Sandwich to Folkestone Great British Railway Journeys


Sandwich to Folkestone

Michael explores a secret port that ran the first train ferries to France carrying vital supplies during World War I and visits Walmer Castle.


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Transcript


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In 1840, one man transformed travel in Britain.

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

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

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Now, 170 years later,

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I'm making 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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Although some of the branch lines in Kent,

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where I am now, are now closed,

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in the mid 19th century, the county was criss-crossed by railways

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bearing commuters to the city and produce to market.

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But amongst the sweat-beaded brows and the flying chicken feathers

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you might have found the occasional Victorian tourist,

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out discovering his or her country, clutching a Bradshaw's Guide.

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Today, I'm following my guide along some of the earliest railways in Kent.

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In Bradshaw's time, the lines passed through this county

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to carry merchants and tourists to the continent.

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But the same tracks enabled Britain to fight for survival.

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On this journey, I'll be hearing how the railways helped win the First World War.

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It made it possible to supply troops with the equipment they needed

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in a greater quantity than they might otherwise have had. It was as simple as that.

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Imagining how to fill some famous boots.

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Ones actually worn by Wellington?

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Yes, they are very much the icon of the collection.

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

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It is absolutely unique. It is massive, yet it's invisible,

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and it is one of the wonders of our modern day.

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-A renaissance in rail.

-We hope so.

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So far, I've travelled 140 miles from London through Kent,

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visiting historic Canterbury and saucy Margate.

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I'm continuing around the cliffs along our closest shore with France,

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on the way to my final stop, Hastings.

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Starting in Sandwich today, I'll explore Deal before reaching the port of Folkestone.

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"Kent, and the Kentish coast," says Bradshaw's,

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"have long been celebrated for their delicious climate and exquisite pastoral scenery.

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"And the railway passes through a fine panorama of marine and picturesque views."

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Kent is essentially English and yet it is also a border state, because France is in striking distance.

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This is the stopping-off place for visitors to the continent

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and it would have been the place where invaders were stopped.

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In fact, this whole stretch of coast is dotted with military relics, as Bradshaw points out.

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"At this point, the memorable ruins of Richborough come fully into sight.

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"The celebrated Roman station, guarded the southern entrance of the great Roman haven."

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It's thought the Romans launched their first conquest of Britain from Richborough in 43AD.

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It became strategically important again, 2,000 years later, thanks to the railways.

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To find out more, I'm getting off at the nearest station.

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The River Stour and the tiny, charming harbour of Sandwich.

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Difficult to believe that a few miles from here, on the same river,

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a massive port on an industrial scale was constructed

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in a few years for the purposes of war.

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I'm heading to the ruins of Richborough Port,

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one of the most important secret supply bases during World War I,

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to meet local historian Dr Frank Andrews.

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-Frank, good morning.

-Good morning, Michael.

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This derelict site was once Richborough Port, and when was that built?

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It was begun in 1916 and finished in 1918.

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Built in a great hurry, because the existing ports, Newhaven, Dover, Folkestone

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were unable to cope with volume of material needed over in France

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and it was necessary to find some other way of doing it.

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This "pop-up" port was built to despatch vital ammunition and guns

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to France at the climax of the First World War.

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The War Department chose Richborough for its proximity to the mainline railway,

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giving excellent freight access to the docks.

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So receiving here would have been tanks and guns?

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Stuff coming in off the main railways, off a whole network of lines.

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Right away in front of us

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all this area was covered with railway lines, sheds, working parts.

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Everything was thrown at it because it was so vital to get it done quickly.

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Because a soldier needs guns now, not tomorrow, now.

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Richborough introduced a revolutionary new system to speed the movement of supplies

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which was copied at other ports on the south coast.

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During its two-year period of operation up to the end of 1919,

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trains conveyed almost 650,000 tonnes of supplies straight on to the boats.

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Literally, you put a train on to a barge and you take it off the other end in France?

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Exactly.

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-So rails running along the ship.

