Torquay to Totnes Great British Railway Journeys


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Torquay to Totnes

Michael Portillo finds out about Torquay's microclimate, goes salmon fishing on the Dart estuary and spends some of Totnes's new local currency.


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LineFromTo

In 1840, one man transformed travel in Britain.

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His name was George Bradshaw and his railway guides

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inspired the Victorians to take to the tracks.

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Stop by stop he told them where to travel,

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what to see and where to stay.

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Now 170 years later I'm making four long journeys across the length

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and breadth of the country to see what remains of Bradshaw's Britain.

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Using my 19th century Bradshaw's guide,

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I'm continuing my rail journey into the West Country.

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Today I will reach England's south coast for the first time.

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Its climate, its bays, its beaches have made it

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a magnet for tourists since Victorian times.

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But its strategic position, its harbours, its inlets

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have made it vital for Britain's defence for centuries before that.

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Today I'll be discovering why Torquay

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was a magnet for Victorian invalids.

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You've got 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean.

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Nice, clean air coming in off the Atlantic.

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That's good for your lung disorders.

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I'll be fishing for salmon on the beautiful Dart estuary.

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I tell you, Nick, these city hands

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have not done work like this in their lifetime!

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And I'll be finding out about Britain's first local currency.

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You shop in the supermarket...

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80% of that money leaves Totnes the next morning.

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This is the currency that can't leave Totnes.

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I'm almost half way through my journey

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from Swindon along the Great Western Railway.

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This line to Somerset, Devon and Cornwall

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opened the way for a new tourism industry.

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After exploring the English Riviera,

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I'll head to the end of the line at Penzance.

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For the next leg of my journey, I'm travelling from Weston Super-Mare

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south to Torquay before heading up the Dart estuary to Totnes.

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Today, my first train takes me along the beautiful south Devon coast.

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It was one of the hardest sections of the Great Western Railway

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to build, but has resulted in the most spectacular views

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for the train traveller.

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Bradshaw's guide is ecstatic about this view.

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"This part of the line is invested with additional interest from

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"the magnificent scenery which opens up on each side as we proceed.

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"There is scarcely a mile traversed which does not unfold some peculiar

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"picturesque charm or new feature of its own

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"to make the eye dazzled and drunk with beauty."

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And as the sun rises to my left,

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I know exactly what the guidebook means.

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The railway's designer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel,

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wanted to construct the line further inland,

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but was forced to follow the line of the beach.

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It meant boring five tunnels through the cliffs

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and building four miles of sea wall to protect the tracks.

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It's an extraordinary engineering achievement,

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but it doesn't always keep the water at bay.

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The fact that the railway line was built along the sea means that

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we have those wonderful views, but it also means

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that the railway line gets pelted by storms and by spray

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and if water levels go on rising it can only get worse.

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When the line reached Torquay in 1848, the Great Western Railway

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began promoting it as a holiday destination.

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It was an immediate hit with the Victorian tourists

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and Torquay grew into a bustling resort.

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One of its main attractions was the mild climate.

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My Bradshaw's Guide even compared it to the south of France, saying,

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"Torquay has been described somewhat characteristically as the Montpellier of England."

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But do we regard it that way today?

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-Hello.

-Hi.

-I'm sorry to trouble you.

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-Good morning.

-Hello.

-Good morning.

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-I see you have a beach hut.

-We do.

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-We do.

-How many months of the year are you on the beach?

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It starts in April and it goes on till now, September.

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April to September is a pretty good season for England, isn't it?

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-Yes, it is.

-Do you think Torquay has exceptionally good weather?

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-I think it does.

-Yes, I suppose so.

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We've had quite a wet summer again...

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-Unfortunately.

-..like most people, but I think we do as well as anybody.

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It's a lot milder than our friends in the south-east, isn't it?

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I'm interested to discover from meteorologist, David Braine,

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whether Torquay really is special.

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-Morning, David.

-Morning, Michael.

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We meet on a lovely, sunny day.

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-Beautiful, isn't it?

-Why does Torquay have such a wonderful climate?

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It's largely due to the geography, where it is?

