Time Team’s Tony Robinson takes to the towpath of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal for an industrial walk through history
Time Team may be no more, aside from those occasional specials, but Tony Robinson’s passion for history shows little sign of abating, as Walking Through History proves.
The first of a three-part run sees the Blackadder veteran enjoying a towpath exploration of grand industrial engineering along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.
“The longest single canal in Britain, it stretches 127 miles, took 46 years to build and cost a whopping £4b in today’s money, but it set Liverpool and Lancashire up for a mighty future,” explains Tony.
Our travel guide begins in Liverpool, where he examines the city’s extraordinary history.
More than a century ago, over a third of world trade flowed through there, while its docks were the hub of transatlantic commerce, handling commodities such as slaves or tobacco and sugar imported from America.
The city’s success would have been impossible without the Leeds-Liverpool canal which connected the city with the rest of Britain.
Starting in the city centre, Tony chats to Dr William Ashworth from Liverpool University, who explains the importance of the canals.
“A dock is only as good as it can reach inland, so industry can grow up around canals, and you can link places that couldn’t be linked before, so that was absolutely crucial,” explains William.
The first Liverpool dock was built in 1715 with a population of just 5,000.
“To grow, it had to encourage its imports to be traded further inland and enable Britain’s manufactured goods to be exported through its port,” explains Tony.
However, because the roads were so bad at the time, in 1768 Liverpool’s key merchants met with their peers in textile metropolis Leeds on the other side of the Pennines, and the idea for the potentially lucrative Leeds-Liverpool canal was born. Later Tony heads north to Hartley’s jam factory, and visits the Grand National’s home at Aintree.
He also reveals how Liverpudlian sewage helped Lancashire’s agriculture; chats to canal-based knitter Carole Jones, and then heads for Parbold.
Robinson’s final day sees him explore the canalside settlement at Crooke, before his final destination, the home of Wigan Pier.
Along the way Tony gives us a wealth of facts about the canal’s chaotic construction, and its dramatic effect on Lancashire’s history, before reaching the iconic Pier.
It was made famous by two Georges – Orwell, whose 1937 book The Road To Wigan Pier told the story of England’s poor, and Formby, who included the location in his songs.
It’s a symbol both of the canal’s role in Wigan’s growth – and a sign of the Lancashire industry that’s now disappeared.
“Life on and by the canal must have been bleak, dirty and harsh in its heyday,” explains Tony at the end of the show.
“But the astonishing figures about the wealth it helped create and the fond memories the people have of their working lives are reminders of just how much has been lost here in Lancashire.”
If you want to follow Tony’s trek, go to Channel4.com to find out more.
:: Walking Through History (Channel 4, 8pm)