Series in which Michael Portillo travels the country by train. He meets the Queen's saddler in Walsall and learns how to cook an Indian curry in Birmingham.
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In 1840, one man transformed travel in Britain.
His name was George Bradshaw, and his railway guides inspired the Victorians to take to the tracks.
Stop by stop, he told them where to travel, what to see, and where to stay.
Now, 170 years later, I'm making four long journeys across the length and breadth of the country
to see what remains of Bradshaw's Britain.
Using Bradshaw, my 19th-century guide to the railways,
today I'm headed towards Birmingham, at the heart of England,
Britain's second largest city, the metropolis whose growth during the industrial revolution
astonished the Victorians. But the changes in Birmingham since have perhaps been more remarkable still.
On today's journey, I'll be heading to the centre of the leather-making world.
Walsall had a very distinctive stink?
You could say it had a tinge, it had its own aroma.
I'll be travelling to Birmingham's Balti Triangle.
Pakistan is like my motherland, and I call England my adopted mother.
Try and make this quite elegant...
Very good, sir. Very good for the first try.
And I'll be visiting Bournville, which some say is the happiest place in Britain.
Very pleasant. Very nice. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else.
I'm now almost halfway through my journey from Buxton,
along one of the earliest railway routes in England.
Each day, I'm stopping at towns and cities recommended by Bradshaw's guide,
until I reach the end of the line in London.
Today's route takes me 35 miles through the West Midlands,
via Walsall to Birmingham and on to Bournville.
In Bradshaw's day, a third of Britain's metalwork
came from around here, and much of it was carried to London on the railways.
My first stop is in a town famous for, as Bradshaw notes, "its buckles, spurs and bits".
Well, here I am in Walsall. Er, a place I've been to before.
But according to Bradshaw, this is a place that makes saddles.
And that takes me into a world of horses and riding, which I must say, is a foreign country to me.
Despite the growth of the railways, there was still a huge demand
for leather goods for horses in the 1840s.
Walsall became the place to go for high-quality saddles, stirrups and bridles.
And it still is today.
I've come to the historic factory of the Saddler to the Queen.
And here, I'm due to meet Cliff.
-Good morning, Michael. Welcome to the old building of Jabez Cliff & Co.
-It's not exactly in mint condition, is it?
-No, it isn't.
We were here for 130 years.
And we moved out two months ago.
-You've got a new place?
-We have a new place, two miles away.
Why did saddlery become the trade for Walsall?
Well, you have the River Tame for a ready supply of water.
You actually need limestone to cure the hides.
So you had a ready supply of that.
We're on the edge of the Black Country,
-so you had all the bits, stirrups, and all the other metalwork.
-Because you always had iron ore.
You always had iron ore, so everything was there.
At one time, then, the town must have been full of tanneries.
Oh, yes. I know to a fact that we had five.
And years ago, when a child wasn't eating well, they used to take the child outside, and they used to...
the tan pit doors used to be open, and the child used to get a whiff of all the tan liquors,
and it was the belief that it actually helped improve the... made the child eat quicker.
And so at one time, Walsall had a very distinctive stink, did it?
You could say it had a tinge.
It had its own aroma.
-It's still a saddlery town, isn't it?
-It is still a saddlery town.
There's about 50 saddlery businesses left in the town.
-Would you like to come and see the remnants of our old factory?
-I'd love to.
The dreadful smell was perhaps a small price to pay
for Walsall's reputation for having the best saddlers.
British leather was in particularly high demand because it was made with English oak.
This was slower at tanning than other woods and produced a softer, stronger leather.
This is where the cutting room and saddle shop used to be.
Wow! What did this look like in its heyday? It must have been buzzing with activity.
I have an old photograph here, taken in about 1908.
-And if you can see...
-Of this room?
Of this room. You can see a man there in a bowler hat.
-And what were these people actually doing in here?
-They are all actually preparing saddles.
-So this is not a production line.
-No, no, it is piecework.
Quality in those days was unbelievable.
A century ago, how many saddles might you have been making?
