Michael Portillo takes a train up Mount Snowdon, witnesses the revival of Anglesey's sea salt industry and discovers how the railways transformed Holyhead.
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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 a series of journeys
across the length and breadth of the country to see what of Bradshaw's Britain remains.
I'm nearing the end of an inspiring journey through England to the northwest tip of Wales.
With each step I have learned ever more about the extraordinary world of Victorian railways.
I'm exploring Britain with the help of my 19th-century Bradshaw's Guide.
And every day I'm amazed by how much is packed into this small volume.
Even tiny Welsh villages are mentioned here.
And it makes me think about those Victorian railway builders.
Nothing was off limits to the railway men. They could put railways even to the top of a mountain.
Today, I'll be following my Bradshaw's Guide to the highest peak in Wales
rising above stunning scenery in the Snowdonia National Park.
I'll be getting to the top by train, of course...
It's magnificent. It's really imposing.
..before wrapping my tongue around the Welsh language...
So it's fairly easy, really..
..and tasting one of Wales's finest new products - salt.
It really hits you from the side of the tongue.
It got a wonderful texture. It's really crunchy, isn't it?
I'm completing my trek from Ledbury via Chester,
and all across North Wales.
Now I'm headed for Snowdon
before crossing the Menai Straits to Anglesey and the port of Holyhead.
Today, after ascending Snowdon, I'll travel from Bangor on to Llanfair
and the final stop on this route, Holyhead.
Just before I rejoin the main line, there is one tourist attraction
that I must see, recommended to me by George Bradshaw.
And he suggests that here at Llanberis I should hire ponies and guides.
He says if you want to dispense with those assistants,
then a stout pair of legs is the best thing for getting to the top.
What he couldn't know was that at the very end of the Victorian era,
a wonderful new facility would be provided to save your pins
and still deliver you safely to the summit - a railway.
For the first part of my journey, I start in Llanberis
to catch the train that will pant its way to Snowdon's summit.
-How are you? OK?
-You're in Section A here.
-Thank you very much indeed.
Since 1896, travellers have been able to ride to the top
on what's called a rack railway, a system that was devised by the Swiss.
Doug Blair, chief engineer of the line, accompanies me.
The technology we're following dates from the 1890s.
The railway goes up such steep inclines
that if it was a normal friction railway it would simply slide back down.
So you've basically have got a rack like teeth sticking out in between the two tracks,
and then you have a pinion that meshes in with the rack and drives the locomotive up the mountain.
So the pinion is rotating under power.
The train travels at a sedate five miles per hour.
When the railway opened, it cut the journey time to the summit to just one hour,
much quicker than the time most of us would take to walk it.
I imagine that when this opened before Queen Victoria's death,
it must have immediately been a great hit with visitors and tourists.
I imagine it must have been.
The Victorians, to a certain extent, loved Snowdon,
because prior to the railway, you would have had a pony take you up to the top of Snowdon.
There is even the ruins of stables close to the top of the mountain,
and there were actually two small hotels on the summit.
So when they came to build the railway, they had a pretty good expectation
that there was going to be a ready supply of tourists or Victorians hungry to get to the top.
I think they had a captive market, and they were probably onto a good idea at the time.
Once the line was finished, this popular mountain attracted even more visitors.
These days, around half a million people a year journey to the summit whether on foot or by rail.
I am travelling with George Bradshaw's mid-19th-century guide.
I think he would be really thrilled that this Victorian railway is still running today.
Still with the same locomotion that it started with in 1896.
And we are also doing what we did in 1896.
We're taking tourists to the top of Snowdon.
Bradshaw's refers to it by its Welsh name,
which translates as "Eagle Top".
At that time, getting to the summit of that wild and rugged peak was tough
and few people in those days had experience of taller mountains overseas.
If you're used to the Himalayas or the Andes or the Alps, you think that British mountains are tiny.
Snowdon is just over 1,000 metres - 3,500 feet.
And yet, it's magnificent, and yet somehow it's really imposing.
