Dereham to Cromer Great British Railway Journeys


Dereham to Cromer

Michael Portillo drives a heritage diesel train, finds out why Norfolk black turkeys appeared on the Christmas menu in Bradshaw's day and samples some Cromer crab.


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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, 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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Over the last few days, I've been travelling on railway lines in Southeast England

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that got the Victorian middle classes on the move and opened up remote farmland.

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WHISTLE BLOWS

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With George Bradshaw's 19th-century guidebook whispering travel tips in my ear,

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I am now completing my journey that began on the south coast of Britain, and has brought me

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to the northern shores of Norfolk, and a vintage diesel, running on a heritage line out of Dereham.

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And indeed, one of the reasons I enjoy visiting Norfolk is to be reminded of the skill

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and effort that's required to put food on our plates.

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'Writing about this part of England, my Bradshaw's Guide makes very clear what Victorians liked to eat.

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'So along the way, I'll be finding out why a rare breed of turkey is making a modern comeback...'

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We start hatching here in April. That's a long time to Christmas,

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-and it takes a long time to finish them, so you're getting more of a moist meat.

-Roll on Christmas!

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'..sitting shakily in the driving seat...'

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I think I do need further lessons, I don't think that was a complete success! But it was very exciting.

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'..and seeing the crowds still drawn to a Victorian delicacy.'

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It saves the person doing the eating a lot of work, doesn't it?

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Of course, yeah. Not everybody knows how to dress a crab.

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And not everybody can dress a crab like Tracy!

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I'm almost at the end of my journey from Brighton through London

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and across the fens of Cambridgeshire.

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Having left King's Lynn, I'm now heading for East Dereham,

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before reaching the North Norfolk coast.

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Today, after taking the heritage line to Wymondham,

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I'll move on to Norwich and my final stop, the seaside town of Cromer.

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The first stretch of the route takes me away from the main line, along a rural Norfolk branch line.

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In Bradshaw's time, it was used to transport turkeys to market

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in London, earning its trains the nickname "the Turkey Express".

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Now, it's a heritage route, operating the last generation of diesels.

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Every smell, every sound, the roar of the diesel,

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the chug-chug across the railway lines, it's all so evocative of a form of rail travel now gone.

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I'm about to go and see the driver,

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Peter, and I've met him before.

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Peter Eyre has worked on this route for over 12 years.

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Peter. Good morning. How lovely to see you.

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It's been a while, hasn't it?

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It has, Michael, it has indeed.

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Can you remind me where it was that we met?

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We met in Hornsey EMU depot, when you presented me

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with the Minister's Cup for punctuality on the Great Northern out of King's Cross.

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And you absolutely deserved it, well done.

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-Well, those were electric trains you were driving then.

-Yes, yes.

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Now we're on a diesel, have you driven every sort of train?

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Virtually, yes.

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HORN BLARES

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So, Peter, this diesel multiple unit, this was being introduced when I was a kid, in the '50s.

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-Yes. That's right.

-And it was elbowing the steam engines aside.

-That's right.

-Was that a sad time?

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It was. It was into the unknown.

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A lot of the older drivers at that time, they really couldn't get used to it.

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And we had two or three incidents on the railway,

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where people actually committed suicide because of the pressure, they couldn't handle the change.

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-That's very sad, isn't it?

-It is.

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They just couldn't get their head round it.

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Right, now, I'm going to put you in the seat.

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So you get an idea of a bit of basics on what a driver's job was.

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Well, that's...

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OK, Peter, that's pretty daunting!

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Now, the first thing you've got to remember,

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-this is what they call the dead man's handle.

-Yes.

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You've got to keep it down, because if you release it,

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-between five and seven seconds, you'll get a brake application.

-Yeah.

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That is the most important thing.

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-Knock that right round to number one...

-One.

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..open up, and blow the horn.

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It seems like having to tickle the top of your head and play with your nose at the same time!

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-And then kick this into one...?

-Straight to the top.

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That's it.

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-Wow.

-Now, open the controller.

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That's it, yes, that's fine.

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Now, open the controller a bit, to give her some power.

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-You see the board on the right with the big red dot in it?

-Yeah.

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-Well, that is a stop signal.

