Truro to Penzance Great British Railway Journeys


Truro to Penzance

Michael Portillo searches for the lost church of St Piran, explores the last working tin mine in Cornwall and harvests oysters on the Helford River.


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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

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

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I'm now completing my rail journey from Swindon to Penzance.

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My Bradshaw's Guide has given me

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a valuable Victorian perspective on Britain.

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Today I want to look deep into Cornwall's past, delving

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not only into its history but also into treasures buried in the earth.

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Today I'll be making a pilgrimage to Perran Sands.

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I'm looking for the lost church of St Piran but it seems to have got lost again.

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It is, but it is here, right under this granite rock.

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I'll be exploring the last working tin mine in Cornwall.

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You can see the advantages of being a small Cornish miner.

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The thing was put in before rock drills, actually.

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This had to be hand drilled and then blasted.

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And I'll be harvesting oysters on the Helford river.

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That really is exciting. What an amazing sight!

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That is a cage absolutely full of bags of oysters.

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That's right.

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All this week, my journey takes me west.

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And since catching the train at Swindon, I've already travelled

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over 250 miles, passing through Somerset and Devon.

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The final stretch will take me about as far south as you can go,

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to the rugged coastline around Penzance.

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Today I'm leaving St Austell, and heading through Truro

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to Redruth and St Ives.

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I'm then crossing over to Helston,

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before reaching my final destination.

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My first stop is Truro.

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It's the nearest railway station to a very wild piece of Cornish countryside called Perran Sands.

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This amazing landscape has some of the largest sand dunes in Britain.

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I'm here because in 1835 the sand parted to reveal

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an ancient church and Bradshaw was mesmerised.

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He writes, "We come to Perran Sands...

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"where may be seen an amphitheatre and the remains of an old church of St Piran,

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"an ancient British edifice which had been covered by the shifting sands for centuries."

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It turned out not only to be the oldest church in Cornwall

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but one of the earliest Christian sites in Britain.

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Before long, the railways were transporting pilgrims

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and sightseers to witness the wonder of St Piran's.

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But evidently it's disappeared again...

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I'm hoping local resident Angela Penrose can help me to find it.

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-Angela, hello.

-Hello.

-Michael.

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-What a lovely, tranquil spot.

-It's beautiful, isn't it?

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I'm looking for the lost church of St Piran.

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Believe it or not, it's here, right under this granite rock.

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It has covered naturally by the sands.

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This whole area of dunes shifts and in the 6th century, St Piran came from Ireland.

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He arrived here on the shores of Perranporth. He built his little oratory

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and for almost 1,000 years, it was a centre of activity and pilgrimages.

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In 1835, did they dig it out or did the sand shift back again?

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It was revealed, we think, by shifting sands.

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Then William Mitchell excavated it. There was great excitement

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because it was, it is, one of the oldest Christian four-walled edifices in the mainland of Britain.

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But by the 1970s, sand was overwhelming the church once more.

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The locals were advised that the most cost effective way to preserve it was to bury it again.

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How important is what's underneath?

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It has great significance for the Cornish because St Piran,

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he was the patron saint of tin miners and it connects to all this industrial and economic history

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and the diaspera, the Cornish miners, who in the 19th century

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had to go off to Mexico, the States, Chile, South Africa.

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It really has a significance.

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It's part of the Cornish identity.

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The Cornish took St Piran to their hearts and I'm now heading to Truro,

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the city most closely associated with him.

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In Bradshaw's day, it was the centre for the tin trade.

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Truro flourished with the emergence of the railways.

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Many new tracks were laid to serve the tin mines.

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The metals could be carried quickly around the county, helping the industry to grow.

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Bradshaws guide says of Truro, "It's the mining capital of Cornwall

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"covered by foundries, blast houses, pottery and tin works...

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"The metal is stamped, previous to being exported.

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"Bar tin is sent to the Mediterranean and ingots to the East Indies."

