Hythe to Hastings Great British Railway Journeys


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Hythe to Hastings

Michael Portillo discovers how the railway has changed down the years. This episode finds him in Kent, rolling along the scenic south coast to Hastings.


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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

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

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For the Victorian tourist, travelling by train

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was more than just a way of getting from one place to another.

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Particularly for those people who lived in industrial cities,

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watching a rural idyll drifting past the carriage window would be an education

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and the experience would be all the more improving if the tourist referred to his Bradshaw's Guide.

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As I venture deeper into Kent, I'm appreciating my Bradshaw's more than ever.

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A modern guidebook can point the way to historic artefacts but one a century-and-a-half-old

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unwittingly reveals the values of a society which modern Britons both mock and revere.

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Today I'm heading for Romney marsh, where the railways helped ensure the success of a special breed of sheep.

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

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I'll be finding out why my guidebook compared Kent to the French Champagne region.

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That south-facing slopes that we see on the North Downs,

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that Bradshaw would have seen, is perfect terroir for Champagne.

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

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The nurseries would use the railways to send the plants to the customers.

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

-Oh, yes, definitely.

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I'm almost at the end of my journey from London, travelling 175 miles

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in a circuit through Kent, enjoying the county's rich history.

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Having followed the coastline to Folkestone,

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now I'm making my way west, just over the border into Sussex.

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The final stretch starts in Westenhanger before

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passing through Ashford and ending at the seaside resort of Hastings.

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In the 19th century, the railway line snaking along the coast

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allowed hundreds of city dwellers to discover the rural villages of Kent.

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I'm alighting at Westenhanger, not much more than a tiny hamlet in Bradshaw's day.

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Having travelled around Kent, I feel like one of those Victorian

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urban tourists myself, because I've always lived in the metropolis.

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Of course, I have visited Kent, but I've never given it a proper tour, and I've found that it's not only

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a county of great natural beauty but fundamentally important to British history.

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Westenhanger is just my gateway to a remarkable English ecology,

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a windswept landscape of salt flats and shingle, Romney Marsh.

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Since the 11th century, settlers have attempted to tame this wild terrain.

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This spectacular panorama is Romney Marsh

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and Bradshaw says that it extends along the coast for 20 miles, including about 60,000 acres,

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which within the last few years have been successfully drained and cultivated.

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In fact, the land and sea have battled over this terrain for hundreds of years

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but now, with the provision of a sea wall and with constant drainage, the marsh is stable.

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Reputedly a fearsome climate.

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In the 1700s, the marsh was shared between smugglers and malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

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Life expectancy was a mere 35 years.

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But the Victorians finally built sea walls strong enough to keep the waters at bay.

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The marsh may never have welcomed human life but a more hardy animal

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has thrived here, Romney Marsh sheep.

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Paul Boulden's family has been rearing them since the 1880s.

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-Paul.

-Morning.

-What a fantastic vista over the marsh, isn't it?

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-It is, it is.

-It looks today like quite a gentle place,

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but it has a bit of a reputation, doesn't it, for being a bit spooky?

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Yes, most definitely. The mist comes in very quickly, just a run across the field.

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It looks quite eerie. The superstitious type would think it's full of spirits!

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This leads down to the sea and it's completely flat.

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It's all been reclaimed at one time?

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Yes, predominantly.

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Everything you can see here's been reclaimed over past centuries.

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And what sort of a soil has that given us down there?

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It's a rich, alluvial silt, really.

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-Pretty fertile?

-Yes, very fertile.

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Hence the amount of crops down there now, not so much grass.

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Have you any idea how long the Romney Marsh sheep has been here?

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It's been on the marsh for over 1,000 years.

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I believe the Romans probably brought them in initially.

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As time's gone on, they've evolved, really, to what they are today.

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-Good for wool and for meat?

-Yes, a dual purpose breed.

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Being resistant to disease and able to feed on the boggy pasture,

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these sheep are well adapted to the damp, harsh conditions.

