Canterbury to Margate Great British Railway Journeys


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Canterbury to Margate

Michael finds out how Canterbury Cathedral was saved during the Baedeker raids of World War II and explores the origins of a seaside swim in Margate.


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In 1840, one man transformed travel in Britain.

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His name was George Bradshaw, and his railway guides inspired the Victorians to take to the tracks.

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Stop by stop, he told them where to travel, what to see, and where to stay.

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

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of the country to see what of Bradshaw's Britain remains.

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My journey now takes me towards the coast of Kent.

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I think of this county as being England's orchard or garden.

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But as Bradshaw reminds us it's "bound to the east and southeast

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"by the German ocean and the straits of Dover."

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And that means it's also been our frontier against our continental enemies.

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As the county closest to the continent, Kent has always played a crucial role in our defence.

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Its railways provided arterial routes not only for the flows of commuters

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but also for the needs of war, and today I'm following my guidebook along those tracks.

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On this journey, I'll be finding out how a railway

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helped to save Canterbury's historic heart in World War Two...

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The cathedral had railway lines laid into the nave to deliver sandbags to protect it.

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..hearing how the Whitstable whelk industry has changed since Bradshaw's day.

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In the old days, that's not what happened.

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No, in the old days, it all used to go away in the shell.

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But when the rail stopped taking perishable goods,

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we had to find another way of dealing with them.

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..and exploring the history of a seaside swim.

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Imagine you are staying in Margate, you would come out of your lodgings

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and you'd wait for a bathing machine to be ready.

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Which apparently always smelt like rotting carpet, that kind of horrible smell.

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So far, I've travelled over 60 miles from London through Kent to Tunbridge Wells.

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From there, I'll head east towards the coast before tracing

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the shoreline bordering the Channel on my way to Folkestone.

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Then I'll pass through Ashford en route to my final stop, Hastings.

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Today, I'll begin in Canterbury and travel on to Whitstable and skirt the sea to Margate.

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ANNOUNCER: We will shortly be arriving at Canterbury.

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Canterbury has been a destination for devout pilgrims for millennia,

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and especially since Thomas Becket was murdered in the cathedral in the 12th century.

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Once the railway was built, it became a magnet

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for Victorian tourists keen to understand their history.

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Canterbury Cathedral from the train is so impressive.

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Even when you're prepared for it, you're not prepared for it, because it just rises so high,

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the tower is so magnificent and dominating of the whole town.

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Some of the great views of cathedrals are from railways.

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Time to get off.

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Bradshaw's waxes lyrical about the cathedral's Norman architecture

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and the unusual double cross above its 574ft long nave.

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Lovely morning, isn't it?

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Discovering the city through my guide,

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I appreciate why Victorian tourists were inspired to take the train to Canterbury.

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Let me read you this, from Bradshaw's.

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"The appearance of Canterbury is exquisitely beautiful.

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"And as we enter, symbols of its antiquity stare us in the face everywhere.

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"Narrow passages, crazy tenements with overhanging windows,

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"peaked gables and wooden balustrades just out on every side.

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"Here and there some formless sculpture of a fractured cherub

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"or grotesque image peer out from a creaking doorway."

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Isn't that wonderful writing?

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Has any modern guidebook ever said it better?

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Fortunately, Bradshaw couldn't foresee that within a century

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this magnificent city would come under devastating attack during World War Two.

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Now here's something not in my Bradshaw's guide.

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I was tipped off to look for this.

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Had Germany attacked in 1940, '41,

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then invading troops might well have passed along this road.

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And little rectangles have been cut in the railway bridge so that British forces defending

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might have hoped to keep them at bay by pointing their machine guns through those apertures.

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Canterbury sits on a strategic railway link between London and the port of Dover.

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During the war, it constituted a major supply route for troops and materiel

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and the city became a target.

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'Paul!'

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Michael, welcome to Canterbury.

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Good to see you.

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Paul Bennett is an expert on Canterbury's history.

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This is my Bradshaw's guide, would it be a reliable guide to Canterbury today?

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Sadly not, no.

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Parts of Canterbury, Bradshaw would recognise,

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but a significant part of it was lost during the Baedeker raid of June 1st, 1942.

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A German air raid?

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A German air raid on Canterbury, on historic towns, and we lost the very heart of the city.

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The Luftwaffe consulted a German tourist guidebook called Baedeker's

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to select historically important English cities for bombing.

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How sad that a book written in celebration of human achievement was so cynically misused.

