holidays of my life.

We’ve not been since – almost entirely because of having children. It’s asking for trouble. Despite weekly lessons for the last three years, our son could accurately be described as ‘the human pebble’, and our daughter, aged 4, is so accident-prone she can’t be trusted to brush her teeth without causing some kind of global apocalypse. So the boating holidays will have to wait. But they will return, and I can’t wait. Nothing beats pootling along at a couple of miles per hour, slowly enough to really take in ones surroundings, seeing the world from an entirely different and ever-changing perspective.

In the meantime, I have to do my boating vicariously, and you’d be hard pushed to do it in better company than with Timothy West and Prunella Scales. Tim and Pru to their friends, of which I now firmly consider myself one. Their canal-boating programmes are a quiet joy, as they phut-phut along some of the most beautiful stretches of waterway in the country, chuntering away to each other happily, with the easy affection and mutual understanding that comes from over five decades of marriage.

In this programme, they’ve moved away from Britain’s waterways, so that Tim might pursue a lifelong dream. Why, after all, should being in ones mid-80s preclude one from following one’s ambitions? They’re travelling the length of the Gota Canal, from Gothenberg to the Baltic. It’s a journey of hundreds of miles, crossing Sweden’s two biggest lakes (including the Vänern, the largest in the EU). The canal was constructed at the start of the 19th Century, so Swedish shipping could avoid the fearsome Danish navy – not three words you see together very often these days. It took 60,000 men 22 years to build, and opened in 1822.

Tim and Pru do the first hundred miles of their journey in some style, aboard the Juno, the oldest  registered passenger vessel in the world. Ibsen did this journey on it, as did Hans Christian Andersen, who fell in love on the journey. Pru asks Tim if such romance will be repeated on this leg. “In those bunk beds?” says Tim, looking worried. I love Tim and Pru.

After losing her sea legs, and quite possibly her lunch, crossing Vänern, Pru is happy to get back onto canals, as they arrive at their own craft. They’re on a motor cruiser, not a narrow boat and – this may be sacrilege of the most blasphemous sort – it looks nicer and more luxurious than a barge. (Alert the witness protection programme…) And on they go, through stunning scenery, past emerald green forests and pastured farmland with quaint wooden buildings. “It’s a fairytale land. Extraordinary,” opines Tim.

They visit a beautiful house overlooking the canal, owned by a business magnate. “He’s made a business out of bottling fruit and making it into delicious fruit drinks. It’s a big thing in Sweden,” says Tim, who has somehow managed to reach his 80s with the concept of fruit juice seemingly eluding him. Pru, meanwhile, has never had a sauna before, so they give that a go too. Though they stop short of doing it the full Scandinavian way, if you get my meaning. We are British after all. Towels aren’t there just for decoration.

The programme is, as always, heavenly. The landscape and waterways are breathtaking, the pace refreshingly slow in a hectic modern world. And Tim and Pru, with all their bickering and fondness and affection, are the perfect hosts. One piece Pru does to the camera is deeply moving, and seems to encapsulate perfectly the whole point of marriage. “Tim is a travel freak. I don’t actually like opening the front door to put the milk bottles out. We’ve been married for 50-something years now. I think he’s very good for me. He’s helped me to enjoy travel. He’s opened up the world for me.”

Related: Visit Sweden's southern fjords on a Scandinavian Waterways and Beyond cruise

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