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Their meat is particularly sought after as it picks up a salty flavour from the marsh.

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The railway arrived at Smeeth in 1852.

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By the 1890s, Paul's family was using it on a weekly basis.

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It was quite an important route for my family.

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It was the closest station

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from where they lived.

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They were living on the end of the marsh and from there on to the marsh.

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Paul preserves a Victorian farming diary kept by his great grandfather.

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It's just sort of day-to-day jobs of what they were doing on the farm.

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But there's references, which are very apt, to the railway station nearby.

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This one here, Jan 14th 1895.

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"100 trusses straw to Smeeth station for a Mr Hook."

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There's one here, "31st January, 1894.

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"One horse to Smeeth station for coals."

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It really shows sheep farming has been going on here quite a while,

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but the farmers were adapting pretty well to using the railway to keep themselves supplied?

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Very much so. They cut a lot miles, I suspect.

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Trains could carry sheep to markets all over the country.

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By the second half of the 19th century, the breed had become

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so popular that it was exported to most of the world's continents.

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Today, 70% of New Zealand sheep are descended from Romney Marsh specimens.

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What are their main physical attributes?

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They're are a strong-bodied sheep, strong on the legs.

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They've got good, sound feet. That's one of the main characteristics coming off the Romney Marsh.

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It's a traditionally wet landscape, so they've got good tolerance to foot rot, living in wet mud, really.

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Your family's been farming sheep here for a long time.

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Would your great-great grandfather recognise these sheep?

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Yes, very much so. They've probably got a bit less wool on their head.

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They'd have been more woolly 140 years ago or so.

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In Bradshaw's day, Romney Marsh had an unusual system of freelance shepherds called "lookers".

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They lived out on the marsh in tiny brick huts for weeks at a time, keeping a close eye on the flock.

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These days, Paul checks on the sheep himself.

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-Catch a good one, one that's...

-I recommend you catch a small one!

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If I can get near it! They're going to be a bit lively!

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Oh, Lord!

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-So, first catch yourself a sheep.

-Yes.

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You're rather good at catching sheep because you would get the sheep like this to shear?

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-Something like this.

-And you shear a sheep, where's that wool destined for?

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Well, all our wool goes through

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the British Wool Marketing Board, it goes into the local wool growers

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in Ashford, and then it's graded there and then it's sold on the wool exchange at Bradford.

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But Romney Marsh wool, still pretty highly regarded?

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Yeah, for its versatility, really.

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Although the historic exchange is no longer used for trading,

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the wool is still regularly auctioned in Bradford.

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And just as in Bradshaw's day, it's mainly used in carpets and clothes.

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This sheep is destined for quite a nice life.

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Once a year, it's got to put up with the indignity of being sheared,

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got to produce a fair number of lambs, but that's it.

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-That's not too bad, is it?

-No, that's right.

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We'd like to try to rear 1.5 lambs from the sheep,

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-although on average it's 1.3.

-Per year?

-Per year.

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Are you ready to have 1.3 lambs?

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-Yeah, I think she's all set.

-Good, good.

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It's time for me to bid farewell to these distinguished sheep

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and return to Westenhanger Station to catch my next train.

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I was hoping to see a Eurostar rush by on the special tracks

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on the other side of this barbed wire fence, but none has passed.

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I shall be moving closer to Victorian speed.

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I'm travelling 11 miles to Ashford.

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The line runs parallel to the high speed route to the continent, but a century-and-a-half

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before the channel tunnel was built, my guidebook was already reminded of France.

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Bradshaw's describes this part of the line, between Ashford and the

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coast, as "swerving slightly to the south east and having on each side a delightful Champagne country."

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Now, it must be because it reminded him of Champagne

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in France, because as far as I know, in Victorian times, they didn't grow grapes here for sparkling wine.

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But now they do, so Bradshaw's was clairvoyant. Spooky.