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It faces east, which means most of the year, it's well sheltered

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and the climate here is, pretty much, one of the best

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in the south-west because of it.

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Because of the warm weather, the Great Western Railway

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began to promote this coast to tourists as The English Riviera.

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On one particular Bank holiday, 20,000 people

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passed through Torquay station in a single day.

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Thanks to the railways, it had become a major resort.

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But day trippers apart, Bradshaw recommended it

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specifically for the sick.

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The Victorians were really quite obsessed about health

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and Torquay was regarded as a terrific place for invalids to come.

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Is this place especially good for people suffering from illnesses?

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I would say, "Yes." There's a lot going for it, bearing in mind

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in Victorian times there was a lot of air pollution.

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The big towns and the industrial areas have a lot of air pollution,

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a lot of particulate matter in the air and those that suffer from pulmonary disorders,

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really did suffer because of it, because of all that smoke and gas in the atmosphere.

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You come to the seaside and you get clean air to start with

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and you've also got a more temperate climate.

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So, if they were suffering from rheumatism,

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when they came to this area they wouldn't have those cold winters.

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In the same vein, when you get elderly, the heat in the summertime can be a problem.

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So, it was a really popular location because of that.

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I suppose that led the Victorians to become more and more

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interested in climate and weather and to make some recordings.

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For example, it's claimed in here that the winter temperature

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of 46 degrees Fahrenheit is five degrees higher than Exeter.

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Is that true?

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I can only look at the records going back to the First World War

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and I've looked and the winter temperature is about a degree or so difference.

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It is slightly warmer here.

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-A degree centigrade?

-Yes, a degree centigrade.

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-Two of his degrees.

-That's correct.

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But not five of his degrees.

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Five is a bit much, I would think.

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The next part of my journey takes me through other Riviera resorts

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on the Paignton and Dartmouth steam railway.

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Anybody who likes railways

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thinks that the real thing is a steam train.

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I've been on a few steam trains and I'm told

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that this line is exceptional.

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I've been told that whatever I thought before about steam travel,

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I'm going to discover something new today.

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I'm now going up the front to meet the guys who do what I think

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many boys dreamed of doing, certainly when I was young.

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That is to say shovelling the coal

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and driving the engine.

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Have you got a moment before you set off for a word?

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-Yes.

-Pop out, please.

-Come aboard.

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Oh, thank you. We're coming up.

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'Driver, Barry Damon, and fireman, Chris Wilson

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'have an incurable passion for steam.'

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Well, the first thing you notice is the enormous heat

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coming out of the furnace here.

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It's roaring red and it's a very big furnace as well, isn't it?

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Yeah, it is. That fires dying away at the moment, actually.

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We'll have to do a lot of building up on that before we leave.

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-That's your job?

-Really get the temperature up, yeah.

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So how did you get to be a fireman? It's everybody's dream and you are quite young.

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Yeah, there's at least four, if not five generations before me

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that have worked on railways. So, it was going to happen.

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Were you always crazy about trains as a kid?

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Yeah, yeah, Thomas The Tank Engine got out of control, really.

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-And you are the driver.

-Yes.

-So you're going to be running us down the line in a moment

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to Kingswear and what speed are we going at, maximum?

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Well, the Heritage Line we're limited to 25 miles an hour.

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A very sedate Victorian speed, I shall enjoy it very much, indeed.

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That's what the job's about, yes.

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Shovel all the coal in, got to keep her rolling?

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I'll get shovelling in a minute, get the temperature up

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-and give the driver the steam and we'll be on our way.

-Thank you, I look forward to it.

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The steam train follows the coast to Kingswear

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at the mouth of the River Dart.

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The train edges along by the side of this magnificent

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red coloured beach, Goodrington sands.

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-£1 supplement.

-Thank you very much, indeed, sir.

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Thank you very much.

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This is a lovely observation car.

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What's the history of this, do you know?

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This was built originally in 1919,

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well 1915 originally as an ambulance car.

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People have told me this is a very special journey. Why is that?

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Devon views at their best, you can't beat this.

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It's looking absolutely wonderful at the moment, isn't it?

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Yes, it's usually like this.