-One man might make two or three saddles a week.
-That's pretty good, it seems to me.
During the Victorian era, Cliff's saddlery could produce around 500 saddles a month.
Today, in the company's new factory, that number is very similar.
Interestingly, the same system is still used - one person makes each saddle from start to finish.
But modern technology like the sewing machine means they can be made more quickly by fewer people.
We're talking about valuable products here, aren't we?
Oh, yes, but in those days... I know I have some photographs somewhere, where in an advert,
-I think a saddle was selling for, trade price, I might add, was going for about 42 shillings.
It's a lot more than that.
It was feared that the saddle industry would be destroyed
as trains replaced horses for transport.
Even in late Victorian times, there were still over 3 million horses pulling cabs,
working on farms and in the cavalry.
It wasn't until after the First World War, when cars became popular,
that saddlers were forced to diversify.
As trade changed, we actually started making footballs.
We started making golf bags.
In the First World War, we were actually making
torpedo cases, in leather,
that they could actually lower the torpedoes into the submarines.
-For which side?
-For the English side, of course.
For the winning side.
This item here is actually what they used to knock the seams on of the footballs.
These are the old footballs with the laces?
These are the ones that when they played...
-Weighed an awful lot.
-When it got wet...
-If you headed it, you'd get a very nasty injury.
-Oh, yes, very nasty.
And it was all done on that.
How many generations of your family?
We are now seven. I am generation number six, with a brother and a cousin.
And I have two nephews who are now in the business.
One being the MD.
The transfer of skills through the generations
and the saddle industry's willingness to embrace change
have ensured that it is still successful today.
Just as in Bradshaw's day, Walsall still has a reputation for providing quality saddles at luxury prices.
Now, I've got a train to catch to my second destination.
Time to get on. On to Birmingham.
I'm on the next leg of my journey to Britain's second city, just ten miles away.
Birmingham is a city I know well.
I once tried to get into Parliament for Birmingham Perry Barr.
And was unsuccessful.
Of course Bradshaw devotes pages to Britain's second largest city.
And in particular, he was excited by New Street,
the vast railway station at the centre of the city.
"These structures are entitled to rank among the most stupendous architectural works of the age.
"Notice the turmoil and bustle created by the excitement of the arrival and departure of trains.
"The trampling of crowds and passengers, the transfer of luggage,
"the ringing of bells and the noise of 300 porters and workmen.
"An extraordinary scene, witnessed daily at Birmingham Central Railway Station."
Just the way it is today.
Sadly, the roof that Bradshaw so admired was destroyed,
along with much of the city, during the Birmingham Blitz of World War II.
Today's station, built during the 1960s, is to me a somewhat dark and depressing construction.
Do you ever use New Street Station?
-Yes, I do.
-What do you think of it? I mean, the look of it.
-It does need improvement.
Looking at it from here, it strikes me as one of the ugliest frontages to a station
I can think of anywhere. What do you think of it?
Yeah, I do agree with you. But at the same time, I have seen worse stations.
-You have? Where? Let me know.
London? Euston used to be horrible.
It did, I agree with that.
There are plans to redo this, do you know anything about that?
-Yes, that's probably going to be about seven years.
-Have you seen the plan?
It looks very nice, but I don't know when they're going to start doing it.
The town planners are replacing some of the uglier buildings
that were hastily put up after the war.
The infamous Bullring shopping centre, also built in the 1960s, came to be regarded as an eyesore.
It was rebuilt in 2003.
Maybe few people think of Birmingham as a Victorian city,
but amongst this redevelopment, there are some hidden gems from Bradshaw's day.
Well, Birmingham in the 19th century was, for the first time,
a great city. And it established great public buildings.
And mainly with the Victorians you associate very heavy buildings,
or you think about Victorian Gothic, buildings like Parliament, where I spent so much of my life.
But here is, to me, a somewhat unusual building,
because it's a neo-classical Victorian building.
The Town Hall of Birmingham.
And this lay derelict inside for many years.
It has recently been restored. I've addressed public meetings there, and it's absolutely beautiful.
