Brighton to Crystal Palace Great British Railway Journeys


Brighton to Crystal Palace

Michael Portillo finds out about Brighton's aquarium, explores the underground quarries of Godstone and discovers the wonders of the Crystal Palace.


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In 1840, one man transformed travel in Britain.

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His name was George Bradshaw

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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,

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what to see and where to stay.

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Now, 170 years later, I'm making a series of journeys across the length and breadth of the country,

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to see what of Bradshaw's Britain remains.

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In the 19th century, trains transformed Britain fundamentally.

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In the early years of the railway revolution,

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6,000 miles of track were laid.

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For the first time, people of modest means

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could explore their own country, and I'm following in their tracks.

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Over the coming weeks, I'll be travelling to the western outposts of Scotland,

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to the rugged mountains of North Wales, and to the beautiful coastline of Kent.

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Using my 19th-century Bradshaw's Railway Handbook as my guide,

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I'll be following in the footsteps of Victorian railway tourists.

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For those first travellers, planning a rail journey wasn't easy.

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Train times were displayed only locally, on the pub wall or the station door.

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But in the 1840s cartographer George Bradshaw

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began publishing rail timetables covering the country.

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It helped the masses to travel across the British Isles.

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Bradshaw published guide books too, like the one I'm using now, to make these journeys.

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The route that I begin today takes me on lines that were built not for coal or cotton, but for people.

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Victorian carriages running on these tracks would have been crowded with

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shoppers and commuters and sports enthusiasts.

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The railways put the middle classes on the move,

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the very people for whom George Bradshaw wrote his guidebooks.

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'Each day I'll cover another leg of the journey, stopping off

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'to see the towns and cities described in my Bradshaw's Guide.

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'Today is taking me to one of the very first seaside aquariums...'

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It was the sense of shock and awe that the Victorian public got coming in here,

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where they would see the denizens of the deep.

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'..showing me the conditions endured by Victorian miners...'

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Several times it occurred to me that if you weren't here I would probably get lost and die in here.

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-I'd never find my way out.

-I don't think you would, no.

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'..and revealing that greatest wonder of the Victorian age, the Crystal Palace.'

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It really makes me very sad that the building no longer stands.

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Yes, in November 1936 the building was totally destroyed by fire.

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On this route, I'll be heading from the south coast

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towards Crystal Palace and the capital itself.

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I'll follow the line out of London,

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sweeping through Suffolk into Cambridgeshire.

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From there I'll travel to Norfolk and King's Lynn,

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before arriving at my very final stop, Cromer.

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Starting in Brighton today,

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I'll travel the first 56 miles via Godstone,

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to the site of the Crystal Palace.

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When the first railways snaked towards the seafront in the 1840s,

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they changed the way that people lived.

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Prosperous men of affairs

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could live far from their offices in the smoky city.

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I'm headed for Brighton.

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In 1844, the journey time from London was already just 90 minutes.

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By 1865, it was down to 75.

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That made long-distance commuting possible.

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Bradshaw says, "Merchants who formerly made Dulwich or Dalston

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"the boundaries of their suburban residences

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"now have got their mansions on the south coast

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"and still get in less time, by a less expensive conveyance,

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"to the counting houses in the City."

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Well, the train I'm on takes 53 minutes, which is not such a big change in 150 years.

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The age of commuting had dawned.

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Before my guide was published, Brighton was an aristocratic playground

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where the blue-blooded enjoyed the sea air, or took the steamer to begin a European tour.

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The railway brought the coast within easy reach, and those enriched by industry and trade

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now occupied Brighton's elegant streets.

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As I came into Brighton I was struck by how far the town's extended.

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The houses sprawl across the neighbouring hills

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and this station is...is vast.

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This is why Bradshaw refers to Brighton as a marine metropolis,

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because it was a royal town, an international port, then it became a seaside resort,

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then it became a commuting town and it's a business centre in its own right.

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In the 1840s, the Victorian middle classes discovered Brighton and rushed to see it.

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The Brighton Pavilion, then a royal palace, was swamped with visitors,

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to the disgust of Queen Victoria,

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who swiftly packed up and left town for good in 1845.

