Michael Portillo visits the largest clay mine in the world, goes pilchard fishing in Mevagissey and finds out how the estate of Heligan shaped British gardens.
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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 am making four long journeys across the length
'and breadth of the country to see what remains of Bradshaw's Britain.'
Using my ancient Bradshaw's guide,
my rail journey has at last brought me to Cornwall.
The arrival of the railways in the 19th century knitted together Britain's towns and cities.
But even the fastest trains left Cornwall feeling remote.
I'm here to look at two industries that draw on the county's natural resources.
They're both mentioned in Bradshaw's, they've survived in the modern times,
and one is even staging a revival.
'Today I'll be visiting the largest china-clay mines in the world.'
What an extraordinary scene! Like a vast moonscape!
'I'll be seeing how the Victorian spirit of adventure shaped British gardens.'
We're celebrating the Victorian tradition of how things were gardened,
the Victorian attitudes to life, and also the people who worked in these gardens.
That's what we regard as lost.
'And I'll be discovering what's happened to the humble pilchard.'
There's a big demand for pilchards, which has been renamed the sardine.
-Oh! The sardine and pilchard are one and the same, are they?
-They are exactly the same.
'All this week I've been travelling from Swindon
'along the Holiday Line.
'After heading south through Somerset and Devon,
'I'm now moving into Cornwall.
'Here, the Great Western Railway made
'the whole peninsula accessible to tourists,
all the way to Penzance.
'Today, I'll continue west, along the coast from Totnes
'to Par and St Austell, and push on to Mevagissey.
'Bradshaw's commends Cornwall not for its beauty, but its minerals.
'It says, "The most important objects in the history of this county
'"are its numerous mines, which
'"for centuries have furnished employment to thousands of its inhabitants."
'You don't see that Cornwall from a railway carriage today.
'It's more famous for second homers and tourists admiring its stupendous landscapes, as I am.
'Today, I'm in St Germans, and as usual my day begins
'in a railway carriage - but this one isn't actually going anywhere.'
Welcome to the Travelling Post Office, where I spent the night.
As you see, it's fully equipped with a kitchen,
everything you could possibly want, I think.
This is where I had my breakfast.
Plenty of room to sit.
'The Post Office began sending the mail by train in the 1830s, and
'soon created special rolling stock so that letters could be sorted on the move.
'By the early 20th century, there were around 77 such carriages.
'The service ran right up to 2004.'
The kids are going to love this. Two bunk beds and a sweet little bedroom.
And this leads through to
the adults' bedroom, where I spent the night.
If any of you are old enough to remember this,
the leather-strap window... You pull on the leather strap...
I have been practising that all morning!
You can tell by the change of the design!
And now, the piece de resistance!
A-ha! My own private entrance!
This old Travelling Post Office is owned by Lizzie and David Stroud,
who also converted the station next door.
-I'm Michael, I was your guest last night.
-Pleased to meet you, Michael.
How do you do? Good to see you.
So, I take it that this railway station is actually your home, is that right?
Yes, that is correct. We've lived here since 1992.
You aren't worried about the noisy trains passing you all the time?
No, we've got thick double glazing, so it really doesn't bother us at all.
The noise is shielded by the platform, so you only get the sound
of a train as it passes, while in the village you get the sound of a train as it's coming and going away.
It's actually relatively quiet, living in the station.
I stayed in the Travelling Post Office, very nice.
Tell me what is left of it as a Travelling Post Office.
I imagined lots of pigeonholes where you put the letters during the night.
Unfortunately when we bought the Post Office, that had all been stripped out years ago -
it had been lived in as a house.
That is really how long these old carriages survive. They get lived in.
Of course, what you've got to get used to in a carriage is,
-you've got plenty of space, but of course it's very, very long.
-It is, yes.
If you forgot something in the bedroom, you've got to prepare for a very long walk!
It is quite a long trek in that one. It's 48 feet long, that one.
The people who come and stay with you, in practice are they railway nutters? Let's be frank about this!
There's such a mix, isn't there, really?
We get some hardened train spotters.
But we also get a lot of families as well, actually.
-Increasingly, families, actually.
I know some people who will be green with envy that I have stayed in the Travelling Post Office.
I hardly dare tell them I've come! Bye bye!
'Today is Sunday, and in Bradshaw's time, no trains ran
'between 10am and 4pm, during what was called the church interval.
'Sabbath observance isn't what it was, but at small
'rural stations like St Germans, Sunday trains are still rare.'
I usually use my railway journeys to catch up on reading Bradshaw's,
but this countryside is just so distracting -
the combination of forests and
green fields, with cows and sheep...
It's just breathtaking.
'My next stop is Par. A small town, but nonetheless a hub for the huge china-clay industry.'
