Documentary series. Michael Portillo learns to decipher traditional knitting patterns in Filey and meets Scarborough's 4,000-year-old Gristhorpe Man.
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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.
I'm on the last leg of my railway journey
from Liverpool to Scarborough,
using this dog-eared Victorian handbook.
So far, its pointers have proved remarkably relevant,
even to the modern-day traveller.
I'm continuing to travel by the sea, so important to our island heritage.
And now I'll discover whether Bradshaw's is a good guide, not only to Britain's yesterday and today,
but also to our pre-history.
Today, I'll be catching up with a very old local in Scarborough.
Excuse me, is this the 2,000 year-old man?
No, actually, this one's 4,000 years old. He dates from the early Bronze Age.
I'll be finding out about fisherman knits in Filey.
All the patterns have a meaning.
The zigzag pattern - you never walk down the cliffs in a straight line.
-Then we have the diamond mesh...
..the nets, the crab pots.
And I'll be bird-watching on the wild cliffs of Bempton.
We've got 200,000 breeding seabirds here, which is just amazing.
These gannets are a relatively recent colonist, maybe in the last 30 years or so.
I've almost completed my journey from Liverpool
that took me across the north west of England.
Having crossed the Pennines and visited the historic city of York,
and having passed through Humberside,
I am now heading up the North East coast.
Today, I'm leaving the seaside town of Bridlington
and travelling up the coast to Filey,
before reaching my final destination, Scarborough.
And my first stop is Bempton.
This is the nearest station to that spectacular feature of the North East coast, Flamborough Head.
Bradshaw describes "its lofty cliffs of nearly 500 feet elevation,
"teeming in the spring and summer months with thousands of birds of every hue and species."
Bird-watching became a popular hobby in the late 19th century,
spurred on by the railways, which brought people to the coast to enjoy the magnificent seabird colonies.
Isn't that amazing?
In Bradshaw's day, these high cliffs attracted thousands of puffins and guillemots.
These days, it's also home to England's largest mainland colony of gannets,
closely monitored by RSPB site manager, Ian Kendall.
What a fantastic sight.
Incredible, isn't it? Absolutely incredible.
That jagged broken cliff with the birds lined along it.
I'm following this 19th century guidebook, Bradshaw,
and he talks about Flamborough Head teeming with birds in the spring and summer.
They are here spring and summer but they're here to early October
and the gannets take a long time to rear the young, so they're here right through mid-autumn, I guess.
They're voracious eaters, aren't they?
When I was a kid, if I was wolfing my food, I was accused of eating like a gannet.
Absolutely. They're really good hunters, really good feeders and they take masses of food.
That's why the colony goes from strength to strength every year.
Am I right in thinking that even though you've got this huge number of gannets,
they're actually a small minority of your total bird population?
Yeah, we've got 200,000 breeding seabirds here, which is just amazing.
-Do you have any problems with egg stealers?
-No, that was the Victorian era, that was a big issue then.
The climmers, as they were, used to go over these cliffs, harvesting guillemot eggs
and I think, one year, they harvested 30,000 eggs.
That was obviously never going to be sustainable,
so I think the Sea Bird Preservation Act started right here
and that stopped that process of taking all those bird eggs
without any thought for the welfare of the birds.
I like to think George Bradshaw would never have been guilty of such a heinous crime.
I'm sure not.
The climmers would sell the eggs for souvenirs,
but most were stolen to be eaten by local people.
Thankfully, the climmers have gone
but the bird-watchers remain a firm fixture on the cliffs.
Do you think seabirds are special?
I think they're absolutely wonderful,
especially the gannets.
The life of a gannet, the life they live, the way they live and the way they are,
absolutely fascinates me and always has.
What is it about their lifestyle that fascinates you?
The fact that they mate for life. They have the same nest for life.
The way they bring up their young - feeding them so much fish, they look after them -
and the way they are together.
For such a fierce hunting bird,
they're so gentle with one another and they're so loving.
It's wonderful to see.
They have the same nest, do they?
Yes, the same nest for life.
Goodness knows how they do it.
Imagine you've been out for the whole of the winter
and then you come back to this cliff site and the three miles of cliff
and you find the one particular little nest that you had last year.
I just don't know how they do it.
I think it's wonderful.
I do find it hard to put myself in the position of a gannet.
Not only, how do you find your address again,
but how do you spend months clinging to a cliff edge?
It's really extraordinary.
Nearby Flamborough Head has two lighthouses.
The Chalk Tower is the oldest surviving lighthouse in England, dating back to 1674.
In 1806, it was replaced by another lighthouse that caught Bradshaw's eye.