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Her Majesty may not have been amused by the day-trippers and holidaymakers pouring in by train,

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but Bradshaw was.

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"Scores of laughing, chubby, thoughtless children,

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"skilled manifestly in the art of ingeniously tormenting maids, tutors, governesses and mamas.

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"Whilst intent upon their customary constitutional walk,

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"the morning habitues of the promenade swing lustily past.

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"Let us mingle with the throng and obtain a closer intimacy of the principal features of this place."

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Well, the social hierarchy has changed, but people are

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still enjoying themselves here and I'm going to go a-mingling.

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The seafront bustles still.

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I'm meeting historian Geoff Mead to help me imagine the attractions of Victorian Brighton.

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-Hello.

-Hi.

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-Michael Portillo.

-Geoffrey Mead.

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My Bradshaw says that at one time the chain pier was the item of first consideration for the visitor,

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in other words the highlight of Brighton. What did it look like?

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It was basically a long suspension bridge that ran from here.

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Chains went through the wall here and the chains ran out to a tower down on the beach here.

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Stretching over 1,000 feet out to sea, this was Brighton's first pier.

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Constructed in 1823, it enabled the royal and rich

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to glide across the waves to their yachts and steamers.

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Then there were four towers on timber supports

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with chains suspended from them,

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rods suspended from the chains, and the deck hung on the rods.

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It was secured to the timber underneath.

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Then there was a square, stone-clad pier head where people could promenade to.

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By Bradshaw's time, piers such as the chain pier were no longer for the rich to board ships.

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They'd become a playground for the middle classes.

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Once the railway arrives, it changes the social demographic of Brighton.

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Whereas before you needed your own transport to get here, you needed to be rich,

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once the railway comes in, it allows the world and his wife to come to Brighton.

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So Brighton changes from being the resort literally of kings to being the working man's resort.

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50 miles from London, easily accessible, and it changes the nature of the resort.

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Bradshaw says something very interesting and very clever.

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He talks about the levelling of the railways literally and metaphorically.

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So you had to create flat ground for the railways but you produced a levelling in society, too.

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Certainly it revolutionised the seaside, which had been exclusively for the very rich,

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down to the man in the street.

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That pier, alas, is no longer here.

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But one of the other Victorian attractions survives intact -

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the aquarium, designed by Eugenius Birch.

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Before the railways, few people travelled to the coast.

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Many might never have seen a live fish.

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So the Brighton aquarium opened up a submarine world that was entirely new.

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This was designed in 1869. It was such a colossal building project

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that it took three years to complete.

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It opened in 1872, as the wonder of the age.

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It was the largest aquarium anywhere in the world.

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And it felt like this, did it?

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It felt like this, but...

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it was the sense of awe, shock and awe, that the Victorian public got coming in here,

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where they would see the denizens of the deep at close hand.

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We have to think that today we're all very familiar with underwater photography,

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many people have been down, skin divers.

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In the 1870s, no-one had seen an octopus close to.

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No-one had seen tropical fish.

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Even common British species that lived in deeper water would only have been seen in a fishmonger's shop.

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Visitors could buy a train ticket from London that included entrance to the aquarium.

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At that time, prawns, lobsters and even salmon were star attractions,

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alongside more exotic displays of sea lions.

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Building the aquarium, then, the Victorian seaside town reinvents itself?

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All seaside towns have to constantly reinvent themselves.

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The introduction of piers, the introduction of things like aquaria,

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the cinema is basically a south coast of England technology.

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A whole raft of ideas coming in to, as you say, reinvent the seaside.

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Brighton goes on and on.

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Brighton developed pioneering seaside attractions.

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The aquarium was one of the first and now I'm going to go on one of the world's first electric railways.

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Ian Gledhill is chairman of the Volk's Railway Association.

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-Hello, Ian.

-Hello, Michael. Nice to meet you.

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Michael Portillo. Now, Volk's Electric Railway, 1883.

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-Who was Volk?

-Magnus Volk was a local pioneer and inventor.

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He was born in Brighton, born in 1851.

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As a teenager he got absolutely passionate

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about electricity, at a time when most people didn't understand it.

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They didn't know what it was. He put electric light in the Royal Pavilion.