So, this is Par.
Bradshaw's guide says, "A large mining town in West Cornwall, near the sea,
"with several important mines round it in the granite, producing copper,
"nickel, with clay, and china stone for the Staffordshire Potteries."
It's difficult to grasp that the china-clay deposits in Cornwall are - wait for it -
the biggest in the world.
'The white porcelain clay found here in 1746 was of the finest quality,
'and was in huge demand in the Staffordshire Potteries.
'It was originally shipped northwards by sea, but the railways took over
'in the 1840s, making the process much quicker.
'Clay miner Ivor Bowditch works at one of the oldest pits,
'which remains highly productive.'
Welcome to clay country, Michael.
-Good to see you.
-Thank you. What an extraordinary scene!
Like a vast moonscape.
This, in fact, is the largest china-clay pit probably in the world,
covering some 500 acres.
It has been operated for almost 180 years.
I've been following this 19th-century guidebook.
This mine would have existed when that was written, in the 1860s?
Indeed it would. It opened up in 1830.
China clay itself had been operated in Cornwall since 1746.
In Britain, we're rather used to industries being in decline.
How would the output from Cornwall of china clay compare now with in Bradshaw's day?
In Bradshaw's day, production probably would have been around the 60,000-tonnes-per-annum mark.
Today, together with two small producing clay companies, we are seeing 1.5 million tonnes per annum.
That's an absolutely vast increase from the 19th century.
What has been the new demand in that time?
The main driving factor has been the use of china clay in the manufacturing of paper and board.
It was in fact in the mid-19th century the paper makers found that, by adding clay,
they could produce smoother, whiter paper, and still, 50% of our output goes into paper,
30% into a whole range of ceramic products, and the remaining 20% into markets such as paints,
rubbers, plastics, sealants, adhesives, pharmaceuticals...
Every day we're probably handling something containing clay.
Is it possible to get any closer?
Well, I've got your hard hat and hi-vis jacket.
So let's go down and see some action.
Thank you very much.
'120 million tonnes of china clay have been extracted in the past 250 years.
'In Bradshaw's day, it was flushed out of the earth with hoses.
'The same technique is used today, but the hoses are much more potent.'
This is the operation, Michael.
We have what we call a monitor, a water cannon, normally firing up to 2,000 gallons a minute.
We would normally have 12,000 gallons a minute going through the system.
-What's it doing?
-Literally washing the clay out of the ground.
We're getting the clay into a solution, as such.
In its liquid form, we can start to refine it and take out the non-clay bearing minerals.
-Would you like to have a go?
-I'd love to.
-Come on over.
Michael, you have two levers. One on the right, vertical movement,
one on the left, horizontal movement.
Let me have a go. This one does left and right...
Moving to the right...
And this one is up and down.
This water cannon is really terrifyingly powerful, isn't it?
It's powerful enough to knock a Land Rover over, that's how powerful they are.
'The watery clay solution is pumped to a refinery for processing.
'Then the pure clay is dried, ready for transportation.'
Michael, we've seen the power of water here, at 300 psi.
Let's transfer the power to 3,500 horsepower and see a locomotive at work.
Good by me!
'The railways were vital to Cornish mining, and soon a network of lines criss-crossed the county.
'Today, many of those routes have closed.
'But the massive clay train to the port of Fowey still runs along a single track,
'and I have the chance to ride on a line that rarely transports passengers.'
'To ensure our safety on the single track, we're using a system that Bradshaw would recognise.
'We collect a token from the signal box,
'and since there's only one for the line, we know that no train is running towards us.'
The train we're on now, how many tonnes are we pulling?
38 wagons, 30 tonnes a wagon.
Fantastic. How many lorries are we replacing?
You'd be looking at approaching 50 lorries to move that.
You'd have 100-lorry movements in both directions.
-How often are these trains heading out?
-They're working daily, Monday to Friday.
My 19th-century guide talks about the china clay being taken up to the Potteries in Staffordshire.
-Does that still happen?
-Not on the same scale.
Sadly, the predominance of the Potteries in Stoke-on-Trent has diminished.
The trains now are all working to
the port of Fowey, which is the only clay port operational today.
They're really very much at the heart of our export drive - 85% of our output is exported.
I very rarely get to ride in the cab, and it has been thrilling to do it.
What I hadn't expected was the fantastic scenery we've had.
I really enjoyed that. Thank you!
'As the clay mines have been exhausted, they've closed.
'Some have been re-landscaped, others have been recycled.
'This one houses two of the largest conservatories in the world, which are part of the Eden Project.
'The founders didn't want the biospheres to
'dominate the landscape, so they located them in a disused pit.
'And helped by a good train service, the Project's become
'one of the country's greenest tourist attractions.
