Michael samples Cheddar strawberries, explores Cheddar Gorge and the famous caves, and visits one of the country's oldest piers at Weston-super-Mare.
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In 1840, one man transformed travel in Britain.
His name was George Bradshaw and his railway guides inspired the Victorians to take to the tracks.
Stop by stop, he told them where to travel, what to see and where to stay.
Now, 170 years later, I'm making four long journeys across the length
and breadth of the country to see what remains of Bradshaw's Britain.
I'm continuing my rail journey into the West Country,
using this 150-year-old Bradshaw's Guide.
The arrival of the Great Western Railway made it easy for tourists to visit
resorts like Weston-super-Mare, and the guide commends the mildness of the climate in these parts.
But I'm also hoping to discover how the combination of railways
and good weather enabled Somerset
to export a little bit of sunshine to the rest of Britain.
All this week, it's helping me plot my journey along the holiday route,
the Great Western Railway line reaching down to the South West of England.
Today, I'll be finding out how the railways created a national delicacy.
The train was perfect. You could put a strawberry on there and it was so smooth.
It would go all the way to the north without being damaged.
I'll be asking what our ancestors got up to in Cheddar.
The bones of three adults and two children with cut marks,
to drop the jaw out, is all evidence of cannibalism.
And I'll be exploring one of Britain's oldest piers.
The other thing with piers in their early days was that it was somewhere where you could promenade.
In other words, you could be seen.
My journey this week takes me from Swindon to find out
how the railway transformed many small coastal villages
into bustling seaside resorts.
After passing through Devon, I'll head for Cornwall
and end my journey on the rugged headland of Penzance.
Today, I'm leaving Bristol and travelling 18 miles to Yatton
and the Cheddar Gorge before reaching Weston-super-Mare.
The Great Western Railway main line takes me into Somerset,
which changed forever when the railways arrived.
This is Yatton.
A nice enough station, but my Bradshaw's Guide dismisses it
as a place of no importance except as being a junction.
What wasn't known when this was written
was that in 1869, a new line would be added here
which would make Yatton really rather important after all.
When the new branch line was opened, Yatton became the centre of a
booming strawberry industry which continued right up to the 1950s.
Mike Lyle started working on the trains in his teens.
-Good morning, Mike.
-Good morning, Michael.
-Thank you for meeting me.
-Not at all.
I think you know Yatton station quite well, don't you?
Yes, I came here as a boy at the age of
approximately 15... and it really was a hive of industry.
The new railway meant that, for the first time,
huge quantities of fresh local Cheddar Valley strawberries
could be whisked around the country.
It was quickly nicknamed the strawberry line.
I was invited to go down, load fruit onto these massive great wagons - they were called siphons -
and I suppose, if my memory is correct, they were about the length of two double-decker buses.
We would load all the trains through the afternoon and evening.
The smell of the strawberries was absolutely overwhelming.
I would catch the last strawberry train back to a station which was handy for me to cycle home,
and then I would throw my bike out
and I would follow the bicycle out of the guard's van and then cycle home.
You and your bike were both leaving a moving train?
Yes. Every minute counted.
Every single minute counted.
If it lost its connection,
then the fruit wouldn't be in any shape or form
to be eaten at the other end.
With the industry in decline, the strawberry line and its workers
became the victims of the massive
British Railways closures in the 1960s.
When you heard that branch line was closing, what did you feel?
I wondered what I was going to do.
It was quite shocking news.
It was national news.
It affected every branch line and I was quite in despair at the time.
50 years on, many of the disused lines have become footpaths
crisscrossing Britain's countryside.
So I'll be continuing the next part of my journey on foot.
-Good morning. I see you're walking the strawberry line.
-Do you think it's a good way to see country, walking along an old railway line?
You see them dotted around when you're driving around and they're normally banked up,
nice and flat, easy to walk on, easy to cycle on, so, yeah.
-And it gets you really in touch with the greenery and the country, doesn't it?
-Plenty to see.
Lots of birds around, wildlife.
It's good, yeah.
