Pontefract to Bridlington Great British Railway Journeys


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Pontefract to Bridlington

Documentary series with Michael Portillo. Michael searches for the last liquorice grower in Pontefract and goes fishing for sea bass in Bridlington.


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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,

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I'm making four long journeys across the length and breadth of the country

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to see what remains of Bradshaw's Britain.

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I'm now more than halfway through my journey

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from Liverpool to Scarborough,

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and today I'm moving from west to east

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across the mighty county of Yorkshire.

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I'm hoping that my battered 150 year-old copy of Bradshaw's handbook

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will again prove a useful guide,

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not only to the areas of Victorian history, but even to its present day.

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Today I'll be discovering how the railways made Hull

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one of the biggest white fish ports in the world.

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The railways make fish an article of cheap mass consumption.

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They create the trawling industry and it grows phenomenally.

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I'll be searching for liquorice in Pontefract.

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-I'm guessing that is a liquorice plant.

-This is a liquorice plant.

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It's a Mediterranean plant, it came from Spain originally.

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That's why in Pontefract we gave it the nickname, "a stick of Spanish".

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'And I'll be finding out why cod might soon be off the menu.'

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We're starting to see a lot more warm-water species than we normally associate with the Mediterranean.

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All this week, I'm travelling across the country.

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Having started in Liverpool,

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I pass through Manchester and the West Yorkshire moors.

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Now I'll turn south along the Humber estuary

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and finally up the coast to Scarborough.

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Today I'm leaving York for Pontefract.

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I'll visit Hull,

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and the coastal resort of Bridlington.

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This is my first stop.

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Bradshaw's Guide describes mid-19th Century Pontefract as a large town of 11,000 people.

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At the castle, it tells me, Richard II was put to death,

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and it was the scene of several notable beheadings.

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But there's another thing that Pontefract was famous for in Bradshaw's day.

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My reason for coming to Pontefract is an intriguing reference in my Bradshaw's Guide

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to liquorice cakes being made here and the root being grown in the fields around Ackworth.

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Some say it was monks who first grew liquorice in Pontefract, over 600 years ago.

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The soft, loamy soil around here was perfect for liquorice's long roots.

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But I'm struggling to find any sign of liquorice growing in these fields now.

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-Hello.

-Hello.

-You're got lots of liquorice here.

-Yeah.

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Do they grow liquorice round here?

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They used to do years ago, but I don't know if they still do it.

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There used to be a farm, but I think they built some houses on them. I don't know for certain.

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Hello, ladies. What do you think Pontefract is famous for now?

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Pontefract liquorice.

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Yeah, but it's not as much now because all the fields have gone, you know. They don't grow it any more.

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When I was a child, there were sticks of liquorice we used to chew.

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-Close by?

-Yeah.

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The liquorice fields of Bradshaw's day seem to be long gone,

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but one man, I'm told, has the last liquorice bush in Pontefract.

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'Tom Dixon, who's from a family of liquorice growers.'

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-Hello, Michael, how are you?

-Very well, indeed. What a lovely house.

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My great-grandfather built it in 1810.

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He built it specially here because this was all the best liquorice land in Pontefract.

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In fact, in the country.

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It's a Mediterranean plant, it came from Spain originally.

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-That's why in Pontefract we gave it the nickname, "a stick of Spanish".

-A stick of Spanish.

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It's known all through Yorkshire and Pontefract as a stick of Spanish.

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-Would you like to come in?

-Thank you.

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-Memorabilia galore.

-Memorabilia.

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These are sticks of liquorice, Michael.

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They've just been dug up the other day.

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My great-grandfather used to send Queen Victoria

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a bunch of this once a month to Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

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She used to chew it all the time.

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We had a doctor here from Manchester, one of the eminent transplant surgeons in this country,

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and he said, "Your family killed Queen Victoria."

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I said, "Why?" He said, "She ate that much liquorice that she lost all her teeth."

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It causes very high blood pressure, which she died of.