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Even when it's damp there's still Devon sunshine.

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What's the very best part of the route, what shall I look out for?

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Maybe the Torbay area as we go up towards Churston and then as we drop down towards Dartmouth,

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we've got the River Dart on the right e with the views across to Dartmouth on the other side.

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So it's nothing but highlights?

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Really, yes, the only place you don't see very much is in the tunnel.

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-All right, thank you.

-OK, sir.

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Bye-bye.

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'That extra pound is a bargain.'

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This observation car is the best vantage point

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for this breathtaking journey.

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I love the way it when the train goes round the corner, like this,

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and you get a good view of the locomotive up the front.

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All that power and steam and smoke, driving our train forth, thrilling!

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The route is distinguished by yet more of Brunel's engineering

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accomplishments, like the viaducts at Broadsands and Hookhills.

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And that whistle means a tunnel coming, I'm going back.

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You can imagine the excitement of a Victorian railway traveller.

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Not only did the trains make it possible for them to do things

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they'd never done before, they also brought them into the heart of

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countryside and landscape, the like of which,

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city dwellers in particular, had never seen.

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These days, most users of this line are tourists

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making their way to the historic town of Dartmouth.

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That really was thrilling.

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I mean, any steam train journey is very exciting

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and many of them pass through wonderful countryside.

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But at least in my experience,

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that was the most remarkable for coastal scenery.

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Bradshaw's guide is often surprisingly up-to-date.

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It tells me there's no bridge across the Dart

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and that I will need to take a ferry.

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Well, it is as true now as it was then.

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-Three adults and a child, please.

-That's five pounds...

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On the other side, is what's called Dartmouth railway station,

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although in fact there's never been a train on this bank of the Dart.

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It's lovely.

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It's very distinctive railway architecture.

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It's very beautifully preserved.

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This used to be the booking office, this used to be the waiting room.

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Now it's a snack bar.

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-Hello!

-Hello, sir, nice to meet you.

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Nice to meet you. Do you like working in this beautiful place?

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Of course, when I first heard about it

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-that it was designed by Brunel, I was really surprised.

-Yeah.

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I like it here. For me as a Slovakian,

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it's, for me, amazing and special because this culture and how it was

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designed and built is, for me, new, it was everything, for me, new.

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-This is...

-Traditions.

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..traditionally a railway station, even though it never had any trains.

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That's right. And I read in the Tree Park,

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that it's the only one in the world, something like that, probably.

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Without actually track, it's amazing. For me, Brunel, means something.

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And so you admire Brunel?

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I admire. Many beautiful bridges, good structures

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and I think some of his projects will survive ages

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and will be working for many generations in the future.

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-Thank you so much.

-Thank you.

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Very nice to talk to you.

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I am gratified for Brunel that, deservedly,

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his fame has spread to Slovakia.

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In the early 19th century Dartmouth was hard to access, even by land.

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When the railways reached here in 1864, it began to thrive as a port.

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Bradshaw's Guide on Dartmouth.

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"This very ancient sea port is beautifully situated at the mouth of the Dart.

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"It's harbour, affording accommodation for as many as

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"500 large vessels, is completely landlocked

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"with hills rising 300-400ft."

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It wouldn't be long before the royal navy

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discovered the attractions of Dartmouth.

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The railways also transported hundreds of recruits

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to the recently opened Royal Naval College.

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It remains the Royal Navy's single facility for turning out officers.

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And my hotel for the night, recommended by Bradshaw,

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is steeped in Dartmouth's naval past.

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-Hi, Mr Portillo?

-Hello.

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Hi, I'm Nigel Wade, genial host and licensee.

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-Very nice to see you.

-Have you got a couple of seconds?

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Sure. This hotel just reeks of naval history.

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Well, it's been years since the 1639.

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Dartmouth is one of the great seafaring ports.

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You are right in the centre of it.

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In the 16th century, Dartmouth was also notorious for its Privateers.

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These government sponsored pirates

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hijacked foreign ships and sold them for profit.

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When a boat was captured it was brought in, tied up outside.

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A thing called a sale by the candle was held,

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which meant that in that room just over there they would have said,

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"We're going to light this candle.

