Swindon to Bristol Great British Railway Journeys


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Swindon to Bristol

Michael Portillo finds out about free holiday trains for the GWR workers in Swindon, samples the spa in Bath and tries his hand at glass blowing in Bristol.


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In 1840, one man transformed travel in Britain.

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His name was George Bradshaw and his railway guides inspired the Victorians to take to the tracks.

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Stop by stop, he told them where to travel, what to see and where to stay.

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Now 170 years later, I'm making four long journeys across the length and breadth of the country

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to see what remains of Bradshaw's Britain.

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Ever since I was a kid, I've found it exciting

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to travel by train, whether rattling along high-speed lines

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or pottering along single tracks,

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there's something very special about a railway journey.

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Now I'm following Bradshaw's 19th-century guide to the railways

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to find out how much the railways changed Britain

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and how much Britain has changed since.

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Today I'll be finding out about free rail trips.

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-The whole town was going on holiday at the same time.

-Virtually, yes.

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-Virtually, yes.

-Virtually the whole town was coming to a standstill.

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'I'll be sampling the spa in Bath.'

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What is the etiquette?

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A sort of wallowing etiquette.

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-Wallowing.

-These are great for wallowing.

-Yeah? I could think of various...

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You could deliver a nasty blow to someone with one of those.

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And I'll be trying my hand at glass blowing.

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Very, very impressed. I've got to be honest, I really am truly impressed.

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All this week, I'm following my Bradshaw's Guide to the West Country along the Great Western Railway.

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Stretching over 300 miles,

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this was one of the earliest passenger routes in England,

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created by the great Victorian engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

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It will take me through Devon and Cornwall

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to the end of the line at Penzance.

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Starting in Swindon,

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today I'll cover the first 40 miles through Bath to Bristol.

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This route was nicknamed the holiday line

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because, for the first time, large numbers of people could afford to travel by train.

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Most people today take it for granted that they will get a holiday away from home at some time,

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but, before the railways, most people couldn't have dreamt of that.

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The change that occurred in Britain

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when suddenly people could take a seaside holiday

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must have been quite similar to the package holiday revolution in our own time.

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Nowadays, people can go to Spain or they can go to Thailand.

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But in those days, to be able to go to Devon and Cornwall...

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It really changed people's lives.

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This is Swindon.

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In Bradshaw's day, Swindon was the headquarters of the Great Western Railway,

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which built all its locomotives in the town's colossal workshops.

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Bradshaw described it as,

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"One of the extraordinary products of railway enterprise of the present age.

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"It's a colony of engineers and handicraft men."

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These clearly are the old railway works.

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Bradshaw was awestruck by them, they were so vast.

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I think they're probably a bit smaller than they were, but even so, they are pretty impressive.

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This was the hub of the Great Western Railway

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and they attracted skilled people from all over Britain

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to build and maintain the engines for the Great Western Railway.

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No wonder Bradshaw was bowled over.

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Everyone in Swindon seems to know about the works.

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How are you?

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-Nice to see you.

-Nice to see you.

-I watch you on the TV.

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Thank you very much. Here we are doing something about the railways.

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-Oh, right.

-Is Swindon a railway town?

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-It certainly is. This used to be the works.

-Yes, I know.

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Quite a lot of it has gone, is that right?

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Yes.

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Your government, Margaret Thatcher, closed most of it.

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-You don't live in one of these, do you?

-I don't.

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This is the modern village that was built for the railway workers.

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'The Great Western Railway Company was a pioneering employer

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'and it needed thousands of workers, so it built them houses.'

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The village does still look very good.

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This side looks pretty derelict but that side still looks pretty good.

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There used to be various workshops but I think most of them have shut.

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-I don't know who rents it out any more.

-I'm going to potter about and have a look at it all.

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-I look forward to seeing you on the telly. Nice to meet you.

-Very nice to see you. Goodbye.

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'As well as decent houses, there were other perks for the workers.

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'In 1848, the Great Western Railway began to run free trains every July

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'for their employees to go on holiday.

