Coventry to Watford Great British Railway Journeys


Coventry to Watford

Michael Portillo relives the Coventry Blitz and finds out how the trains helped to evacuate millions of children during World War II.


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Transcript


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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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Using my 19th-century Bradshaw's Guide I'm continuing my journey from Derbyshire to London,

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passing through the industrial heartland of England, in Warwickshire

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and on into rural Buckinghamshire.

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My Bradshaw's has often been a reliable guide to places and people that still exist.

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But maybe there will be an exception today.

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One city is highly recommended in Bradshaw's but scarcely features in modern guidebooks.

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It's Coventry.

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On today's journey, I'll be reliving the Coventry Blitz.

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You could pick the sound of the German planes up.

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Their engines were - vumm, vumm - a humming, humming noise.

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I'll be ruffling some feathers in Aylesbury.

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Your family has been in the business a while?

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-1775, that we know of.

-No!

-Absolutely, continuously.

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I'll hear how the railways saved thousands of lives during World War II.

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This was the largest station where the evacuations took place from.

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How we found our way on to the right train I'll never know.

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All this week, I've been travelling from Buxton in the Peak District,

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through the industrial Midlands, towards Birmingham.

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The line south was built by civil engineer Robert Stephenson in 1837

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and was one of the first intercity lines

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to the great imperial city of Bradshaw's era, London.

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Today, I'm continuing south from Bournville on the edge of Birmingham

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to Coventry, the Vale of Aylesbury and on to Watford.

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The line has seen many changes since Bradshaw's day.

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I'm following a 19th-century guidebook

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and the man who started it, Bradshaw, was really crazy about technology. He loved technology.

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I think he'd really be very, very excited by your information.

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-He was the first person to put together all the timetables.

-Right, OK.

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The idea that you've got them in a little box travelling on a train.

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We used to have to carry the old timetable with us

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which was that size, that thick. Obviously very thick and heavy.

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-You've got an electronic Bradshaw.

-An electronic Bradshaw, yeah.

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He'd be thrilled.

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It would have taken about 30 minutes to get to Coventry in Bradshaw's day,

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on trains travelling at around 60mph.

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Surprisingly, it takes about the same time today.

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'The next station will be Coventry.'

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If you're leaving the train here, just check to make sure you've everything with you.

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'Do take care as you step from the train onto the platform...'

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-A lot of whistling going on.

-That's it. That's me.

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-DOORS BEEP Thank you.

-Bye-bye.

-Bye.

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All along the railway line, from Birmingham to London,

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you have these stations that were rebuilt in the 1960s.

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Birmingham New Street at one end, Euston at the other end and Coventry in the middle.

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These enormous glass boxes and I remember in the 60s being

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very impressed by this brave new architecture.

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Inevitably, they now look old-fashioned

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but nothing dates faster than yesterday's view of the future.

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These days, Coventry isn't really on the tourist trail,

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probably because so much of the city was destroyed during the blitz of World War II.

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It's a very different Coventry from the one that so impressed Bradshaw.

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He says the fines steeples are the first to strike one in this old city.

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Many old fashioned gable houses are to be found in the backstreets.

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That's the Coventry that Judith Durrant remembers well.

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You were a girl in Coventry.

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What was the city like then?

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The city was beautiful. A lot of old buildings.

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The streets were all cobbled streets.

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I remember all these old beautiful buildings and particularly the churches in the centre.

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The three spires of Coventry...

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and the cathedral itself.

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Coventry was an essentially medieval city built in the 14th century,

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when it was the fourth wealthiest city in England

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but one night in 1940, it was changed forever.

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For you and your family, how did the night of November 14th 1940 begin?

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It began as a normal night. We...

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The sirens did sound early.

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I think it was probably about 7 o'clock

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but we were then being prepared to go to bed.

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We just went straight into the shelter as a normal night

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but as we found out later, it was not to be a normal night.

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Instead it marked the start of a German bombing operation called Moonlight Sonata.

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You could pick up the sound of the German planes up.

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Their engines were - vumm, vumm -

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a humming, humming noise.

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So you knew instantly that they were not English planes.

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You could hear the...

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the bombs whistling down.

