Michael Portillo uncovers the oil fields hidden underneath England's quiet seaside resorts and discovers the crucial role Weymouth played in the D-day landings.
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In 1840, one man transformed travel in Britain.
His name was George Bradshaw,
and his railway guides inspired 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.
Having used my Bradshaw's guide from Windsor to Winchester to Wight,
I'm now on the final leg of my journey to Wareham and Weymouth,
and the world beyond.
I'm voyaging into an area blessed with valuable minerals,
which were ripe for exploitation by Victorian industrialists.
On this stretch I'll be uncovering a hidden industry with Victorian roots.
That is an oilfield, stretching all the way past Poole, beneath Bournemouth, way under the sea.
Admiring a historic castle catapulted to fame by the railways.
Wow, that is fantastic.
The most romantic ruin.
And discovering Weymouth's role in the D-Day landings.
The day they left, they left from Portland harbour,
I went down and waved them bye bye, cos I knew them as friends.
I began my journey travelling lines Queen Victoria would have known,
as she moved between Windsor and the Isle of Wight.
Before crossing into the county of Dorset,
transformed by 19th-century tourism.
This final section starts on the Purbeck peninsula,
and takes me west via Weymouth, to the beautiful Isle of Portland.
The unspoilt countryside of Dorset is a joy.
But in Bradshaw's day, this was home to a Victorian enterprise
which foreshadowed a massive modern industry.
The Industrial Revolution was founded on power,
on energy, on fuel.
And as we approach Wareham, my Bradshaw's Guide comments that,
"The area is rich in shells and saurian, reptilian fossils.
"Beyond which are the beds of Kimmeridge Clay."
This Kimmeridge clay is actually a type of rock.
In Victorian times people round here found that they could mine it,
and extract oil and gas.
For a short while, it was used extensively in streetlamps.
The process was costly and dirty, and never flourished.
But this brief experiment offered the first hint of very much bigger things to come.
Another glorious day.
I'm leaving the train at Wareham, and heading to a place
which has played a major role in supplying Britain's modern energy needs.
Environmental scientist Suzie Baverstock knows the story.
-Hello. Welcome to Rich Farm.
Thank you. And what is Rich Farm?
Rich Farm is the largest onshore oilfield in Western Europe.
I mean, we're just very close to Wareham, here,
you'd hardly suspect that it existed.
I know, it's well hidden away in the landscape, here.
A lot of care was taken to do just that, actually.
From ground level you'd barely know it,
but tucked amongst the trees here
on the Isle of Purbeck is a vast gathering station.
17,000 barrels of oil are collected each day from underground deposits.
That is the extent of the larger of the thee main reservoirs
where we extract oil today.
-That is an oilfield?
Stretching all the way past Poole, beneath Bournemouth, way under the sea.
What kind of distance is that?
It's about 20 kilometres, or 12 miles, in distance,
and it's about a mile down.
The land which gave the Victorian miners oil shale,
90 years later, once again rewarded lucky prospectors.
They suspected that below the shale oil rock
there might be more lucrative oil, and they were right.
The first successful wells were drilled in the 1950s.
This is one of the first of the well sites here, at Rich Farm
and it's actually the well site that has the discovery well on it.
-Where they first found the oil?
Although, in a way, it wasn't first found in the 1950s,
it was first found by the Victorians, wasn't it?
Well, they certainly were exploiting the old shale, weren't they?
But they weren't actually able to get, you know,
this stuff out of the ground...
Ah, that's the crude.
..And the lower strata, this is the crude oil.
Still, I think we should be generous to the Victorians
and say they gave us the idea.
They could never have predicted, could they,
how much energy we would demand?
By the 1970s, the true extent of the oilfield was becoming apparent.
Private sidings were built,
and soon the railways were being used to export the oil.
How busy was this in its heyday?
Well, in the 70s and 80s, it was quite a small oilfield,
and this was the only way that you could get oil to the refinery.
So, this was absolutely crucial to the operation of the oilfield.
But when the big development took place, we built a pipeline.
So, the oil went out by pipeline.
Instead of using this for oil,
we use this to export liquid petroleum gases by train.
But over all that long period,
we must have had over 5,000 trains go out of these sidings.
So, the railway was fundamental to developing this field?
