The charity making life better by water

A slice of canal life

When photographer James Shenton and his toddler Nancy were in lockdown, they escaped for a daily walk on the Peak Forest Canal. This scenic canal runs past their back garden towards Marple Locks. Getting to know the characters on the canal gave James a wonderful idea. He tells Waterfront more about the stunning portraits he started to capture on the towpath.

Man in red and grey t-shirt sat on a chair at sunset by the canal

James calls his collection ‘Stories from the Bridge to the Locks', as he and Nancy kept their walk to a one-mile stretch either side of home. He feels this focus helped him really get to know his local canal community.

“I love the canal anyway, but it's interesting speaking to people who've lived here for years but you've never spoken to. You really get to know what the canal means to them. Over the past year, there has been an acknowledgement between passers-by of the crazy times we're living in. It made it easier to say hello, especially on the canal. You wouldn't do that on the High Street.”

Nancy, James Shenton's daughter


If it weren't for Nancy asking to go on a walk each day, this project might never have happened. Their time together by water became James's favourite part of the day.

“The canal is like an artery supporting all these different branches of life,” continues James.

"It takes you to the local community, into local heritage, the nature around you, the wellbeing and leisure side. It's a great space and my appreciation for it has really grown. I look at it completely differently.”

Surprisingly this is James's first collection of portraiture. “I'm doing a master's degree and I really wanted to push myself,” he explains. “It's exhilarating when you go out in the late afternoon, that golden hour when the light is really nice, and come back with three or four shots you're really proud of. It's so rewarding, like being a hunter, looking out for those stories. I've learned how to talk to people, but listening is more important. That's how you capture their story in the image.”

Here are just some of the people James met along the towpath.

Portrait shot of a man


“Abdul noticed my camera and was asking about my project. He remarked how lucky I was to live in Marple and have the canal on my doorstep.”

A bearded man sitting aboard his boat wearing a brimmed hat, grey jumper and holding a cup of tea


After salvaging his boat from a scrapyard, Chris has built the engine from scratch and is very proud of how sustainable his boat is. When James asked him if the sound of his engine wasn't too loud, Chris said: “It's like music to my ears.”

Portrait shot of a young woman wearing ear muffs and a green coat


Catia is a doctor working for the NHS, a Marple resident and a friend James often sees walking on the canal. She says:

"Amid the insanity of the pandemic I find comfort by the calm canal. It has helped me find the strength to continue working on the frontline."

Portrait shot of a bearded man stood by the canal wearing dark clothing


As a local artist, and owner of two historic working boats, Steve is helping to restore Tramway wharf in Marple as a heritage site and art space for the whole community. It's here that James plans to exhibit his work in the future.

Shot of an elderly man walking his dog by the canal


80-year-old James retired ten years ago. Since then he has travelled the world. He says 2020 has been the worst year of his life. He told James stories of helping barges up Marple locks in summer as a teenager.

Elderly gentleman wearing flat cap and dark clothing, standing next to a disused lime kiln


Brian has taken James under his wing and introduced him to the rich history around Marple, its lime kilns and industrialist Samuel Oldknow. Brian and his family actually used to live in the Lime Loading Building, surrounded by lime dust.

Close-up crop of a man facing camera


After living in a tower block, Darren moved on to his narrowboat, Gracie, in 2019. Even with no running water, electricity or heating on his boat, Darren says it was an easy decision to make.

© James Shenton


Together with his Dad, Chris has launched High Peak's very own floating pizzeria and café, ‘Waltzing Matilda', for people along the towpath to enjoy delicious food outdoors this summer.

All photographs © James Shenton. Not to be used without permission.

Last Edited: 29 June 2021

photo of a location on the canals
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