Michael Portillo visits the world's first iron bridge at Coalbrookdale, explores the historic Chirk Castle and has a go at making traditional Cheshire cheese.
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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.
I'm embarked on a journey from the heart of rural England to join
the railway line that the Victorians built
along the north Welsh coast to speed links with Dublin.
Today, my Bradshaw's guide, published in the 19th century, will help me to criss-cross the border
between England and Wales, to find out more about traditional foods, about the industrial revolution
and about aristocrats, and about how each of those responded to the coming of the railways.
Along this route, I'm following an important railway line to Ireland designed to carry the mail.
Each day, I'll cover another stretch of track,
visiting places described in great detail
in my Bradshaw's guide and meeting the people who live there today.
On this leg of the journey, I'll be exploring 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.
..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.
I've already covered the first 64 miles from Ledbury to Shrewsbury
and now I'm heading east before I travel on to Chester
and make my way along the coast to Llandudno.
From there I'll explore Snowdonia, before crossing the Menai Straits towards Holyhead.
My first stop is Telford, then on to Chirk and Wrexham.
Today, I'm headed for the very heart of things.
Firstly to a town named Telford, named after one of greatest civil engineers of all time.
And then to Ironbridge, THE iron bridge, the first iron bridge,
without which the development of our railways would have been impossible,
the development of railways anywhere in the world would have been impossible.
And the first iron bridge happened in Shropshire.
In Bradshaw's day, Shropshire was one of the most important sites of nascent industrial activity
and the birthplace of technologies that led to the first modern railways.
-How are you doing? Are you all right, guys?
-Yes, thank you very much.
-Nice to meet you.
-Very nice to meet you. How are you?
-I'm very well. Yourself?
-Yeah. Lovely day for travelling, isn't it?
-We're going to visit the iron bridge.
-Oh, it's very nice.
It's rather important for railwaymen to know about the iron bridge, isn't it?
It was the precursor to all the engineering that made the railways possible.
Oh, it is, yeah. And it's fantastic.
The structure itself of the bridge, for its time, is just...
You can't imagine it, that they would have been able to produce something as fantastic as that.
'The next call will be Telford Central, Telford Central next call.'
'I'm getting off at Telford and moving a few miles on to the village
'of Coalbrookdale, to understand why the bridge creates such excitement.'
In Bradshaw's day, Coalbrookdale was already noted for its role in the development of the iron industry.
Bradshaw writes, "Several important processes in the manufacture of iron have originated here.
"About 1768, iron rails were laid down on the tramways.
"In 1779, the first iron bridge was made.
"This still stands in substantial repair, at a point where it crosses the Severn with a single arch."
The Ironbridge, as beautiful as it is historic, is a famous symbol of industrial progress.
I've come to see John Challen, who works at the Ironbridge Museum.
-I must say, I'm very excited to be on this bridge.
-You should be!
No, cos I know its historic significance is enormous.
I mean, Coalbrookdale, obviously, was well established as a place where iron was made.
Bradshaw says that there was nowhere like it - for producing
and mass-producing artefacts in iron, this was the place.
It's where it all started. Abraham Darby came here to make iron, to make cooking pots.
The technology he bought, which was smelting iron with coke
and casting iron into sand moulds, he did it in just the right place.
Until the 18th century, charcoal was used to smelt iron.
Because it used so much wood, iron could be made only in small amounts.
Then Abraham Darby substituted coke from the local coalfields,
inventing a technique that's been used ever since.
It meant that cast iron could be made cheaply and in huge quantities.
The company quickly went on from making cast-iron cooking pots to the first iron wheels,
the first iron cylinders for steam engines
and of course the bridge itself.
They even went on to build the world's first steam locomotive in 1802.
What gave them the confidence to make a bridge out of iron?
They were pushing it. They knew they could cast almost anything out of iron. Make a mould and you can do it.
And this was a real show piece.
Is it true that Coalbrookdale makes some claim to having the first iron rails?
-What year are they, then?
It's just so long before passenger railways, isn't it?
These first cast-iron rails, used for horse-drawn wagons
in mines and quarries, were the forerunner to modern railways.
And the techniques used in the iron bridge were copied for some of the earliest railway bridges.
What strikes me about the bridge, as a first iron bridge, is how beautiful it is.