-Right.

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And that's where we shall stop.

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Now, gradually bring the brake round towards you.

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A bit more, keep going.

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Bit more.

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-That was a bit of a sharp pull-up, wasn't it?

-If we were doing this for real,

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the public would be really having a go. They'd say, "Who's driving that?

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"You've just spilt my tea."

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Yes. I think I do need further lessons. I don't think that was a complete success!

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But it was very exciting indeed.

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I'll tell them George Bradshaw was driving!

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Yes, that's right.

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I've more or less safely delivered myself to Thuxton,

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which though tiny, scores a mention in Bradshaw's Guide.

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Bradshaw says of North and Northeast Norfolk that, with its sandy and gravelly soil,

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"it is peculiarly salubrious and pleasant".

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And it isn't just human beings that find it so.

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'Turkeys have also thrived here. The mild Norfolk climate has

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'for centuries made it an ideal place to breed them.

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'But the trade really took off in the 1870s, when the railways were completed.

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'I've come to explore the origins of the turkey business

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'and first, I'm meeting Bob Curson,

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'who's spent over 60 years in the industry.'

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That is a magnificent car.

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'Bob, who's now retired, has clearly come to pick me up in style.'

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-In your day, how did turkeys get to the people who wanted to eat them?

-All by rail.

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They were all sent to Liverpool Street, all over the country, really.

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Were you putting your turkeys onto passenger trains?

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Yes, oh yes.

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You couldn't have them hanging about on a goods train, could you?

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-No.

-Otherwise they'd be gone off before they got there!

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-Do you remember taking them down to the station?

-Oh, yes, yes.

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-I'm on the photograph, you see?

-Can I see that?

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Yeah, of course you can.

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There's something written on the back.

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-1954.

-1954 that is, yes.

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"Consignment of oven-ready turkeys, packed in crates to go by train from Thuxton station to London.

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"Bob Curson by the tractor."

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-That's you!

-Yes.

-That's a fantastic photo. Thank you for showing it to me.

-That's all right. My pleasure.

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Are we travelling to the farm in your car?

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If you'll take a chance on it!

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I'll take a chance on it! Fabulous. Wow!

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This is quite an experience for me.

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Bob's taking me to the farm where he used to work.

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I'll be meeting a local family who've been breeding turkeys

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since the poultry trains began running in the 19th century.

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-Good morning, Pat!

-Good morning.

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-How lovely to be here.

-Nice to see you.

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-What a lovely farm.

-Yes.

-And it's your family farm?

-Yes, it is.

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My father always called it "the home of the Norfolk Blacks".

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The Norfolk Black is the oldest breed of turkey in the country.

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Pat and her son, James, run one of the few farms still rearing them in the traditional way.

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Right, well here we see James, he's now going to feed...

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-Hello, James.

-Hello, Michael.

-Very nice to see you.

-And you.

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-This is the Norfolk Black turkey?

-This is the Norfolk Black turkey, that's right.

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-But it's not really from Norfolk?

-No. Originally it came from South America.

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And then arrived in the early 1500s, it arrived in Europe and obviously

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King Henry VIII was first English king to have turkey at his banquets.

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Along with peacocks and pheasants and various other game,

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because it was a game bird,

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and it is still a game bird that we have here today.

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By Victorian times, turkey had become a popular choice for Christmas dinner,

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thanks to the railways and because it featured in Charles Dickens's popular tale, A Christmas Carol.

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In the 20th century, farmers began crossbreeding turkeys to make bigger, faster-growing birds.

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The traditional Norfolk Black was almost extinct when,

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in the 1930s, James's grandfather built up a new flock of pedigree birds.

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You should look at a pure Norfolk Black turkey as a very angular

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type of bird.

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It shouldn't be very round and roly-poly.

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The other varieties grow a lot quicker,

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therefore they need less time to rear and feed and labour and everything else.

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These guys here, we start hatching here in April.

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That's a long time to Christmas, and it obviously takes a long time to finish them.

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So therefore you get more of a moist meat.

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James's birds roam outside for most of the year,

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fed with grain grown on the farm.

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This year, he's rearing 2,500, as the breed is popular

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with those seeking a distinctive Christmas treat.

