Michael Portillo tastes the Victorian drink perry, encounters a pedigree Hereford bull and visits the world's first iron-framed building in Shrewsbury.
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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.
In the mid-19th century, Britain was in the grip of a railway revolution.
George Bradshaw's timetables were an essential tool for the new wave of Victorian travellers.
His handbook gave them travel tips and tourist information,
and today I'm using it to plan my journeys around Britain.
The journey I'm starting now is along a line
that was built for speedy communication.
Ireland was part of the United Kingdom in George Bradshaw's day.
The railway was extended to Holyhead in 1848
to cut five hours off the journey time between Dublin and London,
for really important things, everything from urgent documents to members of parliament.
This historic railway was built to carry the Irish mail.
But it also brought changes to the crafts,
industries and places along the way.
Bradshaw wrote about many of them, and with his help I'll be finding
out how the railways transformed almost everything they touched.
On the first leg of my route I'll be sampling a classic Victorian drink...
How much cider or perry would they contain?
1,200 gallons in that one and there are about 40,000 in Pip and Squeak.
Pip and Squeak!
You'd get quite a hangover from one of those!
'..Meeting Britain's finest pedigree bulls...'
It's extraordinary that he's so docile.
Just not the reputation bulls have at all.
'..and discovering an engineering first.'
This is the grandfather of the skyscraper.
Really? The skyscraper was born in Shropshire.
The skyscraper is born right here.
Following my Bradshaw's guide, I'm journeying north,
through the Welsh borders towns
of Shrewsbury and Chirk towards Chester.
Then I'll follow the scenic coastal route to Llandudno
before travelling inland to explore Snowdonia
and crossing the Isle of Anglesey to Holyhead.
Starting in Ledbury, today I'll travel 65 miles
via Hereford to the pretty market town of Shrewsbury.
For city dwellers like me,
Herefordshire seems impenetrably rural.
In the days of horse and cart, its towns and villages would
have been days away from the major English cities.
The railways brought rapid connections and the products
of the countryside found markets throughout the kingdom.
We've passed through the most spectacular green rolling fields,
and that's brought us into my first stop - Ledbury.
Bradshaw's describes Ledbury as "a place remarkable for
"its manufacture of rope, twine and also cider and perry."
Perry has been made in this area for over 150 years,
but apparently few people know much about it today.
-Do you know what perry is?
-Perry? It's a drink.
It is, yes. Does it mean anything to you?
No, it doesn't.
I'm following a 19th-century guidebook, and it says that this
place is remarkable for cider and perry.
Do you know what perry is?
It's like a sparkling...
er...like a sparkling... I'm not quite sure!
-What is it made from, do you know?
-No, I don't.
Can you tell me what perry is?
Perry is an alcoholic drink made from pears rather than apples, for cider.
-So there are local perry producers in and around.
-Do you drink it yourself?
Yes, I do, chilled, very nice.
One of the oldest perry producers is just up the road.
I've walked through a beautiful garden
up to this historic house, but it is surrounded by
an industrial complex, what looks like a brewery,
where they make the perry and cider.
-Helen. Hello, I'm Michael.
-Lovely to see you.
Helen Thomas' family has been making perry for over 100 years,
since her great grandfather, Henry Weston, began farming here.
But it wasn't always a business.
When it was first made, what was it for?
Presumably for just people locally?
Mainly it was for home consumption,
and also it was part of the wages they used to pay their labourers with.
So they would have so much cider and so much pay at the same time.
The drink used to pay the workers was also known as Haymaker's Cider,
and had little alcoholic content.
To make extra cash, it was sold to passing travellers
at the gate, who often added a little something of their own.
Bradshaw says the cider and perry are sometimes qualified with brandy.
-What does that mean?
-I think they must have put a little extra
brandy with the perry and the cider just to make it a little stronger.
I haven't actually tried that.
-That would make you pretty drunk.
-I'm sure it would.
So how did it go from being something just enjoyed by
the villagers and the farm workers to a commercial proposition?
Henry Weston, he made a particularly good cider and perry,
and he was encouraged to actually make more of it and start to sell it commercially.