In other words, that they not only got the engineering right first time
but they got the style, the aesthetics right first time. Amazing.
Well, it is, and on the other hand, it shows how far they'd got
with casting, cos, you know, a stone bridge is a stone bridge.
With an iron bridge, you had a lot more freedom in design.
All those components were cast off-site to a design and then brought to site and assembled.
It's like a giant kit of parts.
If this technology hadn't been mastered, the whole history
of railway building afterwards would have been different.
Before coke smelting, iron was a very expensive material.
It was just used for fixings and nails and tools.
To have so much iron that you can use it as a construction material was a completely different way.
So, if you think of the sheer tonnage of iron in a railway, you couldn't have done that without coke smelting.
The technology progressed rapidly.
Rails made of cast iron were soon replaced by wrought iron,
and by the 1860s, all railway tracks were made from steel.
But the first iron bridge in the world still draws admiration.
-What do you think of your iron bridge?
-I love it.
-Do you still look at it ever?
Yes. I think, when you live here, you do become a little bit jaded to how good it is,
but when you actually sit down and look at it, it is amazing.
There is something in the bridge, which I don't know if you know about.
-Abraham Darby's face is in the bridge.
-Can I see it from here?
-No, but I'll show it you.
-Where would I have to go to see it?
Just down the bottom. It's amazing! You'll love it. You'll be amazed.
-I have to go down the bottom?
-Now, I'm just going to show you this.
-You see the centre locking pin in the middle?
-Now, look at the one the other side, and you see there's a silhouette of a man's face.
-Oh, my goodness.
Is it architectural brilliance or pure fluke?
-It certainly looks like a face.
-Legend has it that Abraham Darby cast himself into the bridge.
By the mid 19th century, Coalbrookdale's iron industry was in decline,
but the arrival of the railway in the 1860s brought new industries.
Businessman Henry Dunnill was passing through on a train when he spotted a rundown factory.
He returned and transformed it into a new tile works.
'Adrian Blundell works for Craven Dunnill Jackfield tiles.'
This looks like an amazing piece of industrial archaeology.
It is, in actual fact, a real working factory still.
It's not just a piece of archaeology. Craven Dunnill, the company I work for,
actually built this purpose-built model factory in 1872.
And I had a feeling, as I was coming up here, that this is an old railway.
-Is that right? This is the old track?
-Yeah, it was.
We brought in materials from Devon and Cornwall, and shipped to Manchester and Birmingham
finished material, which would have left the factory at the far end here through the weigh bridge.
We had our own sidings at the side there and our own liveried
carriages that we used to use for transporting everything around.
It meant the world was opened up. So you've got access to the States,
access to, basically, the British Empire.
Craven Dunnill became one of the most successful tile producers in Britain.
Their decorative tiles were laid in churches, houses, pubs
and railway stations, including the London Underground.
Today, the tiles are made in much the same way as they were in Bradshaw's time.
The original process was developed from making buttons, ceramic buttons,
and obviously the patent and idea was actually then expanded into other types of products.
So what we've got is ground clay, you've got a very large press that presses at about 15 tonnes
total pressure, compressing the clay into a cake that you can actually handle.
So you are using a Victorian machine to make those?
They've never bettered them.
At its height, the factory made millions of tiles each year.
Today's tiles are still hand- finished using the same glazes and colours as in the Victorian era.
And some look very familiar to me.
What you've got here are a number of designs that are actually from the Palace of Westminster.
I know that, I know that. I spent 20 year surrounded by these tiles. I recognise them.
-May I take that down?
-Yes, of course you can.
High Victorian tiles, and you are making them again?
We are. And if you would like to have a go at having a tile manufactured
for the Palace, as we are actually in the middle of doing a major restoration project with them...
-A signed Portillo tile.
-A signed Portillo tile.
These heritage tiles are made by highly skilled craftsmen like Chris Cox.
This is a typical palace tile, this is a lion from St Stephen's Hall,
-which you'll probably be familiar with.
-Yeah, I've walked on those many, many times.
But never had a go at making one, I'm sure! So this gives you the opportunity to do that.
So our plaster mould sits inside the box.
So if you take that, tear off little grape-size lumps and actually feed them into the pattern there.
It's not as easy as it looks. MICHAEL LAUGHS
-How do you make it stick down?
