Michael Portillo discovers the Victorian coal heritage that turned Cardiff into the city it is today, and takes a steam ride through Brecon Beacons National Park.
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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 now pressing further into Wales.
The fortunes of the communities of South Wales
have ridden the roller coaster
of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century,
de-industrialisation in the 20th,
and are now adjusting themselves for life in the 21st.
My guidebook told Victorian tourists where to find
the best and the worst of the industrialised valleys,
and I want to see how much holds true today.
I'll be visiting Barry Island,
a favourite holiday spot of 19th century miners...
They came in huge numbers.
We've got about 100,000 in the very first summer that this railway station's opened.
..penetrating the political heart of Wales's capital city...
It's a great privilege to be allowed into the debating chamber.
It's as 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?
I'm over halfway through a long journey
from Oxford to the Welsh port of Milford Haven.
The quintessentially English landscape
of the Cotswold and Malvern Hills
now lies far behind me, as I explore the Valleys of South Wales,
transformed by 19th century industrialisation.
The capital, Cardiff, is my starting point on this stretch,
which takes in coastal Barry, before heading north
to the mining town of Merthyr Tydfil.
My journey starts in the historic county of Glamorgan.
In Bradshaw's day, this region was vital to the growing success
of Britain's Industrial Revolution.
I'm getting off at Cardiff Central
to explore a city born in the age of steam.
My Bradshaw's Guide refers to, "The profusion of coal, iron and limestone which everywhere abounds.
"These mineral riches have raised Glamorganshire to great importance during the last half century."
And it says the inhabitants of Cardiff, where I am now,
"Carry on a considerable trade with Bristol, and export a great quantity
"of wrought iron and coal to foreign parts."
I'm interested to know what part the Victorians and the railways played
in the transformation of South Wales.
These days, Cardiff is the proud capital of Wales.
But as recently as 1801,
this was a modest port of fewer than 2,000 people.
That changed as the demand for Welsh coal surged
during the Industrial Revolution.
By the early 20th century,
the population had grown a hundred fold, and the docks heaved
with trains carrying this black gold to ships for export.
To learn more about this transformation,
I'm meeting local museum curator Victoria Rogers.
-Hello, pleased to meet you.
This is a great way to look at Cardiff's railway heritage.
It's a great way on a day like this.
We're taking a boat trip along the River Taff,
which plays a surprising role
in the history of the railway in Cardiff.
My Bradshaw's talks of Cardiff in the mid-19th century as a "town".
And it's just the capital of Glamorganshire.
Yeah, that's right. I mean, Cardiff actually wasn't a city until 1905,
and it wasn't made capital city until 1955.
There were three things, really, in the space of around ten years,
that enabled Cardiff to become, eventually, both of those things.
So, you've got the docks opening,
you've got the Taff Vale Railway
bringing the coal down from the valleys,
and then you've got the South Wales Railway.
The South Wales Railway connected Cardiff with Swansea in the west,
and all the way to London in the east.
Cardiff's new rail links were built by the famous engineer
Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
But first he had to overcome some thorny problems.
Unfortunately for him, the Taff did a real big curve
right next to the area that he needed to build a railway station,
so what he did was build a cut,
and diverted the river in a straighter line.
So, the station is built on reclaimed land?
Yes, absolutely. The station, what is now the bus station as well,
and actually, the site of the Millennium Stadium
is all built on that reclaimed land from Brunel's diversion.
Aided by the network of tracks that fed the docks,
by the late 19th century
Cardiff was recognised to be the greatest coal port in the world.
The town's new-found confidence was displayed in grand new buildings,
like the Coal Exchange, which was opened in 1886.
While the wheeler-dealer coal traders are long gone,
its fine facade still evokes Cardiff's heyday.
-What did it look like inside?
-It was absolutely fantastic.
I've read some great archival material
about a dense cloud of tobacco smoke.
There was a barber so you could have a haircut.
You could be measured for a suit here.
And there was a wine merchant's, so very often
people would buy bottles of champagne
to toast their newly done deals.
And they'd all be here in their top hats and tails.
Absolutely. It would've been a great sight, I'm sure.
The Welsh mines were prolific, and the coal they produced
was among the most valuable to Victorian industrialists.
It was perfect for producing steam to power machines,
ships and, of course, railway locomotives.