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'It became known as Trip.'

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-Who are Ron and Mary?

-Hello.

-Hi, Mary.

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'Friends Ron and Mary travelled on those trains to Paignton almost every summer for 50 years.'

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What was Trip?

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A glorious holiday at the seaside.

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The railway works' annual holidays.

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They'd close...

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and it was all the build-up for going away on holiday to the seaside.

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-A whole town was going on holiday at the same time?

-Virtually, yes.

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-Virtually, yes.

-Virtually the whole town was coming to a standstill.

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-What did the railway workers pay to go on these trains?

-Nothing. We had free travel.

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'Ron and Mary and most of their families worked for the railways.

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'By 1900, the Swindon works employed three quarters of the town's population.

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'Soon, almost 30,000 people were taking Trip trains every year

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'to resorts all over the South West.'

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-Were you dressed up in smart clothing for the Trip?

-Oh, yes.

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You had to look your best.

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Even though you were going down to the beach, the beach hut, you still had to be dressed Sunday best.

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Just tell me what it's like to travel in a train in those days

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with a steam engine up the front - what was that like?

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Oh, lovely. Lovely. They are so friendly, steam engines.

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-Ch-ch-ch-ch, ch-ch-ch-ch.

-Rattling away, because now...

-There was always a tune.

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Smoke coming in the windows?

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-Oh, yes.

-Grit, dirt and smoke.

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Within a few decades,

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the railways had turned quiet coastal villages into bustling holiday destinations.

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-What was the resort like?

-Wonderful.

-We had the same beach huts.

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Beach huts next to one another.

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We'd decorate it when it was her father's birthday and when it was my mother's.

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-Always a week?

-Sometimes a fortnight later on but previously we didn't get paid for any holidays,

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not until after the war.

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When they came back from Trip they used to call it the dry week,

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because they had no pay, they couldn't drink.

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-The fact that you'd been away for a week meant the following week wasn't paid.

-That's right, no money.

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-Overall, working for the railway was a good thing, do you think?

-Oh, yes.

-Oh, yes.

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-If you died, they'd take you away for your funeral.

-A full service.

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They always used to say from the cradle to the grave, didn't they, Ron?

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-Births, deaths and marriages.

-Everything.

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It's been great talking to you.

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-Thank you very much.

-Thank you.

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The railways enabled the workers to go on holiday to the coast.

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They also helped ordinary Victorians to become tourists

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in places previously accessible only to the rich.

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One of those attractions is 35 miles away.

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Next stop, Bath.

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For the next leg of my journey, I'm following Bradshaw's Guide from Swindon to Bath Spa.

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One section of the Great Western Railway, Box Hill,

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posed a particular challenge for the line's engineer, Brunel.

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The hill was too steep to run the railway over it so he decided to go straight through it.

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This is the Box Tunnel -

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a feat of engineering by Brunel that Bradshaw was very impressed by.

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He writes, "It's upwards of one mile and three quarters in length

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"through the solid heart and immense mass of Box Hill."

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It took 4,000 men almost four years to dig through the limestone rock

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but when it was finished it was the longest railway tunnel in the world.

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It caused some controversy.

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Brunel had acquired an adversary, a Dr Dionysius Lardner.

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He said that if you travel through this tunnel at the speeds they were going at - nearly 60 mph -

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the air would be sucked out of your body and people would die.

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Fear spread, as it does with health scares today,

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so lots of people decided they would get off the train before it entered the tunnel,

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make the journey by road and rejoin the train at the other side.

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-But...

-HE INHALES

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I seem to be doing fine!

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This has to be one of the prettiest approaches to any railway station in England.

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I can see spires and terraces and church towers

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and lovely open spaces.

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A magnificent city.

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And I'm not alone.

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Bradshaw says, "The view from the station is one calculated to impress a stranger very favourably

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"with the importance of the city, so renowned in the world of fashionable invalids."

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So, Bath. Straightaway, you are struck by the very beautiful colour of stone.