There's always something sad about a disused railway line,
and I'm old enough to remember tracks that I used to use being closed in the Beeching cuts.
It was inevitable, I suppose.
The railways grew topsy-turvy in a Victorian era when people didn't have cars.
The cheery thing is that today we don't talk about lines closing but new ones opening,
and there's a lot of talk that the future of travel is high-speed rail.
But for today at least I'll be ambling to the other end of the strawberry line.
In its heyday, there were 250 strawberry growers here.
Only four remain today, including fruit farmer Andrew Seagers.
Why are strawberries grown here?
What's special about the land or the water here?
I think it's because of the slopes of the Mendip Hills, the climate
and the minerals in the water - it gives it a good flavour fruit.
How long in the year are you getting strawberries?
We start picking about 15th April and we will finish in that greenhouse
again with another crop of strawberries by 15th November.
That's a pretty long season you have now.
I imagine that's much more than would have been 100 years ago.
Yes, we would be lucky to get probably more than four weeks, five weeks.
Now, we take it for granted that we can eat strawberries all year round.
But in Bradshaw's time, strawberries were a special seasonal delicacy.
For a few weeks of the year, they were picked and transported
to market each Friday, the day after people were paid.
As we're moving down here, we're beginning to see
some strawberries now that are getting towards ripeness.
-Do you mind if I try that one?
-No, course you can.
It's absolutely fabulous.
-There's just no substitute for taking it straight off the plant, is there?
I suppose the railways made it possible for this
massive amount of strawberries to be grown in Britain.
-But I suppose it's the airlines now that are killing it off in Britain.
Yes. What happened was, you could send a strawberry to anywhere in the North of England on a train,
and the strawberries were much softer than these, so the train was perfect
because you could put a strawberry on there and it was so smooth
and it would go all the way to the north without being damaged.
'The railways were pivotal for the strawberry growers, but they also
'kick-started another Cheddar Valley industry - tourism.'
Before the railways, only rich tourists would have been able to
enjoy the wonderful spectacle of the Cheddar Gorge.
When the railways arrived, thousands of ordinary day-trippers
began to enjoy the splendour of this magnificent area.
Reaching 500 feet in places, the sides of the ravine
boast the highest inland cliffs in the country.
My Bradshaw's Guide tells me that the cliffs of Cheddar are well worth visiting,
and says the area has achieved "some notoriety from the discovery of two caverns in the vicinity,
"one called the Stalactite and the other the Bone Cave."
And it comments on the very large number of visitors now coming to the area.
But no Victorian could have imagined
the tourist magnet that it's become today.
'Cheddar Gorge now attracts half a million visitors a year.
'Many of them, like archaeologist Hugh Cornwell, come to marvel at the caves.
'They were discovered by eccentric sea captain and showman Richard Gough.'
Hugh, after my long trek, I find you. What a beautiful cave.
When Richard Gough discovered this in November 1898,
he came through the tunnel there and he saw this
and he called it St Paul's Cathedral
because of the whispering gallery at the top.
And this is very pretty. This is almost too good to be true.
This is a Richard Gough invention.
It's a mirror pool.
He's dammed the water, just a little skim of water, and you can see
the stalactites reflected on the surface of the water.
Do you approve of this manipulation of nature?
Yes, I do. It's very low-intensity human interaction with it,
and...Gough's reason was to show
the amazing complexity and beauty of nature, and I think he's succeeded.
Ah! I thought you'd be more disapproving.
'The Victorians poured in to experience this underground labyrinth,
'the first cave in Britain to be lit with electric light.
'Before Gough turned them into a tourist attraction,
'the caves had been home to something else.'
You can probably guess from the smell that we've now arrived at the cheese cave.
I'm glad you mentioned that, Hugh. I wondered if we had a problem!
Now, the cheese is here.
Is this a necessary part of its maturing process, or is this a kind of touristy thing?
No, this is really genuine.
These are truckles of cheese
and they're the only really genuine Cheddar cheese in the entire world,
because these cheeses are made from unpasteurised milk from
cows on the Somerset Levels, very close to Cheddar.
