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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In 1840, one man transformed travel in Britain.
His name was George Bradshaw and his railway guides inspired the Victorians to take to the tracks.
Stop by stop, he told them where to travel, what to see, and where to stay.
Now, 170 years later, I'm making a series of journeys across the length
and breadth of the country, to see what of Bradshaw's Britain remains.
Over the last few days, I've been travelling on railway lines in Southeast England
that got the Victorian middle classes on the move and opened up remote farmland.
With George Bradshaw's 19th-century guidebook whispering travel tips in my ear,
I am now completing my journey that began on the south coast of Britain, and has brought me
to the northern shores of Norfolk, and a vintage diesel, running on a heritage line out of Dereham.
And indeed, one of the reasons I enjoy visiting Norfolk is to be reminded of the skill
and effort that's required to put food on our plates.
'Writing about this part of England, my Bradshaw's Guide makes very clear what Victorians liked to eat.
'So along the way, I'll be finding out why a rare breed of turkey is making a modern comeback...'
We start hatching here in April. That's a long time to Christmas,
-and it takes a long time to finish them, so you're getting more of a moist meat.
-Roll on Christmas!
'..sitting shakily in the driving seat...'
I think I do need further lessons, I don't think that was a complete success! But it was very exciting.
'..and seeing the crowds still drawn to a Victorian delicacy.'
It saves the person doing the eating a lot of work, doesn't it?
Of course, yeah. Not everybody knows how to dress a crab.
And not everybody can dress a crab like Tracy!
I'm almost at the end of my journey from Brighton through London
and across the fens of Cambridgeshire.
Having left King's Lynn, I'm now heading for East Dereham,
before reaching the North Norfolk coast.
Today, after taking the heritage line to Wymondham,
I'll move on to Norwich and my final stop, the seaside town of Cromer.
The first stretch of the route takes me away from the main line, along a rural Norfolk branch line.
In Bradshaw's time, it was used to transport turkeys to market
in London, earning its trains the nickname "the Turkey Express".
Now, it's a heritage route, operating the last generation of diesels.
Every smell, every sound, the roar of the diesel,
the chug-chug across the railway lines, it's all so evocative of a form of rail travel now gone.
I'm about to go and see the driver,
Peter, and I've met him before.
Peter Eyre has worked on this route for over 12 years.
Peter. Good morning. How lovely to see you.
It's been a while, hasn't it?
It has, Michael, it has indeed.
Can you remind me where it was that we met?
We met in Hornsey EMU depot, when you presented me
with the Minister's Cup for punctuality on the Great Northern out of King's Cross.
And you absolutely deserved it, well done.
-Well, those were electric trains you were driving then.
Now we're on a diesel, have you driven every sort of train?
So, Peter, this diesel multiple unit, this was being introduced when I was a kid, in the '50s.
-Yes. That's right.
-And it was elbowing the steam engines aside.
-Was that a sad time?
It was. It was into the unknown.
A lot of the older drivers at that time, they really couldn't get used to it.
And we had two or three incidents on the railway,
where people actually committed suicide because of the pressure, they couldn't handle the change.
-That's very sad, isn't it?
They just couldn't get their head round it.
Right, now, I'm going to put you in the seat.
So you get an idea of a bit of basics on what a driver's job was.
OK, Peter, that's pretty daunting!
Now, the first thing you've got to remember,
-this is what they call the dead man's handle.
You've got to keep it down, because if you release it,
-between five and seven seconds, you'll get a brake application.
That is the most important thing.
-Knock that right round to number one...
..open up, and blow the horn.
It seems like having to tickle the top of your head and play with your nose at the same time!
-And then kick this into one...?
-Straight to the top.
-Now, open the controller.
That's it, yes, that's fine.
Now, open the controller a bit, to give her some power.
-You see the board on the right with the big red dot in it?
-Well, that is a stop signal.
And that's where we shall stop.
Now, gradually bring the brake round towards you.
A bit more, keep going.
-That was a bit of a sharp pull-up, wasn't it?
-If we were doing this for real,
the public would be really having a go. They'd say, "Who's driving that?