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The explosions were horrendous and you could smell the dust, you could chew the dust.

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It was a very horrendous night.

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It was one of the worst bombing raids on Britain of World War II.

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600 planes bombarded Coventry for six hours, by which time most of it had been blown to smithereens.

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What impression did the devastated city make on you?

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Horrendous.

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Of course,

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my mother kept us, sort of, closer

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because of everything that was going on.

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But we had to learn to live and we had to readjust.

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It made us all grow up. We all grew up very quickly.

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500 people died on a night that Judith will remember forever.

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As I say, these memories will be with me for the rest of my life.

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You once picked your way through the rubble of the city

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and now you see it rebuilt.

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How do you feel about what you see now?

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I love it. It's beautiful.

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Those old memories are still there

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but with everything, you have to move forward

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and I think Coventry is beautiful.

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What is indeed beautiful is the new St Michael's Cathedral.

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Built to incorporate the ruins of the 14th and 15th century cathedral that was destroyed in the blitz.

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It's a poignant symbol of Coventry's rebirth.

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On the floor here in gigantic letters,

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"To the glory of God,

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"this cathedral burnt November 14th AD 1940.

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"Now rebuilt 1962."

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I guess it says it all.

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I think it's wonderful.

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I find the new cathedral is full of reference.

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These columns refer to Gothic columns.

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The way the roof is built refers to the Gothic structure.

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Obviously the stained glass refers to Gothic stained glass.

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Full of reference and reverence for what was there before.

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What's come as a great surprise to me though is that despite

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the thousands of bombs dropped over those six hours,

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there's a remarkable amount of the medieval city that survives today.

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Tucked between the new, there are numerous hints of just how impressive Coventry was.

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-Good morning.

-Morning.

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-You're opening up, I see.

-I am, yes.

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You trade in this lovely medieval building.

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-It somehow survived the bombing of 1940.

-It did. It did, yes.

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We've also got St John's Church at the bottom of the street

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which goes back to... the English Civil War.

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The prisoners were kept in there and that's where the term

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sent to Coventry comes from, that church at the bottom of the road.

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Ha! I'm feeling that this is a city that's somehow undersold.

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I've never thought of coming here and lingering in the city before.

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I think that's quite true.

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When people do come to Coventry, they're pleasantly surprised.

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I'm one of them, I'm pleasantly surprised.

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-Thank you. Have a good day.

-And yourself. Thank you, bye.

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I'm feeling really guilty.

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I've done a big injustice to Coventry.

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I've always known that it was destroyed in the war

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and therefore I've never come here to pay it any attention.

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And now I find it full of these wonderful medieval buildings,

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really as good as any English city.

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I wish I'd known about all this before. I feel should have done.

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I'm back at Coventry station for the next leg of my journey south.

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-'Calling at...'

-Right.

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For once, arriving with plenty of time, it gives me the chance to get

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the answer to a question I've always wanted to ask.

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Tell me about his paddle thing.

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My bat. My despatch baton.

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Does it have a multiplicity of uses?

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Can you play table tennis with it, maybe?

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I think somebody has. No, not really, no.

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Show me your technique. Show me a good wave.

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-PEEP!

-Wow!

-A nice, clear blow.

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-Thank you very much.

-You're more than welcome.

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-I'll practise that at home, I think.

-Bless you.

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After all that, my new friend's already lost interest in me.

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She didn't give me a wave with her baton. Oh, dear. I'm devastated.

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The next part of my journey takes me 60 miles south to Buckinghamshire and for once, I'm being spoilt.

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A cup of tea, please.

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-Yeah.

-Thank you very much.

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-With milk?

-With milk, please.

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-There we go, sir.

-That's very kind of you. Thank you.

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First class travel.

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The Midland Railway originally had first and second class.

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The third class was pretty basic.

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In fact, when railways began, third class travel wasn't even covered.

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It was in goods wagons.

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But then,

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the railways realised that they needed to attract

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the working classes, that they were the new market

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and the Midland Railways created a sensation in 1875 when all its quite comfortable second-class coaches

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were made third class. In other words, there was now to be a decent

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standard of accommodation, even for the poorest members of society.