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But right here by the station, this is not the finest bit.

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I want to find those crescents and terraces that I remember

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and that Bradshaw waxes lyrical about.

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It was the Georgian architecture of Bath that so impressed Bradshaw.

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He wrote of Bath, "Spacious streets, groves and crescents

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"lined with stately stone edifices and intersected by squares and gardens

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"complete a view of city grandeur scarcely surpassed by any other in the kingdom.

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"The gaieties of Bath are celebrated all over Europe."

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Bath's elegant streets were designed by the architect John Wood in the 18th century.

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His classic uniform facades gave simple terraced houses the grandeur of stately homes.

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In Bradshaw's day, Bath was the playground of high society,

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but the railways changed all that.

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For the first time, the middle and lower classes could afford to travel here

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and sample what the wealthy had been enjoying for centuries -

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the spas.

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This is one of what were three medieval baths -

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there was the Hot Bath, the King's Bath and the Cross Bath.

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We'll go in and have a look at it.

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'Dr Roger Rolls is a GP and medical historian

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'who has been studying the medicinal properties of the waters.'

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It's a wonderful combination of the old and the new.

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Absolutely. It's been restored very beautifully.

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This is where the spring comes out.

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That is a hot spring coming out at that temperature from the ground.

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It is quite warm, it's kind of blood temperature.

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-More than blood temperature.

-More than body temperature.

-About 44 degrees.

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-Did many famous people come to this bath?

-Samuel Pepys used to come here.

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He liked to get here very early in the morning at 4 o'clock

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because he didn't like the crowds later on.

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The most famous person who came here was Mary of Modena,

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who came in order to avail herself of the property of the water,

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which was supposed to improve fertility and fecundity.

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Mary of Modena was married to King James II of England.

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They'd been trying to produce an heir to the throne for 14 years.

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She was successful in the following year - she gave birth to a son.

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No-one quite knows whether it was the effect of the waters that did it

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or the fact that there was mixed bathing

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and quite a licentious attitude to bathing at that time.

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What about the whole business of the magical waters of Bath?

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Are there properties in this water that make them curative?

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A lot of people thought there were.

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The main reason for that was that they thought the water could go through the skin,

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-through pores in the skin. That's been disproved.

-Has it?

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One theory is that certainly many of those with paralysis that came to Bath were due to lead poisoning.

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In the 18th century, nobody realised it was lead poisoning,

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but by the time the railways came here it was well-known.

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What difference did the water make?

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Some recent research that was done into immersing people up to their necks -

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they would have shown that if you have raised levels of lead in your body,

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it's excreted more rapidly if you immerse yourself regularly...

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-It's just pressing?

-It's literally pressing and it makes your kidneys work harder.

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Whatever the reason was, people came here and were happy because they felt better?

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They were very happy. They came here in droves, as they still do.

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During the last century, the baths' popularity declined until they were closed in 1978.

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But a few years ago, contemporary architects gave the baths a multi-million-pound renovation.

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Fashionable invalids, as Bradshaw called them,

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and many others, are flocking back to the baths from all over the country.

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Brilliant.

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Fantastic.

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Lift goes straight out into an open air pool.

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This is obviously very new.

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This was by the architect Nicholas Grimshaw.

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But I suppose it's kind of the modern interpretation

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of what it's been like to take the waters in Bath over many centuries.

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'People are drawn here by the warm waters all year round,

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'just as they were in Bradshaw's day, over 150 years ago.'

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It's fantastic to be in such a warm bath, isn't it?

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-Yes.

-And I think somehow to know that it's natural...

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-It's hard to get your head around that bit.

-That it's come from the earth at this temperature?

-Yeah.

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But talk about a pool with a view!

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-Look at this!

-That's half the attraction.

-It's fantastic.

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You've been when it's been raining, haven't you?

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Yes. And it's still open, still warm.

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What is the etiquette? Nobody's swimming up and down, doing lengths. What's the etiquette?

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-It's a sort of wallowing etiquette.