Today the oilfield produces 6.1 million barrels a year.
Sophisticated drilling technology allows oil to be brought here
from deposits buried deep under the sea, 11 kilometres away.
With barely a scar on the landscape in this area of outstanding natural beauty.
So, what precautions were taken with environmental matters
when this was built?
Very much a self-contained site,
so, everything was built in a way that you couldn't see it above the tree line.
So, you can see it's down at a lower level.
It's also been painted a dark brown colour
so that it's hidden amongst the trees here.
-It's not that it's gone rusty, it's painted that colour?
-It's painted a Van Dyke Brown.
It's amazing to think that such a huge oilfield is so harsh to glimpse,
especially as this is an area that gets 2.5 million visitors a year.
I'm now on my way to a historic spot
that's been pulling in the tourists since Bradshaw's day.
-Good afternoon, sir.
-Just one stop for me, please.
Thank you very much.
For the next part of my journey
there's no regular public rail service,
so I'm forced to travel on a heritage line
with a steam engine, and I'm not complaining.
This line was built in the 1880s,
to link Wareham with the busy resort of Swanage on the coast.
After it was closed in the 1970s, all the track was lifted,
but enthusiasts have painstakingly rebuild it.
The joys of an old-fashioned carriage.
I'm heading a mile down the line,
towards the 1,000-year-old ruins of Corfe Castle,
and my first glimpse doesn't disappoint.
Wow, that is fantastic.
Sitting on this hill here are the most romantic ruins of a castle.
And this must be the best place to see them from.
The railway line is absolutely the place to see them.
I've never seen that before.
Sitting on its mound, sitting on its hill, fantastic.
With the steam engine chugging away, Bradshaw will, as ever, be my guide.
"The surrounding country is full of castellated remains
"and interesting historical associations.
"In the neighbouring Isle of Purbeck
"are the ruins of Corfe Castle, definitely worth a closer look."
Corfe Castle sits on a mound far above the village
that takes its name.
Victorian readers who bought Bradshaw's guide were among the first to climb to the summit.
Well, as I get nearer the castle, it's just as impressive.
Now I get a sense of scale, the keep is absolutely massive,
the people visiting look like little dots.
And on a warm day, climbing up this hill,
I have every sympathy with anybody who tried to invade this castle.
I'm meeting historian Pam White,
to hear how the Victorians fell in love with this picturesque relic.
What wonderful ruins these are.
-They're just spectacular, they really are.
-How old is it?
A bit of Saxon work here, but most of it's from 1,100,
so it's about 900 years old.
-So, just after the Norman conquest?
And it's been a ruin a while?
It's been a ruin since 1666, so yeah, nearly 400 years.
So obviously, it was more or less in this condition in Victorian times?
It was, the Victorians really turned it into a tourist attraction.
Trains started here 1885.
The line from Waterloo to Weymouth went in, I think, in the 1850s and then the branch line.
You see, I just got off the railway station at Corfe Castle,
-so it had its own railway station?
Very important, that was why the tourism took off, roads didn't come till about the 1920s,
when cars started to get more popular.
Oh, so for a while the railway was really the way to get here?
The only way, apart from an occasional horse and carriage.
In the 19th century, historical novels
and popular paintings fuelled a romantic view of British history.
And visiting tumbledown ruins became a fashionable pursuit.
To fire the imagination of Victorian visitors,
my guide book brings to life the heroic story
from the castle's 17th-century past.
My Bradshaw's guide says during the English Civil War
the castle became famous, "because of the gallant defence
"made by the wife of Chief Justice Banks on behalf of the King.
"She was assisted by her daughters, maids and only five soldiers.
"After a siege of ten weeks,
"the Roundheads were obliged to give up the siege. "
-Quite an amazing bit of history, that.
-She was a fantastic woman.
Lady Banks was home alone
when the castle was besieged by Oliver Cromwell's Roundheads.
She held firm,
and her courageous defence earned her the name Brave Dame Mary.
But, eventually, she was foiled when the Roundheads played a dastardly trick.
Just outside the castle, they simply turned their coats inside out,
because the Cavalier soldiers in the area had blue coats,
Roundheads had red coats with blue linings.
It's a really sneaky way to get into the castle.
-This is the origin of the expression turncoat, isn't it?
-Yes, it is.