Of course, he would have used the railway to get it further afield
so he would have used a horse and cart to actually take it to the railway station.
-And then from there to the nation.
As the railway network expanded through Herefordshire,
Henry Weston's perry business began to grow.
Other farmers brought their perry pears here
to be processed and bottled before being sent all over Britain.
But Henry had his own orchards as well.
These are the cider apple trees,
and the taller trees you see in the front are perry pears.
This is a perry pear tree. You can see it's much larger
than the cider apple trees, which are behind you.
They take years and years to grow.
They say you plant a perry pear tree for your heirs.
So George Bradshaw might have been drinking perry from trees like this.
-But if I come back here in 20, 30 years, I'll still be able to
see some of these magnificent, old, tall trees, will I?
Absolutely. I mean, I want them here for another 100 years.
'The varieties of pears used for perry are native to Herefordshire
'and are still processed in traditional ways.'
-This is a fantastic site.
-This is our vat house.
So all these immense casks, vats you call them?
Yes, and they've all got a particular name.
So when you refer to something you know exactly where it is and what they're talking about.
We have three that Henry Weston... The first vats that he bought,
and they're called Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford.
Is this a museum?
-You don't still use these vats?
-No, all these vats are used.
We can't get these vats now so these are part of our heritage.
Very important to how we make our ciders.
So how much cider or perry would they contain?
There's 1,200 gallons in that one, and about 40,000 in Pip and Squeak.
Pip and Squeak! A bit of an understatement, isn't it?
You could get quite a hangover from one of those, couldn't you?
'There's one change to perry since Bradshaw's day.
'Victorian perry was still, but Helen also makes a sparkling
'variety which, these days, is sold as pear cider.
'I'm happy to try both.'
-Any technique to this?
-I don't think so.
I think you drink it like a fine wine.
Slight smell of pear.
-Soft and mellow.
-Yes, soft, mellow. Completely flat, of course.
Yes, this is still. This is what Henry Weston would have made.
And this fellow, I can see, has bubbles.
Stronger smell of pear, I'd say.
Much sweeter, more pear-like.
I like the bubbles on the tongue.
I remember perry being advertised when I was a child,
with a little bambi hopping around on the edge of a champagne glass.
So it's not for men, is that right?
It is today. It's served in pubs
and you buy it by the pint, by the half pint.
So you can go to a pub and say, "I want some perry, please".
Yes, you can!
Well done. Cheers!
Before the perry goes to my head, I need to retrace my steps to Ledbury
and unearth more about its very unusual station.
-Very beautiful ticket office.
We do our best to keep standards up here.
'Unlike at most stations, the ticket office is not run by
'a railway company, but by a small scale entrepreneur, John Goldrick.'
I am paid on commission basis rather than a salary from the railways.
I want to see people travelling by train.
It's up to me to encourage people to use the railways here.
So have you got a lot of people using the line these days?
We're pretty much jammed.
We've gone from a forgotten country station to capacity, almost.
Let me boost your commission a tiny bit.
Can I have a single ticket, standard class,
to Hereford this afternoon, please?
OK, that will cost you five pounds.
Next stop, Hereford.
'My Bradshaw's guide describes this next part of the line
'as one of the most picturesque in the country.'
This is the very essence of England, isn't it?
Deep, beautiful, rich greens, rolling countryside. Fantastic.
-Thank you very much.
This is a very beautiful stretch of line.
We are seeing it at its best today, aren't we?
-Very lovely. Nice day for it as well.
-Thank you very much. Bye bye.
Next stop is Hereford, which I know a bit.
Beautiful cathedral city,
although there are things I haven't seen there.
But I'm going in particular because Bradshaw mentions the cattle.
He says, "They are a splendid breed,
"white faced with soft, reddish brown coats".
I'm really looking forward to meeting my Herefords.
'We'll shortly be arriving at Hereford
'where this service will be terminating. All change, please.'
In the 19th century, the Hereford was one of the country's top breeds,
and Hereford beef graced many Victorian dinner tables.
Astonishingly, there were three trains a day leaving Hereford
carrying cows acquired in the city's market down to London.