-A wallowing etiquette.

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-These things are great for wallowing.

-Yes.

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I could think of various...

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-You could deliver a nasty blow to someone with one of those.

-I guess so!

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I do feel rejuvenated by that bath.

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But I think it was...not just the warm water but also the sun

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and that wonderful, unforgettable view of Bath.

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When the wealthy came to take the waters here in the 18th and 19th centuries,

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they also needed a place to stay.

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The Royal Crescent, Bath.

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Magnificent.

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Don't you love its grandeur, its elegance, its open spaces?

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This amazing view.

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The Royal Crescent never changes. It was like this when I was last here, I think.

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But I was quite a bit smaller and, of course, your memories are never exactly right.

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I don't remember it being so open. I don't remember the greenery.

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It's magnificent. You don't tire of it.

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The Duke of York lived here in the middle of the Royal Crescent in the 18th century,

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and, luckily for me, his house has been turned into a hotel.

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-Welcome to the hotel.

-Thank you very much. I have come to stay. Only one night, I'm afraid.

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I'm sure we can talk you into more!

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'Head concierge, Mark Hanks, has worked at the hotel for the last 22 years.'

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-And is this really the Grand Old Duke of York's?

-Yes.

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The Grand Old Duke of York frequented Bath and actually stayed in this house for some time.

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-The one who marched his men to the top of the hill?

-Yes, the hill that we can see from your room.

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-Oh! It's really lovely, thank you.

-Absolute pleasure.

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I'll just place the case for you.

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-Thank you.

-Do enjoy your stay and if there's anything else you need, please give us a call, sir.

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-Thank you very much.

-Pleasure.

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I've hit the jackpot.

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After a night's sleep in a bed fit for a king, or a duke at least,

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I'm off on the third leg of my journey.

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Today I'm following my Bradshaw's Railway Guide from Bath to Bristol, just 12 miles away.

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These days, it's easy to plan your route by train,

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but when Bradshaw was first writing, there was a real difficulty.

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If this were before 1840, I would now be resetting my watch,

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because the time in Bristol is 10 minutes different from London, being that much further west.

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For Brunel, with his fast-moving steam trains, this was a real problem.

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How do you create a timetable when every city is on a different time?

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And so he introduced a standardised time, railway time,

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so that notionally the time in Bristol and London would be the same.

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The origins of the time zones that we have today.

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Bradshaw used railway time, also known as London time, when compiling his timetables in the 1840s.

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He convinced all the other railway companies to follow suit.

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Within 10 years, the whole country was in a single time zone.

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Bristol Temple Meads is a fantastic station.

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It's got this enormous span. It's classic Victorian railway architecture.

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You see it all over Britain. You see it all over the world, really.

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But this isn't the original station at Bristol.

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Brunel's terminus, the one Bradshaw would have arrived at

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and the model for many future designs, is just next door.

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I can't believe this.

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One of the great wonders of railway architecture, of historic railway architecture,

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is behind this really unimpressive door.

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And just look at this.

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Built in the 1830s. This enormous span.

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This was technology beyond belief, to build a span like this.

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The first time that passengers and trains had been put together under a single roof, under a single shed.

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'The design, known as hammer beam, is supported by beams on each side rather than pillars.

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'That leaves the floor space clear to allow for the free flow of crowds and, in this case, trains.'

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It's quite funny for me, because apparently this is the widest hammer-beamed roof in the world.

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But I'd always been told the widest one was in Parliament,

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and actually it does look like the roof in the Westminster Hall in Parliament.

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It's built in the same manner.

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You can see where the trains would come in and where people would stand on the platform.

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They had to climb down from the platform and wander across to the other lines.

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You didn't get a platform for every train.

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It's an absolutely fantastic piece of architecture.

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But nobody gets to see it.

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Brunel's passenger shed is the oldest surviving

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railway terminus in the world, but now it's sadly neglected.

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I'm looking at the front of Brunel's engine shed

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and it was clearly once a terrific facade.

