Michael Portillo tours Chester's Roman remains, discovers a secret World War II chemical weapons plant at Rhydmwyn and goes mussel fishing on the Conwy estuary.
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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 now well into my railway journey from the heart of rural England
to Anglesey, using George Bradshaw's 19th-century guidebook.
Today's route will enable me to look at some British history from well before his time and to recall that
British inventiveness can be used to wage war as well as build bridges.
I'm well used to using Bradshaw as my travel guide.
But more than that, it's a Victorian encyclopaedia in my pocket.
Every day, it provides me with fresh insights into how
the people and places of Britain were shaped in history.
On this stretch of the journey, I'll be exploring one of the country's oldest streets...
Oh, this is stunning, Paul.
Basically what we've got here is a mediaeval shopping mall.
..uncovering a hidden chemical weapons factory...
We are 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.
So far, I've already covered 118 miles through the Welsh Marches.
Now I'm chugging north before following the coast of Wales towards the National Park of Snowdonia.
Then, I'll cross to Anglesey, aiming for the port of Holyhead.
Today, I'll be calling at Chester and Flint before travelling on to Llandudno and Conwy.
Shortly, I'll be arriving at Chester, the last English city that I'll visit before going into Wales.
And the railway line from Chester to Holyhead was built in order to speed up communications.
And as Bradshaw says, "The line is a very important one, in shortening the distance between
"the chief city in the British Isles and the important capital of Ireland,
"and adds another noble power to government in the facilities of communication."
Now Ireland was a troublesome place for the English in the 19th century.
In fact, when the line was opened in 1848, that was the year of the famine in Ireland,
and being a Catholic country, the English were nervous about revolution.
So anything that strengthened communication,
strengthened the power of the government in London, was important politically.
And even Bradshaw noted that.
England was officially united with Ireland in 1801 in an attempt to keep the Irish under English rule.
Once they shared the same parliament, a fast route for
documents and mail between London and Dublin was key.
The journey took about 33 hours by road.
When the new railway opened in 1848, it was reduced to just 12,
via Chester, which became a strategically important city.
As I arrive just now into Chester, they're announcing connections to London and Manchester and Liverpool,
and it's a reminder that Chester is a hub.
George Bradshaw was very impressed by this because several of the different railway companies
had their own terminus here at Chester.
And he claimed that it had the longest platform in England,
so I'm looking forward to exploring Chester station.
Bradshaw was right that the station was busy and he also comments on the architecture.
"That very noble pile of buildings, in the Italian style,
"the Chester station, is the longest of all the railway termini in England."
Magnificent though the station is, Bradshaw writes about his chief reason for visiting.
"Chester is a genuine Roman city, built four square, within walls, which remain to this day."
The walls are now a scheduled ancient monument.
They've been repaired and restored over the years but still follow the original Roman layout.
Using my guide, I'm going to explore this 2,000-year-old settlement.
Do you know much about the history of Chester?
-Only the Romans, that's all, but I don't know a lot about it.
-What did the Romans ever do for Chester?
Oh, don't ask me.
-Chester, you're proud of your city?
-Very much so.
-Tell me a bit about the Roman history.
Tell me about what one should think about the Roman history.
There's the old port over by the racecourse.
And every time anybody excavates for a building, there's another piece of Roman history comes to light.
So, it's just down there.
Chester was once the site of the biggest Roman fort in Britain.
Tour guide Paul Hyde has asked me to meet him at the city's famous racecourse to discover more.
-Good morning, Michael, welcome to Chester.
Lovely to see you. What a fantastic vista.
Obviously over the race course.
It's fantastic, isn't it?
The race course was where the Roman port was.
Of course, Chester really began as a Roman fortress.
It was one of the three legionary fortresses in Britain, but also it was larger than the other two.
There is thought that one of the reasons for that is it may have been seen as potential base
for the invasion of Ireland, what is now Ireland, but that never happened.
Like the Romans, the Victorians recognised Chester
as the gateway to Ireland and the west.
By the 1850s, four railway companies ran lines through Chester,
and the city was transformed.
Reading Bradshaw, you get the impression that Chester becomes a really important railway hub.
I suppose the railways must have contributed to a substantial revival in Chester's fortunes.
Certainly in the mid-19th century, the railways helped
make Chester fairly prosperous, and also in 1861,
the Great Western and the London and North Western railway
were the two biggest employers in the city, so the railway did make Chester quite an important place.
Chester became a major shopping destination,
attracting visitors with its historic architecture.
Bradshaw writes, "On both sides are lines of shops
"and covered ways called the Rows, to which you ascend by a few steps."
By the 1860s, American tourists were already arriving by boat into Liverpool.