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In the mid-19th century, whatever class Bradshaw

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was travelling in, he wouldn't have got refreshments on the train.

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Today, I find that eating on a train is inexplicably exciting.

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The next stage of my journey involves two changes of trains...

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-Bye.

-Bye-bye.

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..to travel south, to reach the place where I'll spend the night.

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This is Aylesbury.

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My Bradshaw's Guide tells me that during the Napoleonic wars,

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the exiled French king lived at Hartwell House and luckily, that's now a hotel.

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Even arriving after dark, this house oozes regal splendour.

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-Hello.

-Good evening. Welcome to Hartwell.

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-If I could just ask for a signature at the bottom there, please?

-Thank you very much.

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Is it true that Louis XVIII lived here?

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Yes, and you're in the Queen of France's bedroom.

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-Excellent, thank you very much indeed.

-Pleasure, thank you.

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This journey seems to be getting better and better by the moment.

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Next morning, Hartwell House is revealed in all its glory.

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Louis XVIII lived here along with his family and a hundred courtiers

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for six years after the French Revolution.

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I can imagine very many worse places to be exiled.

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This is one of the royal bedchambers at Hartwell House

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and it's full of the fripperies befitting Her Majesty the Queen of France.

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But I'm politically minded

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and I'd like to tell you about important matters of state

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that occurred in this house.

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Come with me.

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In this room, French history was made.

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The exiled King was invited to return to France, to boot aside Napoleon Bonaparte

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and take up his throne again and he signed the papers of acceptance in this very room.

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When I was in the Cabinet, we entertained the President of France at nearby Chequers

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but there wasn't room for all of us to stay there and junior members of

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the Cabinet like me were sent packing, here to Hartwell House.

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But we didn't feel hard done by.

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We were sharing a roof, not with the French President

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but with a French king.

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First class travel, a night at Hartwell House, now I have a taste

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for high living, my guidebook can also point me towards haute cuisine.

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Bradshaw's Guide says, "Another manufacture peculiar to Aylesbury

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"is ducklings which are forced for the Christmas market.

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"They're fed with an abundance of stimulating food.

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"As many as three-quarters of a million ducks are sent to London from this part."

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And here is a farm where they're still bred.

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In the 18th century, Aylesbury ducks were a delicacy for the rich.

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When the railways came along in the 1860s, suddenly many more people could eat them.

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Each year, almost 750,000 were being sent by train to Smithfield Market in London.

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-Hello, Richard.

-Hello, Michael.

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That wasn't too easy to do, was it?

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-Very, very nervous they are.

-They're very nervous.

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-So that's an Aylesbury duck.

-Yes, meet a real Aylesbury duck.

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Now Richard Waller runs the last bona fide

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Aylesbury duck farm in the country, producing around 10,000 a year.

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-They're very distinctive, aren't they?

-They are, absolutely.

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It's unfortunate the rest of the breeds which are table ducks are

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all white so it's hard to distinguish unless you know an Aylesbury.

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Pure Aylesbury ducks have flesh-coloured beaks.

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All other flocks are crossed with the Pekin duck giving them yellow ones.

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Aylesburys are also famed for their soft feathers, ideal for quilts, and their especially tender meat.

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Your family has been in the business a while?

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-1775, that we know of.

-No!

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Absolutely, continuously and possibly longer but 1775 we can actually trace it back to.

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That's amazing. How was the trade run by your father?

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I remember in those days of course, it was really, 90% of it was wholesale trade to Smithfield Market

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but the high spot of the day was going to the local station, to put them on the railway.

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I knew that once they had been offloaded and weighed

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and the money was paid to the railway to get them to Marylebone,

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it was down the chip shop for a bag of chips.

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-The chips were your reward.

-Looking back now, it doesn't seem very much

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but that was a great outing, going to the station with a bag of chips afterwards.

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In Bradshaw's time, there were duck farmer's all around Aylesbury

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but in the last 100 years, the industry has shrunk,

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partly due to competition from the mass-produced Pekin ducks.

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Now Richard supplies his ducks only to locals.

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So, Richard, what is the future of this very beautiful, very specialised, very tasty duck?

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Well, at this very moment, I'd say quite bleak, to be honest.