South Wales steam coal was seen as the best in the world,
and so the deciding of the price here was basically
deciding the price of coal throughout the world.
And actually, this is said to be the site of
the world's first million pound deal in 1907.
So, it's an incredibly important building.
But Cardiff's coal prosperity wasn't to last.
In the post-war period, demand for coal nosedived,
and the exchange finally closed in 1958.
In 1964, exports of coal ceased,
and the huge dock complex lost its reason for being.
We're down where the Cardiff docks used to be,
and I'm trying to imagine them in the 19th century,
a bustle of ships and trains, I think.
I know, there's an amazing statistic
about just how much railway track there was in the docks.
There was about 120 miles of railway track
in one square mile in the docks.
I mean, there was a huge amount of coal traffic
coming down from the valleys and being shipped out via the railway.
By the late 20th century, the derelict areas of the docks
had made Cardiff Bay an unappealing spot.
But in the 1990s, that began to change.
A barrage was built,
creating a vast lake and attractive waterfront,
which today is home to striking modern buildings,
including the Wales Millennium Centre
and the Senedd, home to the Welsh Assembly.
-You're enjoying your coffees.
-Are you from Cardiff?
-Do you remember the old Cardiff?
Describe that to me.
-Well, you'd catch a boat down here to go to Weston.
-And my father was from the docks, wasn't he?
-What were the docks like?
-It was different.
-It was a community.
-It was a community of its own.
Dark, dingy. But character.
What about these modern buildings now? What about the Welsh Assembly?
The building itself to look at, yeah, I think it's good.
I think it was thought out. It was supposed to be very green.
I hope that's still the case.
I've interrupted you enough. You enjoy the coffee and the sun.
Approval from some of the locals.
But I must judge Cardiff's famous Senedd for myself.
It prides itself on openness,
inviting anyone to explore its public areas.
The lobby of the Welsh Assembly has a wonderful roof.
It reminds me of waves or boats.
Cardiff's maritime history.
And the architect has created glass walls,
I suppose to give the idea of transparency.
Transparency? Linked to politics?
The idea will never catch on.
At the heart of the Senedd is the Siambr, or chamber,
where full sessions of the Assembly are held.
It's a great privilege to be allowed into the debating chamber,
somewhere I've never been before.
And it's very striking, this beautiful domed ceiling
and the wood all around.
It's about as different from the House of Commons as it could possibly be.
That's a 19th-century building with green benches,
and you have to fight for a seat.
Here, everybody has their allocated position.
And it just makes you think, you know,
Bradshaw's referred to Cardiff as a town,
it had a population of only 2,000
at the beginning of the 19th century.
And now it's grown to a city, a capital city,
and one that has its own parliament.
And how did it make that journey? You guessed it.
It's all down to the railways.
All through this part of Wales,
the Victorian forces of change left their mark.
My next stop is eight miles down the coast.
I'm now headed for Barry Island, a puzzling name,
since from the map it's clear that it's not surrounded by water.
I think there must be a historical explanation.
And I'm betting that it's something to do with railways.
In fact, Barry's not mentioned in my Bradshaw's Guide,
and that's because in the 1860s, there was no town worth visiting.
But in the 1880s, a railway and vast docks were built here,
and a new community sprang up almost overnight.
I'm taking a trip on the Barry Tourist Railway
with historian Andy Croll to hear the story.
What a wonderful vintage diesel this is.
Isn't it smashing?
And this is going to help me to discover the mystery of Barry Island, I hope.
-Indeed it is.
-Let's set off, then.
Barry Island is not an island. What's the explanation?
Well, Barry Island WAS,
back in the... up until about the 1890s, in fact.
And it's when these great docks are made,
that's when the land is filled in, and with this great rail link,
that's when the island gets linked to the actual mainland.
These massive dock and railway projects were the brainchild
of a powerful mine owner who'd become increasingly frustrated
by Cardiff's monopoly of the coal export trade.
David Davis is the man that is the power force
which drives these great docks being built.
He hated paying for his coal to go out of someone else's port.
Cardiff was actually getting all that money,
so David Davis wanted to build his own.
Work started in 1884. It opens in 1889, David Davis dies in 1890,
but he just manages to see his great docks opened.
Barry was the ideal spot for Davis to realise his dream.