They boarded the train to visit Chester's quaint Rows,
constructed along the original Roman street plan.
Oh, this is stunning, Paul.
We've come off what is the Roman Street, yes?
Yes, Watergate Street, Via Principalis in Roman times,
following the line of the Roman street, but we're now on the Rows,
Chester's famous Rows, which have been here since the 13th century.
Basically what we've got here is a mediaeval shopping mall, which is unique to Chester.
So you would not be in the rain if you were doing your shopping,
and of course away from the filth of the street as well.
Greatly changed over the ages, this is actually a 13th-century stone arch,
but the outer building here, Booth Mansion, is actually 1700s.
So actually, the street as we see it now is a remarkable collection of different architectural styles.
-It's very cosy, isn't it?
Out of the mud, out of the rain.
-Chester must have been an early shopping destination.
As Victorian Chester's reputation grew, the town centre was given an extensive makeover.
Shops were rebuilt in the black and white Tudor style,
adding to the picturesque appeal of the town to tourists.
It's time for me to bid farewell to historic Chester and continue on the next leg of my journey.
I'm now leaving England, bound 12 miles across the Welsh border to Flint.
My Bradshaw's Guide tells me to keep my eyes open along the way.
I'm just coming up to the Dee Bridge.
Bradshaw says, "We cross the river Dee on the largest cast-iron girder bridge in the kingdom,"
which is slightly puzzling, because the bridge was built in cast iron by Robert Stephenson,
but it collapsed in 1847.
The accident on the Dee was the first railway bridge disaster in Britain.
A cast-iron girder cracked, plunging a train into the river and killing five people.
Afterwards, bridge builders abandoned brittle cast iron
in favour of more flexible wrought iron.
In Bradshaw's day, the Dee estuary was an area of heavy industry.
My guide says, "There are extensive collieries,
"the coals from which are shipped to Liverpool, Ireland and various parts of Wales."
Today, the collieries are gone but another landmark mentioned by Bradshaw remains.
My guide describes the haunting Flint Castle, saying, "At no very great distance from the railway,
"the castle is but a mere shell, there being left only the grey ruined walls."
It's another of those fortresses built to subdue the Welsh.
RAILWAY ANNOUNCER: We are now at Flint.
I'm heading just outside Flint to Rhydymwyn to meet local historian Colin Barber.
In the 1940s, the railway tracks that once served the coal industry
were put to work in a very different cause.
Hi, Colin. This place we're standing now. What was it?
This was a chemical weapons factory, a war-time chemical weapons factory, and this was goods in.
So these were the tracks coming in and what, the ingredients for chemical weapons arrived here?
Yes, all of the components for them.
What were they making here?
They were making mustard gas and smoke grenades.
This branch line ran to a secret chemical weapons factory making mustard gas shells.
That gas was first used by Germany in World War I.
The effects were so horrific that its use was banned after the war's end by the Geneva Convention,
so it's strange to find that it was being manufactured here in 1942.
This is a bit shocking really.
-What were we doing making chemical weapons?
-Everybody made them in case the other side used them first.
But we intended to use them in Great Britain if the Germans invaded our beaches.
In 1939, the Government asked ICI to set up this factory at Rhydymwyn
because it was remote, but close enough to the ICI chemical works at Runcorn.
It also had good rail links to transport the shells and mustard gas.
The first use of the gas in war was illegal, but manufacturing it as a precaution was not.
These are the tunnels where the chemical weapons and the bulk of mustard gas were stored,
roughly 3,000 tonnes of it.
Good Lord. Colin, I can't see any great distance because of the dark,
but it appears to be an enormous tunnel,
burrowed into the hillside, is it?
It's about 860-odd feet long, about 300 metres.
Once the shells were filled, they were stored for 24 hours to make sure they didn't leak.
One drop of gas could cause severe burns and blistering.
Then they were sent by rail to depots around the country,
accompanied by special staff trained to deal with any contamination.
And the people doing the work, men? Women?
Mostly men to start with, but from '42 onwards, mostly ladies.
The most hazardous part of the job
was adding the explosives and detonators to the shells holding the mustard gas.
It was done in the so-called Danger Area.
This building was the first place where the workers came into contact
with the charged shells and the explosives.
They got the shells and they strapped them to the bench with a strap
like the one you put on the back of a golf buggy to hold the bag on there.
And they would have a doughnut-shaped charge of explosives.
Into the middle of that, you put the fuse.
When it actually fired, the fuse would hit, the explosives would go off and it would blow the tail
of the shell off, and it would disperse the mustard gas.
So that's where they put it all together here.
And to make sure they got the mixtures correct and so on,
they weighed them here, and occasionally as all sorts of different shells
were coming through here, they did all of the calculations on the wall.