-That's right.

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Yes, here you could stick it onto a train at the factory and it turned up at the far end in France.

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-And we're talking about really big bits of kit?

-Enormous bits of kit.

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Whopping great gun barrels, 15-16 tonnes each.

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Yes, it was remarkable and extraordinarily successful.

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It made it possible to supply troops with the equipment they needed

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in a greater quantity than they might otherwise have had. It was as simple as that.

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It made it possible for them to work.

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These were the first ocean-going, roll-on-roll-off train ferries.

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By moving huge quantities of weaponry quickly,

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they revitalized the British army at a time when re-supply was critical.

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Strictly speaking in 1918, we were on the losing end of the war

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and the train ferries began their service

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just at the time when the British armies were in retreat.

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It wasn't until August 1918 that the situation was reversed and the German army started retreating.

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This came into operation just at the very last moment.

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Very, very vital time indeed.

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Although the port was crucial in helping Britain win the war,

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within six years it was closed.

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The harbour silted up and the tracks rusted.

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Here we have the remains...

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of a marvellous development put together at a great rate of knots

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in the interests of our soldiers over in France in the First World War, and now it's all gone.

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But here it is, we're on it, we're in the middle of it.

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It's marvellous, it really is.

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It's almost time for me to leave this historic stretch of the Kent coast behind.

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But before I do, one of Bradshaw's more eloquent passages has caught my eye.

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Brilliantly descriptive, Bradshaw.

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"The traveller gazes around him and looks upon the streets and edifices of a bygone age.

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"He stares up at the beetling storeys of the old pent up buildings as he walks

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"and peers through lattice windows into the vast, low-roofed, heavy beamed, oak-panelled rooms.

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"Sandwich is a town of very remote antiquity

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"and contains more old buildings than almost any town of our island."

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And luckily, I would guess that is still true today.

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But Bradshaw doesn't mention the town's connection with sandwiches.

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-Hello, ladies.

-Hello.

-Nice to meet you.

-Lovely to meet you.

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What are you doing in Sandwich?

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-Are you from Sandwich?

-Yes. Just on the corner, we both live in this road.

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-What connection does the humble sandwich have with Sandwich?

-You don't know?

-I'm asking you.

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-The Earl of Sandwich.

-And how did he invent it?

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He was so busy gaming and gambling he didn't want to stop for dinner,

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so he asked for a nice steak between two pieces of bread.

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And went on gambling.

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I'm using this 19th century guide and Bradshaw says of Sandwich no other town or port in England

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quite rivals the number of historic buildings or events that have occurred here.

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Yes, we have an Open Sandwich weekend.

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Yes, our houses, and the Guildhall, and Thomas Payne's house.

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We have about 200 people trooping through.

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-You have the great unwashed coming through the house?

-They are washed a bit!!

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LAUGHTER

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I'm glad you're going round with the bible.

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-Bradshaw's Bible.

-Fantastic.

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-Lovely to see you both.

-Thank you very much.

-Goodbye.

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Unfortunately, I need to be moving on.

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This time, it's just a short hop.

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I'm travelling four miles down the tracks

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to another beautiful and historic coastal town, Deal.

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Thanks for the ride.

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Deal was changing in Bradshaw's time.

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My guide says it's "formerly a rough-looking, sailor-like place, full of narrow streets.

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"It is however being much improved.

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"It now contains several handsome villas inhabited by a large body of gentry."

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When the railways arrived in 1847, Deal attracted commuters and tourists,

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to mingle with its long-standing maritime community.

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"The sea opposite the town,"

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says Bradshaw's, "between the shore and the Goodwin sands

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"forms a channel about eight miles long and is a safe anchorage.

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"As many as 400 ships can ride at anchor here at any one time."

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And those ships could set their chronometers by observing the fall of the time ball here at Deal.

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The moment of its fall would be determined by a signal,

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sent along the telegraph wires running along the railways.