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Like all other small producers, particularly in agriculture,

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we've been hit by high costs, low income, so really I'm going to be the last of the line.

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Incredibly soft, Richard.

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Incredibly soft feathers.

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Very, very sweet bird, actually.

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Thank you for your time today.

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Until recently, Richard, like his great grandfather, sent his ducks by train to Smithfields

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but now, once again, the Aylesbury duck has become a speciality exclusive to the area.

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You can find it at the King's Head in Ivinghoe, where Richard's ducks are cooked with ingredients

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gathered from the back garden. I find you amongst your herbs.

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Yes, I am. This is rosemary, as you can see.

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There's lots of rosemary here.

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-Lovely scent.

-Beautiful taste and smell

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and of course it's mostly due to the success of the cooking

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we do at the King's Head definitely.

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Georges de Maison co-owns the restaurant

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and has perfected the cooking of the ducks over a period of 50 years.

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We've got four apple trees as well which are being used as much as we can

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-to serve with the duck as well.

-Apple sauce.

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Apple sauce, fresh apple sauce which we flavour with Calvados, which

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is Applejack and that gives an extra dimension to the apple sauce.

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I imagine it does!

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Yes, it does. I think I must have handled possibly in the region of

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150-160,000 ducks which is possibly a record for any caterer.

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Georges, you're making me very, very hungry. Could we possibly go to the kitchen, please?

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-Of course, I'd be delighted to show you.

-Thank you.

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Georges serves around 3,000 ducks a year and I'm about to join the culinary pilgrims who consume them.

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The famous Aylesbury duck, sir.

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Georges, c'est magnifique.

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-C'est magnifique.

-As well as using his own special duck recipe, Georges

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carves the duck in the French way, at the table, in front of the diner.

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I'm going to make an incision here,

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and remove the drumstick and the thigh.

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We do the same operation the other side.

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You speak like a surgeon.

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Yes, I do, yes.

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Now, the aroma of the meat is beginning to reach me as you've taken out the drumstick.

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The duck is, of course, perfectly cooked, Georges.

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And here it is.

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Yes. Absolutely perfect.

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A little bit of surgery.

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And after all that hard work, on Georges's part at least,

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I finally get to the best bit.

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It's heaven.

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Heaven.

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-A votre sante, maitre.

-And yours.

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Having enjoyed a hearty lunch, it's time to head south, to my final destination, 25 miles away.

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'We're now approaching Watford Junction. Please mind the gap.'

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According to Bradshaw, there's not much to see in Watford.

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"It's a busy, thriving and populous town and consists of only one street

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"with minor ones diverging from it."

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Having just crossed Watford,

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you wouldn't describe it that way today.

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Watford is now a very much busier place but the town isn't the reason I'm here.

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It's the station itself that has lured me off the train.

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Brian. Michael.

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-Pleased to meet you.

-Very good to see you.

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-Does this station have many memories for you?

-Very much so.

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I came here in July 1943

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and this was the station I was evacuated from.

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Londoner Brian Russell was a child at the outbreak of war in 1939.

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This was the largest station where the evacuations took place

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from our part of London.

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Did you know what was happening to you?.

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Not really at that time.

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I was with my sister who's seven years older than me.

0:23:580:24:02

She seemed to know what was going on.

0:24:020:24:04

I was only six so...

0:24:040:24:07

it was a bit of a mystery ride really and it was quite exciting.

0:24:070:24:11

Operation Pied Piper was a national evacuation programme begun in September 1939.

0:24:110:24:19

In just one week, almost one and a half million children were relocated on 3,000 special trains.

0:24:190:24:26

Towns like Watford played a critical role, supplementing the overburdened

0:24:260:24:30

stations in London so as to get more children out of the capital.

0:24:300:24:34

By the end of the War, over three and a half million children had been evacuated.

0:24:340:24:40

And how on earth we found our way onto the right train I'll never know.

0:24:400:24:43

Whether it was a random thing I just don't know.

0:24:430:24:47

But it was quite an exciting day, in a way, especially for the younger children.

0:24:470:24:52

-So this whole place would have been panting steam engines and the slamming of doors.

-Yes.

0:24:520:24:58

You would have had your suitcases with you, I suppose.