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"The best offer we get before the candle goes out will get this ship."

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That is how the Privateers made their money.

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You are being a bit tactful because when you say boat you actually mean Spanish ships, don't you?

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Definitely, yes. I'm trying to be political here.

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I think I'll go and look at my room.

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-Thank you very much.

-I hope you sleep well.

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Don't take too much notice of all the stories

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-of ghosts and things you hear. Sleep well.

-Thank you.

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Well, there were no frights in the night

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and on this bright new morning

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I'm about to explore the Dart with the help of my Bradshaw's guide.

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Bradshaw says, "an excursion up the River Dart to Totnes

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"is one of the areas great attractions to visitors,"

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that "salmon are caught in the Dart and in Totnes the chief employment

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"amongst the inhabitants is in the fishery."

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So its time to get afloat.

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Salmon fisherman, Nick Prust, is going to take me out on his boat.

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-Do I look the part?

-Well, yes, sort of.

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This is a townie's view of what a fisherman looks like.

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-Lovely weather again today.

-It is gorgeous, perfect.

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Are the fish biting?

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Let's hope so. We'll see.

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Not too sunny and not too cloudy.

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-No. Let's get going.

-Great.

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In Bradshaw's day, angling became a popular sport

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for Victorian tourists, with the help of the railways.

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Anglers arriving by train

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could even buy their permit at the local station.

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At the same time, commercial salmon fishing also took off.

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I hope you got it going out properly, Michael, are you watching it carefully?

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-It's going out nicely.

-We always look to someone to blame.

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But since Bradshaw's time stocks of salmon in the Dart have declined

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and now there are only a few commercial fishermen

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working the river.

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I don't see it pulsing with fish.

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Nick is restricted to a rowing boat

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and does everything by hand in the traditional way.

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I tell you, Nick, these city hands have not done work like this...

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in their lifetime!

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I'm always feeling lucky, Michael. You must always think positive.

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'Even after all that effort there isn't much of a catch.'

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Nick, three men, two boats, one television presenter, one grey mullet.

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It's not a particularly high rate of productivity, is it?

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No, it's not.

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But that's life, I'm afraid.

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That's fishing.

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In Bradshaw's day the River Dart was plied by pleasure steamers

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carrying tourists up to Totnes, and that continued right up until 1965.

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That's the trip Bradshaw recommends, but as there are no steamers today,

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Nick's going to take me on his motor boat.

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Some of this scenery, Michael,

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won't have changed in hundreds of years.

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An odd tree may fall down in the river, but that's about it.

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Here's Sharpham House, Michael, with the old boat house.

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Sharpham House stands proudly high above the river

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and is today one of Devon's new wine producers.

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-There's the vineyard just showing here now.

-What a beautiful sight.

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It's a little bit of the continent arrived in Devon.

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Oh, yes, definitely.

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This tree on the left is known as the cormorant tree.

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It was tree that was struck by lightening years ago

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and the cormorants just love to come in on it.

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All too quickly we're at my next stop.

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-Is this where you're chucking me out?

-It is.

-Thank you very much.

0:20:450:20:48

This is my Robinson Crusoe moment.

0:20:480:20:52

It's been a pleasure.

0:20:520:20:53

-Thank you.

-Cheers.

-Bye.

0:20:530:20:56

Whilst the countryside hasn't changed since Bradshaw's time,

0:21:000:21:04

Totnes certainly has.

0:21:040:21:06

In Bradshaw's day, the coal guzzling locomotives

0:21:060:21:11

racing across the land were early carbon dioxide producers.

0:21:110:21:15

Today Totnes is trying to become more green.

0:21:170:21:21

-Are you free?

-Yes, certainly.

0:21:230:21:25

'So there's a new kind of taxi in town.'

0:21:250:21:28

What brings you to Totnes?

0:21:280:21:30

I'm doing a railway journey around Britain

0:21:300:21:34

and I'm using a 19th Century guidebook.

0:21:340:21:37

It's brought me to Totnes.

0:21:370:21:39

LOUD ENGINE SPUTTERS

0:21:390:21:42

It doesn't mention rickshaws.