Thanks to its position, ships could come in whatever the tide -
a real advantage over neighbouring Cardiff.
And the docks gave rise to a phenomenal population explosion.
In 1881, we've got about 85 souls living here.
By the time we get to 1891, we're up to 700.
Most of those are here building the great docks which we can see.
By the time we get to 1901,
we're up to 27,000 people,
and all of that is due to coal,
all of it is due to the great rail links
which allow these docks to be built.
The new railway was constructed by the same company as the docks,
providing a direct link to the coal fields.
Brunel's Taff Vale Railway had competition.
Out of this intense rivalry between Cardiff and Barry, is there a winner?
There certainly is - Barry.
By the time we get to about 1913, this is the peak year
for the whole of the South Wales coal industry,
Barry is the greatest coal exporting port in South Wales,
but also in the whole world.
And in those years of massive coal production and export,
the coal would've travelled by train on the very tracks we're using now.
Absolutely right, Michael. We are travelling on the very rails that that coal travelled on.
Although it was built for freight,
the railway line soon gained a surprising new use.
As Victorian Britain was transformed by rapid industrialisation,
even the working class began to have leisure time,
and Barry's beaches became thronged with day-trippers.
Here's another puzzle about Barry Island.
You've been telling me about the coal and the docks,
and it turns out it's a seaside resort.
Absolutely right, Michael.
This beach was formed in the wake of the last ice age.
The truth of the matter is, hardly anyone ever came here
for all of those thousands of years of history.
What makes the difference is this great rail link open in the mid-1890s.
Who is it who comes?
Working-class miners, and they came right from the start,
as soon as this railway link was opened,
and they came in huge numbers.
We've got about 100,000 in the very first summer
that this railway station's opened, 1896.
And they keep on coming.
On one day in 1950, we have 120,000 of them
packed onto this little strip of sand.
Bit of a difference between a coal mine and this lovely beach.
It absolutely is.
And there's some very moving evidence,
especially from the late-1890s,
of working class miners being seen just to stand at the water's edge,
quietly gazing out over this great seascape, which, of course,
they wouldn't have seen anything like this in their ordinary working lives.
Dark, cramped, underground.
So, yeah, one can only guess what they were thinking of.
These days it's not particularly miners
but families from all over Britain
who come to enjoy this beautiful beach.
It's a lovely spot for me to break my journey.
At the end of a day of travel, it's nice to relax on the shore
and to think about those hard-working South Welsh miners who,
at the end of weeks of toil, would save a few pennies
to travel by train and dip their toes in the surf at Barry Island.
It's a new day on my journey,
and I'm travelling north along the banks of the River Taff
on the Taff Vale Railway, one of the oldest in Wales.
I'm now venturing to Merthyr Tydfil
which my Bradshaw's calls, "A great mining town.
"Blast furnaces, forges and iron mills are scattered on all sides.
"Visitors should see the furnaces at night when the red glare
"of the flames produces an uncommonly striking effect."
The railways brought to the Welsh Valleys the Industrial Revolution
at its most rough and raw. But when the mines closed
in the late 20th century, that brought unhappiness and unemployment.
Merthyr Tydfil's industrial history began with iron.
Foundries were established to exploit the local ore
at the start of the Industrial Revolution and as the railway network grew,
miles of new tracks were made from Merthyr iron.
Coal was also mined, first to power the ironworks
and later for export by rail around the world.
I'm looking for what's left of that legacy in a place that once felt
the full force of Victorian-style industrialisation.
Bradshaw's paints a pretty depressing picture of Merthyr in the 1860s -
"The town is best seen at night for by day it will be found dirty,
"without order, management, decent roads or footpaths.
"No supply of water and no public building of the least note.
"We do hope that proper measures will be taken to improve
"the condition of the people." Well, Merthyr acquired a fine town hall
at the end of the 19th century, but that's now boarded up.
But even here, there's clearly the prospect of regeneration.
Today, Merthyr's streets bear no trace of the dirt and smoke
of the 19th century, but the town is still a place of strong emotions.
Since the mid-20th century, local people have endured high levels of unemployment,
so what do they think of their town today?
-Good morning. Nice to see you.
-And you. Looking very smart.
-Are you from Merthyr?
-Yes. I'm a Merthyr lady.