-Once you've got one bit started, you're OK.
'I feel like a kid with play dough. It's very hard to do.
'But Chris can make 40 tiles per day.'
Pick another bit and you can kind of feed off that and just keep working your way out.
I fear these tiles probably don't come cheap, do they?
No, they don't, not with the amount of work.
Of course, in the Victorian period, they weren't particularly cheap either,
but labour was, so you could afford to have lots of people doing this.
'Once the pattern is filled in, the mould is topped up with more clay.'
Straight down in the middle. Fantastic.
-'Having bashed it into shape...'
-'..the tile is eased out of its mould.'
-There it is.
-'The next step is to add the distinctive red glaze that brings out the pattern.'
This is very satisfying.
'Once the tile has dried, the excess glaze is scraped off.'
Chris, I have walked over these countless times and never given them much thought, apart from the fact
that they were very beautiful, but I had no idea it was such hard work and such craftsmanship.
-Thank you. It's been a real privilege doing that.
'As I leave Coalbrookdale to travel on to Chirk, I wonder whether my efforts will one day grace
'the Houses of Parliament or, more likely, end up in the seconds bin.'
Just before we come into Chirk, we're going to pass over a viaduct
mentioned by Bradshaw as very special.
But as we pass over the viaduct, we'll be looking down at an earlier aqueduct
on the right-hand side.
And that was built by Thomas Telford.
Telford was one of the greatest civil engineers of the industrial revolution,
building roads, canals and bridges all over the country.
The aqueduct at Chirk was one of his finest achievements.
'We will shortly be arriving at Chirk.'
'Both the aqueduct and the viaduct are worth a closer look.
'But of course, in his railway guide, it's about the viaduct that Bradshaw has most to say.
'He writes, "Chirk Viaduct is considered a beautiful engineering gem
'"and discloses through its arches the lovely vale of Ceiriog."'
Now, that is really beautiful.
I mean, an unspoilt valley, you know, that's...
a gorgeous thing.
But a valley enhanced by the artefacts of man,
that's even better, isn't it?
The juxtaposition of nature, the grazing sheep,
and the engineering skills of those wonderful men
of the 18th and 19th century - what a fantastic combination.
At that time, aqueduct water channels were built of stone lined with clay.
But Telford drew on the technology developed at Coalbrookdale,
and Chirk is one of the earliest to employ a cast-iron trough.
Henry Robertson came later with his railway viaduct,
and it's as though the later man
is paying tribute,
imitating the style,
snuggling his structure as close to the other as he possibly can.
These days, the railway line and the canal snake through peaceful, rolling countryside,
and it's easy to forget that this border was once a battleground
between the English and the Welsh.
But all along the route are castles to remind us of that strife.
One of the most beautiful and complete stands at Chirk.
Behind me is Chirk Castle, and Bradshaw writes,
"This noble-looking edifice has been preserved from ruin, and may be regarded
"as a perfect model of the time-honoured castles of the ancient lords of the soil."
Although the castle is perched a few miles distant, strangely, its gates have ended up here.
Are these gates ever open?
No, I don't think they are. These gates were moved, cos they used to be on the north front of the house.
These are early 18th-century gates. Very beautiful, aren't they? And white wrought iron.
They are. They are beautiful.
And the story is that they were moved here in 1888
because Queen Victoria used to pass on a train on her way somewhere,
and they wanted Queen Victoria to be able to see these beautiful gates from the train.
-Good story, isn't it?
-That is a good story. Is it true?
I don't know.
'Tomorrow, I'm hoping to enter the castle,
'but for tonight, I've been relegated to the gamekeeper's cottage.'
Oh, dear, a rather wet morning in the Welsh Valleys,
but then they didn't get this green without a bit of rain.
Bradshaw mentions that the castle is the seat of R Myddelton-Biddulph Esq.
And the Myddeltons are still there, and I'm off to see them this morning.
Chirk Castle was built in the 13th century by the Marcher Lords, some of the king's most trusted men,
whose task was to guard England's border with Wales.
According to Bradshaw, it's, "a remarkably interesting and ancient mansion"
and a magnet for visitors.
That's if I can get past the guards.
-Are you happy in your work?
-Damp but very happy.
Yes, it is a little bit damp today.
Are you wearing real chainmail, real helmet?
