Michael Portillo is led to a special view of the city of Oxford by his 19th-century guidebook and samples a Victorian navvies' brew made by steam power.
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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.
Guided, as ever, by my Bradshaw's, I've embarked on a new journey,
from the rolling countryside of Oxfordshire
to the mining and smelting heartlands of South Wales.
During the Industrial Revolution,
the Victorians exploited the fruits of this land,
transforming the country and its cities.
And, as ever,
the catalyst for that change was the arrival of the railways.
I'm beginning in a quintessentially English region.
Its timeless beauty and quirky traditions are
all recorded in my 19th-century guidebook.
On this leg of the journey, I'll be seeing Oxford through Bradshaw's eyes.
It's really worth the climb, isn't it? That is the most fantastic view.
Sampling a Victorian navvy's favourite brew. Cheers!
You could build a railway once you've drunk that, couldn't you?
And discovering a surprising crop in the heart of the Cotswolds.
This is the most, uh, unexpected sight.
Suddenly a riot of colour!
This journey starts in the heart of England,
taking me west through the Malvern Hills and across the Welsh border.
I'll then travel through the industrial powerhouse of South Wales,
finishing up in Milford Haven.
Starting in historic Oxford,
this stretch explores the picture postcard landscape of the Cotswold Hills,
as far as Pershore, near the agricultural Vale of Evesham.
My first stop is Oxford,
known as home to one of Britain's best universities.
According to my Bradshaw's, Oxford University has an advantage over
Cambridge in being placed among more attractive scenery
and combining a greater variety of splendid architecture.
That judgement will be highly controversial
amongst people, like me, who went to Cambridge.
Whatever my personal views, there's no disputing that Oxford
is a wonderfully preserved historic city.
After the railway arrived here in the 1840s, it brought new waves
of tourists to admire the dreaming spires, and provided a speedy way
for students to travel to, and from, their venerable seat of learning.
Many of Oxford's beautiful buildings and ancient traditions date back to medieval times.
But the 19th century also left its mark,
introducing competitive rowing, punting and the bicycle to the city.
My Bradshaw's guide waxes lyrical about seeing the Oxford panorama from above.
To see how the modern view measures up, I'm meeting Chris Kissane at Merton College.
-Great to see you.
-Nice to meet you. How are you?
Oxford is a city to be proud of, isn't it?
-It really is. It's a wonderful city.
-What's your connection with it?
Well, I'm a student here now, at Balliol College,
and, when I was born, my dad was a student at Merton College,
so we actually lived in college accommodation when I was born.
-You were actually born within Merton College?
-So, yeah, I'm an Irishman but Oxford is home away from home.
And Merton, I think, is the oldest college, isn't it?
Well, we in Balliol claim to be the oldest college as well but...
To avoid family arguments, we'll agree to disagree!
Now, you're clutching a very impressive key.
Yes, well, we've been lucky enough to get the key to
the tower of Merton College Chapel, one of the oldest remaining
medieval buildings in Oxford so I think that we're going
to have a look up the top and see the view of the city from the top.
-I can't wait. Lead me on.
Merton is just one of dozens of independent colleges
that make up the university.
Each adds its own distinctive architecture to the city's skyline,
creating the view that my guidebook so admires.
It's really worth the climb, isn't it? That is the most fantastic view.
It's extraordinary. It's inspiring, really, isn't it?
And what Bradshaw says is that it's the concentration,
the combination of buildings, that makes Oxford so great.
And I think that's true.
He says, "The city presents a very imposing appearance,
"from the number and variety of its spires, domes and public edifices,
"while these structures, from their magnitude and splendid architecture,
"give it an air of great magnificence."
-That's a pretty good description, isn't it?
-Very apt, yes.
What's amazing is this is Bradshaw's view, isn't it?
-It hasn't changed, really, very much at all.
-It hasn't changed at all.
Oxford is lucky to have preserved its stunning skyline.
During the Second World War, the Luftwaffe deliberately targeted
some of Britain's most historic cities, in a bid to dent morale.
They even used guidebooks to pinpoint heritage towns.
But, amazingly, Oxford survived unscathed.
Why is it so well preserved?
Well, the story goes that Hitler had his eyes on
Oxford's magnificent buildings for his capital, if he ever invaded England.
The story's never been proven but you can understand why
anyone would be absolutely enchanted by the view.