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The phrase, the Baedeker raids, comes from Gustav Braun von Sturm,

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a German propagandist, who said, "We will bomb every building in Britain

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"that has three stars in the Baedeker guide."

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By April '42, they had bombed Exeter,

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then Bath, then Norwich, and then on June 1st, 1942,

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at 12.45am, 16 blood-red flares shone out

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over the skies of Canterbury

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and down rained 8,000 incendiaries

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and about 150 high explosives that devastated parts of the town.

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Now, given both the strategic significance of Canterbury

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and the wonderful heritage, presumably the people of Canterbury were prepared for all this?

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They were very prepared. The population had been provided by then with lots of shelters.

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Many of the principal buildings had been covered in sandbags.

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The cathedral actually had railway lines laid into the nave

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to deliver sandbags to protect it.

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During the raid itself, there were people chucking incendiaries

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off the cathedral roof, it was such a close-run thing.

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We could have lost Canterbury Cathedral in that raid

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if it hadn't been for the organisation of the city at that time.

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People used all kinds of wiles to defend the city.

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They created fake Canterburys by lighting up areas of the countryside

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while obscuring the real city in smoke.

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Despite this, they endured 35 raids which took their toll.

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We lost 880 buildings. 6,500 buildings were damaged.

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But fortunately, only 115 people were killed.

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That's a tribute, I suppose, to how far civil defence had advanced by then,

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the shelters were in place, and so on.

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10,000 shelter places were created in 1941,

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and thank goodness for it.

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The shelters might be steel boxes built in people's homes or half-buried in the garden.

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Many residents also sought refuge in the railway tunnel, and overall, thousands of lives were saved.

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For some who experienced the bombings, like volunteer rescue operator, Anthony Swayne,

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the memories remain powerful.

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What do you remember of the air raids themselves?

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The screaming of the planes as they dived down.

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Then the explosions of bombs, then shouting in the street.

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Do you remember looking at the devastation of the city after it had occurred?

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Oh, rather. It smouldered for about three weeks.

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It must have been very shocking.

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It was. We couldn't even breathe, the air was so hot.

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You imagine a whole city burning,

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the heat was...incredible.

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How would you describe the noises?

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Absolute hell on earth.

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It was.

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It was not only our guns shooting at the planes, it was the bombs that dropped.

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Screaming of people in the streets.

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It was just hell let loose.

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But through it, came people of strength, I must say that.

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I find it moving to hear at first hand what the people of Canterbury lived through

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and how their ingenuity helped to save the cathedral.

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And now as I reach the station, by chance another bit of history thunders past.

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It's brilliant just to see a steam engine race by you.

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I've been on several steam journeys recently, but I'm not normally in the position

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of watching an old locomotive race by with all the wind and the smoke and steam.

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Fabulous sight.

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It would have been a common experience for Victorian tourists following their Bradshaw's guides.

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But I'll have to settle for modern electric efficiency to get me to Whitstable, changing at Faversham.

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Faversham, and my connection goes in three minutes.

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< Where are you going?

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Whitstable!

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Whitstable, platform four.

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What?!

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Looks like I'm not the only person going to Whitstable.

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Perched atop the Kent coast, Whitstable has since Roman times been famed for shellfish.

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In 1830, it gained one of the very first railways to convey coal between the coast and Canterbury.

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It also carried seafood, and inevitably, the Canterbury and Whitstable railway

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was nicknamed the Crab and Winkle Line.

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Two years later, it was joined to a new harbour serving the expanding shellfish trade.

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"Whitstable," says Bradshaw's,

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"is the harbour of Canterbury and is celebrated for its oyster fishery,

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"the produce of which, under the name of Natives, is highly esteemed in the London and other markets."

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I am here to find out more not about the oyster, beloved of metropolitan toffs, but the Whitstable whelk,

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traditionally the food of the British working classes.

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I'm meeting Derek West, a whelk fisherman, whose family has been fishing here for three generations.

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Derek. Michael. Lovely to see you.

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In your memory, what was it like in its heyday, this harbour?

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Very, very busy in the war and just after the war.

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There was shipping here and we used to have all the old rail lines round the harbour here.

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Very good, them days.

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The things that were caught here, the oysters, the whelks and so on,

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what happened to them? How were they sent on?

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We used to bag them up and take them up to the station and they used to go to London market.

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Did they go fresh on the trains?

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No, they was all cooked, they was all put in bags,

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and took up to the station up at Whitstable on the trains.