0:21:420:21:45

The rickshaws have only been in Totnes for a couple of years.

0:21:450:21:50

But it's all part of the transition town movement, really.

0:21:500:21:53

They're trying to highlight the use of renewables.

0:21:530:21:58

So what does this sewing machine run on?

0:21:580:22:01

It runs on used cooking oil from the town.

0:22:010:22:04

So I'm running on somebody's old fish and chips?

0:22:040:22:09

Yeah.

0:22:090:22:10

Very green.

0:22:100:22:12

Eat chips and save the world!

0:22:120:22:15

What are the economics of this?

0:22:160:22:18

What does it cost to run this machine?

0:22:180:22:20

£2.80 a week.

0:22:200:22:23

That is amazing!

0:22:230:22:25

Has the amount of deafness in the town gone up?

0:22:250:22:28

Hahaha!

0:22:280:22:30

The chip fat rickshaws are part of something called

0:22:320:22:35

Transition Town Totnes - a global campaign

0:22:350:22:39

for sustainability started by Rob Hopkins.

0:22:390:22:42

-Rob.

-Hello, Michael. Welcome to Totnes.

0:22:420:22:46

-What a lovely spot.

-Isn't it.

0:22:460:22:47

Transition Town Totnes - what does that mean?

0:22:470:22:50

It's an organisation that's been running here for about three years.

0:22:500:22:54

It's really about how, as communities,

0:22:540:22:57

we respond to climate change and also to peak oil,

0:22:570:23:00

nearing the end of the age of cheap oil and all that that's made possible.

0:23:000:23:04

Transition is a positive, proactive response which says we can either look at those two things

0:23:040:23:09

as a crisis and a disaster, or as an opportunity

0:23:090:23:12

to be creative and brilliant and come up with a lot

0:23:120:23:15

of solutions that start here at the grass roots.

0:23:150:23:17

So what solutions have you come up with?

0:23:170:23:20

We do lots of stuff around local food,

0:23:200:23:22

linking people up with local food producers.

0:23:220:23:24

We have a garden share scheme, to match people who want to garden

0:23:240:23:27

with people who have gardens they don't use.

0:23:270:23:30

We have a solar buyers scheme

0:23:300:23:32

to try and get more renewables out on the rooves.

0:23:320:23:34

One of the things that's been really extraordinary here is

0:23:340:23:38

that what's started here is now an international movement.

0:23:380:23:41

Thousands of towns, cities and villages around the world

0:23:410:23:44

who are adopting the same model.

0:23:440:23:46

There's a certain paradox there, isn't there?

0:23:460:23:48

An international movement of self-sufficient communities?

0:23:480:23:52

It's not about self-sufficiency, Totnes is never going to make

0:23:520:23:55

its own laptop computers, but at the same time it can source a lot of its

0:23:550:23:59

building materials, food and so on, and by doing so make this economy much stronger and more robust.

0:23:590:24:04

Now, you've got your own single currency, is that right?

0:24:040:24:07

We do. I have some in my pocket. Yeah, this is the Totnes pound

0:24:070:24:10

which is a scheme that we've been running

0:24:100:24:13

for a couple of years now in various experiments.

0:24:130:24:16

It's based on the idea that, at the moment,

0:24:160:24:18

you can look at a town like Totnes

0:24:180:24:20

as being like a large leaky bucket out of which all this money comes in and pours straight out.

0:24:200:24:25

You shop in the supermarket, 80% of that money leaves Totnes the next morning.

0:24:250:24:29

This is a currency that can't leave Totnes, it can't go anywhere else.

0:24:290:24:32

'The aim of the Totnes pound is to encourage people

0:24:320:24:35

'to buy local products and support local businesses.'

0:24:350:24:38

You can spend it in 80 shops in the town

0:24:380:24:41

and we're very fond of it. It recently inspired other places.

0:24:410:24:45

This is a Brixton pound which was launched last week.

0:24:450:24:48

-A slightly different look.

-Yeah, but that's the thing.

0:24:480:24:51

They're a celebration of the place and culture from which they emerge.