They're made by hand in the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company in Cheddar
and they are stored here in Gough's Cave,
and this is genuine cave-matured Cheddar cheese.
Oh, it sounds wonderful. I can't wait to get my hands on some.
As more and more areas of the cave were opened up to cater
for the tourists, some important archaeological discoveries were made.
And this is Cheddar Man, 9,000 years old, the oldest complete skeleton ever found in Britain.
That is a fantastic sight.
-This intact skeleton was found here, was it?
'When the skeleton was studied in detail, it revealed an extraordinary life and death.'
The story behind it, we believe, is that Cheddar Man as a teenager
was hit in head with an axe,
which created a major wound in his forehead.
That probably affected him for the rest of his life,
but he died, we believe, in his early 20s.
And we think that, during that period, the effect of the blow
to the head made him anti-social, dysfunctional,
that sort of thing, so that when he died,
the members of his tribe didn't deal with him in the normal way of burial
but put him in a twilight zone here
so that his spirit couldn't depart
to the ancestors and couldn't roam amongst the living either.
'Recent research has produced more sinister revelations
'about the people who lived in these caves.'
I hear there's evidence of cannibalism that's been discovered in these caves.
Yes, that's true. The bones of three adults and two children with cut
marks, to drop the jaw out, to get at the tongue and to invert the skull,
and cut marks on the long bones and the breaking of long bones is all
evidence of cannibalism and the bones are scattered across the cave floor
and mixed with horse bones.
So cannibalism did take place here, but long before Cheddar Man.
I'm pleased to see people have turned from cannibalism
-to cheese-eating in this part of the world.
-This is only recent.
'The researchers also took DNA from Cheddar Man
'to see if they could find any of his descendants in Cheddar today.
'And guess what? They found a match.'
Let me get a good look at you.
-Nice to meet you, Michael.
-Any resemblance to Cheddar Man?
-I can't see it exactly.
-Come on in.
-Thank you very much.
'Local teacher Adrian Target was helping to organise
'the experiment when he was also roped in to giving a sample.'
So I was arranging to have my students' DNA tested and some of
them were a bit apprehensive,
and so I said, "It'll be OK. I'll show you there's nothing involved.
"I'll have mine done as well."
One of the things that they obviously wanted to know
was how much like Cheddar Man I was, and so they did...
..a reconstruction of Cheddar Man's head based on what they had from the skeleton.
Adrian, this is spooky!
Such a strong resemblance.
I mean, obviously you don't wear your hair the same way
they did 9,000 years ago, but otherwise...
It's always other people who can see the resemblance, isn't it?
'Almost as bizarre is Adrian's other secret.'
You know who this is, don't you?
Yes, it's a Bradshaw Handbook, a Bradshaw Guide.
And how do you know that?
Probably because I'm a railway nut, I suppose,
a bit of an anorak, and I've collected mainly the timetables
rather than the guides.
Adrian, that is to be a serious anorak
to collect the timetables of trains that ran 150 years ago.
-Yes, I suppose so.
-Sherlock Holmes always had a Bradshaw
to the left of his fireplace.
Well, I do have some just here.
'I suppose it was only a matter of time before I met another Bradshaw enthusiast.
'It wasn't long ago that they were an essential item for every train traveller.'
Must give you a lot of interesting bedtime reading, that.
Thank you. That's lovely.
'It's almost time to leave Cheddar,
'but there's one thing I need to try before I go.' Good evening.
Oh, that looks serious!
Are these all from Cheddar?
-They are all from Cheddar.
-This is the one from the caves?
-It is indeed.
-That's the one I have to try.
Lovely big taste.
Mmm, really mature and...
..fresh and tangy.
-Thank you so much.
-I'm glad you're enjoying it.
'Early next morning,
'I'm ready to pop along the coast to Weston-super-Mare.' Morning.
-Running on time on a Sunday morning. That's very good.
-Yeah, we try to.