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In Bradshaw's time, fresh and cooked whelks

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were sent by rail to the city and sold as a snack on London's streets.

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They cost around a penny for five, and cockneys loved them.

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Demand was high, so Derek's great-grandfather employed a different kind of whelk pot

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which improved the catch.

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Derek's brought a half-size one for me to see.

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That was the old, original whelk pot.

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And this is a kind of iron or steel cage?

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That's right. We roped... We used to rope them up.

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Your whelks are attracted into the pot.

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Bait goes in the pot there and the smell draws the whelks into the pots.

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And then what prevents them getting out?

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There's a net in there, a small net, what we call a crinnie that stops them from coming out.

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Like a valve, they can get in but they can't get out.

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Have you any idea, in the old days,

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your grandfather's day, maybe your youth, how many people were fishing whelk?

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There used to be about ten whelk boats on the harbour here.

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What is it now?

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There's only about two.

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In the late 20th century, as whelks' popularity declined, the industry waned.

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Derek's family is one of the few in Whitstable that still catch and prepare them for sale.

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These days, they're removed from the shell, cleaned and sorted by size.

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Hello, Jean.

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Hello there. How do you do? I won't shake your hand.

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'Jean West is an expert picker.

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'She and her team can prepare 200 kilos of whelks per day.'

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You're Derek's bride, I believe.

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That's right, 57 years.

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And you've done a few of those in your time, I dare say.

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Yes, I've been doing this since 1963.

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Good heavens! These are now put into packets and frozen, is that right?

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Yes, they are put into 2.5 kilo packets and they are frozen.

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Then people come with the refrigerated lorries to collect them.

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We have them from Birmingham, Essex, London, all over.

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In the old days, that's not what happened.

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No, in the old days they all used to go in the shell by train up to Birmingham,

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and down to Hastings and places like that.

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When the rail stopped taking perishable goods, we had to find another way of dealing with it.

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'Since the late 1960s, lorries have replaced trains

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'as the main carrier of perishable goods like shellfish.'

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They are something that you either love or hate.

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The people that like them, really go for them.

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I don't like them very much.

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I've got friends that do.

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You don't like them very much and you spend your entire day with them!

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I see enough of them!

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How do you actually pick a whelk?

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Turn the shell...take it out.

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Do you think I might have a go at that?

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Turn the shell...there we go.

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Well done.

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Then you have to take the hat off...

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Oh, you have to take the hat off? And pop that in there.

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'With it out of its shell, I'd better try one of these once so popular whelks.'

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It's got a kind of a tough bit and a soft bit.

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-That's nice.

-Is that good?

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They have a reputation of being very chewy, but that's quite nice.

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The smaller ones are nice.

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The coast here at Whitstable is given a beauty by the severity of the tide,

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the sea is far away, grey under a grey sky.

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It's really kind of beautiful, little fishing boat silhouetted.

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In Bradshaw's day, this coast was heaving with boats catching not only whelks but oysters too.

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The Whitstable Oyster Company sent 60 million to London in one year alone.

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So appropriately, tonight I'm staying in a place strongly linked to fishing.

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This beautiful house, rebuilt in 1778, was apparently the home of Captain Jasper Rowden,

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who was a famous Whitstable oyster dredger.

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Bernard Wright owns and runs The Captain's House as a B&B.

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-Hello, lovely to see you.

-Very nice to meet you.

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Jasper Rowden, who was he?

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Jasper Rowden was the pre-eminent oyster dredger man of his generation.

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This house stood here on the beach before anything else was built around it.

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There were maybe one or two other houses scattered about the place.

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He would have lived here and would have been looking

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straight out to sea rather than onto this busy road that you see here.

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In Captain Rowden's day, oyster dredging was back-breaking work.

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The oysters were hauled up by hand into special boats called yawls,

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where they were separated from the rubble from the sea bed.

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So, staying in the Captain's House, I feel respect for him and his crews.

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He would have been a very well known character in the local area.

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We sort of feel him about, as if he's still here sometimes.

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Which is a nice feeling, just to understand the history

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of the place, to do with the town being so famous for oysters.

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Well, I'm here to spend the night.

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Yes, come on in.

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A bright and breezy new day.

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And reluctantly I leave behind the pretty harbour and delicious seafood of Whitstable.

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I'm now heading around 15 miles along the Kent coast.

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The Victorians could be rather pompous.

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The line to Margate.

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"This has been called the pleasure line, and certainly the beauty of the country traversed by its trains

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"justly entitle it to that distinguishing appellation.