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When the price of tin went up in the 19th century, Truro became increasingly wealthy.

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It attracted merchants and bankers who built grand houses, transforming it into a fashionable place to live.

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But today, even though Truro remains grand, I've nowhere seen a hint of tin.

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-Hello, are you from Truro?

-I most definitely am.

-Is Truro still associated with tin?

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Not so much now. Of course, the money in Cornwall came from the tin mines.

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Huge amounts of money... in the 17th century.

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Unfortunately, now, no.

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-So, what's Truro's economy based on now?

-Tourism.

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Officer, you work in Truro?

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-Indeed, yes, yeah.

-What do you think of the city?

-I love Truro. It's great.

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-No more tin?

-I don't think there's an awful lot more tin around.

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They are trying to open South Crofty but otherwise, no.

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Ever since I arrived in Cornwall the word tin has been on people's lips.

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But having found no trace of it in Truro, I'm moving further afield

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and find what remains of what was once a vital industry for Cornwall.

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I'm hoping I'll have more luck at my next stop.

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How long's the journey to Redruth? Do you know?

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-Ten minutes.

-Ten minutes, OK. Thank you.

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I've heard there's an old tin mine at Redruth called South Crofty that's on the brink of re-opening.

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In the 19th century, there were over 300 mines around Redruth

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mining tin and copper to be exported around the world.

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Bradshaw writes, "This town derives nearly all of its importance from its central situation with respect

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"to the neighbouring mines, the workings of which

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"has increased the population to treble its original number."

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Today, no tin mine survives except one.

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South Crofty was worked for over 400 years and in its heyday was one of Cornwall's most productive mines.

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-It is John, isn't it?

-Hello, Michael.

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It's great to be at South Crofty, I've heard a lot about the mine.

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But by 1998, the value of tin had fallen so low, that South Crofty,

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by then the last Cornish tin mine, had to shut.

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Today, the demand for tin is increasing and there's a chance that the mine could be profitable again.

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Operations officer John Webster believes it's only a matter of time before mining recommences.

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It is all quite narrow down here, isn't it?

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You can see the advantages of being a small Cornish miner.

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This thing was put in before the days of rock drills, this had to be hand drilled and blasted.

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Imagine working underground here.

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No fans, no ventilation.

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Throughout most of the 19th and 20th century, miners worked in very tough conditions to create a rabbit warren

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of tiny tunnels crisscrossing under the Cornish countryside.

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About the time this was being mined, this area must have been a cauldron of creativity, actually.

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The amount of inventions that were made down here is incredible.

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John, it's a great relief to be able to stand up straight at last.

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The invention of steam-powered pumps in the 18th century

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created the enormously successful Cornish mining industry.

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Miners were able to dig deeper and faster, to boost the production of ore.

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This same technology produced the steam locomtive

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which made a success of the railways, which in turn transported the metal ore around the country.

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Why eventually did the mining come to an end here?

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They were reliant on the price of tin and there were a number of tin crashes.

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Unfortunately, they never had anything else to generate income and the mine collapsed.

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With the price of tin now rising, it makes sense to try and re-open the mine.

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What's more, surveys have revealed South Crofty's richness in other metals too.

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This contains copper, zinc and tin.

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This is very high grade. This is about 14% copper,

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about 1% tin and about 200 parts per million silver.

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-So this is well worth bringing the mine back into operation.

-Absolutely, yeah.

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What would you do with these metals? For example, nowadays, what is tin used for?

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Tin cans and for solder. We're quite excited about the future market

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for tin because there's a regulatory change in the use of solder.

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Solder at the moment is about 60% lead and about 40% tin.

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That ratio will change to about 98% tin and 1% silver.

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There should be a huge increase of consumption in the next few years.

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And just as the harnessing steam power drove the industry forward

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in the past, new technology is changing it again today.

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-How do you analyse what's in here?

-We have just recently acquired a hand-held analyser which will

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give us a lot of flexibility on analysing content of rock throughout the mine.