-It's a rather grim reason for a very beautiful survival.
One famous landmark that survived is the Radcliffe Camera.
Bradshaw says, "Its dome is one of the most conspicuous objects in the views of Oxford."
But, to me, this library is memorable for another reason.
You know, even though I was at Cambridge, when I was
running up to some exams, I did two weeks' revision in the Radcliffe Camera.
And, so, for me, although it's a beautiful building, it has that horrible feeling of fear,
when you're running up to an exam, you know.
An experience that I, and many other Oxford students, can definitely identify with!
The University has always set Oxford apart and,
despite the arrival of the railway,
the city didn't develop any major industries in the 19th century.
But the ever-expanding academic community ensured that local trades thrived.
Bradshaw's says that the high street of Oxford is justly considered the finest in England,
from the number and elegance of its public buildings and the remarkable curvature.
And it does, indeed, resemble a long crescent.
And then it says, "Oxford has long been famous for good sausages."
That's news to me.
To see whether sausages are still a local delicacy,
I'm heading to the covered market.
It was built 230 years ago,
to try and rid the city centre of unsightly and smelly outdoor stalls.
The first businesses to move in were the butchers.
And several still prosper here today.
Fantastic display of sausages!
Colin Dawson has worked here since the 1990s. Colin, hello.
-Oh, hello, Michael.
-I've come in search of sausages.
I think I've come to the right place, haven't I?
You certainly have.
-What about the Oxford sausage, do you have that?
This is it. It's our best-selling sausage at the moment.
I confess I'd never heard of an Oxford sausage. What do you put in it?
There's pork, lemon, there's herbs, there's thyme, parsley, breadcrumbs.
I'm following a 19th-century guidebook. Would it have been the same recipe in those days?
No, it'd be different. In those days, they used to have veal and beef suet as well.
The veal, to me, sounds as if it would have been very, very tasty.
What about the beef suet, what would that have done?
Beef suet would've been very greasy. It'd make a very greasy sausage.
But I think, in those days, they thought it was good for their health.
Actually, recipes for Oxford sausages date back to the early 18th century.
But it was in Victorian times that they achieved national recognition.
Evidently the Oxford sausage was popular in the 1860s.
Where did you get the recipe from?
The recipe was handed down to us from another company.
But Mrs Beeton's - the Victorian Mrs Beeton - Household Management book, the recipe's in there.
Well, that would account for why Bradshaw's mentions it,
because she's 1860s as well, isn't she?
Yeah, 1861, the book, yes.
Isabella Beeton's book was a hit with the growing middle classes,
seeking guidance on how to run a respectable household.
Her recipe gives two ways to serve an Oxford sausage,
with or without skins.
Apparently, the earliest Oxford sausages resembled our modern hamburgers.
As far as we understand, this is the type of thing...
Just press out like that and then they moved on to sausage a bit later in time.
Very good, yeah.
-Well, despite the historic interest, I think I'll go for a sausage today.
-These Oxford sausages that have just been cooked today.
-Gosh, that's good!
-They are nice.
That is meaty and I can taste the herbs.
And I can taste lemon, lots of lemon. Absolutely brilliant!
-I'm glad you're enjoying it.
Fuelled by my sausage,
I'm now leaving Oxford behind to head into the picturesque Cotswolds.
The line I'm following was built in the 1850s,
under the supervision of the famous engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
In the 19th century, the construction of railways was scarcely mechanised at all.
It depended on the thousands of labourers, or navvies, using shovels and hammers.
Luckily, these fields supply a crop used to produce a refreshing,
not to say alcoholic, drink, that could be used to
quench their thirst after a day of toil and sweat.
In Victorian times, this part of Oxfordshire was
a major growing area for barley, a principal ingredient in beer.
To find out how the railways helped beer-making to flourish here,
I'm getting off at Charlbury station.
Beautiful station. Not the best day to see it.
Just up the road is a splendid Victorian brewery,
born in the railway age.
For five generations, it's been run by James Clarke's family.
-Michael, welcome to Hook Norton.
-Lovely to be here.
What a fantastically historic and picturesque-looking brewery this is.
Absolutely. We're very lucky. Very traditional design and unspoilt, really, by time.
19th-century Britons were beer enthusiasts,
believing it to be a healthy drink, and it was seen as patriotic
to choose a British brew over European wine.
