The charity making life better by water

The art of discovery

Some eight million people live within just a kilometre of their local canal or river. But not everyone has yet discovered the delights they can find by the water. While many people want to be active along the towpath, art is a gentler way of introducing waterside wellbeing. That’s why we developed our national Hinterlands project, which helps people uncover the beauty of canals on their doorstep.

A group of young people studying outside sat on a tarpaulin on the grass next to a canal

Hinterland: a land lying beyond what is visible or known.

Although it's taking place right around the country from Wales to Sheffield and London, the philosophy of Hinterlands is the same everywhere.

Rather than simply imposing a piece of art at the side of a canal, artists invite local people to discover their local canal space. They then work with local schools or community groups to help them interpret what their canal means to them. Together, the artist and community create pieces of art that respond to their particular stretch of canal. In simple terms, they create art that's meaningful to each local community.

As you can see from this video of the work we're doing with school children living close to the Lee Navigation in Enfield, London, it's a very accessible approach to art. Helping young people experience it in the blue and green outdoor canal spaces they live near to, rather than a museum or gallery.

It's a way of fully involving everyone in creating art, rather than simply viewing it. As well as giving young people from local communities a chance to really connect with the beauty, history and wildlife they find on their local waterway, it also helps them to find the confidence to express themselves through art.

A young person wearing a hi-viz vest studying next to the canal the canal

“After taking part in a Hinterlands workshop

I feel calm, peaceful and creative.”

Yusra, year 3 pupil.

The school's workshop featured in the video is just one of 39 workshops delivered so far with 20 more to come, including a wide range of local community groups. The idea is to make the whole of Enfield and Tottenham waterside a vibrant community space full of art and culture.

As our video shows, artists such Julia Elmore, Paula Bernard-Groves and Joshua Bilton are working with children and local residents of all ages to create temporary artworks inspired by the canal. Some of these will be made at Building BloQs, the largest workshop space for designers, artists and makers in London.

In the autumn, pupils from Orchardside School will work with local historians and digital media artists SDNA, to create a digital artwork and heritage app exploring the local area's rich history. The Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield Lock, for instance, has a fascinating story to tell, using the Lee Naviagation to ship arms such as the famous Lee-Enfield rifle down to the Thames.

Recently, inclusive theatre group Face Front presented the ‘River Ramblers', a performance celebrating the history of the canal and the contemporary community of boaters who live there, on three sites up and down the Lee Navigation from Tottenham, to Edmonton and Enfield. Community picnics encouraging people of all ages to sketch their favourite view of the canal have also been held.

With many more projects planned for Hinterlands, both this year and next, on canals and rivers around the country, we look forward to bringing you more news of how art is giving people new experiences on their local canal.

Last Edited: 24 August 2021

photo of a location on the canals
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