Michael Portillo explores the Victorian railway legacy behind the steel works of Port Talbot and uncovers the whaling past of Milford Haven.
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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.
Steered by my Bradshaw's guide, I am now completing my journey
towards the most westerly part of South Wales.
This area hosted a powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution,
and I'm keen to discover the cultural legacy of that period,
and also to find out whether industry and trade
are still continued here on a colossal scale.
On the final leg of this 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, kind of...very, very romantic.
And learning how industry
gave birth to beautiful music in Bradshaw's day.
-Sir, how long have you been in the choir?
-Oh, only 53 years.
I've been making a long journey from the heart of England to West Wales.
It's taken me through rolling hills
and ancient forests, before crossing the border,
where I've been exploring
the rich industrial and railway heritage of the Welsh valleys.
This stretch kicks off in Port Talbot,
then takes in the natural wonders of the Vale of Neath,
finishing up at the port of Milford Haven.
My guide book paints a vivid picture
of this region's beating industrial heart.
Here is Bradshaw's gripping description of South Wales
in the mid-19th century.
"At night, the lurid glare from countless coke ovens,
"by day, the dense clouds,
"proceeding from hundreds of chimney stalks overhanging the valley.
"At all times, the arsenical,
"sulphurous vapour filling the air, which you may both smell and taste.
"And that gives the scene
"a character scarcely to be seen elsewhere."
Bradshaw's recognised that the Industrial Revolution
had brought both Paradise and Inferno.
The heat and smoke that hung over the valleys in Bradshaw's day
was producing iron and steel, vital ingredients for the spread
of the railways and Britain's rapid industrial growth.
My first stop is Port Talbot,
a town that is still synonymous with steel today,
I'm heading to the vast modern steelworks
just south of the town
to see how the industry has changed since the 19th century.
This 20km squared site is managed by John Ferryman.
-Good morning, John.
-Good morning, Michael.
-Lovely to see you.
-This is really industry on an epic scale, isn't it?
Absolutely. We're stood in front of the blast furnaces,
here, at Port Talbot.
-I was reading my Bradshaw's guide on the way here.
He has this description of the blast furnaces in the mid-19th century.
-So, iron and steel making goes back a long way here.
The plant is built around coal supplies and iron ore supplies.
It goes back to Christopher Talbot, back in the 19th century.
Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot was a local landowner.
The ironworks he opened here in 1831
took advantage of recent industrial innovations
that made large-scale iron production possible.
But his ambitions for the area went further,
as the town's name suggests.
-So, he gave his name to Port Talbot. He developed the dock?
The dock came along.
He realised when you had an iron works,
you needed to bring materials in.
So he actually developed the docks.
He also had something to do with the railways as well.
In fact, Talbot was a major player
in the railway history of South Wales.
He was chairman of the South Wales Railway Company,
which built the line used to export coal from the region to London.
Closer to home,
his efforts helped Port Talbot to boom in the 19th century.
So, actually, in one person, this Talbot, you've got the dock,
you've got the ironworks, you've got the railways,
all integrated in this single figure.
Yeah, he did, and he actually brought that in in the 19th century
and made a huge difference to this area.
And it's still the same today.
Industrially produced iron helped Britain's railways
to unfurl across the land, used for everything
from tracks to stations and viaducts.
But, by the 1870s, a new technology allowed iron
to be transformed inexpensively into steel, which was stronger,
giving fresh impetus to the Industrial Revolution.
Port Talbot gained its first steelworks in 1901,
and then the core of the modern plant opened in the 1950s.
Further technological progress
has transformed the manufacturing process.
-What is it that you control from here?
I control all the furnace parameters.
How quick the furnace is running, how much iron we are making,
what we put in the top, what percentage of coke to ore.
-What I'm looking at on the screen there.
How far away is that from this building?
-It's about 30 foot behind those windows.
Straight across, yes.
But it would be pretty damn hot if we were down there.
If you were up there at the moment, you would be very warm,
You'd be wearing safety gear.