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I have to ask you, when you sit down to your Christmas lunch,

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-what do you eat?

-Turkey!

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-Turkey?

-Unfortunately, yes!

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I don't know how you can bear the sight of it by then!

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Well, it's a bit early to take a Christmas turkey, so I'm leaving empty-handed,

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as I continue my journey back on the main line.

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This is Wymondham station. On my travels, I've seen many

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good-looking stations, but this one really is beautiful,

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and it looks almost as much like a garden as a railway station.

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I have arrived ahead of time, to explore the station cafe.

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It's been voted one of the top ten station eateries in the UK.

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It's absolutely glorious. The whole thing is not so much

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like a first-class lounge as a first-class compartment.

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Complete with luggage racks.

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-Can I help you, sir?

-Hello.

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It's absolutely beautiful in here.

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Are you responsible for this?

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For my sins, yes, I am.

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It's rather a dream that's come true, actually.

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23 years ago, I took on this building, which was absolutely redundant

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and in a dreadful state of repair, and put a lot of money into it

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and resurrected it to what you see now.

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With the theme Brief Encounter.

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-But it's still a railway station?

-Oh, yes.

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A very important station now, complete with ticket office, screening,

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cameras and announcements, et cetera.

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So is the railway happy that you've done this terrific job?

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I think they are. They never interfere with anybody, and I've had nothing but respect

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-from all departments.

-I'm just going to have a cup of tea, please.

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-Jolly good. It's been a great pleasure to talk to you, sir.

-Great to see you. Bye-bye.

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After a refreshing cup of tea, it's time to catch my next train.

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I'm heading ten miles along the tracks to this county's capital, Norwich.

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Whenever I go to Norwich,

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I'm struck by the quality of its architecture.

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It's got lots of really splendid old buildings.

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Obviously the cathedral and the castle, but also many fine houses.

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And it's all testimony to the fact that once, it was one of Britain's most prosperous cities.

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In fact, Norwich is home to what was, in Bradshaw's era, one of Britain's premier banks - Gurney's.

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It's mentioned several times in my guide.

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-Hello, Anthony. Michael.

-How do you do?

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Good to see you.

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'Historian Anthony Howe is waiting for me

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'outside the bank's old headquarters.'

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I wanted to meet you here because I was intrigued by something in my Bradshaw's Guide.

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It says on Bank Plain, which is apparently where we are, is Gurney's Bank,

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"established by an old Norfolk family, equally known for their good works and philanthropy."

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It's an impressive spot for their bank, isn't it?

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Absolutely. This spot, I think, reflects the stature of the family,

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both within the business community and within the city and the region.

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They were not only outstanding businessmen,

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but also of great importance in terms of philanthropy and other good works,

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in terms of anti-slavery, support for religion,

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prison reform, and even the setting up of Liberia.

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Bradshaw's recommends Gurney's as a place to take out cash

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along your travels.

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But immediately after the guide was published,

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the Gurneys were involved in the biggest financial crash in history.

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One branch of the family diversified into funding credit in the City of London.

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They set up this new bank, Overend Gurney, and it was that bank which was involved in a crisis.

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This was a period of a global financial boom,

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and so they start putting money into shipping, shipbuilding.

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They do invest in extending some of the suburban railways in London.

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The bank began to buy risky new investments,

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including railway stock.

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Railway shares boomed in the 1860s, but were hugely overvalued.

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When the bubble burst in 1866, panicking shareholders prompted a run on the bank.

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So, the bank actually fails?

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People are out there in the street, demanding their money back?

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Absolutely. The day after, there's pandemonium in the City of London.

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Not just knocking on Gurney's doors, but on the doors of all the banks,

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because the fear was that every bank was going to come down. They became too speculative and, in 1866,

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they found that they were no longer able to fund all their projects.

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Effectively, they were bankrupt.

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This offshoot of Gurney's bank collapsed, owing the equivalent in today's money of almost £1 billion.

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It led to a new role for the Bank of England,

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which, from then on, agreed to rescue the banking system if it failed.

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This has a very modern feel about, this story, doesn't it?

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Absolutely, yes.

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It was the product of speculation and greed.