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"Its iron roads and branches intersect Kent in all directions affording the inhabitants

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"of the great metropolis facilities of visiting the numerous watering places on its coast."

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In modern parlance, that means this is the line

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to sun, sand, sea and fun.

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-So this used to be called the pleasure line?

-It did, yes.

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Do you still get a lot of weekenders, sunseekers, holidaymakers?

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Oh, yeah, thousands, especially in the summertime.

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Whitstable, Margate, Broadstairs.

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So not so different from Victorian times?

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No, I don't think so. We get the whole spectrum from elderly people to young kids.

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Young kids seem to love Margate.

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You've got the sea, the beach and the escapism, I should imagine, from living up in town.

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That's what I'm there for. I'll do a bit of escapism while I'm there.

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My guide comments on Margate's meteoric rise in popularity once the railways arrived.

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It says, "Steam has done wonders and Margate visitors have to be numbered by hundreds of thousands."

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With new journey times from London of just two hours,

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train-loads of daytrippers sped their way towards the seaside town.

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What a great, big, impressive station Margate is.

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I suppose that is telling us that, as Bradshaw says,

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hundreds of thousands of people would come to Margate for a day trip or a holiday.

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-Bye-bye, now.

-You enjoy Margate.

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-I'll enjoy it, thank you.

-Hope you find your escapism!

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-Safe trip, bye!

-Ta-ra!

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Bradshaw goes on to say, "When London folks grew wiser and found

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"that short trips had a wonderful power in preventing doctor's bills, the place grew rapidly."

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In fact, salt water had long been considered a cure for diseases like rickets and TB.

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The world's first sea bathing hospital was built here.

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I'm meeting historian Allan Brodie at its grand entrance.

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This is really rather a lovely building.

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This is the Sea Bathing Hospital.

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The committee to establish it was founded in 1791.

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And the small building here opened in 1796.

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The magnificent thing we are looking at is a reconstruction of the mid 19th century.

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Who are these patients?

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They are children from poor backgrounds who this charitable committee have brought down,

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firstly on sailing boats, then steamers, to be treated here.

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They are suffering from the whole range of tuberculosis

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as well as diseases that are essentially poverty related.

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The upper classes also came to Margate to bathe

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and even to drink the curative sea water.

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But rather than visiting the hospital, they took a dip in the sea in a private contraption

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that it's claimed was developed here, the bathing machine.

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The bathing machine, when and where does that originate?

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The first bathing machines probably date from the very early 18th century and Margate has a special part

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in the story because it takes the simple bathing machine, essentially just a cart

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drawn into the sea by a horse, and puts a strange, concertina-shaped canvas cover at the back of it,

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so if you are a lady or gentleman who wanted to have a bit of privacy, you could come down the steps

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and have a little swim inside this, effectively a little private bath

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in the sea, under this strange canopy.

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Our ancestors didn't care to swim as we do today.

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They savoured a ritual which grew up around the bathing machine.

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You would come out of your lodgings, go to little bathing rooms on the High Street,

0:23:130:23:17

sign your names on a blackboard, and wait for a bathing machine.

0:23:170:23:21

You'd come down to the bathing machine, where you would be provided perhaps with some kind of costume,

0:23:210:23:26

or you may have some costume of your own, and perhaps some towels to dry yourself with.

0:23:260:23:31

You would change inside this bathing machine, which apparently always smelt

0:23:310:23:35

like rotting carpet, that kind of horrible smell.

0:23:350:23:38

Poor horse dragged the machine into the sea and you went down the steps

0:23:380:23:42

and bathed in under this canvas canopy in privacy.

0:23:420:23:47

If you were more a bit more adventurous or felt you could swim, you could come out of the canopy.

0:23:470:23:51

From the mid 19th century the railways transported a new wave of working class visitors

0:23:520:23:58

to Margate, who entered the sea not to improve their health but for pleasure.

0:23:580:24:04

The Victorian period is a transitional period

0:24:040:24:06

between the Georgian period in the 18th century, where people

0:24:060:24:10

drank sea water, and bathed, dipped in the water.

0:24:100:24:14

By the Victorian period, you are beginning to get that system of bathing machines being transformed

0:24:140:24:21

into the beginning of the swimming and the beach holiday culture

0:24:210:24:26

that we would much more recognise today.

0:24:260:24:29

By the end of the 19th century, so many people were catching

0:24:310:24:34

the train to the beach that the cumbersome bathing machines

0:24:340:24:37

made way for the more practical swimming costume.