In fact, Birmingham is renovating much of its Victorian legacy.
As well as the Town Hall and the Council House in Victoria Square,
there are almost 2,000 listed buildings in the city.
One senses that Birmingham, in many places,
is trying to get rid of that hideous redevelopment of the 1960s,
of which the railway station was a conspicuous part.
Bradshaw's guides contain city maps.
And they are now extremely interesting.
For instance, the one of Birmingham.
Right now, I'm over in Broad Street.
Interestingly, that's pretty much at the edge of the city, as Bradshaw knew it.
Here, very clearly, is New Street.
Even when Bradshaw thought it was a huge, imposing city,
it was actually just a tiny fraction
of what we know as Birmingham today.
Birmingham is Britain's second largest city, with a population of over a million.
And the people of Birmingham have changed in a way that Bradshaw could never have imagined.
Today, Birmingham is fast becoming Britain's first majority non-white city.
The largest ethnic group here are Pakistanis, who've made their homes around Ladypool Road.
After the Second World War, Birmingham began recruiting people from the former colonies
to work in factories when labour was in short supply.
Large-scale immigration, like that from Pakistan,
provided the workforce for Britain's growing industries.
Kamran Ishtiaq's family moved here in the 1950s.
Why did your grandfather leave Pakistan?
For a better future for us. If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be giving this interview to you,
and standing in such a successful business.
And do you know why he chose Birmingham?
Birmingham was a city which attracted a lot of Asians.
But there was not much for Asian community, regarding food.
And Ladypool Road was one of the prime locations for Asian people.
So, it's like a landmark to the Pakistani community in Birmingham.
Do you ever go to Pakistan?
Would you rather live in Pakistan than Birmingham?
No, that's a difficult choice. Because I love Pakistan.
Pakistan is like my motherland, and I call England my adopted mother.
So you can't make a choice between your mother and your adopted mother.
Very nice to talk to you. Thanks very much.
As the Pakistani community grew, restaurants and takeaways sprang up
to serve Asian food to Asian families.
They quickly became popular with the English, too.
All along Ladypool Road there are delicious smells tempting you into all the restaurants.
I've stumbled across what looks like a party for another new restaurant.
Nice to see you, hello.
Nice to see you, hi.
-Here we are.
-My goodness, very smart indeed.
Michael, this is just opening now today.
What, opening today?
-How are you?
-How are you?
Congratulations on your opening.
Sweet and salty and yoghurt.
Yes, the choice is yours.
Anything, you can't refuse!
-You will remember the Birmingham now.
I will. I shall remember Birmingham.
The area is nicknamed the Balti Triangle, because the balti curry was invented here.
Now, there are more than 50 balti restaurants serving the local speciality.
These people have had to do a lot of adapting to a very different way of life.
I feel a kind of empathy, because my own father came from Spain,
a much shorter distance to travel, but had to do a lot of adapting, too.
And as the people have adjusted to life in Britain, so has the curry.
Many of the most popular dishes were created here to suit British tastes.
But I'm also pleased to find a place serving more authentic Asian food.
-Hi, great to see you. What a beautiful restaurant.
-Thank you very much.
Raj Rana owns Itihaas, a restaurant aiming for, well, something a little more Indian.
Do you get cross with British people who have preconceptions about Indian food?
The problem is when it is expected to be in the direction of a balti or a chicken vindaloo or Madras.
All of these things don't exist in India.
They're all Westernised dishes,
pretty much created in Birmingham as part of the curry revolution.
Where we differ from the balti restaurants is, we are not operating from two or three base sauces
that make up the curries and the baltis from there on.
Because baltis work on the conception of convenience.
Everything here is prepared individually.
So sauces are individually prepared to the dish.
If you're doing individual sauces, you need excellent chefs, and do you have them?
-I've got a fantastic team. I'm very lucky to have them.
-How did you get them?
I travelled to India. I held talent competitions.
It was as if I was Simon Cowell, and they were coming in,
all proving their talents, and I ended up with the 19 that operate the restaurant.