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Although vines have been grown in England since Roman times, Britain

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last attempted wine-making on a commercial scale in Bradshaw's era.

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Wealthy Victorians returned from their rail tours of Europe

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inspired by continental viniculture to try their hand.

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'We will shortly be arriving at Ashford International.'

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But their efforts fizzled out before World War I and only in the 1950s

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did a successful British wine industry emerge.

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I'm come to the most beautiful setting of a vineyard.

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I suppose it could be France but the treeline is entirely English.

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Wine producer Fraser Thompson is just weeks away from harvesting this year's growth.

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-What a very beautiful place.

-Thank you.

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My Bradshaw's guide compares this terrain to Champagne, but I guess

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there were probably no vineyards around when that was written in the 1860s.

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Very few. In fact, English wine's really gone through something of

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a revolution in last 30 to 40 years.

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Is there anything about the terrain to remind a Victorian of Champagne?

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Very much so. The first thing you see, of course, when you come into England is this great mass of chalk.

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And to a Frenchman arriving, thinking about champagne, chalk, well that's manna, that's terroir for champagne.

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And of course, this great seam of chalk goes up through the North

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Downs, and it turns to be facing broadly southwards, and south facing

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slopes that we see on the North Downs, that Bradshaw would have seen, is perfect terroir for Champagne.

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Kent is just 220 miles away from Champagne in France, so it's not

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so surprising that there are similarities between the regions.

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The cooler English climate actually works in the wine grower's favour,

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producing sharper, refreshing, less-alcoholic wines

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to suit tastes which have evolved since Bradshaw's day.

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Back in the Victorian era and perhaps earlier in the 20th century,

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we'd have been experiencing and wanting bigger, warmer, fleshier,

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more alcoholic wines, with different flavour profiles, different sweetnesses.

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Now, of course, people want acidity, freshness

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and low-alcohol, and that's exactly what English wines can provide.

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-These grapes here, what are they?

-This is chardonnay, grown in England.

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It'll go towards making great blanc de blancs sparkling wine.

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Do you want to try one? At this stage, what you'll get is mainly acids.

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You can get some other fruit in there, though.

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That acidity is what is going to make your mouth water.

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That's what we're going to need to make great sparkling wine.

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That's the very wine in fact that England's won one of world's greatest wines for.

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-Blanc de blancs?

-Yeah.

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In fact, one of our competitors did a fantastic job and produced

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a blanc de blancs sparkling wine in 2006,

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and it's beaten all competition from all over the world to make the best sparkling wine in the world.

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-Including French?

-Including French, New Zealand, everywhere else in the world.

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Hopefully, if Bradshaw was to write a book in 200 years' time,

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he'll say perhaps compare somewhere else to the great vineyards of south-east England.

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It would be wonderful.

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What distinguishes champagne and other sparkling wine is that it's fermented twice -

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once in the vat and again in the bottle, which creates the bubbles.

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Dom Perignon is often credited with inventing the process.

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In fact it was first documented in the 1660s

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by an Englishman, Christopher Merrit, in a paper for the Royal Society.

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So the wine's arrived here, the final part of the journey for a bottle of sparkling wine.

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It has arrived here upside-down, as the French call it, sur pointe.

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At sur pointe, all the yeast used to make the bubbles and the extra

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alcohol used to make the sparkling wine is condensed into a little crust at the bottom of the bottle.

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So it's upside down and, by the time we enter the machine here,

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it comes off the other end a perfect bottle of sparkling wine.

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Corked and caged, the wine bottles are then cleaned and labelled,

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and I'm curious to know what remains to be done.

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-How long after that before you can actually drink it?

-Straightaway.

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The moment it comes off this machine behind you it's drinkable.

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There's some debate about whether a month or two of cork age will do it

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any good, but essentially it's very drinkable - very, very drinkable - the moment it comes off this machine.

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Very drinkable, you say. Shall we put it to the test?

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More sparkling wine is sold here than in France and, for the first

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time, England is competing seriously in the international wine stakes.

