In the late ’80s around where I lived in the UK, canal estates sprung up as if they were townhouses on subdivided suburban blocks post-GFC. I came to associate canals with gaudy displays of upper-middle-class wealth and a distinct feeling of being poor and unwelcome. These estates had names like Oceanic Paradise, very subtle reminders that I eked out an existence in, at best, Suburban Purgatory. I didn’t like canals very much.
Beyond the proto-McMansions, the problem with the canal estates was that they weren’t very interesting, not unless your interests extended to yachts idling in artificial estuaries, pearl-clutching over the bull sharks in the water, or being buzzed by drunk rich kids up to no good in Dad’s tinny while he was away on ‘business’. There was no purpose to them other than a show of affluence and upward social mobility. It turns out, if you wanted your canals to have purpose, you’d have to get far, far away from the spectre of ’80s Britain.
Thankfully, these days you can do that without leaving the comfort of an impending housing market collapse, and just tune into All Aboard! The Canal Trip, a two-hour slow TV journey along the Kennet and Avon Canal, from Top Lock in Bath to the Dundas Aqueduct.
You’ll experience canals as they’re meant to be: winding through lush countryside, water sloshing in hypnotic rhythms against boat bottoms, nary a mid-life crisis convertible in sight.
Things started off familiarly enough for the UK’s inland waterway network, built as it was by the Rich Kids of the Ancient World – AKA the Romans – though they were more concerned about irrigation than manufactured waterfront living. The network then became a driving force of the industrial revolution, shifting coal in quantities that would make even the most moderate Coalition MP salivate, before being replaced by that other star of the slow TV scene: railways.
Now used solely for leisure and recreation, the network totals some 3,500km of mostly connected canals and rivers throughout England, Wales and Scotland. But more than this, the canals trace a path through history, a course that takes you from the furthest reaches of one of the largest empires the world has ever seen, to the industrialisation of labour and the advent of private property.
Bring the family
Kyoto may have the Golden Pavilion, but London lays claim to the Feng Shang Princess. Unfortunately absent from The Canal Trip, Regent’s Canal offers the perfect destination for those who would rather fill up on food than history – a floating restaurant beloved by Paul McCartney himself! He loves the restaurant so much that before his marriage to Nancy Shevell, he brought the whole family there for dinner, much to the confused delight of patrons.
See the sights
If you continue along Regent’s Canal (though who could blame you for calling it a day at the floating restaurant) you’ll find yourself winding through London Zoo. Even if you’ve blown your budget on lunch and can’t afford the price of admission, the canals offer a pretty amazing view of Snowdon Aviary, which does a fairly convincing impression of an enclosure from Jurassic Park for free.
Very wholesome things
This is an all-too-brief way of saying that there’s no shortage of interesting things to see and experience along the UK’s canal network. Even if the idea of a narrowboat holiday doesn’t float your… erm… boat, there are worse ways to spend a day than taking a leisurely stroll along the water’s edge, simply enjoying nature and trying to hold conversations with ducks.
Nothing smacks of class in Britain quite like a canal estate, which makes it somewhat ironic that the canals of our colonial forebears are welcoming, public spaces and well worth exploring.
All Aboard! The Canal Trip airs on Sunday, 20 January at 7:30pm on SBS as part of SBS’s Slow Summer.