It's quite blowy up here.
The Snowdonia National Park covers over 800 square miles.
My Bradshaw's Guide tells me on a good day you can see as far as the Isle of Man and Yorkshire.
I have come here on one of those days
when the cloud shifts by the second.
Every now and again it parts and I get this magnificent view over there towards Anglesey,
and Bradshaw says, "Snowdon is composed of four great ridges
"separated by vast precipitous cumulus a thousand foot deep.
"They unite in a single peak, the conspicuous head 3,570 feet above the sea.
"The highest point in Wales or England.
"This is Snowdon proper."
The railway makes the top highly accessible,
but some feel virtuous only if they arrive the old-fashioned way.
-Have you walked up?
What does it feel like to be nearly at the summit?
Fantastic. It's a good feeling.
-How long has it taken you?
-How long has it taken us, Richard?
-Two hours and one minute.
-That's not bad. Congratulations.
-And did you find it today just as you imagined? Worse?
It's always worse.
-Did you climb or come by train?
-How does it look?
This is the look of a man who took the train.
In Bradshaw's era, weary visitors could linger at the summit for as long they liked, even overnight.
He writes, "For those who wish to see the sunrise,
"a few huts are built on top, but it is frequently obscured by clouds."
The weather is as changeable now as then
and luckily there is still a haven to shelter from the blasts.
Welcome to Hafod Eryri. My name's Jonathan.
Oh, hello. Michael Portillo, yes.
Jonathan Tyler works at Snowdon's new summit cafe, which opened in 2009.
It's a very impressive facility, isn't it? Fantastic.
How on earth was it built, cos you're a long way up here?
Everything had to come up by train.
-All the building materials?
-All the granite, the Welsh oak.
It took approximately two years to build.
Now that it's here, where do you get your electricity from and your water?
Everything comes up by train.
The generator brings up oil to run those and the water comes up by train as well.
So nothing comes from the national grid or anything like that?
Not at all. I suppose you could count the rainwater we use
for the toilets, that's about it. That's the only thing we don't bring up by train.
There's another reference in my Bradshaw
that I want to investigate and I turn to ecologist Dr Barbara Jones to help me.
-Barbara, it's a great view, isn't it?
-It's superb. I mean, what a day!
I particularly wanted to meet you because my Bradshaw's Guide
says, very simply, rare mountain plants are found on Snowdon.
There are some that are very rare, but when we say very rare,
perhaps very rare in a British sense, not a world sense.
Snowdonia has been formed, all these ridges, all these mountains
they're all a product of the Ice Age, really.
When we had a lot of ice coming over and glaciers that carved out these big valleys and the ridges.
When when the glacier started to retreat, we had a kind of a tundra landscape,
very cold, very dry, so we would have had the type of plants now you find up in the Arctic or in the Alps.
Some of those plants just managed to hang on in these high, cold,
north-facing, miserable, wet cliffs
that we don't frequent very often, but they are great for these plants.
They're right on the edge of the range, but they're just managing to hang on,
so that's why they're quite rare in Britain.
It takes a keen eye to spot the plants the Victorian botanists searched out.
So here we are. Here is your first plant mentioned by Bradshaw.
Do you see this one? It's called Roseroot, a lovely plant and it's got a very interesting history.
Apparently some of the shepherds around here used to chew the root of this plant
and it helped to dull toothache.
So there must be something in the plant that helps to kill the pain.
Again, only found on the mountains. Here is one of our mountain lilies.
This is one of the real rarities. Look at that.
That's extremely pretty.
That's called the Snowdon lily, and it's found on about six cliff faces in Snowdonia
and nowhere else in the whole of the UK.
This lovely lily, how long does it flower? Am I fortunate to see it?
You're extremely fortunate.
One flower will only have a flower open for about two weeks.
And the flowering at this site here is over three weeks.
Normally to be able to see this plant you have to hang on a rope.
It's usually growing in such inaccessible places.
These days, the lily is even rarer than it was in Bradshaw's day,
partly because the Victorians didn't just come to observe the plants,
they came to loot them.