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So, he says, "Your claim to fame is your family killed Queen Victoria."

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That's a terrible burden to carry through life.

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I suppose that considering it causes diarrhoea, it would explain why she spent so long on the throne.

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Very good, never thought of that!

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Tell me about this thing.

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Well, there's a firm in Pontefract called Hillaby's.

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They got a phone call, I think it was in the late '30s -

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could they make a pair of boots for Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush?

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-I remember it.

-Do you remember it?

-Yeah, yeah, it's a very sad film in a very pathetic scene, isn't it?

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He's absolutely down and out, he's nothing to eat

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and so he takes his boots off and starts to eat his boots.

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That's one of the remaining boots.

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It's unbelievably realistic as a boot, isn't it?

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It's unbelievable. I've been offered money for it by Charlie Chaplin collectors, but it's not for sale.

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In Bradshaw's time, the Pontefract fields grew enough liquorice to supply many local factories.

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When the railways arrived, it was transported all over the country and even overseas,

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but by the 1960s, all that had stopped.

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That, Michael, is the last commercial crop growing, just up the road from where we're stood now.

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-As you can see, the fields were full of it.

-Absolutely full of it.

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-Right.

-'It became cheaper to import liquorice from Spain, Italy and Turkey but, thankfully, Tom has

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'his own local supply which he's been nurturing for the last ten years.'

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I'm guessing that is a liquorice plant.

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-This is a liquorice plant, Michael.

-Some smell.

-Slight.

-But what you're really interested in is the root.

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It's that root, Michael. And those roots now, because this plant's been

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in about 10 to 12 years, those roots will go down at least eight feet.

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-Wow!

-Massive big root ball.

-Right.

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-So when this crop was harvested, the whole plant, including its root, was dug up.

-The whole lot was dug up.

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There was men in the trenches and they used to dig it out.

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There was no machinery, there was nothing, it was all hand dug.

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And so then, what would you do with it?

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It would be brought here, to this house where you've had a look,

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and it would be stored in the cellars till the market price was right.

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Quite a lot of it was shipped by rail down to Boots the Chemist in Nottingham.

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Ah, and Boots used it in what?

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They used it in stomach medicines, cough medicines, chest medicines...

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Any medicine that you can think of, liquorice was used in it.

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And that was just to give medicine a sweet taste,

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or was it medicinal as well?

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No, it's medicinal.

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It's used in a lot of remedies.

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A surgeon in London actually uses the root,

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or thin strands of the root, when he's doing a cancer operation,

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or a gut operation, and he sews them up with liquorice.

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It stimulates the stomach and just dissolves and disappears.

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Tom, I think you've been telling me some tall stories this afternoon.

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I don't think so, Michael. Everything I tell you is perfectly true.

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Pontefract's liquorice factories have almost disappeared, too.

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There are now just two left, including the Dunhill Haribo factory.

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Until recently it was owned by Richard Godson's family.

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My great-grandfather bought the company in 1919.

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-Your great-grandfather?

-Yeah.

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-My grandfather and my father both worked in the business as well.

-How fantastic.

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'Pontefract's liquorice was originally made into medical lozenges.

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'Then in the 1700s, George Dunhill added sugar and created a sweet called Pontefract cakes.'

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Here we've got a pan with all the ingredients needed to make Pontefract cakes.

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I'm not yet getting the distinctive smell of liquorice.

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When we further process the mass down the line,

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high temperatures will enhance the flavours and turn the mass from a brown colour to a black sweet.

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The women who nipped and rolled the cakes

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were called Spanish Thumpers and could make around 3,500 per hour.

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I imagine that your special recipe will be a very closely guarded secret.

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-That's correct, Michael, very closely guarded.

-I won't press you on that one, then.

-OK.

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'In 1994, the factory was sold to German manufacturer, Haribo.

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'It was keen to keep up the tradition of Pontefract cakes,

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'and the factory now produces more liquorice sweets than anywhere else in the UK.