-And it sounds like she was sold out for 20 pieces of silver?
I can see why the Victorians were entranced by the tale,
which marked the end of Corfe Castle's history as a fortification.
So, how was it the castle came to be destroyed?
Cromwell didn't want it,
to garrison it with soldiers would have cost a lot of money,
so they simply blew it up with gunpowder.
The destruction of Corfe Castle
underlined the defeat of King Charles.
But, for the villagers, it wasn't all bad news.
stone taken from the ruins can still be seen in local houses.
I'm on the hunt for that looted booty.
Lovely house, lovely flowers.
Well, I should have watered them a lot...a lot... I beg your...
That's all right, I don't mind getting wet.
-Do you have any bits of castle in your house?
-No, I don't think I do.
Oh, I'm on the lookout for bits of stone in houses.
-Michael, Michael Bond may have, I would imagine, in there.
-I'll try there.
Forgive me for asking, are these... these here from the castle?
These mullions, here?
Probably not, actually, no.
We have got something I like to think came from the castle.
-Quite low, isn't it?
-Yes, do duck.
So, what are we looking for?
We're looking at that piece of panelling.
This is spectacular. And it's from the castle?
Well, I like to think...
I like to pretend so, let's put it that way.
The people who know about joinery
tell me it's from the late 16th or early 17th century.
It wasn't made for where it is now
because it doesn't fit at either end.
Obviously, when it was sacked it was a great quarry,
and everybody helped themselves to whatever they wanted.
One of my ancestors was a crony of Cromwell's,
and he took some of the beams from the Great Hall,
and took them away to be part of a barn on a farm that he had,
about three miles west of here.
What was he, a colonel of Cromwell's, a general?
No, no, he was a politician.
Oh, the worst sort!
The destruction of Corfe Castle during the English Civil War
seems like a tragedy, but the distribution of the stones
has left us with a poignant ruin and a charming village.
I've retraced my steps to Wareham,
to continue my journey towards the coast.
'Train is for Weymouth.'
I'm travelling 25 miles down the track,
towards the final stop on the South West Main Line from London.
Weymouth was one of Britain's first seaside resorts,
and it gets a glowing review in my 19th-century guide.
Weymouth, and Bradshaw's says,
"No place can be more salubrious than Weymouth.
"The town is not only frequented during the summer,
"but has been selected by many opulent families
"as a permanent residence.
"The beauty of its scenery and the healthfulness of its climate
"have contributed to raise it
"from the low state into which it had fallen,
"to one of the most flourishing towns in the kingdom.
Weymouth first became popular in Georgian times,
and initially was accessible only for the well-to-do.
But after the railway arrived in 1857,
the town was transformed into a destination for mass tourism.
By the 20th century, thousands of visitors were coming here
for their annual hit of sun, sea and sand.
It's the perfect place for me to break my journey.
My Bradshaw's guide mentions the beautiful view
from the buildings along the seafront here at Weymouth,
and luckily, there's a hotel perfectly situated.
-Good evening. Welcome to our hotel.
Michael Portillo, checking in, please.
The Royal Hotel is one of the few Victorian buildings
on Weymouth's Georgian esplanade.
Built in the year of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee,
it's an ideal spot to see the town through 19th-century eyes.
My Bradshaw's says, "From the windows of these buildings
"a most extensive and delightful view is obtained.
"Comprehending on the left a noble range of hills and cliffs,
"and of the sea in front,
"with numerous vessels, yachts, and pleasure boats."
When the sun finally sets on this vista,
I shall go to sleep in this Royal Hotel.
Waking to Weymouth, I can see why my Bradshaw's guide is so enthusiastic about its beauty.
But 80 years after my guide book was published,
this picturesque seaside resort was transformed beyond recognition.
In World War II, with German-occupied France so close across the Channel,
the whole of the south coast was declared a war zone.
Nearby Portland was an important naval base,
and Weymouth's railways were targeted in air raids.
Beach huts and donkey rides were replaced with barbed wire
and anti-aircraft guns.
For the residents, it was a dramatic change.
I'm meeting Ken Warren, who grew up in wartime Weymouth.
Hello, Ken. How very good to see you.
-Good to see you.
-Do you remember Weymouth before the wartime?
No, my memory doesn't go back that far.
