Looking through the Lens at Canal Boat Lives

Exciting news - book and exhibition launches will start from December this year!

If you would like to pre order a book for Christmas presents please email me on gill@gillshaw.co.uk - £19.99 each

I’ve recently taken time out from photographing royal and media celebrities to focus my lens on some fascinating, and surprisingly diverse characters, who live and work on our hidden waterways. The one thing that unites them is their love for their off-grid lifestyle choice.

Abi Beane - International Nurse

Living on a traditional narrow boat in the center of London is both a dream come true and a humbling way to learn about one's own priorities and resilience. Warm summers idling by the canal, but with the convenience of mains electricity supply to our boats from the shoreline. The joy of lighting the stove as the cool autumn nights draws in. All this, just a stroll from St John’s Wood. It is a truly unique way to live as part of a community in London.

The simplicity of canal life for me, like many boaters in our tow path community, is in being able to preserve the traditions of a more analogue way of life whilst incorporating the best of the new. Whether it is an idea for compact storage or some new insulation or heating appliance. For me, this is the perfect tonic to a busy, multi-time zone work schedule, that applies a constant digital pressure.

Canal living has taught me to have awareness and to embrace compromise. Awareness of the changing seasons and the impact of the warming climate on all canal life. The boats steel structure - and our own less than steely ability to tolerate the winter chill! Awareness of our consumption of resources such as fuel and water; and the compromise when it is my turn to undertake the waste disposal run! Awareness of those we live alongside and the visitors that walk along the towpaths each day; and the compromises we all have to make when they take a wander aboard our boats uninvited.

Mostly, it is an awareness that living on a narrow boat means we must be self-reliant, learn to prioritise, and become very very practical! But the rewards make all the compromises worthwhile.

Gyles Brandreth - Broadcaster & Presenter

I first saw Sheila Hancock on stage in 1959. We first appeared together on the radio in Just A Minute in the early 1980s. But it wasn't until late 2010 that we began to appear together regularly on TV - first in Celebrity Gogglebox (where we had a lot of fun) and then in two series where we travelled together along Britain's canals.

We had fun then, too, but we learnt a lot as well. I learnt more than Sheila because she taught me so much - not only about steering a canal boat, but also about life. She is a wise and wonderful person. She is fierce, feisty and full of life – and heart! That's why I am wearing this jumper in her honour.

Joe, Juliet & Rupert Pearce

We have lived on our boat - the Diana Grey - for the last 18 months, cruising around the South-East of England.

Previously we were land-based in a flat in Hackney, we had an epiphany while walking along the Regent’s Canal, deciding there and then to buy a boat and move aboard! Our son Rupert was born on the boat last August while we were moored up near The Fox pub in Hanwell. Rupert became the fifth member of the crew as our two very fluffy Ragdoll cats, Albus and Akala, also live aboard. Of the five of us, only Joe and Akala have fallen overboard so far! We spent last the winter in Kings Langley and then planned to head towards Milton Keynes and beyond!

Juliet told me that she has no regrets giving birth on the boat. The two midwives were fantastic despite it being their first boat birth and one of them feeling a little seasick! Juliet said she felt very safe in our bedroom cabin almost like she was in a womb herself.

Bev Crome - Musician: Horn & Vocals

never imagined that a narrowboat could be a home until I met the people who would end up becoming my musical family. The first time I stepped on board Justine’s boat, I was terrified I would fall in!

I came to a crossroads where it was evident that I could not afford to rent in London, so it was suggested that I get a personal loan and buy a boat of my own. So that is what I did. The first journey into London was quite hairy. I had a friend helping me move it. The first time I was left to steer on my own, I ended up crashing into a huge wide beam – whoops!

When we got the piano, that was an interesting day. We bought it from Camden Piano Rescue and they told us to moor up at the loading bay by Camden market. We had quite an audience - it was inched this way and that to try to slide it through the front door without damage to either the boat or the piano!