Yes, sir. Would you care to feel the weight of this?
-It is very heavy.
-To get the full impression, would you care to...?
-Goodness, do you wear this all day?
You must have very developed neck muscles, I think, by now.
I didn't before I started this job.
That is very heavy. And then you wear that...
Well, this weighs even more than the hat.
Well, it's weighty work you're doing, and thank you very much for it.
-I take my helmet off to you.
Not everyone could see the benefits
of the railways as they spread across Britain in the 19th century.
Some landowners, like the Myddeltons, were positively hostile.
-What a fantastic place.
'Guy Myddelton and his family have lived at Chirk castle for 14 generations.'
I came here on the train and I was quite surprised there's a station called Chirk.
You've got your own station. How did that come about?
Well, we're lucky, aren't we, to have our own station?
This is really because my ancestor at the time of the railway was particularly
disenchanted with the idea of a railway being built across his land.
He was involved in the canal that runs adjacent to the railway,
and I think he saw the railway as a great threat to that enterprise.
So he tried very hard to disrupt the surveyors.
Once he'd realised that he couldn't stop it any further, he then, I think, negotiated
the best settlement he could,
and part of that was, of course, to ensure that Chirk had its own station.
And of course, they had their own mines here, coal mine particularly.
And of course, the railway would have been a great facilitator
of being able to move that particular product about.
The railway line also brought tourists to Chirk.
My Bradshaw's guide details for each station the country houses and their owners close by.
And just like today, visiting them was a popular pastime,
although the procedure was a little different then.
In Bradshaw's time, in the Victorian era,
I'm sure visitors would have come to the castle on the train as well.
But they would not have been the general public -
they'd have been by appointment.
They'd have made an appointment with the housekeeper of the day
and they would have then come on the train, come to the castle, been received by the housekeeper,
shown just the main rooms of interest, seen the castle in all its glory,
and probably been given a memento on the day,
a small pamphlet just outlining those things that they'd seen on that day.
Having free rein in a house as vast as this one is every child's dream.
I can't imagine growing up in a castle.
Well, it's wonderful, and I'm very lucky, I know that.
When I learnt to ride a bicycle, for example,
I was able to do it inside the house, in the long gallery.
-I hope you got a thick ear for that, did you?
-I didn't, actually.
I was encouraged by my grandparents.
You weren't busy mowing down the Chippendales?
No, they were well protected, roped off.
So no damage done.
Or perhaps a little bit of "country house condition", I think that's what we call it.
I'm leaving Chirk for the last leg of my journey today, travelling nine miles to the town of Wrexham.
All along the way, the route is adorned by outstanding viaducts that span the Welsh valleys.
It's impressive to see how well they've survived
a century and a half of pounding by heavy locomotives.
The Victorians were innovators in everything, not just engineering -
in agriculture too, for example. And Bradshaw writes that,
"The famous Cheshire pastures were, at one time, almost worn out
"when they were renovated with bone dust and made five times as valuable as before."
The crushed bones of animals were rich in phosphates, a great fertiliser,
and that's produced the famous Cheshire cheeses, which I'm hoping to sample now.
In the 19th century, chemists began to identify the key ingredients of good fertiliser.
'Cheshire became the centre of an important experiment
'to improve the grass using bone dust, and it worked.'
-Have a good trip.
-Thanks very much.
All the best. Bye-bye.
'I'm getting off at Wrexham to visit the famous Cheshire pastures.'
Over the next 100 years, this area became the great centre of the dairy trade.
Milk travelled on the trains to nearby cities like Liverpool and Manchester,
and most of the 500 farms in the area made cheese.
These days, few farmers use bone meal as a fertiliser,
and there aren't many who still make traditional Cheshire cheese.
-Good morning, John.
-Good to see you. What a pleasure.
-Welcome to The Bank.
-Thank you very much. It's a beautiful spot.
-Isn't it lovely?
'John Bourne's family began making Cheshire cheese
'in the 1700s, by which time it had already been sent as far as Canterbury.'
So even before railways, it got around all over the country?
-But the railways must have made a difference.
Do you have any memory of cheeses going up by the railway?
The railways took over from the canals, of course, which themselves were very important.
But the railways enabled larger volumes...moved more quickly,
and that enabled the London market to develop for Cheshire cheese.