And one of them is going to show me how to do some cooking, is that right?
-I guess it's through there?
-Absolutely, let me take you through.
Raj held his own auditions in India to staff his restaurant.
But he'd like to train the next generation of chefs here.
His next big plan is to open the first curry school in Britain
to teach the art of bona fide Indian cuisine.
I'm his first pupil.
Come into my kitchen.
This is Kapel, who will teach me how to cook. Thank you so much. I warn you, I don't know what I'm doing.
Just add some mustard seeds, please.
-Some mustard seeds, like that?
'Kapel's showing me how to make a king prawn curry from Kerala in southern India.
'A traditional dish that uses curry leaves and turmeric.'
Could you stir it with your spoon, please?
-Faster, you have to move it faster. It will burn otherwise.
-As if you're telling somebody off.
-There you go.
It feels like everything's moving very fast, you know?
Like I'm not really in control.
-Put some coriander and we can take off the dish, please.
-Put some coriander... There we go.
That's done. Beautiful.
-If you carry the wok over to here...
This is a wok on the wild side now.
There's a plate for you. You can put your prawns there.
-Shall I try and make this quite elegant?
Kapel, we're going to let you be guinea pig.
Thank you very much. God bless you.
-Very good, sir. Very good for the first try.
-For the first try!
It's nothing to do with me, but that is fantastic.
-You like it?
-I love it.
It's very relishing, it's very fresh, and the spices don't hit you.
It's not spicy-spicy. It's flavourful with things, you know?
-meant to say!
If Raj's chef school is a success, it will ensure that the traditional Indian curry
is preserved in Britain for the next generation.
As for me, having spent the night in inner city Birmingham, it's time to leave the multicultural metropolis
for my next destination.
Which way is 11B, please?
The third and final leg of my journey takes me
to the southern edge of Birmingham, five miles away to Bournville.
So I'm chugging out along the suburban railway line in Birmingham towards the south-west,
towards a place whose name became synonymous with chocolate.
Not mentioned in my Bradshaw's guide because the railway station didn't open here until 1876
and then it was known as Stirchley Street.
Then Cadbury established their factory here and in those days French chocolate
was thought to be the best in the world, so they tried to give it a French flavour, so they called it
Ever since then it's been known as Bournville
and the railway station now bears the name of the Cadbury's factory.
The Cadbury family chose to set up shop here because of the railway
and the other great transport link to the rest of the country.
Already, Bournville Station feels rather special.
I can't think of any other where the canal runs right parallel with the railway platform.
As the chocolate business rapidly expanded, George and Richard Cadbury
ploughed the profits back into the newly named village of Bournville.
They built new houses and designed a model community for the people of Birmingham.
At Bournville, the whole station is purple, it's just all one big chocolate wrapper.
Bournville has recently been voted the best place to live in Britain.
I'm heading towards the factory to see why.
-I'm Alan Shrimpton, I'm your guest in Bournville. Welcome.
How very nice to see you, I didn't realise it was you.
'Alan Shrimpton works for the Bournville Village Trust.'
Tell me, first of all, why did they put a factory here?
They needed, critically, to have a railway link and a canal.
-And the canal, why?
-The canal was used to bring milk in.
The railway brought chocolate beans and the sugar and took their finished product away.
So when I was at Bournville Station and I saw the railway track and canal side by side,
-that's critical to why this place is here?
If it hadn't been for the railway, there would be no factory here.
No factory here, no Bournville estate.
Soon there were three trains, each of 60 cars, leaving the factory every day full of chocolate.
Cadburys had six miles of internal railway lines and even ran its own engines.
The drivers often shared a cup of hot chocolate crumb with their colleagues on the main line.
Many of the workers lived on the Bournville estate, a short walk from the factory.
We're just a few yards from the factory and already it's very green, very suburban.
That was what George was trying to do.
The idea was to take the convenience of the town and the benefits of the country,
put the two together, without the drawbacks of either, in a model community,
but not just for his workers, this was for ordinary working people.