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It was the first public building in Sussex to be lit with electricity.

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And he wanted to show that people could travel by electricity, so he built the railway.

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Volk copied the idea from Germany,

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where the first electric railway had opened in Berlin in 1879.

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He wanted to give the people of Brighton a taste of the future.

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We now think of this as a tourist attraction, but actually then

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-he built it as a kind of industrial demonstration project, to show what electricity could do.

-Absolutely.

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That's what he wanted to show.

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He knew that electricity was the coming thing, so he wanted to show that it would work.

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Once people got used to it - they were frightened of it at first -

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but once they got used to it, they flocked to it.

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Before long, the line carried 19th-century tourists

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along the seafront, travelling at about six miles an hour.

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There were stops at the aquarium and the chain pier.

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Some landmarks have changed, but the rolling stock hasn't.

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All our cars except one are over 100 years old.

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That is amazing. Is it a big task to keep them going?

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It is, because the electric motors are the originals,

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-so they are 100 years old as well.

-That's amazing.

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Our national passion for historic railways is so great that it affects even celebrities.

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-So, driver.

-Yes?

-You're Nicholas Owen, aren't you?

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-I am, yes.

-What are you doing here, then?

-Well, I love railways.

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I'm one of those very unusual railway enthusiasts, I like electric railways.

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So when I was asked a couple of years ago

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to declare this the 125th anniversary - I think it's on my chest there -

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I said, "I'll come as long as I can look at the railway properly, understand it."

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They said, "Well, would you like to be a volunteer? Would you like to perhaps drive?"

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I've driven a few trains in my life and this was just irresistible.

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-How fantastic. A schoolboy's dream come true.

-Absolutely.

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Your secret is safe with me.

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Yes, I fear not.

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Replenished by all that sea air,

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I'm heading towards my next destination, 35 miles away.

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Like so many visitors to Brighton in Victorian times and modern times as well, I have been a day-tripper

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and I'm on the mainline headed north towards London. But I won't go all the way to the capital.

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I'm going to seek Bradshaw's guide in finding a place to rest my head.

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My next stop is the village of Godstone in Surrey.

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Along the way, my guide book tells me to look out for an impressive Victorian landmark.

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Now we're passing over the Ouse Viaduct,

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one of the finest works in the kingdom, according to Bradshaw's.

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"It commands extensive views over the surrounding countryside.

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"As we're whirled along it, the prospect presents us with an unbounded scene of beauty."

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And you do feel, heading towards Gatwick, heading towards London,

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that you want to breathe in the openness before you lose it altogether.

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This listed viaduct was built in 1841

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by railway engineer John Rastrick, and now carries 493 trains a day.

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Having changed trains, I'm on the last stretch of tracks before Godstone.

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After sampling the glamorous life in Brighton, I've checked Bradshaw's

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for somewhere suitable to stay the night.

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Under the entry for Godstone, Bradshaw's notes that the parks of this neighbourhood are much admired.

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Then he has a whole list of what we would call stately homes

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that are within striking distance of the station.

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I've picked one which I'm managing to stay at tonight, Starborough Castle, eight miles.

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We are now approaching Godstone.

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Bradshaw notes the distance by coach to Starborough Castle.

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It's now a smart B&B and I'll have to settle for a taxi to get there.

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-Hello.

-How are you doing?

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-Can you take me to Starborough Castle?

-Certainly.

-Thank you.

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-Hello.

-Welcome to Starborough Manor.

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Now, Starborough Manor, you say? I'm looking for Starborough Castle.

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Is that it?

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Well, the whole area was Starborough Castle but in the '70s it was split up and became Starborough Manor.

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The castle itself was demolished in 1648 on the orders of Parliament

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because it could have been a place of resistance during the Civil War.

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'The stone from the castle

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'was re-used to construct the present manor house.'

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My Bradshaw's Guide, which was written in the 1860s, refers to

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Starborough Castle, so actually he's referring to the house.

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Yes, exactly.

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Well, very beautiful it is too.

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I'm off to see if I can find my key.

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-Let me show you to your room.

-All right, thank you.

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'Having learned that the splendid castle was destroyed on the orders

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'of parliamentarians, I hope that my conscience won't stop me sleeping.'

