Go ’Barging Around Britain’ with John Sergeant

As ITV’s Barging Around Britain with John Sergeant airs tonight, we present a Q & A with the Strictly star and former political correspondent.


Having dabbled in ballroom dancing on Strictly Come Dancing, former political correspondent John Sergeant is now taking to Britain’s barges to investigate the history of the nation’s iconic waterways in new eight-part ITV series Barging Around Britain, airing tonight at 8pm.

This isn’t the first time Sergeant has shown his penchant for travel; 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 this new adventure will see him take a slow journey through Somerset and the Hebrides, exploring Britain’s scenic canal routes via narrow boat.

ITV commissioning editor Andrew O’Connell said: “There’s nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats and what better way to do it than on an English narrowboat.”

Here he offers some insight into what you can expect from the programme, and some of the interesting facts and memorable moments he encountered along the way…

Why do you think Brits have such an affinity with the canals?

Canals are an essential part of the British landscape. We may not give them as much attention as they deserve and many people may just ignore them, but like our beautiful towns and villages, we would feel lost without them. They are familiar and reassuring, like country pubs and thatched cottages. Mostly they were built just after the Industrial Revolution, when Britain led the world. Our great canal network gives us a chance to celebrate our history as well as to escape from the modern world, all at walking pace.

Could you ever see yourself living on a canal boat?

I certainly could but I am not sure my wife would be so keen. I go sailing with my brother and am used to living on a boat. When I was “Barging Round Britain” it was one of the things I most enjoyed, even though it meant being filmed in my pyjamas. Oh, the joys of TV!

If you could recommend one journey, which would it be?

The trip I most enjoyed was the one along the Caledonian Canal, which cuts across Scotland through the Great Glen. We had an old fishing boat and a marvellous crew and although we failed to find the monster in Loch Ness we filmed two very convincing witnesses to a monster I had never heard of, in Loch Lochy.


What was the strangest historical fact you learnt on your journey?

It was on the same trip. We learned in detail how the traditional fishing fleet would use the Caledonian canal to catch up with the shoals of herring which would move round the coast of Scotland in a predictable way each year. The canal was the perfect short cut, saving time and, of course money, to keep up with the ‘silver darlings.’ Alas, no more. But we did see the wreck in one of the lochs of one of the last fishing boats which had been used to keep the trade going.

How would you describe the people you met who live and work on the canals?

Many of them were real characters, who were determined not to be ground down by ordinary life. They had a real, romantic attraction to their life apart, to be able to choose their own neighbours and to travel all over the country, according to their mood. And there were plenty of the ‘live on boards’ who had been doing it for ten years and more. They enjoy their alternative life-style and are determined to stay on the water for as long as possible.

What was the most special place you encountered?

The two big viaducts on the Llangollen canal. You are suddenly suspended on a strip of water jutting out like a pencil across these two valleys. They were designed by the famous Thomas Telford, whose engineering genius is behind these apparently simple creations. The laws of gravity appear to have been suspended and if, like me, you are seeing them for the first time, they really do take your breath away. High above the valley, you are flying – in a canal boat.

Barging Round Britain by John Sergeant and David Bartley (Michael Joseph Hardback and Ebook
£20.00, 12 February), official companion to the ITV TV show airing at 8pm on 13 February 2015.

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