Anybody would be here, owner, occupiers and tenants side by side
with all the facilities you could possibly want in a model community
with of course the one exception, there was no public house.
George Cadbury and his elder brother, Richard, were both Quakers.
The brothers saw alcohol as the root of many social problems.
They argued that providing good living conditions, job security
and places to exercise would create a happy, healthy, working community.
To the present day, no pub has ever been built here.
And how big is it? How many souls live here?
In the whole of Bournville, we're talking about 1,000 acres, 8,500 homes, about 25,000 people.
It's big, isn't it? It is big.
I'm surprised that there is such a variety of styles of house.
I thought I would come to a model village
and find the same sort of house replicated again and again.
No, what we've got is Arts and Crafts style, which reflects the age of the village.
Even then, the variety of properties and the way they're grouped together is quite interesting.
Every house had a generous garden.
Building was controlled so that no green space was overshadowed.
And tell me, do you see this whole thing here at Bournville as historic,
or do you see it as some kind of model for our generation?
It's very important to see it as a model for future generations,
particularly for things like the eco-towns.
This is an example of a model village, a sustainable community that works.
Anybody contemplating doing anything on a large scale
has to come to Bournville and take those lessons away elsewhere.
I can see why, for some, Bournville might just be the best place to live in Britain.
Michael, this is a resident and shopkeeper in the area, Phil Davies.
-Very good to see you.
How do you find life in Bournville?
Very pleasant, very nice.
-I wouldn't want to live anywhere else.
-How long have you lived here?
Nearly 40 years.
And does it have any of that ethos of the original establishment of this model village?
Yes, I think it still does.
I think the culture of what it was started out to be is still imprinted in a lot of people in the area.
Thank you. May the next 40 years be as good for you.
I hope so. When are you going back into Parliament?
-No, I'm not.
-You're not. Have you had enough?
-Enjoying myself too much.
In Bournville, even the bells are used to create a sense of community spirit.
This village, with its suburban,
idyllic neatness, is not everybody's cup of tea.
But, for many people who live here, it's close to perfection. And it is impressive that a concept created
a century ago by a public-spirited industrialist is now being thought of
as a model for sustainable communities of the future.
'Even getting a cup of coffee for my onward journey
'brings me face-to-face with contented residents.'
This is meant to be a very special place, Bournville?
People are supposed to be very happy here and to love living here?
-Do you find that?
-Yes. Bournville is an amazing area.
I mean, George Cadbury built Bournville.
All the properties had a certain-sized garden.
The idea behind that was so that everybody could be self-sufficient and grow their own vegetables.
And consequently the children in Bournville are amongst the tallest throughout England.
-You're not serious?
-That's quite surprising. No, that's a fact.
It's run with Quaker traditions.
So there's no licensed premises.
It's quite a caring community.
It's just as well I didn't ask you for a Scotch, isn't it?
Well, it might have been difficult. I don't have any!
'The attraction of Bournville must be infectious.
'I've been so captivated, I think I'm about to miss my train!'
It's OK, it's not mine. It's OK.
Goodbye, purple world.
Birmingham is a wonderful example of how cities change and change again.
They're always dynamic.
Some of the old industries still exist, like saddlery and chocolate,
but, for the future, the vibrancy of Birmingham comes from its diversity
because its Asian community is now almost as big as its white one.
A concept that would have been unimaginable to Bradshaw.
On my next journey I'll be reliving the Coventry Blitz.
You could pick the sound of the German planes up.
Their engines were, vroom, vroom, a humming, humming noise.
I'll be ruffling some feathers in Aylesbury.
Your family's been in the business a while?
1775 that we know of.
-Oh, absolutely, continuously.
And I'll hear how the railways saved thousands of lives during World War Two.
This was the largest station where the evacuations took place from.
And how an earth we found our way onto the right train I'll never know.
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 from Buxton along one of the first railway routes south to the capital, London. This time, Michael meets the queen's saddler in Walsall, learns how to cook an authentic Indian curry in Birmingham and visits Bournville, rumoured to be the best place to live in Britain.