"You've just spilt my tea."
Yes. I think I do need further lessons. I don't think that was a complete success!
But it was very exciting indeed.
I'll tell them George Bradshaw was driving!
Yes, that's right.
I've more or less safely delivered myself to Thuxton,
which though tiny, scores a mention in Bradshaw's Guide.
Bradshaw says of North and Northeast Norfolk that, with its sandy and gravelly soil,
"it is peculiarly salubrious and pleasant".
And it isn't just human beings that find it so.
'Turkeys have also thrived here. The mild Norfolk climate has
'for centuries made it an ideal place to breed them.
'But the trade really took off in the 1870s, when the railways were completed.
'I've come to explore the origins of the turkey business
'and first, I'm meeting Bob Curson,
'who's spent over 60 years in the industry.'
That is a magnificent car.
'Bob, who's now retired, has clearly come to pick me up in style.'
-In your day, how did turkeys get to the people who wanted to eat them?
-All by rail.
They were all sent to Liverpool Street, all over the country, really.
Were you putting your turkeys onto passenger trains?
Yes, oh yes.
You couldn't have them hanging about on a goods train, could you?
-Otherwise they'd be gone off before they got there!
-Do you remember taking them down to the station?
-Oh, yes, yes.
-I'm on the photograph, you see?
-Can I see that?
Yeah, of course you can.
There's something written on the back.
-1954 that is, yes.
"Consignment of oven-ready turkeys, packed in crates to go by train from Thuxton station to London.
"Bob Curson by the tractor."
-That's a fantastic photo. Thank you for showing it to me.
-That's all right. My pleasure.
Are we travelling to the farm in your car?
If you'll take a chance on it!
I'll take a chance on it! Fabulous. Wow!
This is quite an experience for me.
Bob's taking me to the farm where he used to work.
I'll be meeting a local family who've been breeding turkeys
since the poultry trains began running in the 19th century.
-Good morning, Pat!
-How lovely to be here.
-Nice to see you.
-What a lovely farm.
-And it's your family farm?
-Yes, it is.
My father always called it "the home of the Norfolk Blacks".
The Norfolk Black is the oldest breed of turkey in the country.
Pat and her son, James, run one of the few farms still rearing them in the traditional way.
Right, well here we see James, he's now going to feed...
-Very nice to see you.
-This is the Norfolk Black turkey?
-This is the Norfolk Black turkey, that's right.
-But it's not really from Norfolk?
-No. Originally it came from South America.
And then arrived in the early 1500s, it arrived in Europe and obviously
King Henry VIII was first English king to have turkey at his banquets.
Along with peacocks and pheasants and various other game,
because it was a game bird,
and it is still a game bird that we have here today.
By Victorian times, turkey had become a popular choice for Christmas dinner,
thanks to the railways and because it featured in Charles Dickens's popular tale, A Christmas Carol.
In the 20th century, farmers began crossbreeding turkeys to make bigger, faster-growing birds.
The traditional Norfolk Black was almost extinct when,
in the 1930s, James's grandfather built up a new flock of pedigree birds.
You should look at a pure Norfolk Black turkey as a very angular
type of bird.
It shouldn't be very round and roly-poly.
The other varieties grow a lot quicker,
therefore they need less time to rear and feed and labour and everything else.
These guys here, we start hatching here in April.
That's a long time to Christmas, and it obviously takes a long time to finish them.
So therefore you get more of a moist meat.
James's birds roam outside for most of the year,
fed with grain grown on the farm.
This year, he's rearing 2,500, as the breed is popular
with those seeking a distinctive Christmas treat.
I have to ask you, when you sit down to your Christmas lunch,
-what do you eat?
I don't know how you can bear the sight of it by then!
Well, it's a bit early to take a Christmas turkey, so I'm leaving empty-handed,
as I continue my journey back on the main line.
This is Wymondham station. On my travels, I've seen many
good-looking stations, but this one really is beautiful,
and it looks almost as much like a garden as a railway station.
I have arrived ahead of time, to explore the station cafe.
It's been voted one of the top ten station eateries in the UK.
