Michael explores the Conwy valley, stopping at Britain's first artists' colony at Betws-y-Coed and visiting the Victorian slate capital of Blaenau Ffestiniog.
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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 remains of Bradshaw's Britain.
In recent days, I've been travelling along a railway line
that was built to speed the link between London and Dublin.
It was a vital route of communication,
carrying the Irish mail
and it boosted trade and tourism along its length.
I'm journeying across North Wales,
using my 19th century Bradshaw's guide,
towards the Irish ferry port of Holyhead.
But today, I'm taking time out to make a diversion
along the line that was built in the 1860s,
following the course of the Conwy River
through some of Wales's most beautiful scenery,
to discover more about what these Welsh hills are made of
and the sorts of people that they attracted in Bradshaw's day.
In the 19th century,
the railways sprouted mile after mile of branch lines.
My Bradshaw's guide has set me to explore one of the prettiest in Wales,
to appreciate how even a secondary line,
could transform the fortunes of a locality.
Along the way, I'll be discovering
how trains helped an early mail order business.
What is it they contain?
What does it give you? Energy?
Of course it does.
Staying in Britain's first artist's colony.
One of the descriptions in the 1840s and 1850s,
is it looks like the encampment of an invading army
because 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.
So far, I've travelled almost 150 miles from Ledbury to Llandudno.
Now I'm heading deep into North Wales and exploring Snowdonia,
before crossing the Menai Straits to Anglesey and Holyhead.
My first stop today is Llanrwst,
then on to Betws-y-Coed,
Blaenau Ffestiniog and finally, Porthmadog.
This stretch of the journey takes me on a detour
away from the mainline to Holyhead, along the Conwy Valley,
on a branch that was built in the 1860s.
I've never been down this line before and already I am surprised.
The Conwy River is much wider than I had expected.
It is very lush and green.
And actually Bradshaw should have prepared me for this, he says,
"This valley is remarkable for its beauty and fertility,
"its luxuriant pastures, cornfields and groves,
"and these are finely contrasted
"with the bleak appearance of the Snowdon Mountain
"which towers in frowning majesty above."
Just about right.
In Bradshaw's era,
towns across the country cried out to be linked to the railway network,
hungry for economic benefit.
New lines like this spread like wildfire.
-Morning, Michael. Welcome to the Conwy Valley.
-Thank you very much.
It's a fantastic railway line. Was it built for tourism?
No, the original reason for this line
was to convey the products of the slate quarry in the town of Blaenau Ffestiniog to the coast.
So that was the real reason for the line.
But of course as the years have emerged and industry has changed
then tourism is now very much our main feature.
'North Llanrwst station opened in 1863.'
'The line carried slate and the mountains became accessible to rail passengers for the first time.'
North Llanrwst station is beautifully situated
and it was obviously built on a scale,
a gateway to welcome tourists and visitors.
Now looking a little bit like...
I've come to see what attracted all the visitors.
"In the vicinity is Trefriw,
"in a hollow of the Caernarvonshire hills,
"where there are some salubrious mineral waters."
The Trefriw springs were a local secret until the 19th century.
When the railway arrived, the town blossomed into a fully-fledged spa,
with a bathhouse and pump room.
The bathhouse is no more,
but of course, the famous waters flow still.
'Hilary Rogers-Jones is a guide at the spa.'
So these are the spa waters of Trefriw, is that right?
Yes, they certainly are.
And Bradshaw, my 19th-century guide,
says they are very salubrious waters.
And why is that? What is it that they contain?
And it's in solution.
It was called Trefriw chalybeate.
I think he may have mentioned chalybeate waters,
which is iron in solution.
Does it give you energy?
Of course it does.
And how do you best take it, then?
Do you ingest it or do you bathe in it?
No, you take it.
They used to bathe in it.
In Bradshaw's time they bathed in it.
It was said that these iron-rich waters
provided a natural cure for anaemia.
And taking advantage of the new branch line,
the spa created one of the earliest mail order businesses
that made use of rail.
They could get it in the post as well. Here's one of the very old boxes
-Oh, that's fantastic.