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After splendid hospitality at Starborough Castle, I'm now pacing an old Roman road

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in search of a clue in my Bradshaw's Guide to the underground history of Godstone.

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Bradshaw talks about the famous quarries at Godstone.

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I'm here to meet Peter Burgess, who's unearthing their past.

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-Hello, Peter.

-Hello, Michael, welcome.

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I've come here because of my Bradshaw's Guide.

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He says that Godstone was named after "good stone".

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Yes, quite a few people have made this very same statement.

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If you look into it a bit deeper, you'll find that

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"stone" is a reference, as in many other place names, to the Roman road that runs through the village.

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And "Cod", we believe, is a Saxon family. So this is Cod's place on the Roman road.

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But nonetheless it is famous for stone here.

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Oh, yes. There are very extensive quarries for the stone that can be found at Godstone, indeed.

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The stone was originally used as

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a building material in London, being the nearest source to the capital.

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It was called firestone

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because of its special heat-resistant properties,

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and was later used in factories as a bed to roll out molten glass

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and for domestic hearth stones.

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After the late 1850s, the railway came to Caterham, which is about two miles up the road from here.

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One of the reasons for constructing that line,

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one of the things that persuaded people to put money into the line,

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was the fact that it would serve as a link for quarries to get the stone up into the national rail network.

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At the time, this quarry produced the best stone in the area, and the industry grew.

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But as the railways spread it became easy to bring in

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higher-quality building materials like Bath and Portland stone.

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Godstone quarry declined and closed in the 1940s.

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The old tunnels are still here. They haven't changed much since Bradshaw's epoch.

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-Pretty cool in here, isn't it?

-Absolutely.

-You and I are having to squat down a bit in here.

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What were conditions like for the quarrymen, say, in the 19th century?

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We have it good because we've got good lights.

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They'd be working by candlelight but they would have had the same issues with the height and so on.

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They wouldn't have been wearing helmets, of course.

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-Health and safety not a big thing?

-Oh, no, no.

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'Miners dug over six miles of tunnels in the quarry.

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'As I follow in their footsteps, I gain some sense of what those Victorian workers endured.'

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We've come through such a labyrinth.

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Several times it occurred to me that if you weren't here I would

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probably get lost and die in here, I'd never find my way out again.

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I don't think you would, no.

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What are these jottings here?

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These appear to be numbers.

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My guess is these are tally marks.

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The quarrymen would have been paid, my guess is, for the amount of stone taken out and they kept a record.

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In order to get this out, of course, they had to do it all by hand.

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Picks and hammers and wedges were the tools they had.

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'Inside the mine, Peter and his colleagues are excavating

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'the tunnel floors, to reveal more about how the miners operated.'

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It just looks like rock, but persevere...

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and you will see it gets a bit rusty.

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'They've uncovered some very early rails which carried horse-drawn wagons of stone to the surface.'

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This rail here, this broken section, is in fact the same as you are uncovering here.

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-It's very different from what I recognise as a rail.

-Indeed it is.

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First of all it's made of cast iron, so it's not particularly strong.

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That limited how much you could carry on a railway like this, because the rails would break, as this one has.

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What does this say?

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This was the name of the railway that they were made for. It says CM&G.

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Croydon, Merstham and Godstone.

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Where you were scraping here,

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there's of course a chance that that lettering might still be in place.

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-Must be worth another go.

-Yes, indeed.

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Peter's discovered that these rails were recycled from

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one of the earliest horse-drawn railways built in Surrey in 1803.

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They helped the mine to prosper,

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as larger amounts of stone could be hauled out more quickly.

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Now it's time for me to leave Godstone for my next destination.

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I've emerged more or less intact from my dark, subterranean dungeon.

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Now I'm back on the mainline,

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headed for a part of London.

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I'm travelling towards a place whose name, more than any other,

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recalls the triumphs of Victorian industry - Crystal Palace.

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Here I have to use my imagination a bit,

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because Bradshaw describes the Crystal Palace, sitting on the summit of Penge Park,

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as being one of the outstanding sights in Europe.

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But of course now the Crystal Palace is gone.