I can’t believe that we have been aboard 7 and a half years now. We used to move around every couple of weeks, which was fun, and we met some really interesting people along the way. But it is really tricky to commute to work from different places every couple of weeks. What can also happen is that I head for home, exhausted after a long day at work, only to find my boat is no longer where I thought she was. I sometimes totally forget that I have moved her the day before!

We are pleased to now have a mooring and a bit of security, although singing opera as loud as I could when travelling through the Islington tunnel for the amazing acoustics is an experience that I really miss! Playing the Romanza from Mozart’s 4th Horn Concerto from the bow of a narrowboat, listening to myself echo across the valley will have to do for now - and the Canada Geese don’t mind when I split a note!

Jake Thorold & Ele Gower

We have lived on a boat for the last two years, moving to Horsenden Hill moorings in 2021.

We started dating just as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated. For our first home together, we decided to move to a boat; almost certainly inspired by the fact Jake's Granny had lived on a barge, and later his parents had bought their own boat too.

We love the community of people here - both on the moorings and all those involved in the activities that centre on Horsenden Farm. Within easy reach of our boat is a brewery, a bakery and a community run library.

When not there, we are trying to find time for more instrument practice. Seen here is Ele on the bassoon, and Jake on the guitar.

Justine Armatage & Max - Musician & Composer

I moved onto my narrowboat several years ago as I was a nightmare neighbour and also had a hankering to see the moon.

I taught piano lessons in a tiny flat all day and wrote music on the piano through the night. I thought about moving to the country but I also worked with several bands based in London, the boat was the perfect solution. Now, if I’m driving my neighbour’s crazy, I just move the boat although I have found boaters much more understanding and even appreciative than flat dwellers.

There is a strong sense of community amongst the boaters so you never have to be alone and yet there is a sense of space and freedom that I need to be able to write.

And now I just look out of my window to see the moon.

This is a small sample of the canal boat studies that formed part of my exhibtion.

Gill Shaw has been a Celebrity and People Photographer for over 25 years. She is in her element in all situations, at the Palace with the Royals, at a church covering a wedding, or with the local people on a remote island in Africa. Gill has worked with royals, celebrities, presidents, prime ministers and of course mostly the general public, she is very passionate about her work and loves putting her subjects at ease, she is an Associate of the Master Photographers Association.

Although she is very committed to her work, she still finds time to use her talents to raise much needed funds for charities. She is a trustee of ‘WellFound’ which works to bring clean water to remote communities in Africa and whose office is 309 Greenford Road, Greenford. She is a patron of “Help for Heroes,” the leading Armed Forces and veterans’ charity in the UK. She has also supported the Society of Stars, Mane Chance Sanctuary, the Caron Keating Foundation and Support for Africa to name but a few. Her two books so far have raised hundreds of thousands of pounds to help children with cerebral palsy and our wonderful inspirational wounded soldiers.

Since Covid, Gill like so many people found it difficult to switch off, and spent many hours walking along the Grand Union Canal in Hanwell where it’s always lovely to see the spring flowers, the tiny ducklings and cygnets… and the Grand Union Canal around Horsenden Farm where you can walk to and then buy a fabulous Coffee!

So, this is where the idea for my new project LOOKING THROUGH THE LENS AT CANAL BOAT LIVES came from – wouldn’t it be lovely to produce a project to show alternative lifestyles of the narrow boat community in and around London.

Once she started this project it took on a life of its own as she followed some of her new boating friends as they cruised around our canals, many worked in or around the London area, some had projects and combined the creative challenges with adventures in their boats, others travelled extensively round the world for work and used their boat as their London base, a place of solace and peace amongst a unique community that understands the pressure of being part of an international, multi-time-zoned workforce. as the photographs I have taken and the stories which go alongside are all fun and uplifting, and show the wonder of our waterways. The benefit to boaters, walkers, cyclists and wildlife is incalculable.

The result is a set of stunning photographs showing the characters and lifestyles of this community of people living amongst us on the canals of London.