And do you remember the old Merthyr, the Merthyr of coal mines
-and iron foundries?
-Well, that would be my grandfather's days,
that would, my great-grandfather's and my dad's.
Yeah, I've got memories of it. I love living in Merthyr.
It's a wonderful town.
It's had a lot of slagging off lately but it's getting there now.
There's a lot of regeneration and it's fab.
There's a lot of history here. People come here from all over the world.
I know people from Canada have come here,
I go up to Ponstic a lot, where we've got beautiful reservoirs, and the Brecon Beacons.
I cycle up there, it's wonderful. I wouldn't live anywhere else.
I love going abroad but I love coming home.
You've got one other thing you didn't mention,
-you've got a railway.
How are you? Do you remember Merthyr in the old days?
-Loads of factories.
-Lots of work.
-You could go from one job to another.
-Not any more.
-Nothing much about here now.
-You didn't mention mining. Can you remember what the town looked like?
-Well, I wasn't a miner myself,
-but my father was.
-And your brother.
-It used to be quite busy in those days.
-We don't remember the steel.
SHE LAUGHS We're not that ancient!
'Although all the iron industry here is long dead, the coal trade
'has seen a revival, but it's not been welcomed by everyone.'
-Have you heard about the new opencast mine?
-We don't want talk about that.
-We heard about it.
We've had enough of coal mines in this valley, we don't want another.
Think of the dirt and the muck. We've had enough muck and dirt.
We've had it all. Let them go to London.
-Even though it brings jobs?
-Even though it brings jobs.
It brings jobs to a few, because they're all industrialised,
and they'll be digging it out, they don't need miners.
A typical Victorian colliery could employ thousands of men
working long hours underground
but the industry's 21st century face is very different.
This vast crater is Merthyr's controversial new opencast mine.
It employs only 200 people
because most of the work is done by highly productive diggers.
Ground was broken in 2007 and whilst some oppose the scheme,
the operators claim it will leave the area safer
and cleaner for local people.
I'm taking a tour with Environmental Liaison Officer Kylie Jones.
That is an epic site, isn't it? That is a momentous hole.
That is a pit and a half.
My Bradshaw's Guide tells me that Merthyr coal is worked,
"Mostly in levels, in beds two to three feet thick."
This is on a completely different scale.
How much coal will you be removing from here?
About an estimated 11 million tonnes of coal over the life of the project.
And how does this relate to mining in the days of the 19th century,
-Well, all that you can see in front of you today
has previously been mined by deep mining methods.
You can see the past history of all of the mining
that has gone on here, in terms of tunnels, old culverts, old workings.
The mine's supporters claim that those abandoned workings
made the area dangerous.
The company's pledged to reclaim the land, returning it
to its pre-industrialised state within 17 years.
But first, the coal will be extracted and used to produce electricity
at nearby Aberthaw power station.
-Well, you've really brought me to the coalface.
We're actually standing on some right now.
And that great scoop, how much coal is that taking out?
About three-quarters of a ton per scoop, loading into lorries,
to be taken up to the disposal points.
To me, it's just amazing, the productivity of this.
You think how long a miner working in a narrow seam underground
would have had to labour to take out three-quarters of a ton,
and here, it's going out every few seconds.
It's a far cry from the coal industry of Bradshaw's day
but one thing that hasn't changed
is how the finished product is transported.
-A lot of your coal is going out by train, is it?
All our coal to date has actually left the site via train.
-And these are pretty big trains.
We're carrying about 1,400
to 1,500 tonnes of coal on each train that leaves the site.
-And how many are you shipping?
-Roughly about 24 is a maximum
in a week, but on a normal week, about 14 or 15 trains leave the site.
An awful lot of coal. It's always been that way, hasn't it?
I'm reading my 19th-century guidebook here. It says,
"The coal and iron of Merthyr Tydfil are the chief exports
"and the quantity almost doubles itself every two or three years."
And then he says, "But great as that supply may seem,
"it's scarcely equal to the demand created for it by the railways."
-The railways have always been big here.
These railway lines are the same lines that would have carried
coal and iron ore away historically. We're still using them today.
'Whatever your views on the project, the sheer scale of this operation
'To loosen the rock so that the coal can be dug, explosives are used
'and before I leave, I'm going to see the mountain being blasted.'
Press it in. Fire in ten seconds.