I can't remember much about it at all.
So, your first memory of this charming resort
is of barbed wire, of warfare?
Yes, and soldiers and guns, and bombs, and aeroplanes,
and shooting, and sirens...
It doesn't sound like the normal description of Weymouth.
Astonishingly, Ken remembers playing with this sort of gun as a boy.
I used to go to the troops and take home comics, and I used to run errands for them,
and they would let us have a go at the gun.
Me and my mate, we would turn one handle and the barrel would go up and down,
turn the other handle and it travels right round.
-How old were you?
-I was about 10 years old when that happened.
By 1944, the Allies were planning to storm the beaches of northern France.
Troops massed along the south coast,
including over a million from the United States.
These exotic new arrivals made a lasting impression on the locals.
What's your first memory of American troops in Weymouth?
Smart-looking fellas in these nice uniforms,
and they were all smiling and happy, whereas the British troops, we'd had enough of the war.
Didn't want it. They came and it was so nice.
They had all these things that we never had,
and they would always shake our hands and say, "Hiya, boy." "Hiya, Mac," they used to call us.
What sort of things did they have?
Mostly it was biscuits,
and dried milk, and dried egg we used to take home to Mother.
She loved it when I used to bring that home.
What Ken didn't know was that the friendly GIs
were being secretly prepared for one of the most ambitious operations
of the Second World War, the D-Day landings.
It was kept pretty quiet, as a matter of fact.
We didn't know, we just thought it was an exercise.
We didn't know they were going, no, it was all hushed up.
What did you actually see?
Well, all these tanks rolling in the streets,
and all the troops marching along, and getting ready.
On June 6, 1944, 6,000 ships and 2,500 planes
delivered 160,000 Allied troops to Normandy.
It was to prove a turning point in the course of the war,
but thousands lost their lives.
The day they left, they left from Portland Harbour,
I went down and I waved them bye-bye, cos I knew them as friends.
I knew one of them personally, his name was Joe Royle,
and I often wondered what happened to him.
I used to do his shopping for him and my mother did his ironing,
and we used to have him up for tea. He was a great friend.
Growing up in such a dangerous environment,
the railway held no fear for Ken and his friends.
They often played nearby,
putting pennies on the line to be squashed by the train,
until Ken took things too far.
One day, the workmen's hut was open,
I had a look round and I saw some detonators.
Instead of pennies, I placed them on the line, along came the train
and run over these detonators, bang, bang, bang, puff of smoke.
Steel grinding, sparks everywhere.
And I thought, "What have I done? I've done something wrong here, there's going to be an accident.
"I'm going to get an awful trouble!"
So, I went home and I stayed indoors for three days,
I daren't come out, in case they associated me with this train pulling up.
Luckily, no disaster, it just made the train stop?
-Yes, it just made the train stop.
That railway line that Ken feared he'd destroyed opened in 1865.
It linked Weymouth to the Isle of Portland,
my last stop on this long journey.
Over there is Portland.
Bradshaw says, "About four miles south from Weymouth
"is the island of Portland,
"which, though thus called, is in reality a peninsular.
"Connected with the mainland by an extremely narrow isthmus
"called Chesil Bank."
And this was once a railway track, but discontinued in the 1960s,
so, now, you have to hoof it.
Portland is at one end of the stunning 18-mile long Chesil Beach,
or Bank as Bradshaw calls it,
which stretches up the Dorset coast, west of Weymouth.
It's a remarkable natural phenomenon, but a dangerous one too.
This coastline is famous for shipwrecks,
and since the 18th century a lighthouse has stood on Portland Bill
to warn approaching sailors of the danger beneath its beauty.
Bradshaw comments, "This picturesque coast is unrivalled.
"The sea view is agreeably diversified
"with grand and striking objects to break the monotony
"that usually pervades a marine prospect."
I love those Bradshaw-isms!
There's certainly nothing monotonous about the view from Portland.
Portland is part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site,
a 95-mile stretch of Dorset coastline
which charts how the Earth has changed
over 185 million years.
It's not only geologists who are passionate about these rocks.
In the 19th century, the coming of the railway
helped export unprecedented quantities of stone from the island's quarries.
As I've toured Britain's cities,
Bradshaw's has told me that many of our finest buildings are made of Portland stone.