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That's what I call a picnic basket!

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Well, let's hope you like the contents. Cheers.

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Cheers.

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Wow! Powerful taste of fruits. Mmm.

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It's a bang-on mouthful of flavour.

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Yeah. What am I getting?

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-Apple certainly.

-You're probably getting some apple.

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You're almost certainly getting some wild strawberries and maybe even a little bit of shortcake.

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I don't think my sample was quite big enough for me to get all the flavours.

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Shall we just top you up with a little bit more?

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Thank you.

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I even like the noise.

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Cheers again!

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Nicely stimulated by my glass of English fizz, I'm ready to

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find a hotel for the night, and my guidebook has a suggestion.

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Time for bed and, thanks to my Bradshaw's, I can continue the champagne life.

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He recommends Eastwell Park, this fantastic pile, which was the seat of the Earl of Winchilsea.

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He tells me it's the place where Richard Plantagenet, the last

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descendant of that royal household, breathed his last.

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The story is that the boy was told by his father, Richard III, just before

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his death at the Battle of Bosworth, to keep his identity a secret, so that he wouldn't face persecution.

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Bradshaw tells me that Richard Plantagenet

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"died in obscurity as a bricklayer to the family who lived here in 1550".

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Well, it's a good story.

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This may or may not be the last resting place

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of Richard III's illegitimate son, but it'll do splendidly as a resting place for me.

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-Good evening.

-Mr Portillo. Welcome to Eastwell Manor.

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Very good to see you. Have you got a room for me?

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Indeed. We have Broderick for you.

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I was hoping for Plantagenet.

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-It's a much nicer room on the grounds side of the manor.

-Thank you.

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Oh, yes! Suitably grand...

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And a vista over the formal gardens.

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One of the prettiest views in Kent.

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The next morning I'm moving on to the last leg of my journey.

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So it's back to Ashford to catch my final train.

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For the first time since I began my trip, I am on a diesel, not electric, train.

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I'm quitting Kent for Sussex, headed for one of the best known

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places on the British coast, Hastings, famous for 1066 and all that.

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I'm heading about 25 miles along the line towards the sea.

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'Now approaching Hastings.'

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Hastings. This was one of the first towns, along with Eastbourne and Ramsgate,

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to offer a service early on a Monday morning, so that London workers could get back to their offices.

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That gave rise to a new kind of holiday, from Saturday to Monday morning.

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It wasn't until 1870 that the Oxford dictionary recognised

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a new phenomenon, and entered for the first time the word "weekend".

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In the second half of the 19th century,

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weekend breaks by train became popular with middle-class Victorians.

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Hastings grew from a small fishing town to a lively seaside resort.

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"The openness of the coast" says Bradshaw, "and the smoothness

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"of the beach have long made Hastings a favourite resort.

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"The water's almost limpid and of that beautiful sea-green hue so inviting to bathers.

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"A very efficient substitute for a trip to Madeira."

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So scrap the package holiday and buy a train ticket.

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The railways didn't boost tourism alone.

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In the 1860s, as trains conveyed fresh herring to London, fishing flourished too.

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I'm heading to a famous area of the Hastings beach called The Stade to meet fisherman Budd White.

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-Hello, Budd!

-Hello, there.

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-Not interrupting?

-No, not at all.

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I go around using this 19th-century railway guide book.

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Your great-grandfather, your grandfather - do you think they

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were using the railways to send their fish elsewhere?

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They certainly were.

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I'm not certain of the dates - probably late 1800s - directly the rails were

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up and running to London

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they could get their mackerel from here to London

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early enough to get to market - I presume Billingsgate -

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and they got a much better price for several years.

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My great-grandfather did very well indeed.

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There's no harbour here so, on their return from fishing, the boats must be hauled onto the beach.

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From necessity, they tend to be smaller than elsewhere, as are their catches.

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People these days are very worried about sustainability.

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So your small catches presumably mean you're quite respectful of the fish stocks.