In Victorian times, this would have been presumably one of the specimens that the tourists were hunting for?
The botanical tourists, as they used to call them, they'd come up in the droves,
and they were so keen on collecting rarities, something that little bit different.
And they'd even come with long sticks with a hook on the end.
So if they couldn't reach it themselves they'd hook the plant out.
And I've even heard tales of some of them taking a bunch of the Snowdon lily
back down to their hotel and putting it in the vase while they had their meal in the evening.
I'm sure that must look lovely, but it wouldn't last five minutes,
-and it's so sad to hear of them all going like that.
-It's very sad.
The lily is now protected by law and picking any part of it is an offence.
Empty-handed, I turn back down the mountain to catch a train to my next destination.
After my brief mountain excursion and with my lungs full of pure Snowdon air,
I've now rejoined the mainline at Bangor for that last stretch to Holyhead.
I'm travelling towards the spectacular Menai Straits which I will cross over to Anglesey
on Stephenson's famous Britannia Bridge.
Bradshaw had plenty to say about it, so I'm going to get off at the next station and take a closer look.
So I have asked the train to stop because it is a request stop at Llanfair,
but that's the shortened version of where I'm going.
I am actually going to the station with the longest name of any station in Britain.
The town's name contains a whopping 58 letters,
but luckily there's a helpful sign on the station platform.
So it's fairly easy, really.
There are many theories as to how the town got its famous name.
Some say it was invented to attract more visitors.
Others say locals wanted to embarrass tourists who flooded to the area in the 19th century.
Whatever the reason, I'd like to test out the locals.
-Are you able to pronounce the name of this village?
-Yes. Quite easily.
Go on, then. Off you go.
-You say it.
No, I've given it a go on the platform where I had it written out in phonetics.
-You must be locals?
-Yes, I was born and bred here.
It brings tourists, doesn't it?
-Definitely. Hundreds of coaches here every week.
Americans and Australians from all over the world.
-Do you speak Welsh amongst yourselves?
HE SPEAKS WELSH
You were smiling so it seemed a very nice thing to say.
What did you actually say?
A very big welcome to the village of Llanfair.
Oh, that's really kind of you.
Thank you so much. I'm really enjoying my visit.
Thank you so much.
But the town's tongue-twisting name isn't my main reason for visiting Llanfair.
It is my vantage point for appreciating Stephenson's Britannia Bridge.
Bradshaw was completely bowled over by it.
"This magnificent structure is one of the most ingenious,
"daring, and stupendous monuments of engineering skill which modern times have seen attempted.
"As this gigantic and amazing structure now spans the Menai,
"we may justly express our admiration of it
"by calling it Mr Stephenson's chef-d'oeuvre."
Well, here now, I begin to get Bradshaw's point.
It is colossal, it rises into the sky above us.
It has this enormous span.
And, of course, it had originally this breakthrough technology.
These tubes carrying the railway line.
Bradshaw said it could best be thought of
as a double-barrelled gun on an immense scale.
The bridge was built using the same tubular design as Stephenson's smaller Conwy Bridge.
Sadly, the tubes were destroyed by fire in the 1970s,
but this extraordinary Victorian structure still impressively spans the water.
As the sun begins to set on the Menai Straits,
my mind turns to where I shall be spending the night.
Bradshaw's Guide mentions that Anglesey is famous
for supplying grain, so I've come to stay in a windmill.
Constructed in 1741, this one is a listed building.
It was recently converted into accommodation by owner Julian Wood.
Hello, I'm just admiring your windmill.
Oh, good. I'm glad you like it.
-Fantastic. When did the sails disappear?
-In the 1920s.
Apparently, they were sold for scrap.
-Were there lots of windmills on Anglesey?
It's known as the bread basket of Wales.
Apparently, I suppose a bit like beacons, they could all see each other.
-Come on in.
-Thank you very much.
In the 19th century, there were around 50 windmills on Anglesey.
Now Julian's is one of the few that's left.