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Deal's time ball

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was the first to be built outside London, which suggests how important the place was the shipping.

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The town was linked to an ancient confederation called the Cinque Ports.

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These five ports, Dover, Sandwich, Hythe, New Romney and Hastings, maintained a fleet of ships

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that the monarch could call upon at any time to defend England from attack.

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The Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports presided at Walmer Castle at Deal.

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"Walmer Castle," says Bradshaw's, "is the official residence of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.

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"The apartments command a splendid view of the sea.

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"They will always have a peculiar interest for the Englishman as having been the residence

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"of the Duke of Wellington, and at which he died in 1852."

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It's almost as though it was a place of pilgrimage for Victorians,

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and with my interest in political and military history, I too feel as though I am at a shrine.

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Impressive Walmer Castle became a favourite with Victorian day visitors arriving by train,

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especially while the Duke of Wellington held the post of Lord Warden.

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I'm meeting English Heritage curator Rowena Willard-Right, to discover more.

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-Hello, Rowena.

-Hello.

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My Victorian guidebook talks about the place where Wellington died

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being a peculiar interest to the Englishman.

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I imagine Victorian tourists poured in here, did they?

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We certainly know that they visited

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because we have a lot of references to the housekeeper, Mrs Allen,

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taking people on guided tours and giving spurious anecdotes

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to them about the history of Wellington whilst he was here.

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She was his housekeeper so she had free reign to make up what she wanted.

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The Warden of the Cinque Ports must be a very distinguished position?

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-Wellington was given the position while Prime Minister, wasn't he?

-That is correct.

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Later on, during the Second World War, it was Churchill who had it.

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More recently, the Queen Mother held the post.

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And there's an odd one I noticed in the list.

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WH Smith, the first newsagents in a railway station, so there's another railway connection.

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WH Smith was keen to collect and display relics of previous Lord Wardens,

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especially the Duke of Wellington.

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He drafted a law preventing historic heirlooms from leaving the castle.

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The all important collection of Wellington furniture

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had disappeared back to the Duke of Wellington's family.

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So in setting up the act, which meant the furniture had to stay here and

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could not be sold, it meant it came back.

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Wellington was such a big draw that Victorians snapped up souvenirs

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and trinkets to remind them of their tour of the private rooms.

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These are the apartments occupied by Wellington?

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That's right. This is the room where the Duke of Wellington died.

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As you can see, he was pretty much living in it by the end.

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It's his bed, it's where he sat, it's where he read, and where he would occasionally take his meals.

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I can't help noticing the famous boots.

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Ones actually worn by Wellington?

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Yes, they are very much the icon of our collection here.

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Something people want to come and see.

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The welly I know is rubber, and these are clearly leather?

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Yes, that's right.

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What Wellington was after was something he could...

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He was always a man for ease as it were.

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Something he could wear both whilst riding his horse

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and also whilst striding into the ballroom afterwards.

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Didn't want to have to change his boots.

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The Wellington boots we know today weren't copies of the Duke's.

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Rubber footwear was needed in the mud of World War I

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and was named after the famous general and boot wearer.

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I have no invitation to stay at Walmer Castle tonight.

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But in Deal, thanks to a tip from Bradshaw's, I shall rest my head in a place of great historic interest.

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Hello there.

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-One weary traveller checking in.

-Welcome to the Royal Hotel.

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As recommended by Bradshaw's Guide.

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-There's your key, you are staying in Wellington Room.

-I thought I'd have Nelson.

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Yes, he stayed here as well.

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-Up the stairs?

-Just up the stairs and to the first door.

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-Thank you very much.

-Enjoy your stay.

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The hotel was built in the early 18th century and has hosted a list of naval heroes.

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A glorious room, what a wonderful view.

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When you are no longer with me I shall be sitting in this bath and taking in the panorama.

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Until now, the weather in Kent has been really kind but today the heavens have opened.

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It looks as if it's going to be Folkestone in the rain for me.

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Well rested, I'm now heading around 16 miles down the tracks to my next stop.