I'm interested to know what made this pedigree breed so successful,
so I'm heading to a farm whose speciality is grass fed,
organic Hereford cattle.
It's been owned by the Watkins family for five generations
and once enjoyed its own railway link.
Hello. David Watkins.
-Nice to see you, David.
-Welcome to Ballingham.
-This is an old railway bridge, is it?
This is in fact the old Ballingham Station.
Not much trace of the line now.
When did this close? Do you know?
'64, I think, when the rest of the beeching closes.
So you would remember this, David?
Yes, I can remember the steam train coming through here, very, very young.
Were you using it as a passenger or were you bringing cattle here?
We used to bring cattle down, so my grandfather used to tell me
to load them on the train to go to Hereford and Ross markets.
'In Victorian times the farm and the cattle began to thrive, thanks to the railway.'
It really is a very handsome animal.
It really is strikingly red.
What are its characteristics as an animal and as a meat?
I think the animal itself,
why it was originally so popular was its hardiness.
They get fat off the land here, they don't need a lot of grass
to get them fat in comparison with a more modern breed.
This old Welsh breed was so resilient that in the 19th century
farmers around the world imported them to improve the quality of their cattle stock.
I think they first started going off in 1850s, firstly
to America, then Australia and then pretty much everywhere in between.
So that coincided with the railways,
probably enabled them to take them to the ports in good time.
And then after, anywhere else, yeah.
And Herefords have become pretty much globalised, is that right?
Yeah, you'll see Herefords as far as the States,
Mongolia, Australia, Argentina. They're pretty much everywhere.
George Bradshaw describes the Herefords as having the red coat and the white face.
That's clearly exactly the same, but would he otherwise recognise these Herefords of today?
-Have they changed at all?
-Oh, I think he'd recognise them.
Sometimes you see old photographs of Hereford cattle
that might be a bit more dumpy and short, whereas now
we try and get a longer animal with less wastage in the leg.
Herefords were known for their succulent meat marbled with fat.
But as tastes changed in the 20th century, they fell out of fashion.
In England they were replaced by larger, leaner European cattle,
and today, Hereford meat is marketed as a niche product for discerning customers.
People are much more interested in where their food comes from.
Obviously, here we can oversee the whole thing from the moment
I pull the calf to the moment it ends up on the plate in Hereford.
-So traceability is really important now.
And why is it such a good breed to have?
I think it's because they're very relaxed, a very docile sort of...
As you can see now, they're not bothered too much about us
and I think it comes through into the flavour of the meat.
We've got a bull just over there.
-We can go up and stroke him and he's pretty docile.
-You're not serious?
-As part of my Spanish heritage,
I'm not used to doing that.
We have a rather more aggressive approach normally.
George, this is an immense animal.
It's extraordinary that he's so docile.
Just not the reputation bulls have at all!
What a friendly guy.
Well, I didn't think I would ever touch a bull.
George and David sell most of their meat locally
and some of it ends up on the plate at their hotel
in the centre of Hereford, where I'm going to spend the night.
Isn't this absolutely wonderful?
The medieval cathedral rising above the river.
The bridge, 1490, damaged in the English civil war.
A perfect summer's evening, a superb view
and now, at last, I think, an excellent steak dinner.
Traditionally, Hereford beef is hung for 25 days to enhance the taste.
I'm about to enjoy the result of all that patient effort.
Thank you very much indeed.
full of flavour. Fantastic.
Morning in Hereford and I'm on my way to the cathedral,
which I've seen before, but there's something I haven't seen and I have long wanted to,
and today, I will fulfil that ambition.
My Bradshaw's guide talks about "A curious Saxon map of the world,"
kept in the cathedral's library.
I'm meeting the commercial director of the cathedral,
Dominic Harbour, to find out more.
You're admiring your beautiful cathedral.
The map is fragile and must be a kept in a darkened room.
It's the most extraordinary thing, Dominic.
So point out to me the great places.
Jerusalem is at the very centre of the map there, shown as a circle,
and really it's from there where the rest of the world,
the known habitable world, spreads out.