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If we are actually down here at the moment and analysing the latest drilling core that's

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come out of the drill. This device actually uses an X-ray source, elements within the rock actually

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fluoresce and the device reads the fluorescence and we can analyse up to 60 different minerals in one go.

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It's a powerful tool.

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That will allow us to analyse both the core that we are generating at the moment but also

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all the underground workings and we have hundreds of kilometres of underground workings here.

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What production can we expect in Cornwall, in the near future?

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Within five years, 750,000 tonnes of ore per year and if exploration goes well

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then we could probably double that within the next five years.

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-Up to 1.5 million tonnes of ore.

-Yeah.

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That's big production.

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I hope this does mark a renaissance in Cornish mining.

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When the industry peaked in Bradshaw's day, annual production was 10,000 tonnes.

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It could massively exceed that figure in the future.

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-Hello. Do you know where I change for St Ives, please?

-At St Erth's.

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-Right, a lot of saints down here, aren't there?

-Yes, there are.

-Thank you.

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-Are you going all the way to Penzance?

-No. I'm getting off at St Erth.

-So am I.

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-Are you headed for St Ives?

-Yes, I am.

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-Are you from St Ives?

-Yes.

-What shall I look out for in St Ives?

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-You need to go to the Tate.

-Yes.

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It is quite an artist's colony altogether, isn't it?

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It is very arty, very arty indeed.

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-Why do artists like it so much?

-It's the light.

-Is it?

-I think so.

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-Are you aware of that yourself, of the light?

-Yes. Yes, it's fantastic.

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I'm really looking forward to St Ives.

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This lovely landscape and the coastal vistas have been admired by artists for centuries.

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So I know that I'm in for a visual treat.

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When the Great Western Railway was completed in 1877, St Ives suddenly became much more accessible.

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The numbers of artists began to grow

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and by the 20th century, the town had its own fully fledged artists' community.

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That was one of the most stunning train rides all around the bay

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and now, here at St Ives, these glorious beaches

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and even on a cloudy day, the colours are magnificent.

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You can see why this place would have been the inspiration for artists.

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One of the most painted scenes of St Ives is the harbour, which in Bradshaw's time was thriving.

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My guidebook tells me the pier and harbour were built by the famous

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18th-century engineer John Smeaton to serve the port's hundreds of fishing boats.

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St Ives is a very different place today.

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It's still flourishing, but is now dominated by another industry that grew as a result of the railways.

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Each summer the narrow streets are crowded with tourists admiring the sandy beaches and turquoise seas.

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Bradshaw doesn't have much more to say about St Ives but he does

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mention Treganna Castle, then home of the the Stephens family.

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These days, it's a luxury hotel.

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I chose this hotel, Tregenna Castle, because it's in Bradshaw's.

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He says it "occupies a lofty situation outside the town and commands an extensive prospect".

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Which indeed it does.

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But I've found there's a better view on the roof. This way.

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The Stephens family clearly picked the best spot

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in St Ives for their home, to overlook the glorious Cornish coastline.

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A breathtaking view.

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So good in fact that the Great Western Railway bought the hotel,

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even though it is a long way from the railway station, to promote tourism and travel by train.

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Another day and my next stop will be the Helford River.

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In Bradshaw's day, I could have taken the railway from St Ives all the way to the top of the estuary.

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The line was closed in 1964 as part of the Beeching cuts.

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But you can still enjoy it on foot.

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This is the Helford river.

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My Bradshaw guide says, "Days can be spent in exploring the creeks

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"and rounding the headlands in this beautiful neighbourhood".

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But not having that long, let's see what I can do in half a day.

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When my guide book was written, the estuary teemed with oyster beds.

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But what has become of that centuries-old industry?

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Hello there, I'm Michael.

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Michael, nice to meet you.

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-Lovely to see you.

-Welcome to the Helford River.

-I have to tell you, I love oysters.