The iron itself is about 1,500 degrees this morning.
And how do you get the temperatures up?
We blow hot air in the bottom, about 1,000 degrees, and inside there,
we mix that with coke and oxygen and we get combustion.
The flame temperature at the bottom, there, is about 2,240 degrees,
which produces that iron, at about 1,528, right now.
The temperatures are just bewildering to me.
An extraordinary environment.
This vast site handles the whole steel-making process,
from smelting to rolling out the finished product,
producing up to 5,000,000 tonnes per year.
The plant has its own internal railway,
where locomotives pull so-called torpedoes
full of blistering hot liquid iron.
John, it's a fantastic feeling here.
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.
Tell me about that.
The torpedo is like a flask on wheels
and it's holding in 1,530 degrees of molten iron.
So there's about 300 tonnes in this torpedo behind us.
And it's now going off to our steel plant, where it will be treated
to turn it from iron into steel.
I can see the heat haze rising above the torpedoes.
This is an open vessel, is it?
Yeah, the top of the vessel is open.
That's the area we pour into and actually pour out of
when it gets into the steel plant.
You must have, yourselves, a pretty enormous
and busy railway network inside the plant.
Yeah, I mean, the blast furnaces are known as the heart of the plant,
and the railway network is known as the veins.
And, actually, we're moving about 80,000 tonnes of molten iron a week
through the plant.
-A week, yes.
So, I mean, you know, that does make you a very substantial
The railway here is absolutely essential to this business.
It just cannot operate without a railway network.
I'm sure George Bradshaw would be struck that coke,
iron smelting, and the transportation of steel
by rail continue today in a form that he would recognise.
But the railways in his day served passengers as well as freight.
I'm leaving Port Talbot, following the tracks of Victorian
adventurers who came to explore this region's gorgeous landscape.
My Bradshaw's says, "Here, the fine Vale of Neath may be ascended
"to the beautiful waterfalls at its summit.
"Some of the best waterfalls in South Wales."
And while industry has changed a lot since Bradshaw's day,
I'm assuming that nature has not.
I leave the train at Neath station.
In Bradshaw's day,
I would have been able to pick up the Vale of Neath Railway here,
to take me closer to the valley's most stunning scenery.
The line's gone, now,
but that won't deter me
from following the trail of Victorians,
who sought the thrill of nature in waterfall country.
I'm meeting countryside warden Helen Pie,
to hear whether this beauty spot has changed since Bradshaw's day.
-How are you?
-What an awesome site that is.
-It's absolutely stunning, isn't it?
The power of nature, eh?
I imagine that Victorian tourists did come in considerable numbers.
The numbers were actually quite low.
This area was quite an extreme environment for them to come to,
so, you did generally tend to get explorers, naturalists,
And probably people who were more of the higher classes,
because it was quite an adventure to come here, really.
Of course, the Victorians combined this romanticism,
this wish to get back to the forces of nature, with a very keen
sense of scientific enquiry, didn't they?
So, you had people like Alfred Russel Wallace coming here.
He was a famous naturalist of the 19th century.
Though no longer a household name,
Alfred Russel Wallace was well known in Victorian times.
he hit upon a theory of evolution at the same time as Darwin.
Indeed, hearing of Wallace's work spurred Darwin to publish his own.
This countryside first inspired Wallace to study the natural world,
and it still attracts scientific interest today.
This site is actually of European importance, and it's designated
for its open Ash woodland and some of the really rare species
that that supports, so, and most people don't really know about them.
They are lichens and mosses, all those green things that you
see growing on trees, but they are actually really important
and rare on this site.
These days, the area attracts 154,000 visitors a year,
many doing the 21st century equivalent of the Victorian tour.
The four waterfalls walk.
A highlight is the opportunity to stand behind
this magnificent torrent of water.
It's wonderfully wet, and wonderfully thrilling, isn't it?
It's kind of...very, very romantic.
I wish I were a Victorian poet who could pen a few lines,
or a Victorian painter who captured the beauty, or a Victorian who
could take the steam railway back down the Neath Valley.