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Absolutely. Over the years, you're brought up with the fact that all the small fish is your future,

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so you get it back in the sea as quickly as possible.

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All the fish we return to the sea, with the exception of a very small percentage, is alive and survives.

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Your boats on the beach are part of what makes Hastings distinctive -

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picturesque.

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The other thing are the net lofts behind. Tell me about those.

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They were used originally for drying nets.

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When the likes of my great-grandfather and grandfather

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were fishing, for each type of fish they were catching, herrings, sprats, there was a different size mesh.

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They used to use the different floors of the sheds for particular nets.

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They'd have mackerel nets on the first floor, herring nets on the next floor, sprat nets on the next floor,

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because it wasn't that easy to tell one net from the other.

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These days, wider mesh nets are used to catch only mature fish.

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That's earned Hastings a sustainable fishing certificate from the Marine Stewardship Council.

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-Hello, there!

-Hello, Michael!

-What lovely-looking fish.

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-Thank you very much.

-What's local, then?

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Skate, plaice fillets, whiting...

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-All local?

-All local, yeah.

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Tell me about public taste.

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-Is there a change in public taste over the years?

-Definitely, yes.

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What are they into now?

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When I came and worked here with my mum and dad at 16, it was cod, haddock, plaice.

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That was the majority of it.

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Now, with people travelling so much,

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they see different things abroad, and they realise they can get it here in the UK.

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They realise that, see it on the counter,

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and are willing to try it, so we sell more and more of that stuff.

0:22:500:22:54

Would you say Hastings was a pretty good place to buy and eat fish?

0:22:540:22:57

Definitely. Yeah. A shop like ours - ten paces from the boat that caught a lot of this stuff.

0:22:570:23:04

Hastings has a lot to offer fish-wise. We get such a variety down here.

0:23:040:23:09

Before I leave Hastings, I'm setting out along the cliffs to

0:23:110:23:15

a place that became hugely popular with the Victorians, Fairlight Glen.

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It inspired a lyrical description in my guidebook.

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I wish I had more time here.

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Bradshaw says, "A week may be delightfully spent exploring the fairy-like nooks around Fairlight

0:23:270:23:34

"Glen, situated in a sweet umbrageous spot, down which, by narrow, winding

0:23:340:23:40

"steps, hewn out of the solid rock, one only can descend at a time."

0:23:400:23:46

I'm here to discover

0:23:460:23:48

a Victorian craze.

0:23:480:23:52

My guidebook displays symptoms of fern fever, an obsession with

0:23:520:23:57

feathery green plants that gripped the Victorians for several decades.

0:23:570:24:01

Fairlight Glen, with its secret forests and abundant ferns, captured the Victorian imagination.

0:24:010:24:08

I'm meeting garden historian Dr Sarah Whittingham to discover why.

0:24:080:24:13

Sarah, hello!

0:24:130:24:15

-Hello!

-Why did the Victorians have such a passion for ferns?

0:24:150:24:19

It was the heyday of natural history.

0:24:190:24:22

If they weren't hunting for ferns, they were out tapping rocks with hammers, trying to find fossils,

0:24:220:24:27

or catching butterflies or looking into rock pools, that sort of thing.

0:24:270:24:30

It was first time you got the middle classes, who had villas

0:24:300:24:35

and houses in the centre of town with a small garden they wanted to fill with plants and flowers.

0:24:350:24:41

Ferns were seen as magical plants with, some believed, the power to make you invisible.

0:24:410:24:46

Books identifying almost 2,000 varieties were published

0:24:460:24:51

to aid the fern-mad Victorians.

0:24:510:24:53

The craze even had a name, pteridomania.

0:24:530:24:57

The railways enabled amateur collectors to widen

0:24:570:24:59

their hunt for specimens and a fern by mail order business developed.

0:24:590:25:04

The light really is pretty and I can just imagine Victorians

0:25:040:25:07

getting on the railways and coming to remote-ish spots like this, looking for their ferns.