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And the route takes me past one of the most famous ports on the south coast.

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This is Dover, and Bradshaw's says, "It's been well said that scarcely any great man

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"from King Arthur to Prince Albert has failed, at some period or other, to visit Dover."

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Which might explain why I, merely a former future prime minister,

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am not alighting here but continuing to Folkestone.

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-Morning.

-Good morning.

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Do you want me to clip it too!

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Yes, please.

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I'll get my antique one out.

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There we go.

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Dover is meant to be a place where great men visit.

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Yes, that's why I'm going straight through it.

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-That's my joke!

-Yeah, I spoilt it for you.

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Jokes aside, my Bradshaw's also tells me to look out for a series of special tunnels

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on this stretch of track.

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Are we going to go through the Martello Tunnels?

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Martello is the last one before Folkestone.

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The Martello tunnel is one of four great railway tunnels that in 1844

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were cut straight through the chalk headlands outside Dover.

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As we pick our way around the cliffs, Bradshaw writes,

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"the traveller will encounter the most wonderful portion of the line.

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"Prepared by a shrill of the whistle, we plunge into the Martello tunnel,

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"and then into the second or Abbots Cliff tunnel.

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"Emerging from this, the line continues along a terrace supported by a sea wall for nearly a mile.

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"Presenting a delicious scenic contrast to the marine expanse that opens."

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Morning.

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Bye-bye!

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In the early 19th century, my next stop was just a quiet fishing town until the railways arrived.

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As Bradshaw says, "The opening of the South Eastern Railway

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"and the establishment of a line of packets between this port

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"and Boulogne has been the means of rescuing Folkestone from its previous obscurity."

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But the creation of this line, with those four long tunnels

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cut into the chalk, did more than transform Folkestone.

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It inspired a daring and ambitious project, to dig a tunnel all the way to France.

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-Hello, Paul.

-Hello. How do you do?

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'I'm meeting countryside ranger Paul Holt to hear the story.'

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The very first real attempt was in 1880, just the other side of Abbots Cliff,

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when they sank a vertical shaft down and cut parallel to the shore

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through the cliff but above the high water mark.

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That worked very well, they were pleased with the boring machine,

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and then in 1881 they moved the workings to the Great Fall, at the bottom of the cliff.

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Again, they sunk a vertical shaft down,

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then cut out towards the tip of Admiralty Pier on the edge of Dover.

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1881 was the next major attempt.

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And building the tunnels must have been

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a huge logistical problem.

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They must have had massive teams of people here.

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The numbers must have been huge.

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If they are doing it by hand, there's no other way than having lots of people working on it.

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How far did these Channel tunnelers get in 1882?

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They got 897 yards, which is just over half a mile. Pretty good, really.

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Worry that the French might use the tunnel to invade,

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caused the plans to be abandoned in the following year, 1882.

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So when was the next attempt to build a Channel tunnel?

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Early 1970s, '70 to '74, they sunk and added down,

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and they cut out towards France, basically.

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It was another hive of industrial activity on this little bit of cliff.

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The second attempt had barely got a mile before it too was given up.

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It took 113 years, but that Victorian vision

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was finally realised in 1994, when the Channel Tunnel opened for business.

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The Channel Tunnel.

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When I was a junior minister, I helped put through the legislation

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that made it all possible, very complicated.

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The engineering, the customs, the immigration,

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the passport control, the policing, the fire services.

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And here it is, all up and working.

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John O'Keefe works for Eurotunnel.

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John. You are going to be my guide to this today.

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I came down here when it was being built but I haven't been in the tunnel except as a passenger since.

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It's rather exciting for me.

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It's going to be very exciting because instead of putting you on one of the trains

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we're going to take a car and actually drive into the Channel Tunnel.

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Drive through. Sounds good.

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Before entering the tunnels we must spend a few moment in a safety airlock.

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This is the airlock that leads into the service tunnel.