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-That is a good start.

-Ben Wright has been harvesting

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the river's oyster beds for the last four years.

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What would the trade have been like in Victorian times?

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Well, the Victorians were voracious oyster eaters.

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The big market was really in London and that was the time of Dickens

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and oyster sellers on every street corner.

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I think what really helped the Helford fishery particularly...

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take part in that was the train.

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When the train started up, that was a big opening, commercially, for the oysters here

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that were sent up on the train, particularly to the big markets in London.

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That really is exciting - what an amazing sight.

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That is a cage absolutely full of bags of oysters.

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That's right. There's a couple of reasons we lift the cages, Michael, really.

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One is quite simply just to have a look at the stock,

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make sure it is growing OK, make sure there are no problems.

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As oysters grow, they can grow together, they can get stuck.

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They can get stuck in the meshes of the bags. It is really important that we come here,

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once a month to have a look at them and make sure they are all healthy and growing well.

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The other reason is, we take all the bags out and we give them a good shake.

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It tends to wake the oysters up a little bit, separate them out, we don't want them getting lazy.

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It is important that they grow well.

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We literally just take the bag out,

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give it a good shake...

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..and because this is our first bag, let's have a little look.

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See what we've got.

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The baby oysters are nurtured in cages to protect them from predators in the river.

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Lovely wee fellows. How long have these been in here then?

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These would have been in there four months. They are quite young.

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Already here, you can see we have got quite a difference of growth rate.

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We have got some that are a little bit slow.

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Some average ones, and then a couple here that have done really well.

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You can see by these long growth lines in the shell how quickly they have grown.

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Then, what we'll do at some point is bring all of these cages in,

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grade them all out so that

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they are all growing in the same sizes together.

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So how long before these appear on my plate?

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You are going to have to wait a little bit, Michael, I'm afraid.

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Probably 12 months or so.

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In Bradshaw's time, oysters were a staple food of the poor and they were eaten in their dozens.

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By the mid 20th century, oyster harvests had begun to decline, driving up the prices.

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These days, they're considered a luxury.

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The industry had some problems, didn't it? There was a parasite attack or something years ago.

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Has it recovered from that?

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Not really, to be honest.

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In the early '80s, all the Native Oyster Fisheries were decimated, really.

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That was the start of the demise of the Helford oyster range as well.

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Some fisheries recovered better than others.

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It wasn't until four or five years ago here on the Helford

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that we really started our work to regenerate the river.

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The Helford oyster beds were almost lost for all time, but now Ben is gradually building them back.

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And it's only a short trip up the river to where the older oysters are fattening up.

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Here we are at Frenchman's Creek. I think that the British are

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rather pathetic oyster eaters compared with the French.

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Certainly, we eat a lot less than the French.

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It is coming back, definitely. More people in Britain are eating oysters.

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People are a bit more open-minded about food. They're a bit more inquisitive.

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Ultimately, it is such a natural food, they grow wild,

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there is no additives, it is a completely organic process.

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The actually relatively inexpensive.

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The Champagne Charlie expensive image is a thing of the past as well.

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They're perfectly good to wash down with a pint of of beer.

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-Nature's fast food.

-It is a pity that none of these are ready to eat.

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Well, these are ready to eat.

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-These are ready to eat?

-Yes.

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-And I am ready. Are you ready?

-I'm ready, too.

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What is your advice on eating oysters?

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There is a lot of old wives' tales. There is a lot of myth and what you should do and what you shouldn't do.

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To be honest, I think people should stop worrying quite so much and eat them however they want.

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However, don't just swallow the oyster, I don't where that came from.

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You are going to miss out on the texture and the flavour.

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I think you have got to give it a good chew to appreciate all the complexity of the oyster.

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Release that wonderful taste of the sea.

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I do like to have them with a little Tabasco or a little vinegar.

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Personally, I prefer them on their own with a little bit of lemon.

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Only a little bit of lemon.