It pioneered a new system for alerting sailors in bad weather.
Bradshaw's mentions this lighthouse at Flamborough Head,
rising 400 feet above the sea.
It was quite new at the time of Bradshaw's Guide
and for the first time they used red glass on the reflector,
a colour that could be better seen in the fog,
giving this lighthouse a characteristic signature of two white flashes followed by a red,
a model that was quickly adopted by many other lights.
From the wilds of Flamborough, it's back to the station for the next leg of my journey up the east coast.
My next stop is Filey and Bradshaw's guide says of it, that it's a modern watering place.
The guidebook would have been written
around the time that fishing villages were becoming fashionable seaside resorts.
I shall be interested to see, today, whether it's more noted for fish or fashion.
What a lovely railway station!
Very, very unexpected.
Beautiful, substantial Victorian brick walls. Lovely roof.
It must indeed have been a fashionable watering place.
When the railways arrived in 1846,
Filey expanded from a small fishing village to an elegant seaside resort.
For those in the know, it was a quieter alternative to its noisy neighbour, Scarborough.
But fishing was always at its heart.
In 1870, there were over 100 working vessels here.
Filey fishermen used special cobble boats that are found only in the North East.
Small and sturdy, they could be launched straight from the beach.
Jeremy Smith is a fisherman, just like his father,
and uses one of the last remaining cobble boats in Filey.
-I've never seen a boat like this before. It's got a kind of flat bottom.
Yes, it's got a flat bottom
with a tunnel where the propeller is underneath.
We've got a keel on the front for stability.
-What's the point of the flat bottom?
-It's just for landing on the wheels, when we're pulling up the beach.
-Because you've no harbour.
-No, only at Scarborough.
-And do they go back a long time?
Yes, they go back to the 18th century, these boats.
Originated from the Vikings with a clinker build.
That means when the planks will overlap and they rivet the planks to stop them from leaking.
And they're used for fishing?
Yes, we use them for fishing, crab potting, netting,
long-lining and sometimes taking visitors out for trips.
Although the boats are sturdy for their size,
fishing on the north east coast in Bradshaw's time was a hazardous occupation.
I've got a 19th century guidebook, which talks about a lot of disasters in that period.
Yes, it goes back to about 1850-1860, when the herring fishing was in action.
They used to travel for miles in these boats and couldn't get the weather forecasts.
So, there was a lot of drownings in them days.
When other boats were laid up for winter,
the cobbles were still out long-line fishing.
Before the 1900s the boats were dependent on sail and oar power.
So, if the weather turned,
the boats were left vulnerable to the rough seas.
"This old sea mine serves as a memorial
"to all the fishermen and mariners of Filey who've lost their lives."
In fact, Bradshaw's Guide mentions
there are more women than men in the town because of a catastrophe in 1851.
There were several such disasters and the sea has created many widows in this town.
Historically, the fishermen of East Yorkshire wore thick wool pullovers called Guernseys.
They were hand knitted by their wives
and heavily patterned with symbols that represented the village they were from.
Margaret Taylor married a fisherman and the knitting of Filey pullovers is part of her heritage.
Margaret? I find you hard at work.
-Pleased to meet you.
What are you working on there?
I'm working on a traditional fisherman's Guernsey.
Ours are very highly patterned because all the patterns have a meaning.
That's the shingle on the beach. If you feel it, it's the nice texture -
little pebbles on the beach.
Yes. This is very good.
The zigzag pattern - you never walk down the cliffs in a straight line.
-You go in a zigzag pattern.
-Then we have the diamond mesh which is...
..the nets, the crab pots.
That's my husband's initials, Graham Taylor.
And part of the beauty of these,
in the years ago when people were lost at sea,
it was identification.
A body washed up,
they would all be wearing Guernsey's then, hence the pattern - people knowing where it came from.
And also, with having the initial in, the body would be returned to the rightful owners.
-That's very sad.
-It's very sad but it happened, unfortunately.
The Guernsey is tightly knitted making it virtually wind and waterproof.
In the 19th century, they were rarely washed
and it's said that the build-up of daily grime added a further protective layer.
-The knitting goes back in your family?
There's evidence in a book that they were around in the 1800s
but I'm following my family tree and I've gone back to the late 1790s, now,
and they were wearing Guernseys in those days.
So, I don't have any photographs, obviously, from that time but I do have one of my grandma
and Grandad's wearing one of her Filey Guernseys.
Knitting them requires skill and patience.
It takes even a proficient knitter at least 100 hours to complete a Filey Guernsey.
Are there many people in Filey knitting sweaters?
You'd have to be very lucky to find a lady, one of the very few, who would knit you one.
And you can't buy them?