The building of the Great Western Railway made it possible for there to be long-distance tourism,
like railway workers from Swindon spending a week by the seaside in Devon.
But it also led to growth of day-tripping and weekend visits, so that people from
Bristol and Exeter could spend time by the sea in the Bristol Channel.
Weston-super-Mare, perhaps above all other seaside resorts,
grew rapidly thanks to the railway.
In 1822, it had a population of just 735.
By the end of the century, it had shot up to over 20,000.
'Clearly, they weren't put off by what Bradshaw had to say.'
My Bradshaw's Guide is not entirely polite about Weston-Super-Mare,
so I'm intrigued to see what I'm going to find.
Bradshaw writes that, "The receding of the tide leaves
"a disfiguring bank of mud along the beach,
"which is a great drawback to the enjoyment of bathing".
It says about Weston-Super-Mare, at low tide Weston is disfigured by this bank of mud.
-What do you think of that?
-I think it's right.
Do you think that is a bit disfiguring?
I think it's the stones and stuff.
Do you not like that so much?
It can look very dirty and polluted,
but today it actually doesn't look that polluted, but sometimes it does.
-Are you visiting Weston-super-Mare or do you live here?
-We live here.
I'm following a very old guidebook, 150 years old, and he makes what I think is a rather catty comment.
He says the best reason to stay a long time in Weston-super-Mare
is because of the attractive places around it.
What do you think of that? Do you think that's a bit unfair?
-Yeah, the Weston-super-Mare central is lovely.
I thought you'd say that.
And the other thing he says is that he thinks
the bank of mud that's left at low tide is disfiguring.
-Would you use that word?
-No, it's a natural thing, surely.
You can't have lovely Cornwall beaches everywhere, can you?
-And if it's a natural thing, you shouldn't call it disfiguring?
-No, course not. It's part of Weston.
Everybody knows it's like that down here but everybody still comes down here.
You really are loyal to your town.
At least Bradshaw is more positive about one local attraction, Birnbeck Pier.
He says, "The bay sweeps a flat sandy beach to Worle Hill,
"having beyond it the Rock, or island of Birnbeck, across which
"a new pier has been made with a landing stage for steamers."
The pier was still bustling 50 years ago.
But severe damage from storms in 1990 made it unsafe
and it was closed to the public in 1994.
The only way to appreciate it is by water.
'So I've tagged along with the RNLI, who used to have a base on the pier.
'Nigel is one of 24 local volunteers.'
You've got an RNLI slipway there.
-You use that sometimes?
-We don't any more.
That got condemned a while back, just falling into disrepair, really.
So we now operate on the north side, using a new method
with tractors and trailers launching on a shingle beach.
Does it make you sad to see it in this dilapidated condition?
It does, yes. It's quite an old pier.
I just about remember it from when I was a wee lad.
And to see it like it is now is devastating, really.
But my visit to the pier is cut short by a real emergency.
You have to get the guys back on here. They want number two.
Swansea Coastguard from Weston...
There I was...er...
out in lifeboat number one
and a call came through.
Luckily, we had lifeboat number two alongside us,
but they have been called to an emergency.
Somebody is drifting in a raft.
It's quite a long-distance job, so they've got to take the bigger craft
and luckily we had the smaller boat alongside.
-Hi, Michael. Welcome aboard number two.
Thank you very much indeed. Thank you, guys.
'With all that excitement, I'm glad to get my feet back on dry land.'
That was great. Thank you very much indeed.
-Take it easy.
-Bye. Thank you.
This old pier may be very down on its luck today, but it was still
a massive tourist attraction until the late 1950s.
Pier archivist Stan Terrell remembers how popular it was
and has traced its history back to Bradshaw's day.
Stan, why do you think the Victorians were so crazy about piers?
The very fact that they so enjoyed going on boats, but with a pier
you could be on a boat as it were, and you felt safe.
You had the water underneath you.
I think they loved that.
The other thing of course with piers, especially in their
early days, was that it was somewhere where you could promenade.
In other words, you could be seen and you could see others.