And so I had to visit the cradle of England's most handsome rock.
Portland stone is a type of limestone,
formed around 150 million years ago on what was once the seabed.
It's always been highly prized as a building stone,
and in Victorian times was much in demand for prestigious projects,
from Nelson's Column to the refurbishment of Buckingham Palace.
For generations, it's provided jobs for quarrymen like Ralph Stone.
-It's an impressive place, isn't it?
-Certainly is. Welcome to Portland.
-When did you start as a quarryman?
-That's a good long stretch, isn't it?
50 years digging holes.
In the 19th century,
as Britain's cities developed at brake neck speed,
the quarries were booming.
My guidebook tells me 50,000 tonnes of stone were exported yearly from Portland.
I suppose the railways played an important part in Portland stone's development?
Oh, very much so.
The merchant railway, first of all, was first developed to take the stone down to the cast iron pier,
where they used to load it on the steamers,
or the Thames barges, and take them to London.
-That first railway, what was that, not a steam railway?
-No, that was horse-drawn.
But the main railway, when that came here, that was a revelation.
They used to pull right into the factory,
so they could load them straight in the railway trucks and go wherever.
Removing this valuable stone without damaging it
has always required immense skill.
In the 19th and 20th century, workers relied on chisels, hammers and a few explosives.
It was backbreaking work.
In Victorian times what would the scene have been, and how would they have done it?
Victorian times, a lot of men, a lot of men.
All manpower, all manpower,
and the quarry used to be worked according to the natural joints in the ground
because, you know, it's like a giant, three-dimensional jigsaw, Portland stone is.
The quarrymen, through a lot of experience, took the jigsaw apart.
Ralph's Victorian predecessors received help from an unlikely quarter,
when in the mid-19th century, a prison was built on Portland.
What was the history of the convicts in the quarry?
Apparently, they were sent here for hard labour
before they were deported to the colonies.
So, it was a double whammy for them.
You can imagine inexperienced people being put in an environment like this with explosives.
There was a lot of fatalities for the convicts in the quarries.
I think it was one of the reasons why hard labour was stopped.
-Yeah, a grim history, isn't it?
-A grim history.
Even into the 20th century, the combination of explosives
and heavy machinery made quarrying a dangerous occupation.
When I started work, went in the hut with the men,
took there by the manager, "That's your seat."
Sat down in the seat.
I didn't know until, like, months afterwards,
underneath my seat was a tin box, right, with black powder and fusing.
Right by the side of me, between my knees,
there was a great, big stove, all lit.
I mean, it's enough to blow everybody to kingdom come!
-And you're talking about the 1950s?
Can you imagine what it was like in the 1850s?
Well, they you are, you see, yeah.
Recently, mines have been dug to reach deeper deposits,
and such techniques may supersede opencast quarries.
While much has changed since Bradshaw's day, as I say goodbye to Portland,
what strikes me is how much remains the same.
My route from Windsor has taken me along tracks familiar to Queen Victoria,
and helped me to understand how the railways transformed her life and those of her subjects,
and the landscapes and industries of her realm.
My Bradshaw's has given me insights and experiences
that I could not have derived from any modern guidebook.
It's led me, now, to the Royal Manor of Portland,
and one of the most beautiful views in England.
My next journey takes me west from the rolling Cotswolds,
passing through the Malvern Hills,
on to the railways that changed the fortunes of industrial South Wales.
En route, I'll be sampling a Victorian navvie's favourite brew.
Cheers! You can build a railway once you drink that!
Learning how Worcestershire farming has been transformed since Bradshaw's time.
This is the most unexpected sight, suddenly a riot of colour.
And seeing the modern face of the 19th-century steel industry.
Now, I can feel the heat of the furnace,
I can see a stream of molten iron, I can see sparks firing, and smoke,
and this fantastic train that's emerging.
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 of Bradshaw's Britain remains.
Following in the footsteps of Queen Victoria, Michael uses the railways she often rode from Windsor Castle to her country getaway on the Isle of Wight, from which his journey continues west to Portland.
Michael uncovers the amazing oil fields hidden underneath England's quiet seaside resorts, discovers the crucial role Weymouth played in the D-day landings, and heads to the cradle of Victorian Britain's most prestigious building rock, Portland.