Shutter Hub member Joe Dixey is a freelance photographer who graduated in photography from the University of Brighton in 2012. His photography practice is investigative and curious, and he is particularly interested in exploring our relationship with the landscape and the spaces in which we live.
He was selected as a finalist for the Magnum Photo/Ideastap Photography competition in 2013 for his project ‘Maximum Stay’, a documentary project about motorway service stations in the UK, and his project ‘LACE’, about his home city of Nottingham, has been exhibited at the Truman Brewery, London and at the Scalarama Festival.
The canals in the UK are facing a serious threat due to reduced government funding. As someone who lives on a narrowboat and has been photographing these waterways for the past year, I have personally witnessed the beauty and importance of these canals. Despite the fact that there are over 2,000 miles of waterways managed by the Canals and Rivers Trust which contribute a staggering £6.1 billion in economic and social value, the government is cutting back on their funding. This could potentially lead to the canals and rivers falling into disrepair and degradation.
The inland waterways of Britain wind their peaceful way through urban and rural areas, offering boaters, walkers, and cyclists a unique perspective into a fascinating and previously almost lost world. These waterways were mainly used by boatmen and their families, who lived a nomadic lifestyle that was often colourful and picturesque to our eyes, but remarkably harsh for them. Canals were the primary means of transporting the nation’s goods during the late 1700s and early 1800s, requiring the boatmen to negotiate locks, traverse aqueducts, and pass through long, narrow tunnels. Canals were the lifeblood of trade during the early part of the Industrial Revolution.
“To step down from some busy thoroughfare onto the quiet towpath of a canal, even in the heart of a town, is to step backwards a hundred years or more and to see things in a different, and perhaps more balanced perspective. The rush of traffic on the road above seems to become the purposeless scurrying of an overturned anthill beside the unruffled calm of the water, which even the slow passage of the boats does not disturb.” – LTC Rolt, Narrowboat, 1939
After World War II, a group of enthusiasts explored the hidden world of Britain’s inland waterways and had a vision of what it could become – a living transport museum that stretched across the country. LTC Rolt, who authored the book ‘Narrowboat’, played a significant role in kick-starting the restoration struggle. Today, the inland waterways are regarded as an essential part of the nation’s fabric. The long-abandoned waterways, which were once viewed as an eyesore and a hazard, are now recognised as a valuable contributor to our quality of life.
My goal was to follow in the footsteps of LTC Rolt to document and explore the inland waterways. Almost 80 years after the publication of his book, it seems that inland waterways find themselves at similar risk of disrepair and degradation. I wanted to investigate the allure and significance of the canal network and what that means for the people who reside on or beside them. Is it a rejection of the rigid structures of the modern world for a transient way of life? Or is it the ability to slow down time, to be self-sufficient in a community that defies normality and that brings you closer to nature?
For me, the inland waterways offer a 2,000-mile oasis of calm that cuts through the UK’s landscape. It is a place that allows you to be alone and offers the chance to connect with history, nature, and society at your own slow pace.
I am continuing work on this project and hope to turn it into a series of publications and an archival website. If we have any more narrow boaters in this community, I’d love to hear from you too!
To find out more about Joe’s work, visit his website here.
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