Michael Portillo sees why the Victorians fell for the romantic ruins of Tintern Abbey and discovers Britain's hidden micro-mines within the Forest of Dean.
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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.
Using my Bradshaw's guide, I'm continuing my journey now
towards the Forest of Dean, within touching distance of Wales,
whose rich mineral deposits were exploited during the Industrial Revolution as never before,
thanks to the ingenuity of the Victorians and the power of the railways.
On this leg of the journey, I'll be discovering Britain's
hidden micro-mines, in private hands since Bradshaw's day.
The harder we work, the more coal we get, the better off we are.
So it's great.
Uncovering the railway engineering behind an industrial icon.
So we've got, effectively, an enormous railway wagon,
-that spreads across these rails on either side.
-That's exactly right, yes.
And seeing why the Victorians fell for this romantic ruin.
Absolute perfection, isn't it?
I'm tracing a route all the way from Oxford
to the Welsh county of Pembrokeshire.
Having explored the rolling Cotswolds, and the lovely Malvern Hills,
I'll soon be entering South Wales, hunting out its industrial heritage,
as far as the busy port town of Milford Haven.
This section starts in Gloucestershire,
then crosses into Wales,
where I'll visit the magnificent Tinton Abbey, on my way to Newport.
To reach my first stop,
I'm travelling along the Dean Forest Heritage line.
This four and a half mile stretch of preserved track was once part of the Seven and Wye Railway,
a network of small branch lines that crisscrossed the region.
You'll have noticed that this is no ordinary railway car.
In fact, it's one of the most beautiful and elegant that I've ever been on.
And the other amazing thing about it is that, clearly,
the steam engine is behind me.
That's not so unusual, but there's a driver at this end.
This remarkable machine is a push-pull train
and its invention, in 1904, helped railway companies to save time and money.
Throughout the 19th century, trains could only
return down the line at the end of a trip, once the engine
had been laboriously uncoupled and then reattached at the opposite end.
But this design did away with that.
Enthusiast Michael Little has helped to restore
this example from 1930.
-Mike, you actually own this magnificent vehicle.
-Half of it.
I've got a part of it.
What was the advantage of having this?
Partly for convenience, partly for safety,
and it saved running the engine round the coach each time at the end of a journey.
So you're not taking up track space next door.
So what is the device that enables the driver to be at this end
and the steam engine at that?
It is a system of rodding from the control lever at the front,
which connects with the control lever in the engine.
-As simple as that?
-As simple as that.
Although traditional steam engines could be shunted backwards for short distances,
it was too dangerous to do so with passengers on board.
Now, they could be safely driven from either end.
It saved huge amounts of time,
helping short branch lines to run much more efficient services.
Does this play a part in the history of the railways?
Yes. I think, from this concept of auto-trains, as they called them,
developed the modern diesel trains that we see today where you can drive at both ends.
When he gets to the end of his journey, the driver goes to the other end and drives off again.
So this really sort of started a train of thinking in railway operation.
Another advantage was the clear view that the driver enjoyed
from his cab in the carriage, as I'm about to find out.
-Easy to operate this system?
-Very easy, yes.
Would you like to have a try? MICHAEL LAUGHS
What do I have to do?
-Well, come over this side.
-Come over this side.
-Three very rudimentary controls.
This is to control the keys to the footplate, OK, which makes us go faster or slower.
We've got a brake here, which we'll come to in a bit.
And, most important of all, give that a good tug.
-Give this a good tug?
-Yeah, both hands.
-Oh, both hands.
-Lean on it.
STEAM ENGINE WHISTLES
Oh, I see!
-Push the lever over towards me.
-As far as it will go.
It's very heavy.
Plus, push, push, push! That's it. That's fine.
We're heading for a level crossing, which is always a nervous moment for any driver.
That's why we'll stop before we get there, though. Ease the brake handle over now, Michael.
Back off. That's it. Lovely. And that's fine.
-Is that fine?
-That's it. Lovely.
-That was magnificent.
-I'm glad you enjoyed it.
-I really enjoyed that.
It adds a certain frisson, to be heading towards the barriers of a level crossing!
My heritage journey ends at Lydney, on the edge of the Forest of Dean,
one of England's last remaining ancient woodlands.