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'I admit, I've never enjoyed liquorice,

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'but maybe a fresh Pontefract cake will change my mind.'

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Actually, not really, it's just not my kind of thing, Richard.

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-I'm very sorry.

-Well, we can't convert everybody, can we?

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Well, I'm still not a fan, but it's good to see that

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liquorice cake production is still in full flow in Pontefract.

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For the next leg of my journey, I'm travelling east from Pontefract and following the River Humber.

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Bradshaw describes the estuary here as two miles broad, widening to five or six at its mouth.

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There was no bridge in Bradshaw's time, just a ferry.

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The Humber suspension bridge, just outside the city of Hull, was built only in 1981.

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In Bradshaw's time, taking the train to spend time in Hull was an excursion filled with excitement.

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In 1840, the railway started selling discounted tickets on outings to glamorous places.

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These were the first monster excursions.

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A train left Leeds for Kingston-Upon-Hull with 1,250 aboard and it was 40 coaches long.

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Today, my train has been reduced to just two carriages,

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but I'm sure the attractions of Hull are undiminished.

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When you think of Hull, does it bring any other European city to mind?

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Well, according to Bradshaw's Guide, Venice.

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Bradshaw writes of a Hull which, "in its low situation close to the banks

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"and surrounded by the masts of the shipping in the docks,

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"seems to rise like Venice from amidst the sea."

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I confess, of all the things that spring to mind whenever I think of Hull, Venice isn't one of them,

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but maybe Bradshaw's Guide will make me look at the city afresh.

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And if the station's anything to go by, I look forward to it.

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Come and look at this.

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Isn't that magnificent?

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Isn't that a wonderful Victorian railway shed, complete with setting sun.

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It lifts the heart.

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In Bradshaw's time, Hull was expanding into a grand Victorian city.

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Its wealth came from whaling.

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At its peak in the 1820s, Hull had 60 ships, the largest fleet in Britain.

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But when the railway arrived in 1840, the whalers turned to fishing.

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Hull soon became one of the biggest white fish ports in the world,

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as maritime historian Dr Rob Robinson explains.

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The railways make fish an article of cheap mass consumption.

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They create the trawling industry and it grows phenomenally

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over the 30-40 years after the railways arrived in Hull.

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Before railways were here, it was difficult to transport fish any distance over land.

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A large number of the textile towns had both man and woman at work

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in the family and they needed a cheap fast food, fish was the ideal answer.

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And the demand for fish grew so rapidly, that more and more trawlers

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were built and worked out of Hull to the fishing grounds of the North Sea.

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By the 1850s, 20 fish trains were leaving Hull every day.

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The quantity consumed in Manchester alone went up from three to 80 tonnes a week.

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The price of cod dropped by three quarters.

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I've seen photographs of the railway lines running along the dock pontoons, alongside the warehouses,

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the trawlers coming right alongside the railway wagons.

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Yes, the railways came before the fish docks, but the demand was such

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that specialist fish docks were created and when the railways came, they spread their way through

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the fish docks and large trains of wagons would be along the dock,

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in a morning, waiting to be loaded with fish,

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to take the early morning fish trains out, distributing fish across the country.

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My Bradshaw's Guide talks about standing on a high position, looking out over the estuary of the Humber

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and makes the comparison to Hull, in its low position,

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rising from the water like Venice. What do you think of that comparison?

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I think it's a good comparison. Hull itself is very close to the water and it has a river on two sides.

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The other two sides, at the time Bradshaw came here, were a string of docks.

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Water was almost like a pearl necklace around the city.

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Yeah, there's quite an interesting link between Hull and Venice in that sense.

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I'm very grateful to you. Next time, I won't go to the Grand Canal, I'll buy a ticket for here.

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We'll get you a gondola.

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Hull's trawler fleet travelled ever further north

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into icy Arctic water to keep up with the increasing demand for fish.

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It required a tough breed of trawlerman, like skipper Ken Knox,

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who worked his way up from the bottom-most rung.