You can buy them at Flamborough. They will sell them in a shop up there.
You'd go and order one and say what you want
and they'll tell you when it's ready, which will be months away.
So, if I want a Filey Guernsey for Christmas, I'd better get my order in quickly.
I'm almost at the end of my journey from the west coast to the east of England.
-Tickets for Filey, please.
-There we go.
-Thank you very much.
-Which of the Yorkshire seaside resorts do you most like?
Hornsey and Withernsea but you can't get there on the railway any more.
They used to have railways, did they?
They used to but they went back in the '60s. I still travel there by car when I can.
Luckily for me, the railway still does run to the heart
of one of the greatest Victorian holiday hotspots.
I've been to Bridlington, I've been to Filey -
both very considerable Victorian seaside resorts.
But now I'm on my way to the mother and father of Yorkshire holiday destinations.
I refer to the one and only, the inimitable, Scarborough.
Ladies and gentlemen, we're now approaching Scarborough where this service will terminate.
All passengers leaving the train, please remember to take with you all luggage and any personal belongings.
Scarborough is the next and terminating station.
I've come through beautiful green countryside,
I've picked my way through the silhouetted spires of Scarborough.
Now, I'm at the railway station. I have a thing about railway clocks.
Scarborough station has the most wonderful, jaunty, elegant,
ecstatic clock tower.
A clock is an adornment to any station
but in 1884, when this was added, it was crucial as few people owned a watch.
In the 17th century, Scarborough spa and its iron-rich waters
attracted the gentry and its life as a resort began.
But it was the railways that put Scarborough on the map as a major holiday destination for the masses.
Bradshaw writes, "There are 33 miles of coast, which may be inspected at low water,
"over a course of the finest sands in England."
My Bradshaw's Guide tells me
that this beach became so popular that, in 1861, they had to ban nude bathing here.
After that, the sands were used for the Scarborough horse races
and the crowds used to gather on that bridge.
And Bradshaw's Guide tells me that bridge was the best grandstand in the world.
But now, the sands have changed from turf to surf.
In the mid 19th century, the spa town became known as a centre of entertainment.
Every summer, the cotton mills across the north west closed for a holiday called wakes week
and the workers headed to the coast,
many of them ending up at Scarborough.
They came for the many attractions, which Bradshaw described in detail -
the iron bridge,
the 12th century castle
and, of course, cliff-top walks with panoramic views.
And something else.
In Scarborough, Bradshaw's Guide recommends the Rotunda Museum,
"especially the skeleton of an ancient Briton and his oak tree coffin
"supposed to be 2,000 years old, which will be found particularly attractive.
"The teeth are all perfect."
So, I'm looking for a man 20 centuries old,
particularly attractive, with a great smile.
The skeleton, called Gristhorpe Man, was discovered in a tree trunk.
In 2005, it was taken away for testing
by field archaeologists, Dr Nigel Melton and Janet Montgomery.
Today, it's back on display in the Rotunda.
Excuse me, is this the 2,000 year-old man?
No, this one's 4,000 years old. He dates from the early Bronze Age.
He must be the one I'm looking for. My Victorian guidebook says he's 2,000 years old.
This is probably the one you're looking for. Now we have much more advanced scientific techniques.
We can use radio carbon dating, which they didn't have access to in the 19th century.
And how unusual is this intact skeleton?
It's very unusual.
Up until the Gristhorpe Man was found in 1834,
they'd found a lot of coffins but with no evidence of a body at all.
They thought they were repositories for people's possessions and then we found Gristhorpe Man.
There was a full complete skeleton in there but, since then, there's been no more. He's unique.
So, do people flock in to see him?
Well, they used to. When he was found in 1834, he was a national sensation.
But he's sort of slipped off the radar a bit, maybe because he is tucked away in the north of England.
But we're hoping all the new sort of forensic-style investigations we've been able to do on him
will bring him back to prominence.
It says in here that he has a full set of teeth, which he does. It's very remarkable, isn't it?
I would have thought his teeth would have fallen out in those days.
Actually, they didn't tend to because they didn't have as much access to sugars that we have,
so they didn't get as much tooth decay.
They tend to get very worn because their diet is usually lot harsher.
And I know he's 4,000 years old but how old was he when he died?
It's very difficult to tell from a skeleton
but we think he was probably 60-plus when he died.
Really? That's a pretty good age for those days, isn't it?
-It's a very good age for those days, yes.
-And he's big, isn't he?
Yes, he's about six-foot, six-foot-two, which is very tall for the Bronze Age.
What would he have looked like?
Well, not only was he tall but he was also an extremely powerfully built man.