After my Victorian adventure,
I'm now in search of a bed for the night.
Bradshaw's recommends Neath's Castle Hotel,
and, apparently, it also has a sporting claim to fame.
Before I touch down for the night, I'm stopping off for a chat
with Neath Rugby Club Secretary Mike Price.
-Michael, welcome to Wales's rugby capital.
-That's Neath, is it?
-That's Neath, yeah.
The good citizens of Cardiff might disagree with it,
but Neath is the place where Welsh rugby really all started.
And this room is a particular shrine, isn't it?
Yes, this is the Centenary room in the Castle Hotel in Neath,
and this is where the Welsh Rugby Union itself was founded.
Rugby was introduced to Wales in the 19th century, and the working men
of the Welsh valleys were quick to make it their own.
The railways helped to encourage matches, even between distant teams.
And with the creation of the Rugby Union, Welsh rugby came of age.
Now, Wales could field an official national team,
kicking off a love affair that shows no sign of fading.
So, tell me about Wales's love of, or passion for rugby.
Well, it borders on fanaticism, really,
and I think it all grows from people's school days.
I wouldn't think there's a school kid in Wales who hasn't participated
in a game of rugby at some level or other,
and even before that,
children get given rugby balls as presents, even as toddlers.
After a stimulating day, I must convert my energy to sleep,
and try to get some rest.
Today, I'm continuing west towards the city of Swansea.
In the 19th century, this area was a hive of industrial activity,
dominated by coalmining and copper smelting.
At the end of a day working in the pit, or on the railways,
or at the blast furnace, the working man sought a leisure activity,
and that has bequeathed us something we associate more particularly
with the Welsh than even coal or steel.
MALE CHOIR SINGS
In this region, the dirt and smoke of the Industrial Revolution
gave birth to the Welsh male voice choir.
Formed not of classically trained musicians but working men,
these choirs are a fundament of Welsh culture.
I'm leaving the train at Swansea
and heading to the nearby suburb of Dunvant,
where I've heard there's an intriguing connection
between singing and the railways.
Until the 1960s, Dunvant was linked by rail to Swansea docks.
Sadly, these days, that line has gone,
and all that remains of the station is a modest hut.
It's where I'm meeting the choir chairman, Barry Evans.
-Michael, nice to meet you.
-Great to see you.
The Dunvant Male Voice Choir has quite a claim to fame, doesn't it?
Yes, it's the oldest established continuous male voice choir
in Wales, established in 1895, and has been going ever since,
without a break, really.
You've decided to meet me here for what reason?
Well, because before the main male voice choir was formed,
the other choir in the village started in this building in 1880
when it was part of the main station building.
And when this choir split up,
some of the members went to form the male voice choir.
Why did they form in a railway station?
Well, because the station master, Isaac Peters,
was a musician of sorts and he pulled people
together in the area from Killay and Dunvant
to form a mixed choir,
and they used to practise in the station when he was on shift.
Industrialisation and the new railways soon brought
unprecedented numbers of miners and metalworkers
to villages across the valleys,
all working to the new rhythms of the industrial age.
Set shifts became the norm,
leaving the men with structured leisure time to fill.
Why did working men join choirs in the 19th century?
Well, I think it was a bit of a challenge.
There wasn't much else to do at the time.
Most people were in the chapel.
It paid to be in the chapel and the schools.
And it was a community thing.
You got together, not just men, but ladies as well.
And you had mixed choirs.
And then the men found you could have a nice sound
with a male voice choir.
So, lots of male voice choirs were founded.
Did it mix with what, I assume, is quite a macho culture?
I mean, men who were working underground all day,
men who were working on the railways,
men who were working in the blast furnaces.
Well, I think it was just being part of a team.
As well as being in the pit, they used to play rugby together,
and do all sorts of things together, and singing,
it just brought people together for a bit of enjoyment.
That was the main reason for it.