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This is where I started.

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I went from a school desk to this school.

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A culture shock.

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You had three buckets of potatoes to peel and this is feeling homesick, seasick...

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It really was a new environment, you could say.

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How many days would you be at sea?

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The average time was three weeks.

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How long would you be at home once you finished that voyage?

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Usually just two or three days.

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Trawlers had to stay at sea until they'd caught enough fish to cover the cost of the voyage.

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They had to cope with the most extreme weather.

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Gales, fog, freezing temperatures that wrapped the ship in thick ice, threatening to capsize it.

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And in the areas that we used to fish, it was a natural phenomenon for ice to form.

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As the sprays came on board the ship, the temperatures were so low it formed to ice.

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The skipper would know

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when to start the crew clearing the ice.

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All the windows up here would be iced up, you wouldn't be able to see out of them.

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The skipper relied on his clear view screen to steer the ship to safety.

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It's a heated window and it spins round at 3,000 revolutions, so it's permanently clear.

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So, the skipper would spend hours just looking through here and using

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-his searchlight to see what is ahead of him.

-Do you miss the sea, Ken?

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I do, very much. 22 years coming from the bottom rung in the galley,

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all the way up to reach this stage.

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I could quite happily say that I would do it all again.

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But Hull's trawling days were coming to an end.

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In the early 1970s, the Icelanders became fiercely protective of their fish stocks.

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They attacked British trawlers scooping fish from their waters in what became known as the Cod Wars.

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'The Icelanders' shells had plunged holes through

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'the trawler's steel plates, some of them below the water line,

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'and at one stage she had settled low in the water.'

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As a result, quotas were imposed on British trawlers, limiting their catch.

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Hull's fleet of 127 trawlers was reduced to just six

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and the industry collapsed.

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These days, Hull's docks are busy again.

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It's the fastest growing cargo port in Britain,

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but now it's dealing in Scandinavian timber rather than fish.

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Before I continue my journey, I'm going to spend the night here,

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and my Bradshaw's Guide has found me a great place to stay.

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How wonderfully convenient, my hotel is in the station.

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Can I have a half of bitter, please?

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'In the past, it's provided a bed for some very distinguished clients.'

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This hotel is called The Royal

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in honour of the fact that Queen Victoria and Prince Albert stayed here in 1854.

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I love these classic railway hotels.

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This one even has the arches of a railway station.

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Perfectly positioned to provide for the weary traveller a well-earned rest.

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'I'm now moving on from Hull, up the North Sea coast to Bridlington.'

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Somewhat surprisingly, Bradshaw's describes the coastal erosion.

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"All this coast of the East Riding is in the process of change, the sea gaining on the shores."

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So, back then, the Victorians were already worried about the cliffs crumbling away.

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But one thing they could never have expected was that the North Sea could run out of cod.

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I'm keen to find out from climate expert John Pinnegar, what the real situation is.

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Over the years there have been many changes, obviously Hull isn't the fishing port it used to be,

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some of that's to do with politics, to do with being driven out of Icelandic waters and so on.

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Can you draw any kind of conclusions about environmental change?

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There's a general thought that cod are moving northwards, as with most species.

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Between about 40 kilometres and 400 kilometres over the last 25 years.

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Is anything moving from warmer waters into our colder waters?

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It's very interesting, we starting to see a lot more warm water species, that we normally associate with

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the Mediterranean, things like red mullet, anchovy, and also sea bass.

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Sea bass have their northern limit to the commercial fisheries in Yorkshire here,

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although they're caught further north by small fishermen.

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There's around 25,000 small fishermen in the UK that regularly fish for sea bass.

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Sea bass numbers in the Channel have quadrupled over the last ten years.

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So maybe the worry for the British public is not so much that we're not going to have any fish,

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but that we've got to change our tastes.

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We'll have to move from, say, cod to sea bass.