Bradshaw's tells me that the Forest of Dean
was celebrated for it's fine oaks.
"Lead and iron ores exist in abundance.
"Coal is also very plentiful."
But what Bradshaw's doesn't mention is that here
that coal could be won only by a very special kind of miner.
This beautiful forest looks like an untouched wilderness
but, beneath the trees, is a network of micro-mines,
where coal is worked by local people for their own profit.
And amazingly, this centuries-old way of life still survives.
One of the few remaining free miners is Richard Daniels.
Hello, Richard. It's lovely to see you, in this beautiful spot.
Oh, it's fantastic, isn't it? Yeah.
Now, what's special about the Forest of Dean?
The forest, the people, heritage, history, the trees,
the fact that it's a working forest.
There is still work. As you can see around you, there's been timber taken out here today.
It's a fantastic place to live.
You didn't mention coal, though. I noticed some on your face!
Yeah, coal, minerals, of course. We're very strong in minerals.
Very fortunate that we've got coal, iron, ochre and stone as well.
You are a free miner, aren't you? What's that?
A free miner is unique to the Forest of Dean.
It means that we have rights to the minerals in the forest.
-If you're born within the Hundred of St Briavels...
The Hundred of St Briavels is the ancient boundary around the forest.
Basically, the treed area, the forested area.
You're over 21 years of age, and you've worked a year and a day underground,
you can become a free miner.
That means you can take out a gale. A gale is an area of coal underground.
The right was granted back in the 1200s
but, by the 19th-century, this ancient tradition was under threat.
Industrial Revolution Britain was hungry for coal and iron
and outside interests began to look longingly
at the valuable deposits beneath the Forest of Dean.
In 1838, an Act of Parliament was passed,
allowing free miners to sell their gales,
but also preserving their rights, and it's still in force to this day.
-Oh, looks pretty dark in there!
-It's very, very dark.
Yeah, as soon as you get out of the entrance, into the mine proper,
it's as dark as you'll ever experience.
With the mine penetrating 200 metres deep,
it's safe to enter only for experienced hands like Richard.
And is it easy working? Are you bent double,
are you crawling along, what are you doing in there?
It's quite hard to get into the coal but once you get onto the face,
you have to work lying down because it's in 30 inches.
So it's about so high. So you're laying down all day.
So some people say it's the most comfortable job in the world!
And this is your living, because that coal is then yours?
It is, yeah. The harder we work, the more coal we get, the better off we are.
So it's great.
Despite free mining's ancient pedigree,
the workers exploited new technology.
In the 1870s, the Wye Valley Railway arrived here and free miners harvested it to export their wares.
And railway's pretty important for the coal around here anyway?
It was, previously, the heavy-gauge railway.
The mineral that we used to run from Lydney,
round the forest and back down, that was very important.
And the beauty of is that the coal used to go onto barges then
and out on the Severn, then to Ireland or Cornwall,
or wherever it was needed.
The railway closed in 1959 but, here in the forest,
miners still use railway technology to get their valuable minerals to the surface.
-This is Ray.
-He'll bring the carts up.
-Nice to meet you.
How will you do that?
We've got a big generator in there which produces electricity.
We've got electric haulage in the shed which is about 60 years old,
made in Scotland, and it's still going very well.
When we hear the bell rings three, that tells me
it's time to pull the carts up and, with a little bit of luck,
they'll stay on the rails and then we'll pull the carts to the surface.
Here we go, then.
That's it. And we're away.
Ray knows the underground tunnel so well
that he can picture the cart's progress
and control the speed to make sure that they stay on the tracks.
The plentiful coal piled up in the wagons demonstrates that
free mining's still productive after 800 years.
Are there young people today still becoming free miners?
Actually, it's very difficult today because our local maternity unit
is in Gloucester so they're not getting born in the Hundred.
But we've got the highest homebirths in the country.
So people are still sticking with it and they get to an age where they say,
"Well, I'd like to have a go at that."
And, if they've got the determination, they can come
and do the year and a day, and we can get them registered.
-Fantastic. Tradition continues.
-It continues, yeah.
I'm now leaving the forest behind to continue my journey.
And I'm venturing into a new country.
