Everything flows, nothing stands still

Delve into the British Film Institute’s free archive of canal documentaries and enter an extraordinary rabbit warren into the past

Delve into the archives

Photo and films credits: Gren Middleton and BFI

Posted on 30/05/2019

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The camera rests on several figures silhouetted against snow. Four men and two horses struggle along an icy towpath, pulling on two long ropes. One of the men whips his head to the right, as if calling out an instruction. The camera pans to follow: a smoking canal boat shoulders through sheet ice, veering from side to side.

I’m several films deep into the British Film Institute’s online archive, a free resource offering hundreds of films documenting ordinary life through history. Currently, I’m in 1947, immersed in an infamous winter that produced fifteen-foot high snow drifts to compound post-war food shortages. It’s being filmed by Howard Jackson of Halifax, who’s so amazed by the state of the Hebble Canal, he’s exposing his fingers and braving the icy viewfinder of his 9.5 mm Pathescope to record it. The camera lurches in sympathy, the picture bleaching, overexposed by bright snow. As the film progresses, and the figures on the barge come into focus, it’s easy to empathise with the determination and fatigue etched on their wind-bitten faces, as scratches on the film reel dance across the ice. Click here, or the photo below, to watch Freezing and Flooding.

The archive is an extraordinary rabbit warren into the past – type the word ‘canal’, and you’ll discover a treasure trove of home videos and documentaries on waterways across the Canal & River Trust’s network: canoe down the Montgomery Canal in 1959, learn about the restoration of the Kennet & Avon Canal, visit the Waterways Museum in Stoke Bruerne as it was in 1968, and travel to the Selby Canal to hear from the young entrepreneurs who founded Sabrina, the first floating hostel in Britain.

Calder/Hebble Canal – Freezing and Flooding, 1947 (15 minutes). With kind permission from British Film Institute.

One particular gem is a four-minute film from 1966, Canal Bargee, that follows Jack Roberts and his horse, Sally, on the Shropshire Union Canal. One of the last bargees to use a horse, Jack was born on a canal boat and has worked on one ever since. In a suit, hat and polished shoes, Jack prepares Sally for a trip down the canal. Other than Jack’s narration, the film is silent. His experienced voice recounts details and anecdotes from a life on the water, as the camera cuts between a series of shots illustrating Jack’s tranquil, solitary – and unpredictable – way of life: ripples, reflections, tree blossom, a missing finger. Sunbeams give way to raindrops. “It’s been a very happy life,” Jack tells us. “I’ve had a bit of a rough time, and we’ve had some pleasant times.”

Canal Bargee, 1966 (4 minutes). With kind permission from British Film Institute.

A couple of clicks later and it’s 1924. In the travelogue, ‘Barging through London’, we follow the steady progress of a coal barge as it drifts westward down Regent’s Canal. Sepia shots of the capital flicker between Art Nouveau captions playfully educating us about the business of barging. We start in Limehouse, where storybook square-rigged boats wait in the dock. Gently, our horse pulls us past gardens abutting the water, and underneath Stepney Green Station, where we glimpse a tram and an early Routemaster bus. Everywhere, people wave their hats to us from bridges and homes. It’s an unrecognisable city – livelier, but not yet crowded, at once greener and more industrial.

Barging through London, Harry B. Parkinson and Frank Miller, 1924 (11 minutes). With kind permission from British Film Institute.

By the time we’re resting in Paddington Basin, at the end of ‘Barging through London’, one feels restored. I’m reminded of the phenomenon of slow TV: the marathon videos of real-time train journeys and boat rides popular for their meditative qualities. This is the magic of the BFI’s archive; by stepping back through time into someone else’s shoes, far from the clutter of modern life, the world feels simpler somehow, smaller, and infinitely more manageable.

Words: Nicholas Herrmann