Wow. There she blows!
My day in Merthyr ends, not with a whimper, but a bang.
I'm now swapping this man-made industrial landscape
for the beauty of the Brecon Beacons National Park,
home to the famous mountain range.
I'm picking up the train, just outside Merthyr Tydfil.
This is Pant station. My Bradshaw's says,
"This place is situated in the midst of very beautiful mountain scenery.
"The opening of the Brecon and Merthyr Railway in 1864
"has brought the charming scenery of the Upper Wye within easy reach."
Seeing these mountains today, it's hard to believe
that they were once threaded with hundreds of miles of railway.
To see just how extensive this network once was,
I'm meeting railway owner Tony Hills.
-What a beautiful train, what a lovely locomotive.
-What's the locomotive?
-Well, it's American.
It came from Philadelphia in the USA.
It spent its working life in South Africa, hauling limestone.
I see you're clutching the Railways of Great Britain historical atlas here. What's that about?
Well, it's a splendid book and it shows the railways
all over the country, going back many years.
There's a typical page there, showing the old railway.
-And you turn over the page, and behold.
-That is amazing.
These are the Valleys of South Wales.
And a railway line running up absolutely every single...
-That is the most extraordinary picture, isn't it?
-All coal and iron and so on.
-A lot of this is closed?
The main trunk routes are still open, Brecon to Cardiff, things like that.
But the valley lines, most of those are gone
with the demise of the coal-mining industry.
Well, there's one that's reopened, by the look of it.
-Can we take a ride on it?
-Of course we can. Pleasure.
In Bradshaw's day, this stretch of the Brecon and Merthyr Railway
was a passenger service, used by people from the remote farms
and villages. Now it's been resurrected
as the Brecon Mountain Railway.
This vintage steam engine
is taking me through some spectacular scenery.
Thanks to the efforts of Tony and his colleagues,
it's an experience enjoyed by tens of thousands of tourists every year.
So, how was it that this railway here was revived?
We were looking for a place to build a railway.
I'll have to stop you there. Why did you want to build a railway?
Because we like steam engines.
And I'd been collecting locos for a little while, and rebuilt them.
The next logical step was to find somewhere to run them.
There was five-and-a-half miles of railway which we could obtain.
It took seven years, I think, to obtain the land
because it had been sold off to 14 or 15 different landowners.
The infrastructure had all but disappeared,
so Tony and his family set about recreating a narrow-gauge railway
almost from scratch.
-But this is a life's labour.
-We've been at it for over 30 years, yeah.
You've been at it for over 30 years?
It's not finished yet. There's still more to do.
We got to extend the railway further, more locos we're building,
the carriages here are 30 years old,
they're starting to get a little bit scruffy.
And it goes on for ever, you know.
In summer, this service runs up to five times a day,
helping to minimise car traffic into the stunning National Park.
And I firmly believe there's no better way to enjoy this landscape.
So, you had to rebuild the whole railway line,
you had to do the bridges, stations, the engines, the carriages.
-The only thing you didn't do was the view.
We didn't need to do anything to that, that was all right.
In many ways, the rise and fall of industrial Merthyr
mirrors the story of the whole region.
But travelling on this line today reminds me
that despite the industrialisation of the 19th century,
the valleys still offer dramatic natural beauty.
Iron ore is no longer mined from these hills,
the deep coal pits are gone
and the railway network's been pruned back sharply.
But not all trace of the past has been laid to rest.
Vast reserves of coal are now being recovered by open mining
and they are being shifted in modern railway wagons down through Cardiff
on tracks first laid in Bradshaw's day.
On the last leg of my journey, I'll be discovering
how the 19th century steel trade has been brought up-to-date...
I can feel the heat of the blast furnace, I can see a stream
of molten iron, I can see sparks flying,
I can see smoke and now this fantastic train that's emerging.
..going on a Victorian adventure to see a marvel of the natural world...
It's wonderfully wet and wonderfully thrilling, isn't it?
It's very, very romantic.
..and learning how industry gave birth to beautiful music in Bradshaw's day.
-So, how long have you been in the choir?
-Only 53 years.
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 the Victorian coal heritage that turned Cardiff into the city it is today, explores the 19th-century reason why Barry Island isn't an island, and takes a steam ride through the beautiful Brecon Beacons National Park.