It's absolutely glorious. The whole thing is not so much
like a first-class lounge as a first-class compartment.
Complete with luggage racks.
-Can I help you, sir?
It's absolutely beautiful in here.
Are you responsible for this?
For my sins, yes, I am.
It's rather a dream that's come true, actually.
23 years ago, I took on this building, which was absolutely redundant
and in a dreadful state of repair, and put a lot of money into it
and resurrected it to what you see now.
With the theme Brief Encounter.
-But it's still a railway station?
A very important station now, complete with ticket office, screening,
cameras and announcements, et cetera.
So is the railway happy that you've done this terrific job?
I think they are. They never interfere with anybody, and I've had nothing but respect
-from all departments.
-I'm just going to have a cup of tea, please.
-Jolly good. It's been a great pleasure to talk to you, sir.
-Great to see you. Bye-bye.
After a refreshing cup of tea, it's time to catch my next train.
I'm heading ten miles along the tracks to this county's capital, Norwich.
Whenever I go to Norwich,
I'm struck by the quality of its architecture.
It's got lots of really splendid old buildings.
Obviously the cathedral and the castle, but also many fine houses.
And it's all testimony to the fact that once, it was one of Britain's most prosperous cities.
In fact, Norwich is home to what was, in Bradshaw's era, one of Britain's premier banks - Gurney's.
It's mentioned several times in my guide.
-Hello, Anthony. Michael.
-How do you do?
Good to see you.
'Historian Anthony Howe is waiting for me
'outside the bank's old headquarters.'
I wanted to meet you here because I was intrigued by something in my Bradshaw's Guide.
It says on Bank Plain, which is apparently where we are, is Gurney's Bank,
"established by an old Norfolk family, equally known for their good works and philanthropy."
It's an impressive spot for their bank, isn't it?
Absolutely. This spot, I think, reflects the stature of the family,
both within the business community and within the city and the region.
They were not only outstanding businessmen,
but also of great importance in terms of philanthropy and other good works,
in terms of anti-slavery, support for religion,
prison reform, and even the setting up of Liberia.
Bradshaw's recommends Gurney's as a place to take out cash
along your travels.
But immediately after the guide was published,
the Gurneys were involved in the biggest financial crash in history.
One branch of the family diversified into funding credit in the City of London.
They set up this new bank, Overend Gurney, and it was that bank which was involved in a crisis.
This was a period of a global financial boom,
and so they start putting money into shipping, shipbuilding.
They do invest in extending some of the suburban railways in London.
The bank began to buy risky new investments,
including railway stock.
Railway shares boomed in the 1860s, but were hugely overvalued.
When the bubble burst in 1866, panicking shareholders prompted a run on the bank.
So, the bank actually fails?
People are out there in the street, demanding their money back?
Absolutely. The day after, there's pandemonium in the City of London.
Not just knocking on Gurney's doors, but on the doors of all the banks,
because the fear was that every bank was going to come down. They became too speculative and, in 1866,
they found that they were no longer able to fund all their projects.
Effectively, they were bankrupt.
This offshoot of Gurney's bank collapsed, owing the equivalent in today's money of almost £1 billion.
It led to a new role for the Bank of England,
which, from then on, agreed to rescue the banking system if it failed.
This has a very modern feel about, this story, doesn't it?
It was the product of speculation and greed.
And so it was a moral lesson for the City of London that was learnt.
Intrigued by stories of economic calamity,
I've sought a place to stay,
connected with the Norfolk banking family.
When the prudent Gurneys were building up their banking business in the 18th century,
they had an elegant Norwich townhouse built for them.
It's now a bed and breakfast, and the place that I've decided to spend the night.
Morning has broken in Norwich.
My Bradshaw's Guide refers to mustard seed under Cambridgeshire.
But I remember, as a kid, it was my job to mix up the mustard powder
with a little water for our roast beef on Sunday.
And I couldn't help noticing that the product came from Norwich.
And so 50 years later, I couldn't leave the city without discovering the home of mustard.
While investment in the railways almost brought down Gurney's Bank,
the trains boosted the fortunes of this industry.
