It has surprise: an old pair of long johns caught in the propeller. It has tension: will the narrowboat be successfully reversed to its last turning point? It has excitement: a 40-minute descent on the steepest set of lock gates in the UK.
None of those are the mega-thrills provided by many TV shows today, but that’s the point. Who needs them? Sometimes low jeopardy is as thrilling as high.
“It is all about escapism really,” says Robbie Cumming, the ever-cheerful storyteller in BBC Four’s Canal Boat Diaries which is about to return for a third series. “What people tell me is that the series really relaxed them, that it helped them through lockdown.”
The new series sees Cumming on his boat, Naughty Lass, travelling on 170 miles of canals and waterways from Wigan to Ripon.
Cumming was already something of a canal boat star before his BBC series thanks to his YouTube channel, but now he is approaching canal boat superstar status. The programme has been credited with encouraging people to spend more time on Britain’s canals. According to the Canal and River Trust there are more boats on canals now than at the height of the Industrial Revolution.
“I do get recognised more and more each year and that’s great,” he says. “I was in Ikea and someone saw me and said, ‘What are you doing in here?’ I had to tell them that I’m not always on a canal.”
He came late to boats, having grown up in the countryside of north Dorset, where most of the residents were retired. “Nothing ever happened,” he recalled.
“A stream ran past our house and I always used to go on at my dad about doing something with it … even then I was obsessed with living by water.”
He moved to London and in his early 30s, and struggling to afford to live anywhere, Cumming accepted a friend’s offer to keep a narrowboat running over winter.
He was hooked. He knew immediately it was how he wanted to live. The question soon became how do you make it a job as well as a life? But he has, and is living the dream.
“There is a joy in stripping everything back to the bare essentials, getting rid of stuff you don’t really need,” he says. “I haven’t got a microwave. I haven’t got a dishwasher. I haven’t even got a washing machine. But I do enjoy the challenge of fending for myself, of not paying people to do things.
“It’s a lifestyle. It’s being close to nature. It’s about having that constant change of scenery … it’s the variety of life it gives me. I like exploring, and I like to be as far off the beaten track as possible, even if I get lost.”
The series, made using small cameras and footage from Cumming’s mobile phone, follows him along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, the Grade I-listed Bingley Five Rise Locks in West Yorkshire, the Aire and Calder Navigation, the Selby Canal and up the tidal River Ouse to York before ending in Ripon. The Bingley locks, considered one of the wonders of Britain’s waterways, drop more than 18 metres and are the steepest flight of locks in Britain. “It’s not until you look back that you think, oh, it is quite a drop,” says Cumming.
The episodes see him finding beauty in unexpected places, such as the derelict and atmospheric Cowling Mill in Chorley. “I love dilapidated buildings. They are quite sad, especially when there’s nothing happening with them, but impressive to look at nonetheless.”
Cumming’s favourite spot on his journey was always where he was at that moment. When he spoke to the Guardian he was on the Calder and Hebble Navigation between Sowerby Bridge and Wakefield. “I am absolutely loving it. It is quite industrial, quite wild, and there are only certain places you can stop. But the local people make it – and being able to see the changing landscapes as you make your way around. I can find something magical everywhere I go.”
Getting lost is one of the pleasingly low-jeopardy incidents in the new series, when Cumming steers his boat down a disused arm of a canal in Skipton. “I felt like I was exploring it for the first time, even though many, many boats had been there before me in the past.”
Another tense moment comes when Cummings volunteers to reverse the narrowboat of some “hire-boaters” who had gone past a turning point and didn’t fancy another six locks – and six back – before they could turn again. Would he make it? Would he avoid other boats in what can be a tricky manoeuvre?
Needless to say, all was fine.
Cummings cheerfully admits that his mechanical knowledge is limited, and that when he does have a problem it is often something wrapped around the propeller.
One time it was the boat’s own rope. “It is one of the most basic things you’re told as you set off. People say, ‘Watch out for those ropes: don’t let them drop in the water and wrap around your propeller’.”
None of what happens in the series is scripted or planned, he adds. “It is as we find it. From experience, if you try to organise anything on a canal, it never works out.
“We are travelling at 4mph don’t forget.”