Lads with a lotta bottle! The TV foragers, the Three Hungry Boys, on their latest challenge from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Tim Cresswell struck gold when he sent a cheeky message to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage website three years ago, complete with spelling and punctuation errors.

He was asking for funding and camera equipment for a trip along the French coast with fellow marine biologist graduates Thom Hunt and Trevor Brinkman, but he didn’t for a minute expect a reply, never mind any backing. But, as luck would have it, Hugh happened to see it.

‘It’s hard to say why,’ says chef, writer and campaigner Hugh, 47, ‘but Tim’s email spoke to me. There seemed to be a spark there, so I invited them to come and meet me.’

The hungry boys: From left Tim, Thom and Trevor and their electric milk float

The hungry boys: From left Tim, Thom and Trevor and their electric milk float

The three likely lads trundled off to River Cottage HQ in Axminster, Devon, but when they got there Hugh baulked at the idea of dispatching them to anywhere as glamorous as France, so he sent them to the Hebrides instead in a battered old VW camper van with a challenge to survive for a month with no money.

The resulting series, Three Hungry Boys, was a surprise hit for Channel 4 in 2010. Now they’ve been off on their travels again. ‘We had no idea what Hugh had in mind for us when we were summoned back to River Cottage last July,’ says Tim, 30. Hugh explained they were off on a 200-mile journey from Axminster to Land’s End, again without a brass farthing to their name.

‘With a flourish,’ recalls Tim, ‘he pulled a large sheet aside to reveal a bespoke electric milk float.’ The float – inspired by the energyshare campaign, a collaboration between River Cottage and British Gas – had a top speed of 20mph (going downhill) and would run out of juice after 30 miles.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall took the boys up on their request and gave them a challenge

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall took the boys up on their request and gave them a challenge

They could only use renewable energy sources to replenish its batteries, which would mean tracking down buildings with solar panels, wind turbines or hydroelectric plants. On each occasion, recharging would take all night. If they had to resort to a conventional source of electricity, Hugh would impose a forfeit. For example, Thom, 29, had to sing Benny Hill’s Ernie (The Fastest Milkman In The West) to a bemused crowd at Cornwall’s St Agnes Festival.

Trevor, Tim and Thom, who met ten years ago as students at Plymouth University, enjoyed some idyllic moments during their five-week odyssey – and endured some low points, too. ‘We’re not called the Three Hungry Boys for nothing,’ says Tim. ‘Passing signs advertising Cornish cream teas was tough on a rumbling stomach.’

Nor will they easily forget the moment their float flatly refused to continue up one of Devon’s steepest hills, just outside Exeter. ‘It overheated and came to a juddering halt,’ says Tim. ‘Luckily, a man from Essex who’d helped build it in the first place drove through the night to install a new motor.’

For Thom, particularly, this second adventure was something to savour. On his return from the first trip, he started having stomach trouble. ‘Because we’d eaten some weird and wonderful things while away, I thought it must be connected to that.’ But, after a series of tests, he was devastated to be told he was suffering from stage-3 bowel cancer that had started to spread to his lymph nodes. He was 27. An emergency operation
was followed by six months of chemotherapy.

We’re not called the Three Hungry Boys for nothing… Passing signs advertising Cornish cream teas was tough on a rumbling stomach

‘It was a terrible shock,’ he says now, ‘but it completely changed my outlook. When you don’t know how long you’ve got left, you re-prioritise everything. It certainly makes you appreciate the warmth of the sun on your face.’ All his recent scans have been clear. ‘But I’ll feel even more relieved when I get to the five-year landmark.’

In the meantime, Thom’s hoping their recently published survival manual will walk off the shelves. He’s currently working at the River Cottage Canteen at Plymouth’s Royal William Yard on the banks of the Tamar River, Cornwall visible across the water. ‘I’m helping with the devasmarketing. Our ultimate goal is for a series of courses designed to help people – and especially kids – enjoy the great outdoors.’

Tim teaches science at a comprehensive and lives with his girlfriend, Olivia, another marine biologist, while Trev, 30, the trio’s demon cook and a trained industrial designer, is currently working in Amsterdam where he lives with his girlfriend, Hannah. All three are looking forward to the next call from Hugh, says Thom. ‘I’m certain he’ll dream up another fiendish adventure for us. And, maybe this time,’ he adds, a twinkle in his eye, ‘I’ll find myself my own Hungry Girl.’

Hugh’s Three Hungry Boys starts tomorrow at 7pm on Channel 4. The Three Hungry Boys survival manual is published by Short Books at 20.