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It's, of course, fake Gothic.

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But the building has completely gone to pot.

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It's like seeing an old relative in an old people's home or something.

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It's really sad, abandoned, neglected.

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I don't suppose anybody ever gives it a second look.

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And yet it's a really important piece of national heritage.

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Very upsetting.

0:22:010:22:03

The Bristol of my 1860s guidebook was a global city with trade links throughout the Empire.

0:22:060:22:14

Goods made here were exported from the man-made inland docks

0:22:140:22:17

as far afield as North America and the West Indies.

0:22:170:22:21

So, Bristol was clearly a very important port

0:22:210:22:25

but Bradshaw also lists, as he always does for cities,

0:22:250:22:30

what was made here.

0:22:300:22:31

And Bristol, obviously, was quite important in manufacturing.

0:22:310:22:35

"The chief manufacturers..." it says, "..are engines, glass, hats, pottery, soap and brushes."

0:22:350:22:43

Well, most of those industries have gone by now. Long since gone.

0:22:430:22:47

One trade, though, has been revived.

0:22:490:22:51

Bristol blue glass.

0:22:510:22:55

-James?

-Hello.

-I'm Michael.

0:22:550:22:58

'James Adlington and his family started their blue glass company 20 years ago

0:22:580:23:03

'in a bid to bring back the lost art.'

0:23:030:23:05

Why is Bristol associated with blue glass?

0:23:050:23:09

William Cookworthy discovered cobalt in Germany,

0:23:090:23:13

and the Bristol Merchant Venturers bought the monopoly on the cobalt.

0:23:130:23:16

-And one of the class makers grabbed some cobalt and threw it into the lead glass.

-With a great result.

0:23:160:23:21

With a great result - a really vibrant blue.

0:23:210:23:24

-And these are what?

-These are rolling pins. They're friggers.

0:23:240:23:28

They'd sell them to the sailors who were going off in the ships

0:23:280:23:32

They would give them to their wives who would hang them in the window.

0:23:320:23:36

-A lucky charm?

-A lucky charm to make sure they'd come back safely.

0:23:360:23:40

-And this stuff is still blown, is it?

-Yes.

0:23:400:23:43

-Do you mind if I have a look?

-Of course.

0:23:430:23:45

'It can take up to seven years to learn how to make glass as the Victorians did,

0:23:460:23:51

'so James is showing me how to make a simple tumbler.'

0:23:510:23:54

You go and sit down and I'll bring that back to you. Pick up your tools again.

0:23:560:24:00

-Which one? This one?

-Yes. That's it.

0:24:000:24:04

'The furnaces reach volcanic temperatures.

0:24:040:24:07

'They're used to make the molten glass, which can then be gathered onto the blowpipe.'

0:24:070:24:12

A good, hard blow.

0:24:120:24:13

That's it. Sorry about that.

0:24:150:24:17

Don't put it all in there.

0:24:170:24:19

Just let it...get it on to the pick.

0:24:190:24:21

And let it fall on centre again.

0:24:210:24:25

Voila.

0:24:260:24:27

So I put it into an oven until about 5 o'clock tonight when it gets turned off

0:24:280:24:35

and it's allowed to cool down overnight.

0:24:350:24:37

What would happen if the glass cooled immediately?

0:24:370:24:40

-If you just left it on the side, it would just crack.

-Would it?

-Yeah.

0:24:400:24:44

-The cooling process would be too brutal for it.

-I really enjoyed that.

0:24:440:24:48

Thank you very much. I'm very, very impressed.

0:24:480:24:51

I've got to be honest, I really am.

0:24:510:24:53

Truly impressed.

0:24:530:24:55

In Bradshaw's time, it wasn't just glass passing through the docks.

0:24:590:25:03

Working with the Great Western Railway,

0:25:030:25:05

Brunel developed an integrated international travel service.

0:25:050:25:09

Passengers could take the train from London to Bristol, then continue to New York on the company's steamship,

0:25:100:25:16

the SS Great Britain, also designed by him.