With no apparent change in the scenery because it's all beautiful,
we now cross from England to Wales,
into a different history and a different culture.
And it's those charming and interesting differences that
I'm looking forward to exploring in the second half of my journey.
I'm travelling through the county of Monmouthshire,
known today for its lovely landscapes and rich history.
I've chosen to get off at Chepstow,
a place that attracted Victorians in shoals.
They'd come to see a ruin, but somewhere that was mystical and spiritual.
Chepstow station opened in 1850 as a stop on Brunel's South Wales railway.
The line was built to carry coal from Welsh mines to London
but was soon heaving with tourists.
The attraction for these railway travellers was a romantic ruin
that can surprise you on the road.
Bradshaw's contains the loveliest description of Tintern Abbey.
"The building suddenly bursts upon you, like a gigantic skeleton,
"its huge gables standing out against the sky
"with a mournful air of dilapidation."
Ha! Good Lord!
That is the most fantastic sight.
It's magnificent for what it was and yet it's intensely moving,
for being a ruin.
Tintern Abbey was founded by Cistercian monks in the 12th century.
In the 1500s, it was stripped of its wealth as Henry VIII
dissolved the monasteries, and it descended into ruin.
It was left to decay until, in the 18th and 19th centuries,
it became a magnet for tourists.
I trust that Anne Rainsbury curator of Chepstow Museum,
can explain its appeal.
From the hillside I just had my first ever glimpse of Tintern Abbey and I'm just blown sideways.
-It's absolutely amazing, isn't it?
A very iconic monument as well.
It must have been, at one time, an even bigger ruin, in a sense,
than now, because this is from Bradshaw's...
"Ivy comes creeping out of the bare, sightless windows.
"The wildflowers and mosses cluster upon the mullions
"and dripstones, as if they were seeking to fill up
"the unglazed void with nature's own colours."
-So, evidently, it was covered in ivy.
-Very much so. Very profusely.
And this was something that was very attractive to the 18th and 19th-century visitors,
partly because it's nature taking over what man has built.
Against the backdrop of rapid industrialisation,
this kind of idea became hugely fashionable.
Romanticism swept the arts
and the Abbey's air of melancholic decay made it irresistible
to painters like Turner and poets like Wordsworth.
Other visitors followed in their wake.
Tintern Abbey was the highlight of the Wye tour,
which was, if you like, the first package tour in Britain.
It was a two-day boat trip, bringing people down the Wye Valley to look at the scenery,
and this was the piece de resistance,
to get out at Tintern on the second day.
These early tours were expensive and time-consuming,
and only the wealthy elite could afford to come and admire the Abbey.
If we were early aristocratic tourists,
how would we make our approach to the church?
You would come here to the west door,
with the landlord of the Beaufort Arms who held the keys,
because the doors were locked, so had to be opened for you.
There would probably be a cluster of beggars around the front door
and you'd have to fight your way through,
which might spoil the contemplative mood you are trying to cultivate,
before the doors were thrust open and you had the amazing 'ooh-aah' moment.
Absolute perfection, isn't it?
-It is fantastic.
And in its ruined state, of course, you look straight through the church, onto the hillside.
That complete marriage of human artifice and nature. Fantastic!
Although, these days, the ivy's gone,
cleared when the Crown bought the Abbey in the early 20th century,
it's still easy to imagine coming on an exclusive early tour.
But in 1876, those aristocratic tourists
had their quiet enjoyment of the ruins rudely disrupted.
The railways would have brought larger numbers.
Huge numbers of people, all in one go sometimes.
It was quite different and they were quite different sorts of people,
of course, because your 18th-century people were doing a tour.
They were tourists.
But these were excursionists. These were day-trippers.
-Bit of snobbery here?
Some people who were still coming and doing the tour
were quite horrified to find the coaches
would disgorge themselves and people would come in
and get their sandwiches out, and their baskets on the lawn, and start having lunch.
For the elite, Tintern Abbey was ruined once more.
But thousands of Victorians got to experience its picturesque charms.
I'm stopping here for the night
and I don't have far to go to find my hotel.
For my night's rest, Bradshaw's recommends the Beaufort Arms,
which, apparently, has changed its name but not its vista,
which remains one of the best in Britain.