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Absolutely. In Britain, we're fairly restricted in the fish

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that we tend to eat, so particularly in the south of England, people prefer cod.

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Maybe they'll have to get used to eating sea bass and red mullet and more anchovy.

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Other things like John Dory, as well, all of which are very nice to eat,

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and people eat them further south, but not traditionally here.

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-Let them eat sea bass! It could be worse.

-It could be a lot worse.

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-Thank you, John. Thanks for making the journey. Bye-bye.

-Bye.

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This must be one of the most beautifully kept,

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one of the prettiest stations on the network.

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Hello! I just wanted to say what a beautiful station, what a beautiful buffet this is.

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It is, it works very well.

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It's one of the best kept stations on the line, if not in the country.

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I would say possibly in the country.

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Has it been like this for many years?

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It started off approximately 23 years ago

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by a lady called Madeleine Crook, who was the proprietor before me,

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and she started off with a couple of tubs of flowers, and over the years, it's got to what it is now.

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Do many people come in and say, "Congratulations, this is really lovely"?

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A lot of people do, yeah.

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Thank you very much.

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Bradshaw was captivated by Bridlington.

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He says, "This attractive resort lies on the Yorkshire coast,

0:23:070:23:11

"but at that point where the line turns westward from Flamborough Head

0:23:110:23:16

"and then sweeping round to the south forms a capacious bay called Bridlington Bay."

0:23:160:23:23

In Bradshaw's day, Bridlington was a holiday spot

0:23:270:23:30

for industrial workers arriving by train from West Yorkshire.

0:23:300:23:34

It's still a popular destination, whether it's a spot of fishing

0:23:340:23:38

you're after, or an afternoon on the wide sands of the bay.

0:23:380:23:43

'It's always been a working fishing port, too, and just like Hull,

0:23:430:23:49

'its fishermen have had to adapt to changes in the North Sea.'

0:23:490:23:53

Frank the sea bass man, how are you?

0:23:530:23:55

'Local fisherman Frank Powell now casts his nets only in Bridlington waters.'

0:23:550:24:01

I love your transport.

0:24:010:24:03

Yes, well, it's all right for the job, yes.

0:24:030:24:05

Anyhow, let's be going, because the net's drying out,

0:24:050:24:08

and in this sun, the bass won't be very good. Let's get on, shall we?

0:24:080:24:11

He's found a new, more sustainable way to fish, using the tide.

0:24:150:24:20

His nets stretch from beach to water.

0:24:200:24:22

When the tide comes in, the fish lodge in the net.

0:24:220:24:27

Here we are, Michael.

0:24:270:24:28

'Then at low tide, Frank moves from net to net to collect the catch.'

0:24:280:24:32

Another bass for you. A sea bass.

0:24:320:24:34

-A lovely fish.

-Beautiful.

0:24:340:24:37

A beautiful, silvery, fat fish.

0:24:370:24:41

-So you have a net which runs from the sea, up the beach.

-Yes.

0:24:410:24:46

What about the bit that's still in the sea?

0:24:460:24:48

We have to wade out there, Michael.

0:24:480:24:50

Well, you're dressed for it. Are you going out there?

0:24:500:24:53

-I am, and so are you - I've got a pair of waders for you.

-OK.

0:24:530:24:56

'With no hooks and no engines, it's eco-friendly, and there's little danger of overfishing,

0:24:560:25:01

'as only small numbers are caught at a time.'

0:25:010:25:05

So you have to pull it all the way out, do you?

0:25:050:25:07

Yeah, you just keep going like this.

0:25:070:25:10

-All the time, until you come to the end.

-Did you find anything out there?

0:25:100:25:14

No, that's it. Most of the fish today have been up the beach.

0:25:140:25:18

Have you always fished like this, Frank?

0:25:180:25:20

No, I started off on trawlers from Hull, deep sea ones, when I left school.

0:25:200:25:25

When Hull collapsed in '74 after the Cod War, I moved to Bridlington and carried on fishing there.