Did you have a station here where you could send it to?
Malpas station was our nearest station.
-No longer there, that station.
-No longer there, sadly.
In 1845, Cheshire farms were producing
12,000 tonnes of cheese every summer when the pasture was at its best.
Thanks to the railways, by 1900, it was almost 30,000 tonnes.
Nowadays, it's rare to find a small-scale producer like John.
You're just in time to catch the end of the milking.
The milk that we use for cheese is produced on the farm.
So in one place, you are grazing cows, you are milking cows and you're producing cheese.
Is that now quite unusual that it all happens in one place?
Yes, it's difficult for people with our sort of turnover to survive in the supermarket world, really.
You've got be quite specialised and market cheese in a particular fashion.
Right, Michael, we've seen the milking, now we need to get back to the cheese dairy.
We don't want to be late for that process.
'John's Victorian ancestors would have processed the milk immediately,
'as there was no way to refrigerate it.
'John still works in traditional ways that make his products special,
'compared to the cheeses that are mass-produced.'
Because we're trying to imitate the sort of old-fashioned process
and make cheese which is sort of more akin to what my grandfather would be making -
what Father would describe as knocking the curd about - it needs to be very gentle.
If you were starting afresh, could you make from Cheshire milk
-a Camembert or a Gorgonzola, or is it just pre-ordained what you have to make?
-No, it's not pre-ordained.
I mean, milk is milk, and you can turn it into all sorts of lovely things.
We make Cheshire because we're in Cheshire, and that's what we do.
But I can show you a soft cheese there,
which will turn into a most lovely soft blue,
-quite out of this world.
-Quite out of this world and quite out of...
-of our perception of what a Cheshire cheese is going to be.
-Oh, yes, absolutely.
'The type of cheese that emerges depends on the fat content of the milk and how the curd is cut.'
Nice cheesy smell developing.
'For his Cheshire cheese, John uses full-fat milk and breaks up the curd by hand.'
It's like trying to rip a sponge apart, really.
It's quite tough to tear apart, and I'm very aware that John doesn't want me to...
Ah, that one's much better.
'Once the curd is milled, it's put into moulds to be shaped into large cheese cylinders.
'The process must be done quickly and carefully, but the flavour depends on leisurely maturing.'
Keep your head down.
'The cheeses won't be ready until they've been stored in the cellar for up to six months.'
John, what a beautiful sight. What a beautiful sight.
-Isn't that fantastic?
-It's actually a beautiful smell, isn't it?
-Well, I think so.
It's just exactly as my great-grandfather would recognise.
Wooden shelves, proper cheese, cloth-bound, really in the old fashioned way.
'Finally, the moment I feared might never come.'
Right, here we are. Now we're going to taste some of the finest cheese in the world.
We're going to cut a piece off here, and you are going to taste that
and you are going to tell me it is absolutely amazing.
-It's absolutely amazing.
-Am I right?
-You're not making it up, are you?
-No, I'm loving it. It's fantastic.
-It's worth every week of the six months of maturing, isn't it?
That really is a great cheese.
As I leave the farm, I'm greatly encouraged that there are still people like John,
upholding the skill and craftsmanship passed down to them through the generations.
The railways transformed everything they touched,
whether it was tile making at Ironbridge
or the Myddelton family at Chirk Castle
or dairy farming in Cheshire.
But the nature of the changes that they brought were as different
as Chirk and cheese.
'On my next journey, I'll be exploring one of the country's oldest streets...'
-This is stunning, Paul.
-Basically what you've got here is a medieval shopping mall.
'..uncovering a hidden chemical weapons factory...'
We're probably looking at the Second World War's most secret building in Britain, would that be right?
In 1942-43, there was nowhere more secret in the world than this.
Out it goes!
'..and raking for mussels, Victorian-style.'
I think I've got nothing at all.
Absolute empty set.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Michael Portillo takes to the tracks with a copy of George Bradshaw's Victorian Railway Guidebook. Portillo travels the length and breadth of the country to see how the railways changed us, and what remains of Bradshaw's Britain, as his journey follows the route of the Irish Mail from Ledbury to Holyhead.
Michael visits the world's first iron bridge at Coalbrookdale, explores the historic Chirk Castle and has a go at making traditional Cheshire cheese.