-With the bottles.
And it has "Trefriw Wells" on it.
And I presume, sent off on the train.
Yes, they'd be collected from here.
That's when the Post Office came into Trefriw
and then of course so much went by rail in those days.
I had no idea that at that stage you could send away
-and get a bottle of water.
-A little bottle of water, very expensive.
This would be 42 shillings for an eight-week supply of water,
which was a tremendous amount of money in those days. Just imagine.
-That is. That is staggering.
-It's a lot of money. It is.
-They must really have believed in it.
-Oh, they did.
'Back then, 42 shillings was over a week's wages for most workers.
'So the mail order service was an expensive luxury for the rich.
'Those who took the train to the spa
'could also take a dip in the special waters.'
This is the bathhouse that people used to bathe in,
from 1833 when it was built.
-That's a huge bath.
-It is, isn't it?
-And what's this made of?
-Good Welsh slate.
-And the water...
-Just used to come...
-Tumbling off the mountains...
-Tumbling off the mountains into here.
I can understand that if you drink iron
that might do you some good.
But bathing in it - would that do any good?
They believed it would, and faith is a wonderful thing, isn't it?
Faith is everything.
Yes, it is, isn't it?
'I think I'll skip the bath,
'but I wouldn't mind a taste of these famous waters.'
-Mind your head.
-Oh, dark and damp.
-Look at those iron stalactites.
-I know, look at them.
Down the hatch!
Oh, it's not so bad.
I don't mind it, you see. But some people...
It is metallic, but it's not unpleasant.
-No, it isn't, is it?
Today, the water still compensates for iron deficiency
and is sold all over the world.
As for me, I'm heading to the station,
where I need to be on the ball to catch my next train.
At rural stations, the trains stop only by request.
Now, I've never had to do this with a train before,
only with a bus or taxi, but I guess the technique is similar.
That seems to have done it.
I'm now travelling another three miles along the beautiful Conwy Valley
to one of North Wales's prettiest villages, Betws-y-Coed.
I can't resist stopping here
because I've heard it's a train enthusiast's paradise.
A whole world of railways opens up in front of the station here.
Little North American steam engine,
an electric tram.
Ancient rolling stock with, apparently, a restaurant in it.
Bradshaw would have loved it.
The spectacular model railway shop at Betws-Y-Coed
is owned by Colin Cartwright.
This is the most amazing emporium!
It makes me feel like a kid.
That's lovely. Lovely to see you, Michael.
This place is famous. It must be one of the best model railway shops in the world.
-Yes, I think you could be right.
-You've got everything here.
It's not just a shop - it's a playground.
This is every boy's dream.
All you have to do is press the button
and you will control a train.
It will come to life.
There you are.
Look what we've got here. We've got a huge station with about six roads.
We've got over bridges, we've got the scenery.
I love this, Colin, because I only had a clockwork model railway
and some of my friends had electrics, and I always wanted an electric.
Are you now realising your ambitions then,
in actually controlling a train yourself?
At last, I've realised my ambitions!
It had to come sometime.
-You actually stopped it in the station.
-I tried to do that.
'The first model trains in the 1890s were known as carpet railways
'because they didn't run on tracks.
'They were powered by miniature steam engines.
'Today's models are usually powered by rather duller electricity.'
They're such fun, aren't they?
They certainly are. And when you think, we were the pioneers of all railways.
I think it's lovely that we can continue -
especially with the youngsters of today -
continue what's gone on before.
But it's not just youngsters, I've seen some of your prices - thousands of pounds.
-These are people with money who are investing in model railways.
We think it is not only a passion for railways,
-but it's also a relaxation.
I think it keeps families together.
But Bradshaw didn't come here for the model railways.
He writes, "In a green, sheltered nook of the Conwy
"is a resort, well known to anglers and artists."
In the 19th century,
Betws-y-Coed became popular with painters
who came to capture nature in this beautiful location.
-Hello, nice to see you.
'I'm hoping art historian, Peter Lord, can explain why.'
Bradshaw talks about Betws-y-Coed as a resort that attracts artists
and that's been your great speciality.