In the 1800s, licensing laws were changed to boost
beer production, fuelling an explosion of new breweries.
The company was started back in 1849 by my great-great-grandfather.
Then the first commercial brewing records were back in 1856.
But brewing developed and he built a small brewery in the 1870s
and then followed up with this brewery,
that was complete around the turn of the century.
The industry was quick to adopt the latest technology.
This brewery embraced steam power to mill malted barley,
the first stage of the brewing process.
-And the steam engine still works, does it?
The steam engine was installed in 1889 and originally would have
been the sole source of motive power that was distributed throughout
the brewery by a series of line-shafting and open-drive belts.
-Is it possible to see the machine working?
-Absolutely. Let's fire her up!
We disappear in a cloud of water vapour!
What a fantastic machine!
It has a bit of the look, and certainly the sound,
-of a locomotive on the railway, doesn't it?
Just Victorian engineering, really well and solidly built,
and, consequently, lasted 110 years plus.
It makes me feel very at home.
Breweries are traditionally built on many floors so that gravity
can help to move the beer between different stages of production.
-Up and up and up.
-Yes, six flights of stairs to the top of the brewery.
And we've just come up a couple of them.
This brewery grew rapidly in the late 19th century thanks, in part,
to a new railway line, built through the nearby Oxfordshire Hills.
Now, I believe that the process of building the railway
-had a big impact on the brewery.
-It had a huge impact, yes.
The section through Hook Norton was quite difficult, engineering-wise,
and reputed to have taken 400 navvies four years to build two sets of viaducts
and a long tunnel so, clearly, 400 men working very hard and working up quite a thirst.
For the navvies who built the railways, life was tough.
The dark beer that they drank was an important source of nutrition, rich in iron.
And are you making the those Victorian beers on which the navvies thrived?
In fact, we have an old bottle here, which shows the original label.
And that's a beer we're still producing today.
-Wow, that is dark, isn't it?
It has a small amount of very highly roasted malt in it to give it a real depth of colour and flavour.
That's as black as night.
You could build a railway once you've drunk that, couldn't you?
Yeah, that puts hairs on your chest and muscles on your arms, I should think!
Barrels of beer used to be carried by horse and cart
to the railway at Hook Norton, a mile down the road.
Sadly, that branch line has closed but the horse and cart tradition continues.
Hello, what a fabulous dray and what beautiful horses.
-You wouldn't be going towards the station, would you?
-I certainly can do.
Well, I've often travelled by railway, like George Bradshaw,
but I've never headed towards the station by horse,
like George Bradshaw.
My Victorian transport is carrying me towards my next train.
This leg of the journey takes me deeper into the heart of
the famous gently rolling hills called the Cotswolds.
My next stop got its station in 1853.
But its history as a halting place for travellers reaches far into the past.
My journey has brought me across the border from Oxfordshire
into Gloucestershire, to Moreton-in-Marsh.
And, here, I shall find a place to rest my head.
My guidebook tells me that Moreton-in-Marsh is a small town
on the old Fosse Way, a Roman road that stretched all the way
from Exeter to Lincoln, the perfect spot for a traditional coaching inn.
I love the colour of Cotswolds stone.
It has an extraordinary warmth.
And one of the hotels mentioned in my Bradshaw's still stands - the White Hart.
-Good evening, Michael Portillo checking in.
-Nice to meet you.
-Very good to see you. What have you...
-Well, this evening you'll be staying in the King Charles Suite.
-Which King Charles is that?
-It was King Charles I, and the suite is actually named after him.
In fact, he stayed here the night on his way to Marston Moor
and he left the next morning without paying his bill!
Oh, well, that's fantastically historic.
As long as you don't expect me to pay his bill!
-You can if you want to!
-Thank you very much.
This really crowns my day!
I've woken to a perfect day for exploring the Cotswolds.
Before I catch my next train,
I want to uncover the story behind a local landmark.
I've come to Moreton because my Bradshaw's mentions
"the Saxon tower on Broadway Hill."
And the author was seeing it from Warwick, 20 miles away,
so it must be rather special.
Broadway Hill is a stiff climb from Moreton
and the second highest point in the Cotswolds.
Intriguingly, my Bradshaw's guide claims that the tower that tops it is visible from Warwick Castle.
And, as I approach it, I begin to see why.
Well, there's a stunning view.