Before I check in, I want to check out that view,
from an unusual perspective.
Early tourists had a particular way of framing
the view of a beautiful building, or landscape.
They used what was known as a Claude glass,
named after the French landscape painter Claude Lorrain.
And they held it up and could see the view behind.
And here is such a glass.
Victorian tourists believed that a reflection helped them
to see an idealised version of the landscape.
They'd bring small mirrors with them to frame the view,
then sketch it as a memento of their trip.
I have the advantage that I can admire the view from my room.
On today's leg of the journey, I'm turning my back
on Tintern's mediaeval mysticism
and travelling into industrial South Wales.
I'm now headed for Newport. My Bradshaw's is a bit mean.
It says, "With the exception of the church, it has no prepossessing attractions."
It goes on to say that, "Outside the town a stone bridge of five arches
"crosses the River Usk, erected at a cost of something over £10,000,"
and, in fact, there's now another bridge
which I would describe as a prepossessing attraction.
A lot has changed in Newport since my guidebook was published,
starting with the buildings that greet today's railway travellers.
Newport has a bold new station.
Two round buildings containing spiral staircases, linked by a bridge,
looking like a giant telephone receiver spanning the tracks.
It's controversial, its modern, and I am one of its fans.
The first station opened on this site in 1850,
at a time when Newport was undergoing a radical transformation.
The Industrial Revolution made the collieries of South Wales boom,
and Newport became a thriving coal port.
The town grew rapidly, spanning both sides of the River Usk
and, by the end of the 19th century, a new crossing was urgently needed.
This remarkable piece of engineering was to provide the answer.
I'm the meeting John Pritchard
on Newport's famous Transporter Bridge, to hear its story.
-Michael, pleased to meet you.
Thank you for having me into the motor house.
-I don't suppose many people get to look in here.
-No, special appointment only.
-How unusual is this design?
-It's very unusual.
16 were built originally. I think seven or eight still survive in the world
but only three in the UK and this is the only one in Wales.
And we like to think ours is the most elegant.
The bridge has a span of 645 feet,
and its two towers soar to 240 feet.
The extraordinary concept was born out of necessity.
-Spectacular view, John.
-It certainly is.
-So, why this design?
The River Usk has a very high tidal range, arguably the second highest in the world.
Combine this with tall sailing ships who used to navigate
the river further up, it meant that we needed a very high headroom.
The council at the time looked at conventional bridges,
and tunnels, and these were all dismissed on cost rounds.
They then heard of this French engineer, Ferdinand Arnodin,
who was designing these weird structures in France,
and asked him to come over and design a bridge for Newport.
And this is why we have this fantastic structure here today.
Wheels, running on tracks,
carry the gondola - or platform - across the river.
Now, I came up here particularly to see the rails.
-Where do I look for those?
-They're behind you.
There are four rails, two on each side,
on which the gondola is attached.
So we've got, effectively, an enormous railway wagon,
a bogie, that spreads across these rails on either side.
That's exactly right, yes.
The bridge took four years to build.
When it finally opened in 1906,
8,000 people came along to make the two-minute trip across the Usk.
Of course, to me, the platform - the gondola - seems very small
but I suppose in those days most people were pedestrians or, at most, they were cyclists.
That's right, yes. There were very, very few cars.
So, although the gondola can only take six cars,
it can take quite a number of foot passengers and cyclists,
and probably the odd horse!
Unfortunately, the dawning of the automobile age meant that
the bridge never became a financial success.
By the 1980s, it had fallen into such
a state of disrepair that it was forced to close.
Luckily, since then, it's been restored and now stands
as a striking monument to Newport's industrial heritage.
They used to call this the aerial ferry
and it was designed in Queen Victoria's day
but built just after her death.
And, perhaps, my one regret is it came just a bit too late
to be included in my Bradshaw's.
Having crossed to the east bank of the Usk, I'm now entering
Newport's industrial heart.
Alongside coal, iron was a vital ingredient
in Britain's 19th-century economic boom.
And both were in abundant supply here in Bradshaw's day.
My Bradshaw's says that Newport, "...is a seaport town of some importance,
"with ready access by railway to the many iron districts in the neighbourhood.