'This extremely rare manuscript is called the Mappa Mundi.
'It's a 13th century concept of the world drawn onto animal skin.'
In a way, this is what we would almost call a virtual map,
a conceptual map. It's not geographically accurate.
Yes, absolutely. Geography isn't the greatest priority on this map.
You've got illustrations from the Bible.
You've got information about flora, fauna.
It's like cyber-space at the end of the 13th century.
'Originally the map would have been visited by religious pilgrims.
'But by the 19th century, Hereford Cathedral was increasingly
'attracting Victorians, who were simply curious about their history.'
George Bradshaw calls it "A curious Saxon map of the world."
Why was he rather dismissive of this thing?
Particularly to Bradshaw's time, this was something that illustrated
perhaps everything that was bad about what we think of medieval today.
It's chaotic, it's barbaric, it's dirty, it's complete chaos.
Is it unique to Hereford?
There would have been other Mappa Mundi that existed all across Europe.
In fact they were quite common at that time.
However, certainly by Bradshaw's time,
this was really a rare and exceptional survival.
And did you tell me it was on hide?
Yes, it's a single piece of calf skin.
-It could be a Herefordshire, could it?
Really remarkable visit.
Thank you so much.
I'm now leaving Hereford for the last leg of my journey.
50 miles along the track, towards Shrewsbury.
And there's one thing I'd like to straighten out before I arrive there.
do you know the line quite well?
-It's such beautiful country.
-It's absolutely gorgeous.
I love the ride just going into Shrewsbury station
and the castle up above and the gorgeous station.
I notice you say "Shroos-bury",
should I say "Shroos-bury" or "Shrows-bury"?
You could ask people in Shroos-bury or Shrows-bury what they say.
-I think that's a good idea. It's like "tom-ah-to" "tom-ay-to" isn't it?
-Yes, it is.
'This train is for Manchester Piccadilly.
'The next stop is Shrewsbury.'
The electronic voice thinks it's Shroos-bury.
I think I'll check with real human beings when I get there.
My Bradshaw's guide offers no advice on this thorny matter
but it does make me focus on the town's impressive station.
Bradshaw is really keen on it because it's built
in the Tudor style with these lovely tall chimneys.
He's kind of shocked at how much it cost.
£100,000, including acquiring the site.
But he really approves of it too, and it is beautiful.
But I suppose it's testimony that Shrewsbury was really keen on the railways and this palace
indicates Shrewsbury's enthusiasm for the new age.
Time now, though, to find out just how the good folk of Shrewsbury
pronounce their town's name.
Excuse me, am I in Shroos-bury or Shrows-bury?
-You're very clear about that. Why is that?
It's always known as being that side of the bridge says Shrows-bury, that side says Shroos-bury.
And what's the difference between the two sides?
The private school tends to bring a lot of the Shrows-bury to it.
Private schools, Shrows-bury.
Yeah, I think so.
Shroos-bury or Shrows-bury -
in Bradshaw's day, this place was very different
from the rural market town we see today.
It was once at the centre of the Industrial Revolution,
surrounded by mills and foundries.
There's one mill in particular that I've been urged to see.
-Good to see you.
-Welcome to Ditherington Flax Mill.
'Showing me around the mill is John Yates, inspector of historic buildings for Shropshire.'
Forgive me, it doesn't look all that special. What is the point of it?
Well, it's special on the inside as you'll see in a minute.
But it's an actual first. The world's first iron-framed building.
This is absolutely at the cutting edge of technology.
The new technology of the time.
An iron building, an experimental building.
200 feet long, five storeys high, 40 feet wide.
An astonishing act of confidence and bravado, virtuosity and skill.
You've whetted my appetite. How do we get into it?
The owners of the site had just suffered a financial catastrophe.
They'd lost thousands of pounds when one of their timber-framed mills in Leeds had burned down.
Onwards and upwards.
'Desperate to avoid more losses,
'they hired engineer Charles Bage to design a new mill in Shrewsbury.
'Bage knew that cast iron was being used to make rails at nearby Coalbrookdale.
'And he decided to make use of it in a building.'
-That's what it's all about.