-So the grinding shaft would have been here.
-Yeah. That's right.
-And you've built the dining room table around it.
This is known as a piece de resistance. What an amazing room!
What a view.
-Looking towards Snowdon.
-Yeah. That's it.
And...looking towards Llandudno.
-Yeah. Puffin Island there.
-Puffin Island first.
And you can see it's low tide, you can see the causeway.
Wind power is clearly still important around here.
I can see three wind farms on the horizon.
I'm going to enjoy staying here very much.
Very nice to meet you.
-I'll just stay here and watch the sun go down.
I really enjoyed my night at the windmill, and I've woken to this fantastic morning.
And now, intrigued by a couple of references in my Bradshaw's Guide
to Salt Island, I've come to discover something about an industry -
salt - which I believe is in revival.
David Lea-Wilson runs the Anglesey Sea Salt Company.
My 19th-century guidebook led me to you,
because he makes a couple of references, Bradshaw, to Salt Island.
-So there must have been a traditional industry here.
And even before Salt Island was famous for salt, the Romans,
this was one of their furthest outposts, in Caernarfon, behind me,
and, of course, they paid people in salt, hence the word salary.
But Salt Island itself was the last place that I can find round here that was making salt in the 1700s.
And in 1775, a factory there closed, we understand, and that was the last time salt was made here.
Until...YOU came along!
From the late 18th century, it became easier to mine salt from the ground,
and the sea salt industry fell into decline.
Since 2000, David has begun extracting salt
from the Menai waters once again because it is exceptionally pure.
Just like a chef wants good quality ingredients, we want good quality sea water
and that comes from the Gulf Stream that comes flooding in here, washes round the island twice a day.
We're in the right place for producing good quality sea salt.
-For pure water coming in.
Originally, salt was harvested by flooding large fields with sea water,
allowing the sun to evaporate the liquid.
David's factory is a bit more sophisticated, but the idea is the same.
-This is one of the salt pans.
-It's a very hot room.
That warmth helps us evaporate the moisture,
and that is the key to the process, removing the water.
And a bit like... The analogy I use is imagine a cloud can only hold so much water
before it starts raining, so sea water can only hold so much salt before the salt starts crystallizing.
So these crystals are forming on the surface, and they're tiny flakes.
That is our sort of trademark.
The crystallized salt is delicately lifted out by hand.
And you're just handling it gently.
-And then just let the water out.
And drain out the back.
It reminds me of pure driven snow.
It's absolutely perfect.
-Thank you very much.
Yes. I think a few months' work, and you could have a full-time job here.
As well as pure salt, it's also possible to make gourmet versions.
This one is the smoked salt, which is smoked over Welsh oak and has quite an interesting fragrance.
-It is smoky, isn't it?
-And that was picked up by a salt maker in Seattle,
and it's now on the chocolates that President Obama really likes,
and it's his standard gift to people when they've visited the White House,
chocolates with a few flakes of our salt on top.
Well, if it's good enough for Mr President, it's good enough for me.
David, instruct me in the art of salt tasting.
Well, the first thing is you don't taste salt on the tip of your tongue,
it's at the sides and at the back.
Here, we've got a small cherry tomato.
It's got lots of flavour, anyway, but just a flake of salt
at the most. So do taste one of those.
Try to get this on the sides of my tongue.
Mm. You're right, it really hits you from the sides of the tongue.
It's beautifully salty, of course.
But it's bringing out the flavour of the tomato brilliantly.
And it's got a wonderful texture. It's really crunchy.
We're all told we eat too much salt, but we do actually need a small amount of salt.
So my message to people is eat less salt, but better salt.
So now I must retrace my steps to the station for the final leg of my journey across Anglesey.
Never having travelled this route before, I'm struck by the sheer size of Anglesey.
It's quite a long journey across, and the mountains of North Wales recede
as we move across this relatively flat country towards Holyhead.
And Bradshaw says, "This once small town of Holyhead, situated in a remote corner of Anglesey,
"will speedily become an important place,
"lying in the direct route from London to Dublin, which traffic
"and communication the London and North Western Company is year by year increasing and developing."