I'm heading to the site of Colman's Mustard factory.
Thanks to its proximity to the railways in the 19th century,
this company grew rapidly from a small local business to a national giant.
I'm now clearly at the business end of the manufacturing process.
I've got an appointment with Mick, the miller, and I'm going to find him somewhere up there.
Hello, Mick, fantastic view, isn't it?
Fantastic, Michael. Welcome.
From the top of these towering silos, I can survey a whole area
of the city bought by Jeremiah Colman in the mid-1800s.
He needed to actually get a site where you'd got more interest in the transport side of things.
What were the transport links at this site?
Well, the railway, for a start-off, the main railway, which was really expanding in those days.
And he then contacted the Norfolk Railway Company
and bought this piece of land, that we are actually on now, in 1850.
'This was the first large-scale mustard producer in Britain
'and the business quickly spread across the site.
'By 1885, an internal network of trains shuttled up to 250 tons
'of finished product a week away from the factory, and vast volumes of mustard seed into it.'
It feels like we've come to the very heart of things here.
Yes, you're now in the nerve centre of the mustard mill.
This is where we produce the mustard flour from the seed, through what we call the roller mills, here.
-I can see the powder pouring through.
In between each one of these rollers is a gigantic sifting machine,
which separates the different grades of flour.
I imagine that even if the process has changed,
-the product is similar to what the Victorians would have known?
-Oh, yes, most definitely, yes.
'What makes English mustard distinctive is the mix of brown
'and white seed, unlike French Dijon, which uses only brown,
'and its smooth texture.
'In 1720, a Mrs Clement from Durham
'discovered how to make the characteristic English fine ground powder that we know and love today.'
When I was a kid, it was always powdered mustard. I don't remember the jars of ready-made mustard.
No, they came into being in the 1960s.
They wanted a convenience mustard, so in actual fact, they made what we call a ready-mixed jar of mustard.
Once you open it, you can put it back in the fridge and it's all made for you.
So when I was mixing mustard as a kid, it wasn't because I was from a deprived family,
-they hadn't invented the ready-made mustard yet!
-No, not until the '60s, Michael.
-Up until then, it was all powdered mustard.
-That dates me, then!
Now, though, it's time to leave Norwich for the final leg of my journey,
heading out towards the coast.
1:45, platform six.
My final destination, Cromer.
I'm now bound around 27 miles along the line towards the seaside.
My journey started in Brighton, a resort within easy striking distance of London.
And now I'm headed for Cromer, another much-loved holiday destination.
But on the North Norfolk coast,
you get an idea of the power and the beauty of nature.
It's altogether more remote, more wild.
When the railways arrived, trainloads of Victorians came to enjoy the beaches.
New hotels, guest houses and businesses soon sprang up,
turning Cromer into a bustling resort.
According to my Bradshaw's, Cromer is "a pleasant bathing place on the cliffs of the North Sea.
"Crabs and lobsters are got." Yummy!
It seems that Cromer's famous seafood is as popular as it was in Bradshaw's day.
-What's the Cromer crab? Why is it different from other crabs?
Why is it different to other people's? The water is shallow, they live on a flinty, chalky bottom.
And there's not a heavy density of water pressure on top of them,
so the meat is that much sweeter.
Have you been in business long?
Yeah, a little while. A little while. About eight generations.
-You're not serious? Really?
-Yes, I am serious! Yes.
-What, selling crabs?
-Yes, catching and selling crabs, yes.
-Catching them too?
-Do you do the catching?
I'm not normally in the shop. My wife Claire runs the shop.
-But yes, I'm mainly at sea, I catch the crabs.
Then what do you do? Because you sell them dressed, don't you?
Well, we sell boiled, dressed, boiled crabs, dressed crabs, very few live crabs nowadays.
Of course, years ago, all the live crabs,
-straight on the trains and off to Norwich, London, all over the place.
-They went down live, did they?
-Yeah, all live, yeah.
'On a good day, up to 200 crabs are prepared in this shop,
'and I can't wait to taste their delicious meat.'
-So these crabs have been boiled first, have they?