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There's a lot of delicate flavours in there and I think sometimes things like Tabasco can be a bit strong.

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But then again, it is all a matter of taste.

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-There you go.

-Thank you very much indeed.

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-Cheers, enjoy.

-Cheers.

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Great textures, not at all rubbery.

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Just kind of dissolving.

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Mmmm!

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I could have another of those.

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The Helford oysters are delicious

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and in Ben's capable hands, I'm sure the oyster beds will be productive once more.

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Having journeyed almost the whole length of Brunel's Great Western Railway,

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I can't stop before reaching the end of the line at Penzance.

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I'm now travelling as far as it's possible to go by train in England -

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to the country's westerly and southerly extremity.

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I'm keen to see how even the smallest towns in the furthest corners of the country

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were transformed by the power of the railways.

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It would have taken days to get from London to Penzance by stagecoach.

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In Bradshaw's day, the capital and England's western point were brought within a comfortable day's journey.

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What was once a remote village on a rugged headland

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became a popular resort at the end of the Holiday Line.

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The railways soon brought holidaymakers in their droves,

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and some things don't change.

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How are you? Are you going to the Tip of England?

0:25:080:25:11

-Tip of England, yes.

-And beyond.

0:25:110:25:13

Oh, you're going to the Scillies?

0:25:130:25:14

-Yes.

-Yes.

-Are you holidaymakers?

-BOTH: Yes.

0:25:140:25:19

Look at the sun shining on your faces.

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-And the water.

-Isn't it gorgeous?

-And the sun glinting on the water.

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-It's all set fair, isn't it?

-Is it?

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-Don't you think?

-For how long?

0:25:270:25:30

I don't know. Have a lovely holiday.

0:25:300:25:33

We will. We intend to do that. We usually do, don't we?

0:25:330:25:36

Yes. All over the world, and now we're doing this.

0:25:360:25:39

Just before I reach Penzance, St Michael's Mount comes into view.

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This ancient island settlement was once owned by its French counterpart in Normandy, Mont Saint Michel.

0:25:510:25:57

Bradshaw writes, "It is a majestic island.

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"At the top are the remains of a priory founded before the Conquest,

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"and for ages resorted to by pilgrims."

0:26:070:26:10

Penzance itself, he says, is more famous for potatoes.

0:26:160:26:21

They're tricky, these ones.

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They get stuck halfway.

0:26:230:26:25

There we go! When the railways connected Penzance to London,

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early crops of new potatoes, broccoli and other vegetables

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were shipped up to the markets by train.

0:26:340:26:37

But like so much of Cornwall, many of those traditional industries have gone into decline.

0:26:370:26:43

Today, the balance has shifted and now it's the five million tourists

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spending around £1.5 billion a year that keep Cornwall going.

0:26:500:26:56

When I began my rail journey west from Swindon, I was following

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the Holiday Line because the railways made mass tourism possible.

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But even the most beautiful places in Britain

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can't survive from leisure alone and Bradshaw's guided me

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to the most ancient industries -

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those that extract minerals from the earth and food from the waters.

0:27:180:27:24

And now it's brought me to the end of the line, the buffers.

0:27:240:27:30

Beyond, only the Atlantic.

0:27:300:27:33

On my next journey, I'll be travelling from Buxton all the way south to London.

0:27:400:27:46

Along the route, I'll be visiting the oldest working factory in the world.

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-Made in England.

-Made in England.

-Does it make you proud?

-Oh, yes!

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That's what we like to see.

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I'll be discovering why Burton's beer is said to be best.

0:27:560:28:01

Two weeks' conditioning in the cask, a week in the pub...

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-And ten minutes to drink.

-You're a slow drinker!

-BELLS RING

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And I'll be finding out how the capital has rung in the changes since Bradshaw's day.

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BELL TOLLS

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

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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 searches for the lost church of St Piran, explores the last working tin mine in Cornwall and harvests oysters on the Helford River.