The choirs could exploit local rivalries,
as the men threw their hearts into competitions between villages.
The tradition survives to this day
and the quest for excellence is undiminished.
I suppose that I could have strayed here during Victoria's reign
and heard a sound as powerful and as moving.
What a privilege. What beautiful harmonies.
You've got fantastic voices.
Absolutely incredible voices. Thank you so much.
May I ask you, how long have you been in the choir?
25 years, now.
And what do you get out of your singing?
I suppose it's the comradeship. It's good fun.
It's good for your health.
Very good for your health, in fact. The opportunity to travel.
And the opportunity to learn from people
like our musical team here, for instance.
How to hone our voices and take us to some very prestigious venues
to sing with some very prestigious people.
-Sir, how long have you been in the choir?
-Oh, only 53 years.
-And I'm the youngster in the choir now.
-Was your family in the choir?
-Very much so.
My father and my grandfather. Three generations.
And my other grandfather was also in it, but not during my time.
Why have you done it for 53 years?
What have you gained from your singing?
Well, it's my village. I was born here. Born into this chapel.
Spent all my life here. And it's the people that I've lived with.
It's a part of what we are.
What would life have been like for you without your singing?
Oh, dear. I... LAUGHTER
-You can't even think about it, can you?
-No, not really, no.
I wouldn't have imagined living without singing.
You know, I can't imagine anything more beautiful than
walking in here and hearing this choir sing.
I can't imagine any better welcome
in the hillside or any better welcome in the vales.
With the sound of Wales ringing in my ears, I'm now taking my last
train on this long trip.
I'm bound for Milford Haven, in Pembrokeshire,
which receives an enthusiastic review in my 19th-century guide.
The final stage of my journey takes me to the Welsh coast,
to one of the most westerly places in mainland Britain.
My Bradshaw's talks about...
"that magnificent inlet called Milford Haven.
"Milford is prettily situated on a sloping point of land
"about six miles from the entrance to the Haven
"to which it gives its name."
And the natural advantages of that harbour serve Milford Haven
today as well as they have in centuries gone by.
The railway reached Milford in 1856,
and a few years later, the line was extended to reach the main docks.
I'm getting off in the town centre, and heading to the waterfront,
to see what the locals make of their fine harbour.
-Enjoying the view?
Do you come from Milford Haven?
I live around the corner, yeah, just round the corner,
not far from here at all.
And do you manage to get out and enjoy the water sometimes?
Yes, we do. We go out on my friend's jet ski, and we go surfing.
The beaches are beautiful, I have to say.
Pembrokeshire has its cons, but the beaches are absolutely stunning.
Yeah, I know it's not great today, but the scenery is beautiful.
You know, it's supposed to be summer. But obviously not today.
Milford Haven was founded only in the 1790s, but in its short
200 year history, it's been through several incarnations.
Surprisingly, some of the first people
to settle here came from America.
And their legacy is discernible in the town today.
This transatlantic connection came about
thanks to the remarkable natural harbour.
To hear more, I'm meeting Andrew Brown,
from the Milford Haven Port Authority.
-Michael, welcome to Milford Haven.
It's great to be here. I've been lured here by my Bradshaw's guide.
It says, "As there is plenty of deep water,
"the harbour at Milford Haven
"would easily hold the entire British Navy."
That's quite a thought, and quite a claim, isn't it?
It is, and it's absolutely true,
and it's been part of the success of Milford Haven
over the last 200 years.
The water depth is 16.5 metres in the main channel,
and that's minimum, it's actually more than that,
or in Bradshaw's day, that's over 50 feet of water
at all states of the tide.
Only in the late 18th century
did local landowners realise the potential of the Haven.
They lobbied Parliament for permission to build a new town,
with a very unusual group of new residents in mind, American whalers.
They were looking for a base in the UK
to bring in all the spoils from their whaling.
And they started here in the late 1790s into the 1800s.
They would go away into the seas for a year or more at a time.
They brought the whales in.