'Next, I'm travelling just a few miles on from Par to Mevagissey,
'a famous harbour on the south coast of Cornwall.'
-Good morning, how are you both?
-Very well, thank you.
-Are you visiting Cornwall?
-Isn't it beautiful?
Fabulous. The weather is marvellous, as well.
Aren't we lucky? Where are you headed for now?
We're going to St Austell, and we're going to the Lost Gardens of Heligan.
-Ah! I shall be there myself before long.
-Thank you, bye bye.
'If clay was an important natural resource in Bradshaw's time, then so too was fish.'
There are people who do very difficult, dangerous, maybe dirty jobs, on which the rest of us rely.
Maybe for our food.
If you live in a city, as I have all my life, you probably don't think about that kind of work.
So I'm pleased today to have a chance to go out with a fisherman,
to get a glimpse of the very dangerous job they do.
'I'm getting off at St Austell, because that's as close as the railway goes to Mevagissey.
'Bradshaw describes it as "an important fishing town in the pilchard season".
'In the 19th century, the pilchard industry provided jobs for thousands of fishermen.
'The catch was salted and packaged in caskets by women
'in processing plants called pilchard palaces.
'In 1871, the industry reached its peak.
'16,000 tonnes of pilchards were caught, cured and transported to Europe by sea and all over Britain
'by train. Andrew Lakeman's family have netted pilchards here since the 1700s.'
-Let me guess, you're Andrew?
-And that kit is for me?
-Yes, it is. Welcome to Mevagissey.
Well, thank you.
'Pilchards are best caught at night, so we're heading out in the evening.'
'In Bradshaw's day, men called huers would gaze out to sea to spy where
'seabirds were fishing for pilchards, then send in the boats.
'It resulted in some large catches.
'Today, Andrew's boat uses more-sophisticated technology, as the skipper explains.'
-Hi, pleased to meet you.
Can I interrupt you a minute?
-Yeah, no problem.
-How's the hunt going?
Quiet at the moment.
Little bits and pieces of pilchards, but hopefully in
the next half an hour, as it's coming dusk, they'll gather together.
So, this is the sonar. What are we looking for on this screen?
I'm searching at 200 metres at the moment.
This is the sea floor ahead of the boat and around the boat.
We're looking for the pilchards in this black area.
What would they look like?
We're looking for something around the size of a 20 pence piece, blood red.
-What quantity of fish would that be?
-Probably be about five to six tonnes.
Later on in the year, we'll have marks 200 metres long, 100 tonnes of fish in.
Obviously, we just fish to what our orders require.
'In Britain, most pilchards were sold in tins and were cheap to buy.
'But because they were associated with wartime rationing,
'by the 1950s they became one of our least popular foods.
'Fishermen could earn only one and a half pence per kilo.
'But in the last 15 years, the humble pilchard has enjoyed a renaissance.'
So, is there a demand now for pilchards?
There's a big demand for pilchards, which has been renamed the sardine.
Oh! The sardine and the pilchard are one and the same, are they?
They are exactly the same.
-Yes, they are.
But "pilchard" makes me think of rusting cans,
and "sardines" makes me think of Mediterranean holidays.
-Well, you're probably right.
-The sardine now is a very chic product.
Yes, it is. It's a very successful species. It's bought and
sold by all the supermarkets.
We sell large quantities to wholesalers throughout the country.
So what's in a name? A pilchard by any other name would smell as sweet!
'It's a textbook example of what marketing or rebranding can do.
'Since 1997, pilchards have been renamed "Cornish sardines".
'The glamorous association with balmy evenings in southern Europe
'has helped pilchard sales to take off.'
The sun's just setting. This is the very time.
That's right. It's nearly 7:00.
So, we're looking probably to shoot around 7:30, something like that.
That's what I like, a man who's confident!
I've got the fish here alongside the boat.
We'll be looking to shoot the net at any time.
'The net cast around the mass of fish is designed to cut off their escape.
'And once in place, the crew hauls in the catch.'
Here they come.
I can see some fish down there, skipper. How many?
50, 60 kilo.
You haven't bust any quotas yet!
No, not yet.
'It's a modest harvest, but it's all pilchards...
'or, should I say, sardines.'
Very good quality fish, and they will be in the factory tomorrow morning and be treated in the normal way.
I'll think of you out here tossing on the wave as I sit down to my fish dinner.
'In Bradshaw's time, Mevagissey depended on fishing.
'These days, it's tourists that bring in the money.
'Indeed, one place just outside Mevagissey now attracts almost 250,000 people a year.
'This is Heligan House and estate.
'The house and its owners, the Tremayne family, are mentioned in Bradshaw's guide.