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The reason it's there is that it served as sort of safety lifeboat for the Channel Tunnel.

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It means we can manage evacuation from trains in complete safety and through clean air.

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We are so used to thinking of the Channel Tunnel as a rail tunnel,

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-it never occurred to me that you can drive from England to France.

-Absolutely.

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John is taking me far into the tunnel, to see the traces of those first Victorian efforts.

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Where are we?

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This section here is the 1882 tunnel crossing the 1974 workings.

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So the 1974 workings actually follow the line of the current tunnel,

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but in 1882 they were digging test tunnels

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out towards Dover Harbour wall from Samphire Hoe,

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and this is where they intersect.

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If you look up here on the wall, the segments still have the date clearly visible. 1974.

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I had not realised that they made so much progress in 1974.

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-They came a long way.

-So you have not had to replace this 1974 working?

0:25:050:25:10

This is as it was.

0:25:100:25:12

This is a little piece of history inside the history that is the Channel Tunnel.

0:25:120:25:18

And if I were to remove these, dangerous thing to do,

0:25:180:25:21

-but I would be able to peer into the 1882 tunnel, would I?

-Yes.

0:25:210:25:25

That's quite moving, because we are in one of engineering wonders of the world now,

0:25:250:25:32

but 115 years before it opened, they'd been down here digging with Victorian technology.

0:25:320:25:40

Yes, and they were right as well, because they were going through

0:25:400:25:44

the layer of chalk that every successive attempt has been through.

0:25:440:25:49

Despite all the technological advances since those Victorian pioneers,

0:25:520:25:57

it eventually took almost eight years to complete the 30-mile stretch of tunnel to France.

0:25:570:26:02

I should say I bear some of the scars of trying to get the legislation through Parliament.

0:26:050:26:10

How do you think people of Kent and England, have settled down now to the Channel Tunnel?

0:26:100:26:17

It's always interesting to look back at those reactions.

0:26:170:26:20

The fact that the British didn't want it, to today's situation,

0:26:200:26:26

where 85-90% of our customers are British, from the south-east,

0:26:260:26:30

from the Midlands, from as far north as Scotland.

0:26:300:26:33

It is unique, massive, yet invisible,

0:26:330:26:37

and it is, honestly, one of the wonders of our modern days.

0:26:370:26:42

-A renaissance in rail.

-We hope so.

0:26:420:26:44

Using my Bradshaw's Guide, I'm often impressed by the engineers of his day,

0:26:470:26:54

but still it astonishes me that they began work on a Channel tunnel

0:26:540:27:00

and were beaten back by strategic military considerations more than by geology.

0:27:000:27:07

The Channel has been seen as our defence and we've built castles,

0:27:070:27:12

towers and even pop-up ports to keep invaders at bay.

0:27:120:27:17

Those engineers who built those fortifications would be amazed and impressed that we've not built

0:27:170:27:23

a permanent railway link to join us to our former enemies under the Channel.

0:27:230:27:28

On my next journey, I'll be visiting Romney Marsh,

0:27:320:27:36

where the railways helped ensure the success of a special breed of sheep.

0:27:360:27:41

It was an important route for my family. It was the closest station from where they lived.

0:27:410:27:47

Finding out why my guidebook compared Kent to the French Champagne region.

0:27:470:27:52

That south facing slope on the North Downs,

0:27:520:27:55

that Bradshaw would have seen, is perfect for champagne.

0:27:550:27:58

And discovering how the railways led Victorian Britain into the grip of fern fever.

0:27:580:28:05

The nurseries used railways to send plants to customers.

0:28:050:28:08

-So this amazing craze was helped on by the railways.

-Oh, yes, definitely.

0:28:080:28:13

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:280:28:31

E-mail [email protected]

0:28:310:28:35

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 explores a secret port that ran the first train ferries to France carrying vital supplies during World War I, visits Walmer Castle, the home of the Duke of Wellington, and discovers how the Victorians initiated the building of the Channel Tunnel.


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