0:24:510:24:55

They also have a five, a ten and £20 note as well.

0:24:550:24:57

You can pay your council tax with them as well.

0:24:570:25:00

Very good, well I better go and equip myself with some currency.

0:25:000:25:03

I think you had and have fun spending them.

0:25:030:25:05

Thank you very much, good luck to you.

0:25:050:25:07

-Thanks very much.

-Thank you.

0:25:070:25:09

As it turns out, I don't have to go far

0:25:160:25:19

to find somewhere to change my Bank of England pounds.

0:25:190:25:23

Hello, I've come to buy some Totnes pounds, please.

0:25:230:25:27

Totnes pounds, how many would you like?

0:25:270:25:29

Oh, you do. Right, well, £20 worth would be fine.

0:25:290:25:34

What's the exchange rate?

0:25:340:25:36

One for one. One Totnes pound for £1 sterling.

0:25:360:25:39

-Ah, that seems very reasonable, thank you.

-You're welcome.

0:25:390:25:42

20 Totnes pounds for £20 sterling.

0:25:420:25:45

Thank you, a pleasure doing business with you,

0:25:450:25:47

I'll put that to the test. Thank you.

0:25:470:25:49

I was looking for a railway book.

0:25:580:26:02

-There we go, sir, it's recommended.

-I've just been on that line.

0:26:020:26:05

Very nice. How much is that in Totnes pounds?

0:26:050:26:11

Exactly the same price as is on the cover, sir. £14.99.

0:26:110:26:15

OK. Let me see what I've got here.

0:26:150:26:18

I'm afraid I've only got £1 notes.

0:26:180:26:20

That's all right, sir, we're just waiting

0:26:200:26:23

for them to introduce the fivers and tenners.

0:26:230:26:25

..four, five, six...

0:26:250:26:28

Could I have one Totnes penny in change, please.

0:26:280:26:32

Unfortunately they don't do those yet, I'm afraid.

0:26:320:26:35

-Just your regular penny.

-Just the regular penny.

0:26:350:26:37

All right.

0:26:370:26:39

-There you go, sir.

-Thank you very much indeed.

0:26:420:26:45

I know I'm going to get a lot of satisfaction out of that.

0:26:450:26:48

-There you go, sir.

-Thank you.

0:26:480:26:50

-Thank you.

-Bye-bye.

-Bye.

0:26:500:26:51

What goes around comes around.

0:26:540:26:57

Victorian steam trains and ships

0:26:570:26:59

enabled Britons to enjoy the products of the world.

0:26:590:27:02

Now Totnes wants us to step back. To think and act locally.

0:27:020:27:07

I think George Bradshaw would be pleased that I took the tip

0:27:070:27:11

and went to Torquay for the healthy air

0:27:110:27:14

and delighted that I took a boat trip on the River Dart,

0:27:140:27:17

but he wouldn't approve of the Totnes pound.

0:27:170:27:20

The Victorians didn't believe in localism.

0:27:200:27:22

They were at the heart of a global trading Empire.

0:27:220:27:26

If he knew that Britain was importing rickshaws from India,

0:27:260:27:31

he would think the world was standing on its head.

0:27:310:27:35

Tomorrow, I'll be visiting

0:27:380:27:40

the largest china clay mines in the world.

0:27:400:27:43

What an extraordinary scene, like a vast moonscape.

0:27:430:27:48

I'll be finding out how the Victorians shaped British gardens.

0:27:480:27:54

What we're celebrating is the Victorian tradition of how things were gardened,

0:27:540:27:58

the Victorian attitudes to life

0:27:580:28:01

and also the people who worked in these gardens.

0:28:010:28:04

That's what we regard as lost.

0:28:040:28:05

And I'll be discovering what's happened to the humble pilchard.

0:28:050:28:10

There is a big demand for pilchards which has been renamed the sardine.

0:28:100:28:15

Ah, the sardine and the pilchard are one and the same, are they?

0:28:150:28:18

They are exactly the same.

0:28:180:28:20

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:430:28:48

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 finds out about Torquay's microclimate, goes salmon fishing on the Dart estuary and spends some of Totnes's new local currency.