The whale bones were used for fine ladies corsetry, apparently,
and the sperm oil was taken up to London,
and that was used as fuel for street lighting in London.
These whalers had settled in Milford,
partly because of its excellent harbour,
but also to avoid high import duties.
At that time, America led the hugely lucrative whale trade.
In the days before petroleum, oil made from whale blubber
was highly prized, and as the Industrial Revolution progressed,
it was put to many uses, from candles to lubricating locomotives.
But as a whaling port, Milford didn't last long.
By the mid-19th century, the whale trade was in decline,
thanks to the inventions of gas lighting and kerosene.
In the 1880s, Milford Haven decided to chart a different course,
which began with building new docks.
The initial aspiration was that the docks,
when they were built, would attract transatlantic liners.
But the reality, when the gates first opened in 1888,
was that the first ship in was this small steam trawler
by the name of Sybil.
And she landed, I believe, about five tonnes of fish.
And that set the future of Milford for the following 100 years.
And that fish was headed, I assume, for the railway
for the cities of Britain?
Well, indeed. And, in fact,
there was a fish quay which was one fifth of a mile long,
and, in fact, in Paddington as well,
there were posters that said,
"Milford Haven, where the fish comes from."
And there were fish trains that went up to London,
up to Billingsgate, every day.
By the 1900s, Milford was Britain's sixth largest fishing port.
But by the middle of the 20th century, things were going downhill.
The harbour came to the rescue once again when, in the 1950s
and '60s, oil companies saw it as an ideal site for refineries.
Today, the docks are filled with vast tankers carrying oil
and liquefied natural gas.
So, Milford Haven has gone from whale oil to crude oil.
It's the second oil age, as we call it,
and then more recently,
in the last two or three years,
liquefied natural gas has started to come ashore,
and each of them produce about 20%, 25% of the UK's needs,
both in terms of refined product, and in terms of the gas.
Milford's liquefied natural gas complex
is one of the biggest in the world.
The oil companies still use the railways,
with eight to ten trains
carrying 2,000 tonnes of refined material out of the town every week.
It was the references in Bradshaw's that brought me here today,
and, frankly, it's been a surprise, because Milford Haven
is not necessarily a name that's on everybody's lips,
and yet it turns out to be a fundamentally important port
for the very same reason that Bradshaw's mentions,
the depth of the water.
It's the depth of the water that has made Milford Haven,
in spite of its peripherality, in spite of how far away it is
from the centre of the UK and Europe, we are the energy port of the UK.
We are the third largest port, in terms of tonnage moved in the UK,
and we are the largest port in Wales.
There is an immense pride in Milford Haven
in what the port has done for it.
During this rail trip, I have been musing on how the Victorians
harnessed the railways to make the most of their resources.
Trains carried everything from self-improving tourists
to the very coal, iron, and steel
that fuelled the Industrial Revolution.
On this journey from Oxford to Milford Haven, I have contemplated
beautiful British landscape from towers and hills.
This land has been good to us.
The Victorians changed it, cultivating its fields,
and mining its minerals.
Some of what they did has now returned to nature.
For the span from Bradshaw's time to ours is but a moment gone,
whilst this island of ours endures forever.
My next journey takes me to the North of England,
as my Bradshaw's leads me from Berwick-upon-Tweed,
south-west across the backbone of England,
through industrial heartlands and dramatic scenery,
finishing on the beautiful and unique Isle of Man.
I'll be admiring spectacular engineering triumphs
in the Cumbrian countryside.
Thank you for going so slowly over the viaduct.
-Isn't that a beautiful thing?
-Oh, it's beautiful.
Submerging myself in a top secret world.
It is enormous,
and it's like the last scene of a James Bond movie, isn't it?
And hearing how perilous life was on the industrial railways
of the North East.
So, if it's your job to get that rope off and you happened to trip,
-what's the consequence?
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 explores the Victorian railway legacy behind the steel works of Port Talbot, follows the trail of 19th-century waterfall hunters in Neath and uncovers the fascinating whaling past of Milford Haven.