-This is calculating to make sure they got the right amount of gas inside the shell, is it?
Towards the end of the war, workers at Rhydymwyn began research that was even more hush-hush.
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.
Here scientists worked on extracting uranium-235,
a key stage in the development of the atomic bomb.
The research was to be completed in the United States
but the foundations of nuclear weaponry were laid here.
Every time I come into this building, it does have a presence.
It is eerie and sombre.
-And it not only echoes, but it has an ambience.
Because the world's most gruesome weapons were developed here.
For the next leg of my journey, I'm leaving Flint to follow my Bradshaw's Guide to Llandudno.
This line hugs the coast and you get memorable views across the water.
This train was jolly busy when I got on. Is it always like that?
This is from Manchester, it's a commuter train.
And the summer season's starting up now, so there's a lot of visitors coming down.
What are the most popular destinations?
-A lot of people taking their holidays there?
Why do you think they go there?
-It's the Queen of the Welsh resorts.
-It is indeed.
Since the railways came to this part of Wales in the mid-19th century,
this stretch of coast has been a popular tourist destination.
Bradshaw writes, "This delightful place has become one of great import as a summer resort.
"The air is peculiarly salubrious."
RAILWAY ANNOUNCER: We are now at Llandudno, our final station.
I've arrived at the seaside.
Those lovely stations that are like a full stop,
you've come to the end of the line, beyond only beaches, sand and surf.
And of course, Bradshaw is absolutely right,
the air is peculiarly salubrious.
As it's late, I'm heading straight to my hotel, which is perched on
the edge of Llandudno's most famous landmark, the Great Orme,
a promontory which looms above the town.
In Bradshaw's day, Victorian visitors took bracing walks on this stunning rock
to catch the fine views, a custom continued to this day.
Now this is where I'm staying,
and I was told I was coming to a lighthouse,
but actually it looks more like a castle.
Anyway, fantastic spot.
It will have a pretty good view.
This lighthouse was built 400ft up on the promontory
and so didn't require a tower to be clearly visible to shipping.
-Hello, are you Fiona?
-Yes, I am.
-Oh, what a fantastic place!
-I know. Nice to meet you.
Gosh, isn't that beautiful!
Not at all what I expected.
Fiona Kilpatrick owns this 19th-century curiosity which is now a B&B.
Oh! There can't be any other room like this in the world
We're absolutely hung out over the sea, aren't we?
It's certainly one of the most remarkable vistas that I've enjoyed on my travels.
I've slept like a log.
The weather is different today, maybe I should have done more sightseeing yesterday.
But I don't know - this billowing wildness today helps me to appreciate this wild landscape.
And Bradshaw was certainly right about the views.
As I look down on Llandudno, laid out like a map,
it makes me anxious to learn more about this fascinating place.
As with all British journeys,
you have to be prepared for whatever the weather throws at you.
I'm going to go down to Llandudno now on the Great Orme tramway,
which looks a wonderful piece of historic railway architecture.
Opened in 1902, this tramway has been delighting tourists ever since.
It's the only one of its kind still running on a British public road.
-You've got a job that many people would envy.
What system are you running on here?
I see there's a cable. Are we gripping that cable?
It's fixed on to the tram underneath.
So we're permanently fixed to this cable.
We're permanently fixed. And as we're going down, is the other one coming up?
-So we're kind of balanced in some way, are we?
This one helps that other one coming up, but we're synchronised so that
when we get to this loop here now we'll pass perfectly safely.
You get fantastic views, particularly YOU do, don't you, being out here at the front?
It's the best view in town this, yes.
-Thank you, I really enjoyed that.
-You're welcome. Cheers.
You go to many British coastal resorts and they are faded and the paint is flaking, but not Llandudno.
It's in perfect condition. Notice the lovely pastel colours, notice that everything is freshly painted.
There are no modern buildings, there are no skyscrapers, there are no horrible signs.
And why would this be? I think it's because one family has controlled this place for 500 years.
Bradshaw refers to Sir Pyers Mostyn, Baronet, but he was just one of the generations of the Mostyn family
that have been associated with Llandudno for half a millennium.
When the railways arrived in the 19th century, the Mostyns saw an opportunity
to take advantage of the new connection running through their land.
They designed a purpose-built Victorian seaside resort
laid out on a curving grid that followed the sweep of the bay.
It's maintained its distinction ever since.
-Hello, are you from Llandudno?
-Yes, that's right.
-Lovely to see you.
-I see you're wearing a Llandudno life boat... Oh, you're a crew member?
What's it like to live in Llandudno?
It's a nice town. A lot of good places to eat, drink, friendly people.
-It's very well kept, isn't it?
-Very well kept, yeah.