Something like a modern professional athlete in terms of his muscles and his body mass.
What did he die of?
It's terribly difficult to say when you've only got a skeleton left,
unless someone hit him over the head with an axe or something obvious.
We've actually CT scanned him, so that we can take him apart digitally.
And one of the things that turned up on there, was on the left side of his skull,
there's a large benign brain tumour that's left the skull only paper thin in places.
As ever more visitors arrived, Scarborough quickly ran out of hotel space.
So, in 1863 work began on The Grand,
one of the first and largest purpose-built hotels in Europe.
Very grand and very opulent.
Paul Hallam's worked here for 15 years and knows it inside out.
-It is magnificent.
A hotel on this scale needed the railways.
It certainly did. It was the railway that actually brought all the people into the town,
especially on Sundays and weekends and bank holidays.
Give me its vital statistics.
When it was first designed by Cuthbert Brodrick, he built it around the calendar.
We have 4 turrets at the top of the building for the seasons, 12 floors for the months of the year,
365 bedrooms and 52 chimneys.
Very, very neat.
And, I suppose, in these old-fashioned hotels, the bedrooms are all different?
We don't have two bedrooms the same shape or the same size,
mainly to do with the fact that the building is built in the shape of a V to commemorate Queen Victoria.
Wonderfully patriotic and royalist.
It's a magnificent stair.
Yes, as you can see, Michael, quite a wide staircase
and due to the fact that two ladies in crinoline dresses could pass each other.
-That immediately evokes the whole era, doesn't it?
-It does indeed.
-Swishing from the ballroom down these lovely stairs.
In its heyday, the hotel attracted a wealthy clientele
that came for its grand evening balls and splendid South Bay views.
Oh, yes! That is magnificent.
Isn't it on the grand scale?
-It's superb, Michael.
-I love it.
With its great D-windows and beautiful views. Can we get out there?
We certainly can. I'll just take you across and out onto the balcony.
-Because the prospect is one of the great advantages of the hotel, isn't it?
What a majestic panorama, isn't it?
Superb, isn't it? This is what people come to Scarborough to see.
Your hotel, it is built on such a dominant position, it's comparable to the castle.
It is indeed. It doesn't matter where you stand on any cliff-top or wherever in Scarborough,
you will more often than not see the Grand Hotel.
It's built sheer, like an artificial cliff, in a way, isn't it?
It is right the way down right to the sea line level at the bottom, there.
I suppose, being like a cliff, you also offer hospitality to quite a lot of seagulls.
We do get quite a few, Michael, at the seagull season, shall we say.
-But only the most discerning seagulls, I think.
-Hello, Michael. I hope you don't mind but is that a Scarborough tan you are sporting?
I've been here six hours and it's been more or less sunny.
Have you come to stay or do you live here?
My wife and I met each other at Scarborough 45 years ago, so we're here for a bit of reminiscing.
We hope to carve our initials in a few park benches and things like that.
How very romantic. Did you meet here at the Grand Hotel?
-At the Spa.
-At the Spa.
Dancing at the Spa.
-And have you been back over the years?
This is a favourite haunt. We're getting that bit older now but we still like coming to Scarborough.
-I wish you a very happy 45th anniversary.
-Thank you very much.
-Enjoy your stay.
-Scarborough's just the place to celebrate.
Clearly, romance isn't dead in this Great British seaside resort.
On this journey, it's been enriching to explore the country through Bradshaw's eyes
and see how much Victorian achievements have shaped the Britain we know today.
Where would I have been this week without my Bradshaw's handbook?
It's taught me more about my country than any modern guide.
From Liverpool to Scarborough,
I've seen the transformative impact that railways had on the history of our country.
Bradshaw's has led me from west to east, from coast to coast, and this is journey's end.
My next journey takes me from Preston all the way to Scotland.
I'll be getting the thrill of a lifetime.
This is a fantastic sight as the steam engine begins to go over the Ribblehead Viaduct.
You will never see another sight like this on a railway in Britain.
I'll be realising a life-long ambition.
It gives you an idea of the scale, the complexity, the height
and, actually, the beauty. It's a beautiful thing, isn't it?
And I'll be enjoying a music hall revival.
-Ready for your performance?
-We should get it in there - we've got an audience.
# Adlington or Darlington Torrington or Warrington
# Sure that she would find it in the Bradshaw's Guide. #
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
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. This leg of the journey takes him from Liverpool to Scarborough.
Michael goes birdwatching on the wild cliffs of Flamborough Head, learns to decipher traditional knitting patterns in Filey and meets one of the oldest residents of the Victorian seaside resort of Scarborough - a 4,000-year-old skeleton called Gristhorpe Man.