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My guide is full of praise for the Crystal Palace.

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"With its marvellous transepts and wings and galleries,

0:21:540:21:57

"situated in the most exquisite and park-like grounds,

0:21:570:22:01

"ornamented with a noble terrace,

0:22:010:22:04

"commanding one of the finest views in England."

0:22:040:22:07

The extraordinary glass palace

0:22:070:22:09

was built for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park.

0:22:090:22:13

By 1854, it had been moved to this suburban hill

0:22:130:22:17

with a dedicated station of suitable grandeur.

0:22:170:22:21

Well, it's certainly a magnificent station.

0:22:230:22:26

You can tell that this in its day was quite something.

0:22:260:22:30

Maybe this is the kind of traditional London exhibition architecture.

0:22:300:22:36

It reminds me a bit of South Kensington and the museums there.

0:22:360:22:40

Just a few passengers today, but you have to imagine that these stairs, built on a colossal scale,

0:22:480:22:55

once saw thousands of passengers a day

0:22:550:22:58

surging through on their way to see the wonders of the Crystal Palace.

0:22:580:23:03

On just one day in 1859,

0:23:050:23:07

over 100,000 Victorians poured through the station.

0:23:070:23:11

I'm meeting historian Ken Kiss to discover what they came to see.

0:23:110:23:15

-Hello, Ken.

-Hello, Michael.

0:23:150:23:17

-Pleased to meet you.

-Very good to see you.

0:23:170:23:19

This was one of the great wonders of the world in its day, wasn't it?

0:23:190:23:22

This was an enormous building, a fantastic edifice of iron and glass.

0:23:220:23:26

Absolutely. It was that period of optimism

0:23:260:23:28

and interest in everything that was going on.

0:23:280:23:31

Inside the building you would have models of bridges,

0:23:310:23:34

models of all sorts of structure.

0:23:340:23:36

There was a whole series of courts that were given over to architecture.

0:23:360:23:40

So you could go in there and the very first court you walked into was the Egyptian court.

0:23:400:23:45

You had this remarkable court, nearly 100ft long, 60ft high,

0:23:450:23:49

with a perfect reproduction of everything from Egypt.

0:23:490:23:52

You just moved through an archway into the Greek court, then on to the Roman court.

0:23:520:23:56

So you could really spend days in the building.

0:23:560:23:59

Bradshaw's continues to enthuse.

0:24:000:24:02

"The sight of the Crystal Palace on the summit of Penge Park

0:24:020:24:05

"is one of the most beautiful in the world."

0:24:050:24:09

When the palace was rebuilt in south London,

0:24:090:24:11

it was even larger than the one in Hyde Park.

0:24:110:24:15

I'm guessing that that balustrade marks the footprint of the building.

0:24:150:24:19

-It's absolutely huge, isn't it?

-Yes, tremendous size.

0:24:190:24:22

That's this thing running along here at the bottom

0:24:220:24:24

in my Bradshaw's Guide.

0:24:240:24:26

So, from one end to the other, how big would that have been?

0:24:260:24:29

That's 1608ft from end to end of the building.

0:24:290:24:32

Huge. And how tall?

0:24:320:24:34

About 208ft to the top of the centre transept.

0:24:340:24:38

So give me an idea against this transmitter mast.

0:24:380:24:41

About one, two, three-and-a-half lifts on there

0:24:410:24:44

would give you the main part of the building.

0:24:440:24:47

The Crystal Palace was built

0:24:490:24:51

to celebrate Britain's technological achievements.

0:24:510:24:54

Railways epitomised that success,

0:24:540:24:56

and appropriately they conveyed the visitors who came to admire.

0:24:560:25:01

Over six months, 6,200,000 people attended

0:25:010:25:05

on special excursion trains from all over the country.

0:25:050:25:09

It makes me very sad, being here, that the building no longer stands. It was destroyed by fire, wasn't it?

0:25:090:25:14

Yes, in November 1936 the building was totally destroyed by fire.

0:25:140:25:19

We have really no idea as to how it happened. We have some clues

0:25:190:25:23

but we think it was probably a pipe underneath the floor.

0:25:230:25:26

A lot of people stood there and said, "How can glass and iron burn?"