Lovely front that you'll have seen to the bay.
The local landowners ensure it's kept in good condition.
-The Mostyn family?
Strikingly, much of Llandudno is still owned by the Mostyn estate,
which may be why it's so finely preserved.
I'm now leaving Llandudno for the last leg of my journey to Conwy in search of my supper.
On this stretch of the line, Bradshaw urges me to be alert for an engineering marvel.
So in a few moments we are going to pass through what Bradshaw described
as that "wonder of modern, engineering skill," referring to Stephenson's tubular bridge.
Now, being a tube as you pass through it, there is no daylight.
It's going to be dark, so we're definitely not going to miss it.
Stephenson's bridge design was radical.
A series of wrought-iron plates was riveted together to make a tube.
Prefabricated on the shore, it was then lifted into place in only nine days.
The tube's inherent strength allowed Stephenson to create a 400- feet bridge without supports.
"After a few seconds of darkness we emerge into daylight
"beneath the lofty shattered walls of Conwy castle.
"Sweeping around the base of the castle on a circle,
"the railway glides on and enters the town of Conwy
"under a pointed arch constructed in the old town walls."
Conwy, with its 13th-century castle, was a distinctive place.
When the bridge was built in 1848,
it was the first time that an engineer and an architect worked together
to create a design that respected the historic town.
Stephenson and his architect devised ramparts in mediaeval style to book-end the modern structure.
But I'm not just here to see the bridge.
Do not adjust your set, this change of colour into these fetching oilskins
is because I'm going to go raking mussels.
I'm here to meet Jamie Hughes.
His family has fished mussels across ten generations.
When the railways arrived, Conwy's famous mussel industry boomed.
Jamie still sets his watch by the trains.
I see the railway runs very close by here.
Presumably in the 19th century, they used the railways
-to transport the mussels around the place?
-Yes, from Conwy,
from the sidings in Conwy to the markets within a day.
And I actually use the train as a guide for the times
-so I know what time the tide is turning.
-You time yourself by the trains?
In the morning, I know it's 7.15 when the train goes past.
That's a very good advertisement for the train service.
-Are there many mussel rakers today?
-Full time on the job probably six, seven.
Yeah, it's changed a lot over the years.
In the 19th century, Conwy had about 60 licensed mussel men.
Saltwater mussels were raked from the bay for food
and put on the train to Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield.
Freshwater mussels were also collected from the river for their pearls.
These days, there are about 12 musselmen left, catching only the saltwater variety.
-Tell me about this bit of equipment then.
-It's pitch pine.
Very heavy for a start, isn't it? It's quite a vicious-looking thing.
-And that's been used for a long time?
-Hundreds of years.
-Really? Technique is just the same?
-Just the same, exactly the same.
Raking doesn't produce a huge catch.
Jamie sells what he can locally, the rest goes to markets across the UK.
Tell me, why would enjoy a Conwy mussel more than any other?
It's a better flavour.
It's a better taste. I would say that but...
feeding from the fresh water and the sea water.
I think it's time I had a go.
Out it goes. As you say, the technique is not to let go.
And lose a bit of tide.
Not sure I'm feeling any mussels.
Not on the river bed anyway.
-Oh, it's tough work, that.
Let's have a look.
I think I've got nothing at all.
Absolute empty set.
Elsewhere, mussel men have started to use mechanical dredgers
but in Conwy, they still do it the hard way.
Put that on your shoulder.
On my shoulder like this?
Wow! What a sense of achievement.
I've actually got some mussels on board. Look at that.
Good ones, too.
Oh boy, that feels good.
Travelling along the North Wales coast, I am pleased that so much still recalls the Victorian era.
Places like Chester, Llandudno and Conwy would be recognisable
to Bradshaw and they maintain strong connections with the past.
Bradshaw describes the railway as gliding past the walls of Conwy Castle.
The Chester to Holyhead line has transported me from Roman times to World War II.
It has enabled me to glide through British history.
On my next journey, I'll be discovering how trains helped an early mail-order business...
-What is it that they contain?
-And what does it give you? Energy?
-Of course it does.
..staying in Britain's first artists' colony...
One of the descriptions in the 1840s/1850s is that is looks like the encampment of an invading army,
because there are easels and white tents - every blooming rock has got an artist sitting on it.
..and exploring the Victorian slate capital of the world.
We've popped out into a different universe.
Where are the trees now? Where is the green?
Just piles and piles and piles of grey slate.
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 his journey follows the route of the Irish Mail from Ledbury to Holyhead.
Michael takes a tour of Chester's Roman remains and discovers a secret World War II chemical weapons plant at Rhydmwyn. After spending the night in Llandudno, he goes mussel fishing on the beautiful Conwy estuary.