0:24:370:24:40

The railways made the British seaside holiday

0:24:400:24:43

a part of national culture and it clings to its position to this day.

0:24:430:24:48

Before I leave town, I'll visit a place that Victorian tourists wouldn't have missed,

0:24:520:24:57

the mysterious Shell Grotto, which was discovered shortly before my guide was written.

0:24:570:25:04

Extraordinary, like entering a subterranean cathedral,

0:25:050:25:10

everything's covered in mosaics, but mosaics made of seashells.

0:25:100:25:15

The whole thing very elaborate, very intricate, incredible amount of work.

0:25:150:25:20

And big!

0:25:210:25:23

Over 4.5 million shells were used to create this underground masterpiece.

0:25:240:25:29

This is the greatest room of all, and you must be Sarah?

0:25:320:25:36

Hello! I am!

0:25:360:25:38

'Sarah Vickery owns the grotto.'

0:25:380:25:40

I saw a sign saying don't touch the shells because they are delicate.

0:25:400:25:44

Here and there obviously some have fallen away, but it's in pretty good condition.

0:25:440:25:48

Considering it's been open to the public since 1837, so literally millions of people

0:25:480:25:54

would have walked through here, so it's a miracle, the condition it's in.

0:25:540:25:59

Believed to have been discovered by a group of school children playing hide and seek,

0:25:590:26:04

the grotto quickly drew the crowds.

0:26:040:26:06

-When it opened, it would have been

-THE

-thing to do.

0:26:060:26:10

Margate was an incredibly busy town, of course.

0:26:100:26:13

So, I think...at one stage, they had a one-way system going in here, it was so busy.

0:26:130:26:20

They would have had hundreds and hundreds of people through every day.

0:26:200:26:24

'Grottos became fashionable in Britain in the 18th century.

0:26:260:26:30

'Wealthy travellers returning from grand tours of Italy

0:26:300:26:33

'recreated the idea in their landscaped gardens.

0:26:330:26:36

'Some have suggested this grotto was built as a temple, others a secret meeting house.

0:26:360:26:43

'In truth, nobody knows.'

0:26:430:26:46

In a way, it's a fantastic story.

0:26:470:26:50

This huge work of art exists... and we don't know who the artist is.

0:26:500:26:56

No, exactly, it's anonymous.

0:26:560:26:58

Following my Bradshaw's Guide around Britain, as so many 19th century tourists did,

0:27:010:27:06

I'm continually surprised that so much that the Victorians saw, we can still see today.

0:27:060:27:13

My guide may be over 150 years old,

0:27:140:27:18

but much of it remains relevant for the 21st century traveller.

0:27:180:27:23

For the railway tourist, Kent offers medieval heritage,

0:27:230:27:28

fine seafood, and excellent sea bathing.

0:27:280:27:31

Whitstable has adjusted to the 21st century.

0:27:310:27:34

Canterbury has been rebuilt after World War Two, and Margate maintains

0:27:340:27:39

its position as a sea bathing centre on Kent's pleasure line.

0:27:390:27:45

On my next journey, I'll be hearing how the railways helped Britain to win the First World War...

0:27:470:27:53

It made it possible to supply the troops with the equipment

0:27:530:27:56

they needed in a much greater quantity than they might otherwise have had.

0:27:560:28:00

It was as simple as that.

0:28:000:28:01

..imagining how to fill some famous boots...

0:28:010:28:05

Ones actually worn by Wellington?

0:28:050:28:07

Yes, the icon of our collection.

0:28:070:28:10

..and venturing into the very first railway tunnel under the sea.

0:28:100:28:14

It is absolutely unique.

0:28:140:28:16

It's massive, yet it's invisible.

0:28:160:28:18

And it is, honestly, one of the wonders of our modern day.

0:28:180:28:23

-A renaissance in rail.

-We hope so.

0:28:230:28:26

Subtitles by Red Bee Media

0:28:510:28:54

Email subtitling@bbc.co.uk

0:28:540:28:57

Michael Portillo takes to the tracks with a copy of George Bradshaw's Victorian Railway Guidebook. Portillo travels the length and breadth of the country to see how the railways changed us and what remains of Bradshaw's Britain, as his journey goes through Kent, from London Bridge around the scenic south coast to Hastings.

Michael finds out how Canterbury Cathedral was saved during the Baedeker raids of World War II, goes whelk fishing in Whitstable and explores the origins of a seaside swim in Margate.