So I'm going to find a Holyhead fully developed, as predicted by George Bradshaw.
I'm approaching the most western point in Anglesey, on the edge of the Irish Sea.
In Bradshaw's time, this was a busy route for ships plying to Liverpool, Dublin and beyond.
They were guided safely past Anglesey's rocky shore by the South Stack Lighthouse, close to Holyhead.
These days, most people are heading for the Irish ferry.
I feel like a bit of a novice here, because I've never set foot
in Holyhead before, and I think everybody else does this as a matter of routine.
They all know exactly where they're going, presumably to get the boat.
When the railway arrived here in 1848, it transformed travel to Ireland.
It offered a quick and easy route to Dublin, which is just 64 miles away.
Soon the port and the town began to grow.
Behind me, the pretty painted house fronts of the dark roofs
of Holyhead, which sits on its own island.
And in from of me the packet station where, in Bradshaw's day, the packet steamers arrived.
And this town became important, as Bradshaw had predicted, as a sea port, as the gateway to Ireland.
Irish immigrants, British soldiers and politicians
from both sides of the water became regular travellers through Holyhead.
I'm curious to find out how this railway line
affected our relationship with Ireland in Bradshaw's time from historian David Gwyn.
Because of my background, I like to think of political implications.
Do you think the railway from Chester to Holyhead
helped the British Government in some way to control Ireland?
I'm sure that was a thought in their minds, that there were the means
to ship troops over if rebellion broke out, or anything like that.
And there's certainly a consideration that Irish MPs
want a fast and comfortable way of travelling to London.
Yes, because they're represented at Westminster all the way
into the 20th century, so they're going backwards and forwards.
As more services used the port, a new harbour was built.
It included a massive new breakwater to protect shipping.
Bradshaw writes, "The principal breakwater to the north will be 5,000 feet long,
"170 broad, and 30 above the bottom of the sea in the deepest part."
We're on this breakwater here, which is very much referenced in Bradshaw.
He says he's looking forward to it being completed.
5,000-foot long. It's an amazing structure. How was it done?
It is a huge thing, as you say.
It was done over many years, and it's from quarried stone in Holyhead mountain
standing there behind you.
They're huge blocks, how was is brought out here?
It was brought out by railway.
Steam locomotives carrying the wagons, or pulling the wagons on timber staging,
so that the stone could be dropped in between the rails, and bit by bit, the whole thing was created.
It was a marvellous piece of Victorian engineering technology.
The new breakwater was, and still is, one of the largest constructed in Britain.
For Victorians departing on board the steamers, it was their last view of Wales.
I get the impression that Holyhead really is a kind of frontier.
You could say that. But it's also, you might say, the end of Britain, the end of Britishness,
and our unquiet relationship with Ireland, I think, is embodied in the changing history of Holyhead.
The political landscape has changed and changed again,
but the Victorian infrastructure of railway and port are distinctly recognisable even today.
This is the furthest point,
the end of Wales, and since Bradshaw's time,
with Irish independence, the limit of the United Kingdom.
Members of Parliament no longer go backwards and forwards through Holyhead.
But with airline delays and security queues, the train and boat
remain the preferred option for many to reach the Emerald Isle.
On my next journey, I'll be following some of the very earliest railway lines in Britain,
travelling south from Newcastle through Yorkshire, to Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire.
Along the way, I'll be getting up close and personal with one of the world's first locomotives.
It's in the most beautiful condition. Am I allowed to?
-It's quite thrilling, actually.
I'll be uncovering some railway treasures with a descendant of George Bradshaw himself.
Oh, my goodness!
That is SO beautiful!
And exploring the seaside town that inspired the Victorian novel Dracula!
How was that?
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Michael Portillo takes the train to the top of Wales's highest peak, Mount Snowdon, witnesses the revival of Anglesey's sea salt industry and discovers how the railways transformed the tiny port of Holyhead.