0:25:160:25:20

-Hi, you're Tom?

-Yes.

-Good to see you. How are you?

-Very good, thanks.

0:25:220:25:26

'Ferry operator Tom Axon is taking me to see it.'

0:25:260:25:31

How far is it from Temple Meads station to the dock

0:25:310:25:34

from which the transatlantic steamers would have left?

0:25:340:25:37

Well, there's just over a mile to where the SS Great Britain was built.

0:25:370:25:42

In 1843, the SS Great Britain was constructed in the dockyards of the Great Western Railway.

0:25:440:25:51

Brunel's design was the first steam-powered ship in the world.

0:25:510:25:56

He persuaded the bosses to invest in a super ship made out of wrought iron to cross the ocean.

0:25:560:26:04

That was unheard of.

0:26:040:26:06

-Are we going to see the SS Great Britain in a moment?

-That's it there.

0:26:060:26:09

'The SS Great Britain was built for the transatlantic luxury passenger trade,

0:26:110:26:16

'carrying just 252 travellers in first and second class.

0:26:160:26:21

'But the service didn't make money.

0:26:210:26:23

'She was eventually converted to carry three times that number on emigrant runs to Australia.'

0:26:230:26:30

So the SS Great Britain, it's an iron-built ship, it's got propellers,

0:26:300:26:34

-but it's also got six masts. Why?

-For efficiency.

0:26:340:26:37

If there's a high wind blowing, you need to harness that as well.

0:26:370:26:42

Because it wouldn't be able to get to Australia from Britain...

0:26:420:26:45

-With the fuel.

-..with its own power.

0:26:450:26:47

So it's a hybrid. It's what we'd call a hybrid today.

0:26:470:26:50

-It uses carbon fuels and it uses natural resources as well.

-Yes.

0:26:500:26:56

-Thank you very much indeed.

-It's been a pleasure.

-A real pleasure for me, thank you.

-Bye.

0:26:560:27:01

Seeing the scale of industry here is a reminder of what an important port Bristol was.

0:27:040:27:11

Up until the late 19th century, the city had routes to India, the Americas and Australia.

0:27:110:27:16

I'm really impressed by the Victorians' ambition,

0:27:160:27:19

with their vast stations and steamships and exports to the world.

0:27:190:27:23

But when Bradshaw was writing,

0:27:230:27:25

the British Empire was near its peak.

0:27:250:27:27

Much of the world map was coloured pink.

0:27:270:27:30

No wonder the Victorians thought globally.

0:27:300:27:33

Bradshaw's handbooks documented a new era in British travel.

0:27:370:27:43

The infrastructure built by the Victorians we still use massively today,

0:27:430:27:47

but the position that they gave Britain in the world has slipped away gradually in the decades since.

0:27:470:27:54

Tomorrow, I'll be finding out how the railways created a national delicacy.

0:27:560:28:01

The train was perfect. You put a strawberry on there and it was so smooth,

0:28:010:28:05

it would go all the way to the North without being damaged.

0:28:050:28:09

I'll be asking what our ancestors got up to in Cheddar.

0:28:090:28:12

The bones of three adults and two children

0:28:120:28:15

with cut marks to drop the jaw out is all evidence of cannibalism.

0:28:150:28:19

And I'll be exploring one of Britain's oldest piers.

0:28:190:28:24

The other thing, of course, with piers in their early days was it was somewhere you could promenade.

0:28:240:28:29

In other words, you could be seen.

0:28:290:28:31

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:540:28:57

E-mail s[email protected]

0:28:570:29:00

Michael Portillo takes to the tracks with a copy of George Bradshaw's Victorian Railway Guidebook. In a series of four epic journeys, he travels the length and breadth of the country to see how the railways changed us, and what of Bradshaw's Britain remains.

Michael's journey takes him along the Brunel's Great Western Railway from Swindon to Penzance. He finds out about free holiday trains for the GWR workers in Swindon, samples the spa in Bath and tries his hand at glass blowing in Bristol.