A slender castle.
And whoever built it really knew their site.
What a fantastic position!
I mean, the horizon has just opened up all around it.
Neil Thorneywork knows the history of this castellated curiosity.
-Tower looking beautiful in sunlight today.
Yes, it's always nice when the sun's on it. Looks a treat.
Now, my Bradshaw's refers to it as a Saxon tower
but I'm guessing it's not.
No, it was finished in 1799.
Saxon refers to the style of architecture used.
-Who built the tower?
-It was built by the sixth Earl of Coventry
as a present for his wife.
Very, very nice present, too.
A bit unusual compared to today's presents.
-What was she supposed to do with it?
All she wanted to do was look out of the estate window,
some ten miles away, and, basically, say, "That's my tower."
-So this was in the tradition of building follies?
-Yes, very much so.
Wealthy Victorians continued to construct quirky buildings
like this and Britain is claimed to have had more follies
than anywhere else in the world.
The definition of folly is a pointless, useless building.
And they were essentially built by the wealthy,
in a period from 1750 to about 1910.
Some people think it was even done to give people employment.
But, normally, it was just there as a show of wealth.
And so they were buildings that they could enjoy views of,
views from, and just to amuse their friends.
Or just simply to amuse their friends and say, "This is my folly."
These days, the tower is open to the public and, reputedly,
on a fine day, you can see for over 50 miles from the top.
Yeah, that is stunning, isn't it?
-Some view, isn't it?
-Oh, that's fantastic.
How high are we now?
We're just about 1080 feet, including the tower.
And, reputedly, you can see 14 counties from here?
-Yes, on a perfectly clear atmospheric day.
-Which are they?
Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Gloucestershire.
Leicestershire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire,
Buckinghamshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Avon, Dyfed,
Gwent, Powys, Wiltshire and Somerset.
Bravo! That was very, very good.
Now, the author of Bradshaw's guide was standing on
Guy's Tower at Warwick Castle when he saw this tower.
Do you know where that is?
Yeah, Warwick Castle just over in that direction there.
OK. And, obviously, we would be able to see it from here on a really clear day.
Yes, I think you'd probably need to field glasses to distinguish it.
Although the tower was built as a flight of fancy, in the 19th century
it helped the development of an important art movement.
The Pre-Raphaelite artists, the arts and crafts movement,
-all used to come and stay here.
Basically, the resident here at that time was a gentleman
called Crom Price, who was a very good friend of Burne-Jones.
So he used to invite the Pre-Raphaelites to come here and stay with him.
And I'm sure William Morris gained some great inspiration from being here.
He'd certainly be able to see lots of leaves and trees and inspiring things from here.
Visiting here led William Morris to campaign to preserve
Britain's historic monuments.
I, for one, am very glad that this particular oddity has survived.
Any man watching this programme who's
stuck for an idea for his wife for Christmas...
-a folly's the thing!
-That's right. Build a tower!
Wins every time!
I'd love to stay and plan my gift list but it's time for me
to catch my next train.
So, I continue down the beautiful Cotswolds line.
Next stop - Pershore.
The scenery I'm passing through is beautiful.
But it hasn't always been peaceful.
My train will soon pass under the Cotswolds Ridge,
through the Campden tunnel.
And this was the scene of an extraordinary piece of railway history.
The tunnel was under the engineering supervision of Brunel.
He'd employed some navvies to dig it.
He was dissatisfied with their progress and decided to evict them.
He did that by marching his own band of 3,000 navvies to throw them out.
It was the scene of one of the last pitched battles on British soil.
And it was fought over a railway tunnel.
Brunel's side was victorious and, within a year, the tunnel was complete.
The finished line linked Oxford and Worcester and, these days,
it's known as the Cotswolds line.
-Good afternoon, sir. Tickets, please.
-Thank you very much.
-Thank you very much.
-This line is so beautiful, isn't it? The Cotswolds line.
We're quite lucky to have it still, aren't we, I think?
Yes, it's a great pleasure to work on, it really is.
Lots of beautiful stations and scenery.
My journey now brings me into Worcestershire,
which my Bradshaw's says is engaged chiefly in agriculture.
And I'm heading for Pershore.
Bradshaw says, "The situation of the town is very beautiful
"and the surrounding scenery is picturesque."
Well, I want to see how agriculture has changed
and I'm certainly hoping to see something highly picturesque.
