Though it may sound like an advert for a popular fantasy series, Robbie Cumming’s Canal Boat Diaries promises a lot of overlap. Returning to the BBC for his fourth series about living and travelling on his narrowboat, Robbie now shares a winter journey, from Sheffield down through Nottingham, Lincoln and Leicester, and finally south to Braunston. Having built a substantial online following with his YouTube channel, the four episodes follow this groove and are all recorded on his mobile phone. As the intro promises, he has his plan, but his plans don’t always work out.
Could there be a more perfect metaphor for life in our unpredictable society? Have a plan, but prepare for it to ‘gang agley,’ as the poet said. During our conversation, Robbie often insists: “If I can do it, anyone can.”
This is Robbie’s appeal. He is gentle in speech and unassuming, both over the phone and in his content. There is no bravado or the sort of ignorance of some boating narrators, who cheerfully embark upon dangerous expeditions against expert advice – and get lucky. Robbie is cautious, thoughtful; throughout the episodes he takes advice and help from locals, lock keepers and Canal and Rivers Trust volunteers. Probably like you or I would, if we were doing it. Because if he can, maybe we can, and this series brings us along with that conviction.
Navigating the cost of living
A YouTuber who is not champing at the bit to become an online personality cult is not what we’ve come to expect from the internet. But Robbie is using the tool to engage younger people in canal life like never before. While Prunella Scales and Timothy West popularised the canals’ green corridors and dreamy paces, Robbie is grassroots – and young. And this is striking in austerity Britain, where owning your own home has taken on the glamour of the landed gentry to the younger generation.
Throughout the series Robbie tells us that NB Naughty Lass is his only home. He is, if not a product of our times, a sign of it. And he often maintains bits of towpaths – cutting the grass and hedgerows back, clearing rubbish. The boat and the canals are his permanent neighbourhood, and he models neighbourly behaviour. Local government cuts mean if you want it done, do it yourself.
More people are taking to the canals as alternatives to ease the cost of living. Robbie tells me of the young people he meets, eking out a living while they save for housing. He hopes this BBC series will encourage more people to try it.
While it has certainly rebranded boating for a new generation, his YouTube vlogs are also excellent manuals to surviving on a boat. This is because Robbie’s unique perspective is his #nofilter portrayal of boat life. Most continuously cruising boaters pay for cheap winter moorings in the colder months, but Robbie chose this time to travel 300 miles of canal.
“Winter is, like, the real, REAL side of boating! It’s much quieter, which is lovely, but life is tougher. Keeping the fire going, dealing with touch screen cameras in gloves, waking up and your boat’s frozen in. It’s like a secret world inside a secret world!”
He recounts some of his more spicy adventures; his boat’s water pipes springing a leak, battering through ice in Loughborough with his barge pole while balancing precariously on the bow, grim urban rubbish facilities, submerged shopping trolleys and cars in the water. The other challenges in winter are delays. While there are short stoppages for maintenance work, navigating the tidal Trent in flood stopped him for days.
“On rivers like the Trent, you go with the tide, not when you want to. On my trip there was bad weather and a lot of fog; I couldn’t actually see properly to get the drone up for those shots. I had to crash land it to get it back.”
Have a plan, and be aware it might not work.
Britain’s housing crisis is not the only thing driving people to boats. With thoughtful pauses, Robbie tells me how many boaters consider life aboard as something they have turned to after a crisis.
“If people have troubles, like anxiety, or maybe a relationship failure, or illness – something big, where you feel you have to make a change – you can address this by getting on a boat.”
This is hopeful. With stripped back social services unable to meet the desperate needs of so many people, perhaps this alternative is something to think about.
But boating safely is always a concern. Any boater cruising alone looks shiftily at the padlock on their stern doors, to weigh up the balance of getting out quickly if there’s a fire against stopping anyone getting in. And Robbie, sharing his location over social media and prime time television feels that discomfort. He tells me of fans who have found him at home on dark towpaths, wanting to visit.
“I’ve helped people set up on boats, girls wanting to boat solo. I’d like to see more women out on the canal to get a bit more balance. Other bloggers I know talk about that feeling of being tracked down by people on social media. There are threats out there, issues with stalking. It impacts your independence.”
Again, just like any of us, Robbie has the same worries, limitations, and the same average store of bravery. He pioneers an every-person narrative of enthusiasm winning out over naivety and shows us that the canals can be respite for all of us to enjoy. His honesty (there are no edits – not even when he crashes the boat), his inclusivity and his determination create an engaging series that is not only pure escapism, but an earnest invitation.
Canal Boat Diaries airs on BBC Four from Monday to Thursday at 7:30pm starting on 1 May.
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