Life on the Yorkshire waterways - the tranquility of a slow-paced existence

PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 March 2020

Robbie Cumming with his narrow boat on the Rochdale Canal at Stubbing Wharf in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Photo by Tim Smith.

Robbie Cumming with his narrow boat on the Rochdale Canal at Stubbing Wharf in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Photo by Tim Smith.

Tim Smith

Robbie Cummings has made a career from living on his narrowboat, and found love on Yorkshire’s canals.

Robbie Cummings on Naughty LassRobbie Cummings on Naughty Lass

It's the stuff of dreams. Life on the waterways and the tranquility of a slow-paced existence. Robbie Cumming has made a career from living on his narrowboat, and found love on Yorkshire's waterways

Robbie did what many of us would like to do sometimes - run away and live on a boat. Granted, his was a rust bucket, and his journey one of speedy learning curves.

But he tapped in to a moment and now has thousands of avid subscribers on his YouTube channel, Robbie Cummings' Voyage Logs. A surprising drift in the direction of his life.

Like thousands of millennials he left his hometown in Dorset and moved to London to pursue his dream of becoming an illustrator. Struggling to find work and money, he ended up living on his friend's narrowboat where he discovered a new passion. He saved up to buy his rustic narrowboat, 'Naughty Lass' and now he makes a living through his channel.

Robbie Cummings and girlfriend AliceRobbie Cummings and girlfriend Alice

His journeys have been charted on the BBC's 'Canal Boat Diaries', a five part history/reality/travel vlog-style documentary series which Robbie begins filming again in spring. The first series featured the canals of West Yorkshire - from Marple through Saddleworth stopping off to pick up supplies in Slaithwaite and mooring up in Aspley basin in Huddersfield

Another episode starts in Sowerby Bridge, stopping in Hebden Bridge to get his guitar fixed, and Todmorden to discuss the difference between the two neighbouring canal towns

Yorkshire's canals are among his favourites, especially around the strong and striking mill towns they served in their industrial heyday.

Says Robbie: 'I loved exploring some of England's lesser known canals and discovering the beautiful landscapes, pubs and interesting local history along the way. People get to see how I live my life on the Naughty Lass. I often cook on my log burner and wash from a bowl in the galley. My friends and family think I live the dream but with each season comes a new challenge.'

Robbie Cumming with his narrow boat on the Rochdale Canal at Stubbing Wharf in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Photo by Tim Smith.Robbie Cumming with his narrow boat on the Rochdale Canal at Stubbing Wharf in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Photo by Tim Smith.

He avoids tourist hotspots (wasn't keen on mooring up in York) and likes to explore waterways tourists rarely see, but his narrowboat is always a talking point, not least because of its name.

'I love that it always brings a smile to people's faces. My boat is literally - in the true sense - named after a ship from a book. The Nautilus from Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. And just like Captain Nemo's extraordinary vessel, my narrowboat has taken me on a journey I could not have possibly imagined when I set out.'

One of the main reasons Robbie decided to continuously cruise, preferring to explore the more industrial parts of England, was to see firsthand the UK's industrial heritage, the locks, basins, lift bridges and tunnels, mostly occupying the very same places they have been for over 200 years.

He says: 'Despite my interest in history and travel I don't consider myself a tourist or even a traveller. Staying in a place, moored on the canal is a way of getting to know a place unlike any other. Driving out somewhere just for the day, you only see part of the picture and staying in a hotel, you miss out on the nuances of everyday life.

'On my boat I can come and go as I please yet still somehow feel part of a community, and as I can't travel too far in a day I'm still local to the area even after I've left! I'm especially drawn to canal towns like Todmorden, and travelling by narrowboat has also given me fresh appreciation for cities.

'Of course it's not all roses and castles, there have been some horrible parts of the system I've had to wade through, I've had my windows smashed in and I've been stuck waiting in marinas and boatyards for far longer than I'd like.'

He bought the boat to meet likeminded people from all over the country.

'I've not been disappointed. Not just boaters - local people in the areas I visit who I have made friends with. To them especially, my boat is a symbol of freedom, most saying how much they would love to do what I'm doing. Sometimes I might invite people onboard to show them what a narrowboat looks like or just to show other liveaboards my layout.'

One of the best and most unexpected parts of his canal life has been finding love - in Todmorden no less.

'Although having a boat has allowed me to meet people from all over the country, meeting that special someone through canal boating was something I definitely gave up on. Although this nomadic lifestyle seems romantic, it's not ideal for starting a relationship because it can be difficult to develop trust. Because on the flip side how would I like it if a girl I had fallen for was continually, if very slowly, moving away from me?

'Luckily, a few months ago I'm very happy to say I met a beautiful Yorkshire girl, Alice, mad enough to fall in love with me despite my constant travelling (she has a car).'

So what's the reality of the seemingly romantic life on water? Robbie admits that working a proper job has been a struggle since day one.

'Obviously you have to make money to support yourself, and boats themselves cost hundreds of pounds to maintain and licence. But also they cost time so I've never been able to hold down a full time job whilst on board due to the fact that there is so much to do. Every weekend it's finding a new laundrette. Every 4-6 weeks planning where to get a pump out. In winter it's moving the boat to the next mooring before it gets dark.

'Marinas and boatyards all seem to be too busy, so you spend time finding out how to do the jobs yourself, which invariably take even longer without the right tools and experience. To make matters worse, each night after work I used any free time I had to edit videos for my YouTube channel. The boat was the perfect place acoustically for voice overs and recording acoustic guitar so it wasn't long before I started seeing the boat as a vehicle not just for living in but for a whole new creative outlet. 

The rest is history, Hop on board and follow Robbie's journeys. Google: Robbie Cummings' Voyage Logs and look out for BBC Four's next installment of Canal Boat Diaries.

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