0:25:250:25:33

Would you mind if I go ashore and dry myself?

0:25:330:25:36

Certainly not! Go on, then, but don't fall over on this net.

0:25:360:25:40

You do this sea bass fishing under some kind of licence certificate?

0:25:400:25:44

Yeah, we have a licence for the sea bass.

0:25:440:25:49

We're issued with a permit.

0:25:490:25:51

You're responsible for maintaining the fish at a sustainable level, are you?

0:25:510:25:55

Yes, well, as you can see, it's very low impact fishery, isn't it?

0:25:550:25:58

What have I caught today, six or seven bass?

0:25:580:26:01

If I do it twice a day, I mean, you're talking about a premium fish now.

0:26:010:26:05

It's wild sea bass, and with a Marine Stewardship. It's got the stamp, we've got these tags,

0:26:050:26:12

we put a gill tag into its gills and that goes on record to say when it was caught,

0:26:120:26:17

the traceability of the fish, and wherever it goes, it can be traced.

0:26:170:26:22

And getting so few fish, can you make a living with this?

0:26:230:26:27

Yes, I think if you can do it twice a day, yes.

0:26:270:26:29

Let's see the day's catch.

0:26:290:26:31

We'll get those out and show you what we've caught. Mind the spikes.

0:26:310:26:36

Here we are, a bass and a mullet.

0:26:360:26:40

All the same size, that shows the selectivity of a gill net.

0:26:400:26:44

-It's important to have them the same size?

-Definitely.

0:26:440:26:47

It gets rid of the juveniles. There's no juvenile fish among that lot.

0:26:470:26:51

Everything there, what you catch, you keep.

0:26:510:26:54

There's no waste, which I think is a big thing nowadays in fisheries.

0:26:540:26:58

Well, Frank, I've really enjoyed it and now the moment has come to remove my welly.

0:26:580:27:03

We ought to check it for bass, I think!

0:27:030:27:08

Maybe it won't be long before sea bass replaces cod as the nation's favourite.

0:27:080:27:13

With slightly damp feet, I head for the station.

0:27:150:27:17

Good evening.

0:27:170:27:20

So, my Bradshaw's Guide has proved very useful.

0:27:270:27:31

It found me a convenient hotel in Hull and taught me to view that city with new eyes.

0:27:310:27:38

It didn't persuade me to enjoy liquorice,

0:27:380:27:42

and given the choice between a Pontefract cake and a Bridlington sea bass,

0:27:420:27:48

I'm sorry, no contest.

0:27:480:27:51

On my next journey, I'll be catching up with a very old local in Scarborough.

0:27:530:27:58

Excuse me, is this the 2,000 year-old man?

0:27:580:28:01

Er, no, actually, this one's 4,000 years old, he dates from the early Bronze Age.

0:28:010:28:05

I'll be finding out about the fisherman's knits in Filey.

0:28:070:28:11

All the patterns have a meaning.

0:28:110:28:13

The zig-zag pattern - you never walk down the cliffs

0:28:130:28:17

-in a straight line.

-No.

-Then we have the diamond mesh.

0:28:170:28:21

-The nets?

-The nets, the crab pots.

0:28:210:28:23

And I'll be bird watching on the wild cliffs of Bempton.

0:28:230:28:27

We've got 200,000 breeding sea birds here, which is just amazing.

0:28:270:28:32

The gannets are a relatively recent colony and maybe in the last 30 years or so.

0:28:320:28:38

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:490:28:52

E-mail [email protected]

0:28:520:28:55

Michael Portillo takes to the tracks with a copy of George Bradshaw's Victorian Railway Guidebook. In a series of four epic journeys, Portillo travels the length and breadth of the country to see how the railways changed us, and what remains of Bradshaw's Britain. His first journey is from Liverpool to Scarborough.

Michael searches for the last liquorice grower in Pontefract, discovers how the railways turned Hull into one of the largest white fish ports in the world and goes fishing for sea bass in Bridlington.