In recent years, Dan Jones’ posing and fanciful Crimewatch-style re-enactments, together with Starkeyesque conclusions formed before he started, has marred quite a few series on mediaeval history. Now he seems to have changed tack completely with this series, covering canal building from the middle of the eighteenth century and – yes – I rather enjoyed it, even though Rob Bell may have been more appropriate.
My main criticism is not with the programme content or the presenter but that it was broadcast as two ninety minute episodes and not three separate hours. The content definitely subdivided this way, showing that canals superseded the unreliable roads and rivers of the Early Modern Era.
The first hour was about the Grand Union Canal, originally conceived to join Birmingham and London via Oxford, with the first stretch to Coventry already constructed – it eventually went further east and the Oxford Canal filled the gap. Then came the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, taking Yorkshire produce to the great west coast port via a few higher rainfall Lancashire mill towns – after negotiation because lengthening the route would slow down the journey. Finally, it moved on to the Avon-Kennet Canal that opened in 1810 to link London and Bristol, although railways and improved roads were about to make them commercially obsolete, particularly through a certain Mr. Brunel. As Jones made clear, canals remain popular for pleasure boats and the Avon-Kennet Canal avoided closure in the 1950s for this reason.
No sooner has this series finished than Jones has returned to the Channel Five “cluster” with a show about Roman roads. Trailers showing him dressed as a centurion are not promising.