0:25:070:25:11

That's right, but they didn't have to come out to these places.

0:25:110:25:14

They could just buy their ferns from nurseries.

0:25:140:25:17

The nurseries would use the railways to send plants to the customers.

0:25:170:25:20

So the middle classes could buy whatever they needed for their gardens?

0:25:200:25:24

They could. They could buy ferns from a professional fern tout, and they certainly used the railways.

0:25:240:25:30

They would come out to places like this. They'd ransack the countryside.

0:25:300:25:34

They'd send up huge amounts of ferns in hampers, up to the towns.

0:25:340:25:39

They'd follow them up and then tout them door-to-door or sell them on street corners.

0:25:390:25:45

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

-Oh, yes.

0:25:450:25:50

-Definitely.

-But all those Victorians hoping to recreate a slice of

0:25:500:25:54

country life in their urban houses found it to be harder they thought.

0:25:540:25:58

So when Victorians take all their ferns back to their gardens, do they thrive

0:25:580:26:03

-in the city?

-No - that was the major problem.

0:26:030:26:06

Of course Victorian cities were very polluted.

0:26:060:26:09

Luckily, a doctor in the east end of London, Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward, who

0:26:090:26:13

was a very keen fern grower, found a way of successfully growing ferns.

0:26:130:26:18

He invented the Wardian case.

0:26:180:26:22

Which was what? A little kind of conservatory?

0:26:220:26:26

That's right. Like the terrariums popular in the in the 1960s and '70s.

0:26:260:26:30

They came in all shapes and styles, all sizes.

0:26:300:26:34

It became the thing to have in your drawing room in the 1850s.

0:26:340:26:38

Fern fever took root, and feathery leaves made their

0:26:380:26:42

appearance on wallpaper, tea cups and chamber pots.

0:26:420:26:46

Even in architecture they adorned columns and railings.

0:26:460:26:50

It's now time for me to leave the enchanted forest and Hastings.

0:26:540:26:57

I've reached the end of the line for this journey and

0:26:570:27:00

my trusty guidebook supplies me with a suitable way to say goodbye.

0:27:000:27:05

Bradshaw's commends the view "reaching from Beachy Head

0:27:050:27:09

"to Dover Cliffs, between 70 and 80 miles apart, and stretching out to the heights of Boulogne.

0:27:090:27:16

"The best time for seeing it is in the afternoon.

0:27:160:27:20

"Upon favourable atmospheric influences, it is a view never to be forgotten."

0:27:200:27:26

As I look back on my journey, I thank George Bradshaw for guiding

0:27:260:27:31

me from the heart of London to the cliff's edge,

0:27:310:27:35

from the nation's capital to the end of England.

0:27:350:27:39

On my next journey, I'll be travelling up the West

0:27:390:27:42

Coast of Scotland on a railway voted the world's most scenic.

0:27:420:27:47

Along the way, I'll be discovering how the

0:27:470:27:49

Victorians built a weather station atop Britain 's highest mountain.

0:27:490:27:54

People having to go up there and take the readings?

0:27:540:27:57

They didn't have to go up there, they had to live up there.

0:27:570:27:59

Finding out how the railways spread the word about whisky...

0:27:590:28:03

This is from pretty much the exact time the railways arrived in Oban.

0:28:030:28:07

I can see the railway here. Here's the station, here's a train puffing along.

0:28:070:28:11

And crossing a pioneering viaduct, one of Britain's most spectacular.

0:28:110:28:16

Somehow the wheels gripping the wet rails and now we're on the wonderful Glenfinnan viaduct.

0:28:160:28:23

Subtitles by Red Bee Media

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 of Bradshaw's Britain remains, as his journey goes through Kent, from London Bridge around the scenic south coast to Hastings.

Michael discovers a hardy breed of sheep on the atmospheric Romney Marsh, explores Kent's sparkling wine industry and finds out why the Victorians went mad for ferns in Hastings.