0:25:260:25:29

But of course it was the timber floor that was burning.

0:25:290:25:33

It had nearly eight acres of timber flooring and that was more than enough to destroy the whole building.

0:25:330:25:38

The fire burned all night and was visible in six counties.

0:25:380:25:42

Later Churchill described it as the end of an age.

0:25:420:25:46

Today, rare survivors of the Victorian exhibits are the Crystal Palace dinosaurs,

0:25:480:25:55

described by Bradshaw's as

0:25:550:25:57

"the models of the diluvian and antediluvian extinct animals".

0:25:570:26:02

Fantastic that the Victorians constructed these things, isn't it?

0:26:020:26:07

Quite remarkable, yes.

0:26:070:26:09

-I mean, all this is done years before Darwin's Origin Of Species.

-Oh, yes.

0:26:090:26:13

These ones are absolutely massive.

0:26:130:26:15

Apart from anything else, they're amazing works of sculpture and even engineering, aren't they?

0:26:150:26:21

Yes, indeed. There's a tremendous amount of ironwork.

0:26:210:26:23

The armature inside that creature amounts to several hundred bricks

0:26:230:26:27

and five-inch pipes and all sorts of things

0:26:270:26:30

to make sure that the final structure looks as it does.

0:26:300:26:33

It's amazing to recall that, at the time,

0:26:340:26:37

no complete dinosaur skeletons had yet been found.

0:26:370:26:40

Although the models aren't 100% accurate, they're not far off.

0:26:400:26:45

-The Victorians must have been stunned by it.

-Absolutely.

0:26:460:26:50

No-one had seen anything like this before.

0:26:500:26:53

These creatures were millions of years old and here they were in three dimensions.

0:26:530:26:57

And it's also very Victorian, isn't it?

0:26:570:27:00

You come for a day out, you come for entertainment, a picnic, but at the same time you've got to be learning.

0:27:000:27:05

-Absolutely.

-They're very earnest about that.

0:27:050:27:08

Father would ask the children, "Now, what is the name of that one?" Yes, that's the sort of thing.

0:27:080:27:13

They would certainly have been very keen and they must have felt better

0:27:130:27:16

to have been educated as well as just enjoying the surroundings.

0:27:160:27:19

Following my Bradshaw's, I'm stunned by the progress

0:27:210:27:24

and the self-confidence of the Victorian age.

0:27:240:27:28

From seaside attractions, to mines, monuments and even dinosaurs,

0:27:280:27:33

it was an era of limitless creativity.

0:27:330:27:36

Like a good Victorian tourist I've taken the train to the aquarium in Brighton

0:27:360:27:41

and to the site of the Crystal Palace.

0:27:410:27:43

And that's made me admire even more the engineering of the time.

0:27:430:27:47

But when I was crammed inside that subterranean quarry

0:27:470:27:51

I thought about the sweat and toil of thousands of men

0:27:510:27:56

that was required to make a reality of each of those ideas of genius.

0:27:560:28:02

On the next leg of the route, I'll be finding out how even the dead benefited from the railways...

0:28:030:28:09

It was also the terminus of...

0:28:090:28:12

what was rather irreverently known as the Stiffs' Express.

0:28:120:28:16

..understanding how London became a great shopping destination...

0:28:160:28:19

Part of what's changing is coming about through the railways.

0:28:190:28:23

Suddenly you're getting suburbanites coming into the centre of London to walk the streets, to shop.

0:28:230:28:29

..and trying my hand at one of the oldest trades on the river.

0:28:290:28:34

-Would you like to have a little drive, Michael?

-Left hand out a bit?

0:28:340:28:37

It's not like tyres on the road. It's more like tyres on treacle.

0:28:370:28:42

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:29:060:29:08

E-mail [email protected]

0:29:080:29:10

Michael Portillo takes to the tracks with a copy of George Bradshaw's Victorian Railway Guidebook. In a series of five 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.

In a journey taking him coast to coast from Brighton to Cromer, Michael finds out about Brighton's Victorian aquarium, the largest in the world at the time, explores the underground quarries of Godstone and discovers the wonders of the Crystal Palace in suburban south London.


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