'But Bradshaw could not have predicted
'the impact that this estate would have on British gardens.
'Today, the Lost Gardens of Heligan are one of the top attractions in Cornwall,
'and they're looked after by horticulturalist Philip McMillan Browse.'
Why then is this called the Lost Garden of Heligan?
Everybody thinks it was because the gardens were derelict and overgrown,
and very much so, and that recovering them was recovering the lost gardens, which indeed is true.
But in fact, the reason we called it the Lost Gardens so that it could be a perennial title was simply that
we were trying to recover that great surge of activity at the end of the Victorian era, when gardening
and industry and engineering and everything was at its peak.
What we're celebrating is the Victorian tradition of how things
were gardened, the Victorian attitudes to life, and also the people who worked in these gardens.
That's what we regard as lost.
'It was places like Heligan that brought exotic plants from all over the world to our gardens,
'when the owners began collecting specimens from adventurous plant hunters like William Lobb.'
He was a Cornishman, and he was the first ever real commercial plant collector, employed by a nurseryman,
to set out and collect what that nurseryman wanted for his purposes, for his commercial gain.
His main task was to go to Chile and collect huge quantities of seed, or as much as he could,
of the monkey-puzzle tree, which was highly sought-after at that time, and they couldn't get enough of it.
He trekked across the Amazon jungle, up over the Andes, through a snow-filled mountain pass,
down the other side into Chile, and then down the western side of
the Andes to southern Chile,
where he found these huge stands of the monkey-puzzle tree,
collected vast quantities of seed.
I think they said 13,000 trees were derived from the seed he sent back.
'Lobb's monkey-puzzle seeds were propagated in England,
and the young trees planted at Heligan.'
That's the plant, up there.
Even an idiot like me can recognise a monkey-puzzle tree.
They're wonderful, silhouetted against the sky here. Huge specimen.
Just like you'd find them in nature in the Andes.
'In the 19th century, the middle classes sought to imitate the fine gardens of estates like Heligan.
'The railways made it practical for even the owners of humble
'suburban gardens all over Britain to order from
'nursery catalogues exotic species like monkey puzzles.'
Most of these trees that you see around you
are tree-rhododendron species that are about 150 years old.
The one just up there in the corner that you can look at his rhododendron niveum, which is mauve in colour.
It's very unusual because it's the same colour as the first-ever
artificial dye, which was used by Queen Victoria in the first instance,
to dye her dresses, and then picked up
by the higher classes, who also found it fashionable.
But because it was so common eventually, and mass-produced,
then the hoi polloi generally had it as their fashionable colour.
Even nurses' uniforms were made out of it.
If you belonged to the upper classes, you didn't want
to be associated with the fashions of the lower classes.
So, you went round your garden and you eradicated all these plants.
Mauve became unfashionable, which is probably why you're wearing that colour shirt!
Are you calling me naff?!
I didn't say that!
'Today, Heligan preserves species from around the world, and also sustains an approach
'to gardening that's little changed since Bradshaw's time.'
Hello. I'm sorry to scare you. How are you?
I'm Michael, how are you doing?
OK, yes. I was just going to tell you off, actually!
Well, here we are! What are you doing at the moment, may I ask?
We've just weeded this bed now, so I'm just breaking it down and flattening it.
You're doing something very traditional here, making sure that everything
that is consumed in the restaurant is produced on the site.
Does that give you a lot of satisfaction?
Definitely. It's nice to have still the old Victorian way, do things the old-fashioned way.
Everything here gets done by hand.
And you can taste the difference?
Definitely. You can smell it as well!
'Without the Victorian passion for exploration,
'we wouldn't have the huge range of plants that adorn our gardens today.
'And without the railways, those delicate specimens couldn't have arrived swiftly and safely.'
In Cornish china clay, I find an industry producing more today
than in Bradshaw's time, which is pretty rare.
And the pilchard business is reviving, thanks to a change of name,
reborn as sardine fishing.
What Bradshaw's missed completely is Cornwall's great beauty.
And thanks to its climate and its garden,
it now attracts those tourists who look for something more on their holiday than sand and ice cream.
'Next time, I'll be making a pilgrimage to Perran Sands.'
I'm looking for the Lost Church of St Piran, but it seems to have got lost again.
It is, but believe it or not, it's here, right under this granite rock.
'I'll be exploring Cornwall's last working tin mine.'
This thing was put in before the days of rock drills.
This had to be hand-drilled, and then blasted.
'And I'll be harvesting oysters on the Helford River.'
That really is exciting! What an amazing sight.
It's a cage absolutely full of bags of oysters.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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 visits the largest clay mine in the world near St Austell, goes pilchard fishing in Mevagissey and finds out how the estate of Heligan shaped British gardens.