How did that all begin - the artists?
It begins a long time before Bradshaw, actually.
Because you're standing in one of the very early English tourist sites in Wales,
or in Britain, to tell the truth.
In fact, Betws-y-Coed was the first artists' colony in the country.
It started with David Cox,
who became one of the most distinguished landscape painters of his time.
Cox starts to come here for the summer
and stays over all the summers between 1844 and 1856 and he brings his friends with him.
Cox is THE man.
He's the big English painter.
So, anybody who wants to be anybody
in the art world in London, follows Cox here.
Cox's landscapes helped to publicise the glories of the area,
like the dramatic Swallow Falls.
This is very lovely.
Well, obviously, there's a lot more water here in the winter
and you get the foam.
-So this was the sort of place that attracted David Cox?
One of the descriptions of the place in the 1840s and 1850s
is that it looks like the encampment of an invading army.
Because there are easels and white tents
and every blooming rock has an artist sitting on it.
It was getting a bit crowded.
So, he would wander off, he would teach a bit, talk to other artists.
He was a very sociable man and everybody liked him.
It's a fantastic scene that you paint.
It's almost unimaginable to us now,
that the hills would be alive with artists.
The hills were alive with artists - that's a good way of putting it.
Eventually, that becomes a tourist attraction. You don't just come to Betws to see the scenery -
you come to see the artists.
From the 1860s, when the railway line opened,
artists and tourists descended on Betws-y-Coed in ever greater numbers,
bringing wealth and fame to the village.
So you've brought me in now to the back of the railway station.
But you need to be looking that way.
Ah. Beautiful, beautiful.
We've got the lovely medieval church, which is rather ironic,
because a little further on from this place,
David Cox painted his very famous picture,
The Welsh Funeral, painted in 1848.
And that's one of the key events in drawing people to Betws.
He painted it... Or the view that he shows in the picture,
was more or less the middle of the railway line - over there.
-So the railway is driven through the scene in the painting?
It is ironic. Because it's partly the fame of Cox's picture
which drew people to Betws.
They came on the train after 1868 -
middle-class tourists started to come.
It's an extraordinary thing,
but I think it's a reflection of the times.
I mean, the railway comes for good economic reasons.
It's high-Victorian capitalism.
The moans and groans of a few artists and spoiling the view won't make much difference.
'The first hotel to accommodate the artists opened in 1768
'and luckily for me, it's open still.'
We're on our way to the Royal Oak
because this is where David Cox
and all the early tourists would have stayed.
It's a lot more grand now than it was then,
but I think you'll find it very comfortable.
It's a lovely place to stay.
'Cox came here often
'and painted a sign for the hotel which now hangs in the foyer.
'It seems that in staying here,
'I follow a very distinguished guest list.'
I have arranged for the old visitors' book to be here
so you can see that as well.
-Here we are.
Here you are. That's contemporary with your Bradshaw.
It's the 1860s.
Back here, with a bit of luck, I've marked it.
There we can see...
The Loyal Incorporation Of Artists at Betws-y-Coed.
And here's a list of the artists in residence on October 3rd 1867.
Down at the bottom you can see why they came.
-They came for the booze...
-They came for the booze.
..To have a smoke,
and to fish.
Fishing was a very good thing in Betws.
-Bradshaw mentions angling here.
So it was an all-round experience.
And they're all here.
The next morning I set out for the train station to continue my journey.
I'm leaving the lush valley of Betws-y-Coed
for the mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog.
You cannot imagine anything more rural or more green than this.
But I've been told
that I will shortly pass through a tunnel, two miles long -
the longest single track tunnel in Britain.
And at the other end,
I will pop out into another world.
This tunnel was built in 1879.
It takes me straight through the mountain
to what was, in Bradshaw's day,
the slate capital of Wales.
We've popped out into a different universe.
Where are the trees now, where is the green?
Where are the sheep, where are the farms?
Just piles and piles and piles of grey slate.
A great grey mountain reaching down to the tracks.
These huge heaps of slate are the waste from the quarries
that have dominated the area for hundreds of years.