I'm getting off at a station on the edge of the Vale of Evesham,
a richly fertile area which, in the 19th century,
was a major centre for market gardening.
Orchards covered the countryside
and hundreds of tons of fruit were sent to market by rail.
In the 20th century, as foreign competition grew,
this trade died off and many farmers struggled to survive.
But one family farm has recently had a renaissance,
thanks to this stunning crop.
This is the most, uh, unexpected sight.
I mean, here we are in the middle of an English countryside
of normal greens and browns and, suddenly, this riot of colour!
I mean, it's like, I don't know, someone tipped a pot of
different coloured paints all over the landscape!
I'm a meeting Charles Hudson,
whose family has farmed this land for over 200 years.
What an amazing sight. What a riot of colour, this is.
It is a bit of a surprise, isn't it, when you walk down a
green country lane and turn the corner and suddenly see this.
It's very unlikely!
This sensational array of delphiniums isn't just for decoration
and nor are they sold as cut flowers.
In fact, this farm grows a vital ingredient for a traditional English wedding.
We pick the petals.
We dry them and then they can be thrown as confetti.
Well, that's a wonderful idea.
Whenever I've been to a church, I've seen paper confetti.
I mean, this is obviously a much lovelier idea.
And does it work as a business?
Do you know? We farm over 1,000 acres here
and this field is about 15 acres.
And this makes up 50 percent of our turnover.
-So it's been a real saviour of everything.
It's got us through some really difficult times.
Newlyweds have been showered with everything from rice to
sweets for centuries.
The origins of modern confetti are unclear.
But, by Victorian times,
the kind of paper missiles that we launch today were common.
I suppose, you know, environmentally,
if you're chucking around an organic product,
that that's a much nicer thing to do than chucking around paper.
Certainly, yes. Paper and this sort of pernicious new product,
which is foil confetti, which, you know, everybody really hates
because it just never goes.
So, yes, petals are just like the grass and the leaves.
You know, they're organic and they just disappear.
Confetti is the latest in a long line of crops grown here by Charles' family.
Over the years, they've witnessed many changes,
including the arrival of the railway.
We stopped the railways coming through our farm a couple of hundred years ago.
Why did your family do that, do you think?
Originally, 300 years ago the turnpike road went through and
cut things in half and then, I think, then the railways,
it was the sort of giddy limit.
So I think they campaigned, really,
to try and push it the other side of the river,
which is ultimately what happened,
which is why Pershore station is now about a mile and a half out of...
out of town, which I think everybody always curses the walk that they
have to make into town!
Before I make the trek back to the station,
I want to see Charles' finished product.
So this is what it looks like.
I mean, there's the sort of bags that they...
You would hardly know that they weren't...
-It's got a nice sort of hay smell to it, hasn't it?
-That's a stunning blue in there, isn't it?
It's really a very far cry from paper confetti, isn't it?
It's wonderfully natural.
-And light. Well, thank you, Charles.
-Not at all.
I must head off to the railway station which,
thanks to your ancestors, is quite a long way away!
-I'm afraid it is!
-Sorry about that. Ha ha!
Pershore's confetti fields have certainly made their mark on
the landscape and they're ringing the changes at weddings, too.
The Industrial Revolution brought factories
and dark satanic mills to much of Britain.
But, when I looked down on the colleges of Oxford,
and on the countryside around Broadway, and walked through
the flowers at Pershore, I was reminded that,
whilst the railways affected everywhere, many places were left unspoiled.
This is still a land of green pastures.
On the next step of my journey,
I'll be visiting the home of Queen Victoria's favourite Bishop.
She commented that Bishop Perowne had the best legs in tights of
any man on the Episcopal bench.
Sniffing out the secrets of a famous 19th-century condiment.
Hm, that's a glorious smell, but a very concentrated smell, isn't it?
And following in the footsteps of Victorian health fanatics.
There would be wet towels wrapped around you and
water poured upon you from a ghastly height.
-So, actually pretty bracing stuff.
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.
Here, he is travelling west, from Oxford in the heart of England, through the Malvern Hills and into Wales, taking in the unique Victorian heritage of the south Wales coastline.
He is led to a special view of the city of Oxford by his 19th-entury guidebook, samples a Victorian navvies' brew made by steam power and discovers a unique and colourful crop in the heart of the Cotswolds.