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And so it was a moral lesson for the City of London that was learnt.

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Intrigued by stories of economic calamity,

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I've sought a place to stay,

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connected with the Norfolk banking family.

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When the prudent Gurneys were building up their banking business in the 18th century,

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they had an elegant Norwich townhouse built for them.

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It's now a bed and breakfast, and the place that I've decided to spend the night.

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Morning has broken in Norwich.

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My Bradshaw's Guide refers to mustard seed under Cambridgeshire.

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But I remember, as a kid, it was my job to mix up the mustard powder

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with a little water for our roast beef on Sunday.

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And I couldn't help noticing that the product came from Norwich.

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And so 50 years later, I couldn't leave the city without discovering the home of mustard.

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While investment in the railways almost brought down Gurney's Bank,

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the trains boosted the fortunes of this industry.

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I'm heading to the site of Colman's Mustard factory.

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Thanks to its proximity to the railways in the 19th century,

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this company grew rapidly from a small local business to a national giant.

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I'm now clearly at the business end of the manufacturing process.

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I've got an appointment with Mick, the miller, and I'm going to find him somewhere up there.

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Hello, Mick, fantastic view, isn't it?

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Fantastic, Michael. Welcome.

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From the top of these towering silos, I can survey a whole area

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of the city bought by Jeremiah Colman in the mid-1800s.

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He needed to actually get a site where you'd got more interest in the transport side of things.

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What were the transport links at this site?

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Well, the railway, for a start-off, the main railway, which was really expanding in those days.

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And he then contacted the Norfolk Railway Company

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and bought this piece of land, that we are actually on now, in 1850.

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'This was the first large-scale mustard producer in Britain

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'and the business quickly spread across the site.

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'By 1885, an internal network of trains shuttled up to 250 tons

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'of finished product a week away from the factory, and vast volumes of mustard seed into it.'

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It feels like we've come to the very heart of things here.

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Yes, you're now in the nerve centre of the mustard mill.

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This is where we produce the mustard flour from the seed, through what we call the roller mills, here.

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-I can see the powder pouring through.

-Yes.

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In between each one of these rollers is a gigantic sifting machine,

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which separates the different grades of flour.

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I imagine that even if the process has changed,

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-the product is similar to what the Victorians would have known?

-Oh, yes, most definitely, yes.

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'What makes English mustard distinctive is the mix of brown

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'and white seed, unlike French Dijon, which uses only brown,

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'and its smooth texture.

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'In 1720, a Mrs Clement from Durham

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'discovered how to make the characteristic English fine ground powder that we know and love today.'

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When I was a kid, it was always powdered mustard. I don't remember the jars of ready-made mustard.

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No, they came into being in the 1960s.

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They wanted a convenience mustard, so in actual fact, they made what we call a ready-mixed jar of mustard.

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Once you open it, you can put it back in the fridge and it's all made for you.

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So when I was mixing mustard as a kid, it wasn't because I was from a deprived family,

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-they hadn't invented the ready-made mustard yet!

-No, not until the '60s, Michael.

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-Up until then, it was all powdered mustard.

-That dates me, then!

-And me!

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Now, though, it's time to leave Norwich for the final leg of my journey,

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heading out towards the coast.

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1:45, platform six.

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My final destination, Cromer.

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I'm now bound around 27 miles along the line towards the seaside.

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My journey started in Brighton, a resort within easy striking distance of London.

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And now I'm headed for Cromer, another much-loved holiday destination.

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But on the North Norfolk coast,

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you get an idea of the power and the beauty of nature.

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It's altogether more remote, more wild.

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When the railways arrived, trainloads of Victorians came to enjoy the beaches.

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New hotels, guest houses and businesses soon sprang up,

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turning Cromer into a bustling resort.

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According to my Bradshaw's, Cromer is "a pleasant bathing place on the cliffs of the North Sea.

0:21:380:21:44

"Crabs and lobsters are got." Yummy!

0:21:440:21:49

It seems that Cromer's famous seafood is as popular as it was in Bradshaw's day.

0:21:550:22:01

Delicious-looking crabs.

0:22:010:22:03

-Yes.

-What's the Cromer crab? Why is it different from other crabs?