The slate industry is all about
and Bradshaw wrote of what he saw,
"An inclined plane leads up to the edge of the vast mountain,
"on the sides of which, above 2,000 hands
"are employed in hacking and splitting."
In its heyday, there were about ten slate quarries
in Blaenau Ffestiniog alone.
I'm meeting managing director, Andrew Roberts,
who runs one of just two that are left.
Good morning, Andrew. I'm Michael.
ANDREW SPEAKS WELSH
Thank you very much for your welcome to your amazing town,
which I see down here in the valley.
-Of course, I came down on the railway this morning.
Presumably that railway was built for this very purpose,
for carrying the slate.
The railway theme has been very important to the slate industry,
you know, since the 1830s.
The Ffestiniog railway, for example...
was built because of the need to take the slate from Ffestiniog
down to the port, Porthmadog, and then shipped all over world.
So, historically, it just wouldn't have happened without the railway.
By the late 19th century, the industry was at its peak.
Two trains a day carried 400 tonnes of slate down to the port.
The quarries were criss-crossed with tracks
that conveyed the slate to the trains.
Nowadays, slate is quarried at the surface,
but in Bradshaw's time, vast caverns were dug down into the hillside.
You've just thrown a stone
to make me realise that that is very, very deep indeed.
Almost every man in the village worked at the mine,
many labouring by candlelight,
blasting out the slate with explosives.
It's quite moving, isn't it?
It must have been VERY hard
and it must have been quite dangerous.
Very, very dangerous.
Of course, you relied heavily on the skills of your fellow workers.
You trusted them. You had to put your trust in them,
working and drilling in very tight, confined spaces, with explosives.
It's very hazardous.
Welsh blue grey slate was considered one of the best in the world
because it kept its colour well
and could be split cleanly by hand into a variety of sizes.
In the 20th century, imports began to displace it.
Now it's mainly used in restoration projects
and it all travels by road.
My Bradshaw's guide refers to
the workers piling up the slates in their thousands
and categorising them according to size and name.
And he talks about duchesses and countesses and ladies.
Does that mean anything to you?
It means a lot to me, Michael.
It's the day-to-day language of this mill.
-So the duchess would be larger and the lady would be smaller?
So you use the same terminology as was used in the 19th century?
We do. It's unique to the Welsh slate industry
and something that will continue
while we still produce slates from this mill.
Many of the workers, like Glyn Daniels,
have fathers and grandfathers who worked in the slate mines,
passing on their skills.
Glyn can produce around 700 tiles a day
and is going to teach me what he does.
I love the chair, because it's all part of the tradition.
I sit myself down like this.
And quite a light tap to begin with?
Oh, it's splitting already.
-And now leave her a little bit?
-Put your hand there.
-Put my hand there.
Oh, fantastic feeling!
Look at that!
Did I do that?
'Once the slate is split, it's trimmed and shaped by machine
'so that it will fit snugly against other tiles.'
Beautiful. So that now has a lovely chamfered edge
-and that is the dressing.
So, this is a fully-dressed lady.
Lovely piece of work.
In the future, the slate industry may change again.
Andrew's big hope is to use the waste from the quarries for road building.
His dream is to transport slate on the railways once more,
back down the line to Conwy.
As for me, I'm looking forward
to riding on the Blaenau Ffestiniog railway.
Founded in 1832,
it's the oldest independent railway company in the world.
Now it's a heritage line,
carrying tourists down to Porthmadog on the coast.
-Hello, Driver. I'm Michael.
-Hello, Michael. I'm Paul.
-So how does this lovely engine drive?
It's unique to the railway. The wheels are articulated underneath.
-So you can go around...
-Very sharp corners.
-You've got very sharp corners on this line?
When it was built, engineers experimented with the track
to negotiate the winding hillside.
It was certainly one of the most important railways of its time.
It was a real leader in the field.
They realised very quickly
they couldn't build standard gauge in the sort of terrain we're at.
The railway also pioneered a kind of double engine
that enabled it to power long, heavy slate trains
through the steep mountains.