One of the reasons the pier was such a hit was that it was the
nearest spot for Welsh people to get a drink on Sundays.
Cardiff tourists poured in from the steamers into the bars on the first "booze cruises".
Paint a picture for me. At the height of the Victorian era, people arriving by steamers.
What would it have been like on the pier?
Bags of excitement, I guess.
As many as 13 steamers queuing up to discharge their passengers.
When they would have eventually got on the island,
enjoying themselves with all the amusements, the helter-skelter.
I've heard it said the town business people didn't like it really,
because all the business was coming into the old pier
and very little of that came into the town.
Stan, one history of the pier is about pleasure and steamers.
Another history of the pier is to do with warfare. Is that right?
Quite correct. In 1942, the Admiralty took this pier over.
It became then known as HMS Birnbeck, and they staffed it with scientists.
They developed the bouncing bomb,
but it was only the theoretical work that was done in that instance.
I have to stop you there.
You're telling me that the bouncing bomb was developed on a pier?
Yes, it was. The idea apparently for choosing the pier
to put their scientists on was that, first of all,
you've probably noticed how secluded we are, away from prying eyes.
And secondly, we have the third highest rise and fall
of the tide in the world.
So one of the objects was to develop weapons
that they could fire into very deep water and they wanted
to be able to examine those explosives on low tide.
So those are the two reasons it was chosen.
So, actually, Birnbeck Pier has a rather important part in the history of World War II.
Oh, yes, I'd say so, yes.
It's a really beautiful day.
The sun's been out.
There's a breeze off the sea.
You can see for miles.
This is the British beach holiday at its best.
I think Bradshaw must have seen it on a rainy day, because
Weston-super-Mare has lots to offer,
including one very traditional British seaside attraction.
Kevin Mager's family has run the donkey rides here
for more than 100 years.
Tell me about Weston-super-Mare in its heyday.
It was for touring, donkey rides. People used to come from the station.
It used to be packed all the way down the road
and there'd be lines of them coming in the mornings.
What was the beach like in those days?
We used to have to keep a track for the donkeys to walk along.
The people used to be all sat in their deckchairs and they'd
sit on the track and we used to have to try and move them.
It's a wonderful beach, isn't it?
It's a lovely beach, Weston. It's nice and flat. They're safe.
The tide doesn't come in...
It comes in twice a day.
How did your family get into donkeys, do you think?
Well, years ago, everyone had coal businesses.
They were coal merchants and then, in the summer, cos there was no coal,
they went to doing donkey rides.
That's how I think it happened, cos we did it as well. Many years ago, we had a coal business.
So the two businesses go together perfectly?
-Winter and summer.
Is this your first time on a donkey?
-Did you enjoy it?
-Was he nice and gentle and safe?
-Nice and gentle and safe.
'By the 1970s, Weston-super-Mare was in decline, thanks to cheap package holidays abroad.
'visitor numbers are back up to around six million a year.
'Perhaps the eco-friendly trend towards holidaying in Britain
'is again boosting the town's popularity.'
When I remember childhood summers, I think of strawberries
and beaches and piers and boat rides
and, yes, the occasional donkey,
and these were the things mentioned in Bradshaw,
largely invented by the Victorians,
and made possible by the railways,
and they're at the heart of the British seaside holiday even today.
Tomorrow, I'll be discovering
why Torquay became a magnet for Victorian invalids.
You've got 3,000 miles' worth of the Atlantic Ocean on your doorstep,
nice clean air for most of the year coming in off the Atlantic, so that's good for your lung disorders.
I'll be fishing for salmon on the beautiful Dart estuary.
I tell you, Nick, these city hands have not done work like this in their lifetime.
And I'll be spending Britain's first local currency.
When you shop in a supermarket, 80% of that money leaves Totnes the next morning.
This is a currency that can't leave Totnes.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
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.
His journey takes him along the Brunel's Great Western Railway from Swindon to Penzance. This time, Michael samples local Cheddar strawberries, explores Cheddar Gorge and the famous caves, and visits one of the oldest piers in the country at Weston Super Mare.