"Its traffic in that mineral has greatly increased."
Well, its traffic in metals today is still significant,
but with a twist.
The speed and scale of Newport's 19th-century expansion were extraordinary.
Between 1800 and 1900, the population shot up
from around 1,000 to 67,000.
Many amongst the influx of new workers were employed in the iron trade,
transporting it or smelting it
in the vast iron works that were built nearby.
Nowadays, Newport's iron industry has largely disappeared but,
thanks to the railway network that grew up in Victorian times,
the town's link with metals is still strong.
I'm meeting Myles Pilkington to find out about the modern metal business.
-Hello, Michael. How are you?
Well, what's going on here is obviously not the smelting of iron.
It's something quite different. What is going on?
What we're doing, actually, is kind of carrying on tradition.
This is urban mining. So, as opposed to mining the hills out there,
we're bringing all that metal, all that resource, which would have potentially gone to landfill,
or just rusted somewhere in the environment, we're bringing it here
and we're reclaiming it for re-use, right around the world.
Over two million tons of scrap metal pass through this vast recycling plant every year,
including 40,000 tons of railway stock
that's reached the end of its useful life.
Astonishingly, half the metal that comes here has already been reused.
-How does that stuff get here?
-In many different ways.
One of the great things about Newport is that producing
all that coal and iron in the past, it created a rail system
which brought in and became very important to Newport,
from both the point of view of exporting coal, exporting steel.
We've piggybacked on the back of that.
Today, the trains arrive full of scrap
and leave carrying processed material ready for use.
We'll have two lines of about ten carriages coming in,
side by side here, over the weigh bridges, through the radiation detectors
to make sure there's nothing hazardous coming in with it.
They'll line up here and then we'll unload them.
Are you saving a lot of lorry journeys, doing this?
Oh, yes, indeed. We save between 5,000 and 5,400 lorry journeys a year, at this site alone.
After it's unloaded, the metal is sent to the world's biggest shredder
which can swallow an extraordinary 450 cars per hour.
Now we come level with this monstrous shredder
and the ground is actually shaking under our feet.
This is a pretty big machine.
It's a 9,000 horsepower motor,
driving a shaft with a lot of hammers on
which, as it rotates, smashes up the metal inside.
And just like when you're making a soup, or a juice, with your sieve and the back of a wooden spoon,
as you're moving it round, you're shoving the material through the sieve.
Exactly the same thing is happening, only we've got an industrial sieve and we're trying to get metal
out in the right way to sell as a quality commodity.
Once shredded, the material is carefully sorted
into different metals, using magnets and other techniques.
It's then sent across the globe to be transformed into the cars
and railway carriages of the future.
-How are you?
-Is this your finished product?
-It is the finished product, yeah.
-Have you been in the recycling industry long?
-Ten years, yep.
-And before that?
-I was in the steel industry.
-And before that?
-I was down the mine.
And what do you think of Newport's new industry now? It's on a grand scale, isn't it?
Yeah, really, really grand.
-You've got to come here and see it to believe it.
Over the years, the people of Newport have adapted
to the changing industrial base of their town.
But a clear thread connects Bradshaw's Newport to the Newport of today.
In Wales, the growth of coal
and iron production depended on the railways.
Industrialisation brought prosperity but pollution, too.
Today, the waste products of our consumer society can be
brought together in vast quantities for recycling.
A task ideally suited to the railways.
On the next stage of my journey, I'll be visiting a favourite
holiday spot of 19th-century miners, Barry Island.
They came in huge numbers.
We've got about 100,000 in the very first summer that this railway station was opened.
Hunting out the political heart of Wales' capital city.
It's a great privilege to be allowed into the debating chamber.
It's different from the House of Commons as it could possibly be.
And seeing what's left of this region's extraordinary
Victorian railway network.
That is amazing. These are the valleys of South Wales.
Railway lines going up every single one of them.
That is the most extraordinary picture, isn't it?
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.
All this week 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.
Today Michael discovers Britain's hidden micro-mines within the Forest of Dean, sees why the Victorians fell for the romantic ruins of Tintern Abbey and uncovers the railway engineering behind the industrial icon that is Newport Transporter Bridge.