0:22:030:22:07

Why is it different to other people's? The water is shallow, they live on a flinty, chalky bottom.

0:22:070:22:12

And there's not a heavy density of water pressure on top of them,

0:22:120:22:16

so the meat is that much sweeter.

0:22:160:22:18

Have you been in business long?

0:22:180:22:20

Yeah, a little while. A little while. About eight generations.

0:22:200:22:23

-You're not serious? Really?

-Yes, I am serious! Yes.

0:22:230:22:26

-What, selling crabs?

-Yes, catching and selling crabs, yes.

0:22:260:22:29

-Catching them too?

-Yes.

-Do you do the catching?

-Yes. Yeah.

0:22:290:22:32

I'm not normally in the shop. My wife Claire runs the shop.

0:22:320:22:35

-Hello.

-But yes, I'm mainly at sea, I catch the crabs.

0:22:350:22:39

Then what do you do? Because you sell them dressed, don't you?

0:22:390:22:43

Well, we sell boiled, dressed, boiled crabs, dressed crabs, very few live crabs nowadays.

0:22:430:22:47

Of course, years ago, all the live crabs,

0:22:470:22:50

-straight on the trains and off to Norwich, London, all over the place.

-Really?

0:22:500:22:54

-They went down live, did they?

-Yeah, all live, yeah.

-Alive-alive-oh!

-Yes!

0:22:540:22:58

'On a good day, up to 200 crabs are prepared in this shop,

0:23:000:23:05

'and I can't wait to taste their delicious meat.'

0:23:050:23:08

-So these crabs have been boiled first, have they?

-Yes, they were caught and boiled this morning.

0:23:080:23:14

A dressed crab, the ideal thing is to have the different meats, the dark meat, the white meat?

0:23:140:23:19

Yeah, you've got the brown meat, which is more a creamy, yellowy meat, and then the white meat on the top.

0:23:190:23:25

Is that all from one crab, or more than one together?

0:23:250:23:29

No. That's all from one crab.

0:23:290:23:30

It saves the person eating it a lot of work, doesn't it?

0:23:300:23:34

Yeah. Not everybody knows how to dress a crab. And not everybody can dress a crab like Tracy!

0:23:340:23:39

Tracy, you're doing that with amazing skill.

0:23:390:23:41

-I guess you've been doing that a while. How long have you been doing it?

-About 27 years.

0:23:410:23:46

Wow. Are you the most experienced crab-dresser that you know?

0:23:460:23:51

-No.

-No?!

-No.

0:23:510:23:52

-I should imagine there's more out there.

-Really?

-Yes..

0:23:520:23:55

She's definitely our most experienced crab-dresser!

0:23:550:23:58

That looks absolutely fantastic. Look at that.

0:23:580:24:01

'Since Victorian times, this is how Cromer crabs have been dressed.'

0:24:010:24:06

Mmm. Completely fresh.

0:24:080:24:10

Absolutely beautiful. Mmm!

0:24:100:24:13

-Worth the train ride, do you think?

-Worth the train ride.

0:24:130:24:17

Tastes of the sea.

0:24:170:24:19

Isn't that wonderful?

0:24:190:24:21

Although the sea provides Cromer's livelihood, it's also a threat to the town.

0:24:240:24:29

The situation became desperate in the 19th century and is even documented in my Bradshaw's Guide.

0:24:290:24:36

I'm hoping coastal engineer Peter Frew can tell me more.

0:24:360:24:39

-Hello, Peter!

-Hi, Michael.

0:24:390:24:41

What a wonderful view we have today, don't we?

0:24:410:24:45

We do. Beautiful beach, beautiful weather.

0:24:450:24:47

Now, my Bradshaw's Guide says that Cromer is suffering from "the encroachments of the North Sea",

0:24:470:24:53

"by which the land is fast swallowed up, and converted into dangerous shoals".

0:24:530:24:58

-I'm guessing we're standing on a Victorian sea defence, is that right?

-Yes, we are.

0:24:580:25:02

These defences were built in 1845,

0:25:020:25:06

in response to the erosion they were experiencing.