As the slate industry declined, so too did the railway
and the last slate train left Blaenau Ffestiniog in 1946.
But less than ten years later,
it reopened as a tourist line.
And even today, its enthusiasts are growing in number.
Do you work on the line a lot?
I come up several times a year just to volunteer.
You're a volunteer?
Yes, I am.
And why do you volunteer to do this?
I just fell in love with it and then decided to become a guard,
so I'm doing my training at the moment.
Oh, lovely, so this is just for the love of it?
Just for the love of it, yes.
Knowing the line so well,
what would you pick out as a kind of highlight
that I should keep my eye open for?
One thing that the railway's famous for is its Cob
and it splits the estuary.
So it's got some fantastic wildlife
and you can see a wonderful view of Snowdon from it as well.
The long embankment called the Cob, near Porthmadog,
was originally built in 1811
to reclaim land from the estuary for farming.
It later proved to be the perfect structure to carry the railway.
So now, at last, I discover what the Cob is.
It's this immense sea defence.
This huge wall.
And the railway runs along the top level of it
and two lanes of cars run along the bottom level.
Then that's holding the sea behind me at bay
and creating this vast inland piece of reclaimed land.
And giving us the most fantastic views
towards that looming peak of Snowdon.
Riding the Cob takes me almost to the harbour at Porthmadog, where the slate was unloaded.
And last stop for me, too.
Porthmadog Harbour began to export small tonnages of slate in the early 19th century.
When the railway gave it a high-capacity link to the slate quarries, it flourished.
By the 1870s, over 120,000 tonnes of slate
were loaded at Porthmadog every year.
-John. I'm Michael.
-Great to see you.
I'm hoping that maritime history enthusiast, Dr John Jones Morris, can tell me more.
The railway arrived at the harbour in 1836 and allowed the easy transport of slate
from the quarries down to the quaysides here at Porthmadog for subsequent export by sea.
The standard trade was for the slate to be loaded on ships.
Usually they would leave in about April.
Demand for slate would either be sort of in Southern England or on the continent.
Quite a lot of the slate went to the continent, particularly to Germany.
In the early part of the 19th century, there was quite a huge fire in Hamburg,
and the quarry owners at Blaenau Ffestiniog, seeing a good opportunity,
went over there and persuaded the city fathers to re-roof the city with Ffestiniog slate,
or Porthmadog slate as we like to call it.
The ships, having delivered their cargo in Europe, were filled up with heavy ballast to give them stability
on the return voyage to Porthmadog.
They used anything to hand, from rubbish to rocks.
Having arrived at Porthmadog, they had to dispose of the ballast and they found a sand bank there
and started unloading the ballast onto the island.
And, as you can see, has built a considerable island over the years.
-That lovely stretch of green?
-That sits on top of rocks from many parts of the Mediterranean.
If you were to dig, there would be all sorts of different types rock and rubble.
-There is a corner of a Welsh port that is forever Europe.
-Indeed. Yes, there is.
As I've journeyed along the narrow tracks and valleys of the Welsh mountains,
I've once more admired the skills of the Victorian railway builders.
Their ingenuity opened this corner of Wales to opportunities and visitors.
Victorian artists and tourists were attracted to the Conwy Valley
because of its glorious landscape.
Victorian mining companies were drawn to these parts because of what lay beneath that landscape.
Now I'm looking forward to tackling that most famous piece of Welsh geology, Mount Snowdon.
On the next leg of my journey, I'll be travelling
to lofty mountain heights.
It's magnificent. It's really imposing.
I'll be turning my tongue to the Welsh language.
So, it's fairly easy, really.
Llan-vire-pooll-guin-gill-go-ger-u- queern-drob-ooll-llandus-illio-gogo- goch.
And tasting one of Wales's finest new products, salt.
It hits you from the side of the tongue.
It's got a wonderful texture. It's really crunchy, isn't it?
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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Michael Portillo explores the Conwy valley, stopping at Britain's first artists' colony at Betws-y-Coed, visiting the Victorian slate capital of Blaenau Ffestiniog and taking a steam train down to the harbour at Porthmadog.