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When Robbie Cumming left his home town of Gillingham for the bright lights of London, he hoped to make a career in television or comedy.

‘I didn’t have any connections, though, so that fell flat on its face,’ says Robbie, who used to live with his family in Milton-on-Stour and attended Gillingham School.

Robbie Cumming
Robbie Cumming on board his canal boat.

But his time in London was far from wasted. For it was there, thanks to an old friend from Gillingham, that Robbie discovered his love of narrow boats and canals. And because of that and his popular YouTube vlog or video blog about living on a narrow boat, he is now about to be the subject of a new BBC series.

Canal Boat Diaries, which starts on BBC Four on Tuesday 19th November at 7.30pm, aims to show the reality about living on one of Britain’s many canals.

‘It’s a history travel show but it’s also a reality TV show as well because it’s showing what life is really like on the canals, through my own experiences,’ says Robbie, who is now 37. ‘I think it gives a pretty good idea of what it’s like to live on a boat.’

Robbie, whose father Richard used to run the Orchard Park garden nursery in Gillingham, and whose mum Sue Hardy still works as an artist, fell in love with canal boats shortly after moving to London in his early thirties.

Up until then he had worked in a series of jobs, at the Royal Chase Hotel in Shaftesbury and Neal’s Yard in Gillingham, and also in Mere.

But when an old school friend from Gillingham, Samantha Martin, let him stay on board a narrow boat she was selling in London, he was quickly smitten with life on the canal.

‘It was in winter and I remember my first experience arriving on board as the toilet was getting emptied! I had to learn all about that straight away. It wasn’t idyllic but I still fell in love with it,’ recalls Robbie.

‘As soon as I got on the tiller and set off around London I felt like I was in some sort of secret club.’

He said his favourite area in London was on the Regent’s Canal where it passes through Islington. ‘It’s a very expensive place to be but not if you’re just popping by in a narrow boat!’ he says.

Robbie eventually managed to buy his own narrow boat, in Keynsham, which was originally called Jacob but which he re-named Naughty Lass. ‘As I say in the TV series, it had a sex change,’ he says.

He set off in the new 42-feet craft just before his 33rd birthday and hasn’t looked back since, travelling the canals up and down the country, including the Kennet and Avon canal which is the nearest one to Gillingham where his family still live, and whom he visits when time allows.

Robbie’s brother Harry is a cameraman who used to work for the BBC while his brother Charlie has a walk-on role in the new TV series when he helps out with a lock. ‘I try to get back at Christmas and whenever I am close enough to pop by,’ explains Robbie, who is currently based on the canals in the Manchester area where the series was shot.

The former Gillingham man has fully embraced life on the waterways and hopes that the new series gives an insight into it. ‘As a year-round live aboard, what was most important for me making this series is that in my world, boats are homes, and not just for leisure use in the summer,’ says Robbie.

Don’t miss Canal Boat Diaries on BBC Four at 7.30pm on Tuesday 19 November. Or you can watch it here now.

Robbie Cumming
Robbie Cumming in action on his barge.
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  1. Nick Wilkes
    23 November 2019 at 3:00 pm — Reply

    In the first five minutes I didn’t think I’d like Canal Boat Diaries, as I thought it might be a bit niche, but I was fascinated. Robbie is a really engaging presenter, and so genuinely real. But I still can’t work out how he does a 60 mile journey on a barge in half an hour. Brilliant!

  2. Trevor Fry
    25 November 2019 at 8:09 pm — Reply

    Thoroughly enjoyable program. Real what its like, not all polished up as you would think, great down to earth watchable tv.

  3. Mitchell Newton
    25 April 2020 at 5:11 pm — Reply

    Am loving it, first class grass roots no nonsense program, well put together and very entertaining.Well done Robbie and I hope you do another series. M. Newton from Liverpool.

  4. Mitchell Newton
    25 April 2020 at 5:12 pm — Reply

    Am loving it, first class grass roots no nonsense program, well put together and very entertaining.Well done Robbie and I hope you do another series.

  5. Sue Johnson
    4 January 2021 at 10:33 pm — Reply

    Just watched the second series of Canal Boat Diaries. We love it. Such a lovely programme. Well presented, shows the positives and the negatives. Beautiful scenery and shows real life on the boat and the history of canals and the area. We recognised some places too. Roll on a third series Robbie.

  6. Alice Hedley
    10 March 2021 at 8:55 pm — Reply

    Just watched Robbie and his Canal Coat Diaries and really enjoyed it. We spent some time living on a Narrow Boat so it was really familiar! I totally understood the highs and lows! What a great programme. I think Robbie needs a girlfriend who really loves the boat too!

    8 April 2021 at 4:53 am — Reply

    The programs are very enjoyable but, as with all such travel programs, along with the lone presenter, there has to be an invisible TV crew doing the filming and I want to congratulate them. The new feature of overhead shots by drone are great.

  8. Carol Hillman
    9 April 2021 at 8:24 am — Reply

    I so enjoyed the programme.It was an escape from everything that’s going on now.Robbie is an engaging character and it was good to see life on his boat warts and all.Do hope he makes more like this.

  9. Linda Farrington
    10 April 2021 at 2:24 pm — Reply

    We watched the Canal Diaries by accident and were so glad we did, making sure we saw all of them. Having enjoyed a very eventful but memorable canal holiday in the 1980s with our children, on the Peak Forest and down as far as the Potteries, we could identify with it all – we used to guess how long others had been on their boats by the greasiness of their hair! I do hope Robbie doesn’t have to give up his boat.

  10. 12 April 2021 at 4:29 pm — Reply

    I greatly enjoy Robbie’s canal programmes. They are by far the best I have seen in recent years. I have known the canals almost all my life. I was born in 1940. My grandmother ran a boatman’s pub, The Three Pigeons’ on the Oxford Canal ten miles north of Oxford and was a friend of the boat people whom she knew well. I lived in London and ‘The Pigeons’ was my favourite place to stay. I got to know the boat people who used to take me for rides to the next lock. I went on my first canal holiday in 1960 and travelled on the canals every year from 1960-1970. From 1967-72 I owned my ex working boat Mayflower. I was a schoolmaster then headmaster and have taken dozens of boys on canal holidays either on hire boats or my own boat, always on former working boats. Having been Headmaster of The King’s School Chester for 19 years I retired to Audlem in2000. Before Chester I lived near Gillingham from 1977-1981 when I was Headmaster of what was then Shaftesbury Grammar School.

  11. Dave Barnett
    24 May 2021 at 7:35 pm — Reply

    I remember Robbie and his brothers back in the early nineties when I used to visit his grandmother, who lived in the next door cottage. I don’t recall him helping his father in their original garden centre though but that might be memory issues on my part not because of his absence ! Good to see he’s making the world a much more relaxed place.

  12. Sharon Smithers
    15 October 2021 at 1:29 am — Reply

    Please bring back canal journeys it is so fascinating series, Robbie Cummings is a great star from Gillingham Kent thank you Robbie .

  13. Ray Larsen
    5 February 2022 at 10:42 am — Reply

    I used to do voluntary work with the “Peter le Marchant Trust” out of Loughborough. On your Canal boat diaries you say you want to visit every canal. I was wondering if you had ventured up the “Erewash”. It’s a deadend but there is room for you to moor and turn around at the pub.

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