Isn't it wonderful?
So these supports, they're made of iron, are they?
They are. They're made of cast iron,
iron poured molten into a bed of sand that's been shaped to go to this
lovely slender shape, just tapering out a little in the middle,
just like the columns on the Parthenon.
Significantly, Charles Bage's iron frame was fireproof.
When the railways arrived, it became easier to transport large
pieces of iron and then steel around the country
and many other new buildings adopted the technology.
These columns all support iron beams
that run right across the building from one side to another.
And then the beams themselves support shallow brick vaults,
just half a brick thick, that span from one beam to the other.
Then to stop the vaults simply collapsing
by pushing apart in the way that arches always do,
there are wrought iron, even stronger iron,
formed into bars, that run the whole length of the building,
all 200 foot of it.
So this three-way metal frame, up, across and along,
-is the grandfather of the skyscraper.
-The skyscraper was born in Shropshire?
The skyscraper is born right here.
Shropshire may seem a sleepy place now,
but in 1800, this was Silicon Valley.
This was absolutely at the cutting edge of the technological and Industrial Revolution.
The use of a metal frame in place of wood enabled architects to design
taller buildings and eventually led to the steel-framed skyscrapers of the 20th century.
Before I leave Shrewsbury, there's an intriguing reference
in my guide book that I must investigate.
This high spire is the Church of St Mary's
and Bradshaw is clearly quite amused by an incident that occurred here.
"Many years ago, a hair-brained fellow
"undertook to slide down a rope,
"laid from the top of this spire to the other side of the river.
"But he was killed in the attempt".
That's rather sad.
I've come to find out more about the tragic events of 1739
from Robert Milton, who works at St Mary's Church.
Robert Cadman was a steeple jack by trade and he was asked by the church council
to come and repair the weather vane on top of the spire.
Having done so, he then requested permission to do his party trick,
which was to tie a rope to the bell frame,
bringing it through behind us,
it then extended to the very, very far-side of the river,
to ground just short of the railway box.
-About 500 yards.
He would then walk up the line, performing tricks and firing pistols.
And I suppose hundreds of people
would've turned out to watch this stuff?
It was a craze of its day.
And, of course, his wife would go around and collect
the pennies and whatever offerings were being offered at the time.
'His final trick was to slide all the way down the rope
'from the spire to the ground.'
That's where it went wrong unfortunately on this occasion.
Where the rope had come through the bell louvers, it parted and poor Robert plummeted to his death.
-It snapped here?
-It snapped where it came through the wooden frame.
So is Cadman regarded as the hero of Shrewsbury?
Do people celebrate his birthday?
No, I think, relatively speaking, he's quite unknown within the town.
Well, I hope George Bradshaw's done something to revive his memory.
I sincerely hope so. I think it's well deserved.
I am often surprised by details that Bradshaw thought to include in his guide book.
From hare-brained tightrope walkers to white-faced cows
and the origins of perry - the full breadth of life and death
is captured in its pages.
And all of it accessible because of the new railways.
In Herefordshire, farmers made use of the arrival of the railways
to find new markets for their products.
In Shropshire, inventors and entrepreneurs grasped the railways
enthusiastically to pursue their Industrial Revolution.
The railways transformed everywhere,
but the nature of the change depended upon the geography
and the character of the people in each county.
On my next journey, I'm following Bradshaw to see the world's first iron bridge.
-Where do I go to see it?
-Just down the bottom. It's amazing. You'll love it.
Visiting a place where the railways weren't initially welcome.
My ancestor at the time of the railway
was particularly disenchanted with the idea of a railway being
built across his land, so he tried very hard to disrupt the surveyors.
And discovering the secrets of good cheese.
It's just exactly as my great grandfather would recognise.
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. Portillo travels the length and breadth of the country to see how the railways changed us and what remains of Bradshaw's Britain, as he follows the route of the Irish mail from Ledbury to Holyhead.
Michael tastes the Victorian drink perry, a kind of pear cider, gets up close and personal with a pedigree Hereford bull and visits the grandfather of all skyscrapers, the world's first iron-framed building in Shrewsbury.