-Yes, they were caught and boiled this morning.
A dressed crab, the ideal thing is to have the different meats, the dark meat, the white meat?
Yeah, you've got the brown meat, which is more a creamy, yellowy meat, and then the white meat on the top.
Is that all from one crab, or more than one together?
No. That's all from one crab.
It saves the person eating it a lot of work, doesn't it?
Yeah. Not everybody knows how to dress a crab. And not everybody can dress a crab like Tracy!
Tracy, you're doing that with amazing skill.
-I guess you've been doing that a while. How long have you been doing it?
-About 27 years.
Wow. Are you the most experienced crab-dresser that you know?
-I should imagine there's more out there.
She's definitely our most experienced crab-dresser!
That looks absolutely fantastic. Look at that.
'Since Victorian times, this is how Cromer crabs have been dressed.'
Mmm. Completely fresh.
Absolutely beautiful. Mmm!
-Worth the train ride, do you think?
-Worth the train ride.
Tastes of the sea.
Isn't that wonderful?
Although the sea provides Cromer's livelihood, it's also a threat to the town.
The situation became desperate in the 19th century and is even documented in my Bradshaw's Guide.
I'm hoping coastal engineer Peter Frew can tell me more.
What a wonderful view we have today, don't we?
We do. Beautiful beach, beautiful weather.
Now, my Bradshaw's Guide says that Cromer is suffering from "the encroachments of the North Sea",
"by which the land is fast swallowed up, and converted into dangerous shoals".
-I'm guessing we're standing on a Victorian sea defence, is that right?
-Yes, we are.
These defences were built in 1845,
in response to the erosion they were experiencing.
The walls in Cromer were built... The starting point was mid-1830s,
some more again in 1845, and some more again right at the end of the century, 1899, 1900.
In the 19th century, Cromer was so devastated by erosion
that cliffs, a jetty and even a lighthouse, were washed away.
This blossoming seaside resort faced disaster.
The Victorians' solution was to build these massive sea walls.
And were they effective? Did they keep the sea at bay?
Yes, they did.
The terraces we've got above us here today would not be there,
had not the Victorians built these defences.
They built in the Victorian way, strong, and for the long term?
Yes, they did.
These impressive, Grade II-listed walls may have saved the town,
but further along the coast, I can see just how destructive the sea is.
There have been cliff falls along here, and we can see one of those on the beach there, which has come down,
ended up on the beach, the sea then has started to erode it away.
And over this stretch of coast here,
we've lost probably four or five metres in the last three or four years.
So is there a move now to build more Victorian-style defences?
Where we've got towns, we will be building defences.
Where we haven't got towns, we're moving towards saying, "Nature maybe had the right idea."
A good beach is a good defence. The Victorians weren't wrong,
they did a good job with what they did do.
But perhaps our understanding now, the way the sea behaves,
the way the coast then behaves with the action of the sea, means that maybe we're changing our views.
Having followed my Bradshaw's Guide across the country,
I find evidence all around of the enduring Victorian legacy.
Modern customs and modern architecture
have transformed our towns, but at their core, they are unmistakably Victorian.
My journey from Brighton has taken me from coast to coast.
The railways joined up the once-remote places in between,
with results both good and bad.
I've been struck by how small our island is.
And it was a thought that bedazzled the Victorians,
that little Britain could be the most powerful nation on Earth.
For in those days, Britannia ruled the waves.
But for many Victorians,
British coastal resorts were the limits of their ambitions.
And on a day like today, you feel they weren't missing very much.
'On my next journey, I'll be following the route of the Irish Mail, travelling north from Ledbury,
'through Wales to Holyhead, on the Isle of Anglesey.
'Along the way, I'll be scaling Wales's highest peak, Mount Snowdon...'
It's magnificent! It's really imposing.
'..uncovering a hidden chemical weapons plant...'
We're probably looking at the Second World War's most secret building in Britain.
In 1942-43, there was nowhere more secret in the world than this.
'..and admiring the world's first iron bridge.'
-Where would I have to go to see it?
-Just down the bottom.
It's amazing! You'll love it.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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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.