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.
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.