0:25:060:25:10

The walls in Cromer were built... The starting point was mid-1830s,

0:25:100:25:16

some more again in 1845, and some more again right at the end of the century, 1899, 1900.

0:25:160:25:23

In the 19th century, Cromer was so devastated by erosion

0:25:250:25:29

that cliffs, a jetty and even a lighthouse, were washed away.

0:25:290:25:32

This blossoming seaside resort faced disaster.

0:25:320:25:37

The Victorians' solution was to build these massive sea walls.

0:25:370:25:41

And were they effective? Did they keep the sea at bay?

0:25:430:25:46

Yes, they did.

0:25:460:25:47

The terraces we've got above us here today would not be there,

0:25:470:25:53

had not the Victorians built these defences.

0:25:530:25:56

They built in the Victorian way, strong, and for the long term?

0:25:560:25:59

Yes, they did.

0:25:590:26:00

These impressive, Grade II-listed walls may have saved the town,

0:26:000:26:06

but further along the coast, I can see just how destructive the sea is.

0:26:060:26:13

There have been cliff falls along here, and we can see one of those on the beach there, which has come down,

0:26:130:26:19

ended up on the beach, the sea then has started to erode it away.

0:26:190:26:25

And over this stretch of coast here,

0:26:250:26:27

we've lost probably four or five metres in the last three or four years.

0:26:270:26:31

So is there a move now to build more Victorian-style defences?

0:26:310:26:36

Where we've got towns, we will be building defences.

0:26:360:26:39

Where we haven't got towns, we're moving towards saying, "Nature maybe had the right idea."

0:26:390:26:45

A good beach is a good defence. The Victorians weren't wrong,

0:26:450:26:49

they did a good job with what they did do.

0:26:490:26:52

But perhaps our understanding now, the way the sea behaves,

0:26:520:26:56

the way the coast then behaves with the action of the sea, means that maybe we're changing our views.

0:26:560:27:01

Having followed my Bradshaw's Guide across the country,

0:27:040:27:07

I find evidence all around of the enduring Victorian legacy.

0:27:070:27:11

Modern customs and modern architecture

0:27:110:27:13

have transformed our towns, but at their core, they are unmistakably Victorian.

0:27:130:27:19

My journey from Brighton has taken me from coast to coast.

0:27:200:27:25

The railways joined up the once-remote places in between,

0:27:250:27:28

with results both good and bad.

0:27:280:27:31

I've been struck by how small our island is.

0:27:310:27:34

And it was a thought that bedazzled the Victorians,

0:27:340:27:37

that little Britain could be the most powerful nation on Earth.

0:27:370:27:41

For in those days, Britannia ruled the waves.

0:27:410:27:44

But for many Victorians,

0:27:440:27:46

British coastal resorts were the limits of their ambitions.

0:27:460:27:50

And on a day like today, you feel they weren't missing very much.

0:27:500:27:54

'On my next journey, I'll be following the route of the Irish Mail, travelling north from Ledbury,

0:27:570:28:03

'through Wales to Holyhead, on the Isle of Anglesey.

0:28:030:28:08

'Along the way, I'll be scaling Wales's highest peak, Mount Snowdon...'

0:28:090:28:14

It's magnificent! It's really imposing.

0:28:140:28:19

'..uncovering a hidden chemical weapons plant...'

0:28:190:28:23

We're probably looking at the Second World War's most secret building in Britain.

0:28:230:28:28

In 1942-43, there was nowhere more secret in the world than this.

0:28:280:28:32

'..and admiring the world's first iron bridge.'

0:28:320:28:35

-Where would I have to go to see it?

-Just down the bottom.

0:28:350:28:39

It's amazing! You'll love it.

0:28:390:28:40

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:460:28:49

E-mail [email protected]

0:28:490:28:52

Michael Portillo takes to the tracks with a copy of George Bradshaw's Victorian Railway Guidebook. In a series of five epic journeys, Portillo travels the length and breadth of the country to see how the railways changed us and what of Bradshaw's Britain remains.

On a journey taking him coast to coast from Brighton to Cromer, Michael gets the rare chance to drive a heritage diesel train, finds out why Norfolk black turkeys appeared on the Christmas menu in Bradshaw's day and samples some classic Cromer crab.


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