0:24:580:25:00

Yes. Yes, I can remember my Mickey Mouse gas mask. We always had one.

0:25:000:25:04

Everybody had a gas mask, and mine was a Mickey Mouse one.

0:25:040:25:08

What about the about the journey itself? What do you remember of that?

0:25:080:25:11

The journey itself, the trains were very, very crowded.

0:25:110:25:14

We had to mostly stand in the corridor and took turns to lean out of the window.

0:25:140:25:19

We daren't go as far as opening the doors, but we used to put our

0:25:190:25:23

heads out of the windows as much as we could, getting covered in soot from the engine.

0:25:230:25:27

And we would take turns to sit down in the compartments.

0:25:270:25:30

-And did you end up with a family up there, or what?

-Yes.

0:25:300:25:33

Yes, we moved into a family. Very large house, which was quite frightening

0:25:330:25:38

for me, because it was like something out of Dickens, almost, you know.

0:25:380:25:42

But the family were very, very kind and helpful to us.

0:25:420:25:46

And when I came back home -

0:25:460:25:49

it was only after a year, because the War ended, or the European war ended and my father came home

0:25:490:25:55

from North Africa, and I won't say I didn't get on with him,

0:25:550:26:00

but we felt very distant, because I couldn't remember him at all.

0:26:000:26:03

I know he had a bad time, I know that because he had some war injuries,

0:26:030:26:07

but he would never, ever talk about it. I was intrigued.

0:26:070:26:10

I remember talking to my mother at the end of the War, when we came back

0:26:100:26:14

and I couldn't understand why the War was over.

0:26:140:26:17

It was just, "We must be fighting somebody!"

0:26:170:26:19

You know, because it gets ingrained.

0:26:190:26:22

That's extraordinary, for people from my generation to think that war was your normality.

0:26:220:26:27

-That's so strange.

-It was.

-And did you love steam engines as a boy?

0:26:270:26:30

Oh, yes, very much. As many children of my era, when we grew up we all wanted to be an engine driver.

0:26:300:26:37

But it was only when I was 65 years old and retired,

0:26:370:26:42

I actually became one.

0:26:420:26:43

-On a steam railway?

-On a steam railway in a museum set up in Shropshire, yes.

0:26:450:26:50

But I think you must be a man with a terrific sense of adventure, to have departed on that evacuation

0:26:550:27:01

only feeling excited and still to be enjoying your railway travel today.

0:27:010:27:05

Oh, I certainly do, yes.

0:27:050:27:08

The railways must have saved thousands of lives by transporting youngsters to safety.

0:27:090:27:14

They were also an invaluable part of the national war effort.

0:27:140:27:18

The Government took over the rail networks, sending men, machinery and supplies to the front lines.

0:27:180:27:23

The railways directly contributed to Britain's success in World War Two.

0:27:230:27:28

So, another leg of my journey ends.

0:27:360:27:39

For most of the 19th century, Britain was at peace, so George

0:27:390:27:42

Bradshaw might have been surprised at the horrors of war in the 20th.

0:27:420:27:47

Now I'm on my way to London, and I shall be interested

0:27:470:27:51

to see what Bradshaw says about the city that I know so well.

0:27:510:27:55

On tomorrow's journey I'll be visiting one of the country's grandest Victorian hotels...

0:28:010:28:08

When I was a child, I believed that the witches lived in here, because

0:28:080:28:11

it was so dark and dingy and very scary, actually, as a child.

0:28:110:28:14

..I'll head to one of the oldest markets in central London...

0:28:140:28:17

Do they behave nicely with you, watch their p's and q's?

0:28:170:28:20

Sometimes. Not always, no!

0:28:200:28:23

If you were single, you'd have a good time.

0:28:230:28:26

..and I'll be discovering how the capital has rung in the changes since Bradshaw's day.

0:28:300:28:35

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:550:29:00

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 remains of Bradshaw's Britain.

His journey takes him from Buxton along one of the first railway routes south to the capital, London. This time, Michael relives the Coventry Blitz, meets the last farmer with pure-breed Aylesbury ducks in Buckinghamshire and finds out how the trains helped to evacuate millions of children during World War II.


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