Michael Portillo discovers the unique cross-border history of Berwick-upon-Tweed and hears the unique story of the Pitman Painters of Ashington.
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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.
I've embarked on a new journey across Northern England
and my Bradshaw's guide has brought me to the borderlands,
where for hundreds of years,
conflict between the English and the Scots
shaped the identities of both peoples.
In the 19th century,
railway engineers played their part in bridging the gulf.
'On the first part of my new journey,
'I'll be seeing how the railway joined those two restless kingdoms.'
This really is the most beautiful bridge.
'Discovering an exceptional art class that illustrates a bygone way of life.'
It's something which nobody else would have thought of recording,
has ever recorded, nor will record now because it's all vanished.
'And hearing just how perilous work was
'on the industrial railways of the North East.'
So, if it's your job to get that rope off and you happen to trip,
-what's the consequence?
Starting in the borderlands, this journey takes me south,
through some of Northern England's most dramatic scenery,
to cross the Pennines
and finish up on the beautiful and unique Isle of Man.
Today's stretch begins in Berwick-upon-Tweed,
and then I'll travel through the Northumbrian countryside to Morpeth
and the Victorian heartlands of the industrial North East.
My first stop will be Berwick-upon-Tweed.
My Bradshaw's guide says, "Before the Act of Union,
"it was an important frontier town,
"it is still a garrison town,
"having a military governor, barracks and fortified walls.
"Berwick is a stronghold that straddled the fault line
"between warring peoples."
Just two-and-a-half miles south of the Scottish border,
Berwick-upon-Tweed is the northernmost town in England.
Astonishingly, it's changed hands between the English and the Scots
at least 13 times in its history.
But the coming of the railway in the 19th century
helped to smooth across the fault line of a fractious divide
to link two often antagonistic peoples.
Seems quite peaceful, no sign of war today.
I'm heading off to Berwick's Tudor ramparts,
built in the 16th century by Queen Elizabeth I.
With many Catholic enemies in Northern England,
who wanted to see her replaced by Mary Queen of Scots,
the Queen needed to control Berwick
and to contain Scotland,
hence these colossal defences.
Local historian Derek Sharman
is my guide to one of the most complete, fortified towns in Europe.
Welcome to Berwick-upon-Tweed.
Now, it's been the scene of conflict between the English and the Scots
for an awfully long time, hasn't it?
My Bradshaw's says that Edward I barbarously exposed the limbs
of William Wallace here.
-It's been going on a long time.
-It has, indeed.
In the 13th century,
Berwick was the biggest, richest seaport in Scotland,
so when Edward I captured the place, Wallace wanted it back.
The next year, he recaptured Berwick
and began 300 years of warfare between the two countries.
This conflict continued for centuries,
Berwick was the key to Scotland - its food supply, its population,
all its economy - so holding Berwick was holding the keys to Scotland.
One of the things that surprised me
was that Bradshaw's Guide - talking about the 1860s -
says that it's STILL a garrison town, can that possibly be true?
Oh, yes, yes.
Berwick has the first infantry barracks in the country,
built at the beginning of the 18th century
and right through until 1964, this was still a garrison town.
As an important military town,
soldiers had been stationed in Berwick for centuries,
billeted in people's homes.
But the burden of this standing army weighed heavily on the town
and as a result of complaints,
the government built the barracks in 1719.
It was the model for subsequent barracks across Britain
and indeed the Empire.
And my Bradshaw's of the 1860s
records that the town still had its own military governor.
What part did the railways play in the history of Berwick?
It finally cemented the two countries together.
It also made a great improvement to the town's economy.
By then, we'd settled into a normal, everyday market town
and the railway brought great wealth to the town.
So you think that the building of the railway
has a symbolic or cultural effect, do you?
The town had been a ping-pong ball for centuries
and now it was just the centre of two great nations.
A railway line from Edinburgh to Berwick
was built by Scottish engineers in 1846.
The line from London reached Tweedmouth,
on the opposite bank of the River Tweed, a year later.
But finally, to unite England and Scotland
required a monumental piece of Victorian engineering
by Robert Stephenson.
The Royal Border Bridge.
This really is the most beautiful bridge.
My Bradshaw's says it's Stephenson's Royal Border Bridge
or viaduct for the railway -
216 foot long, on 28 brick arches.
It is a wonderful thing, isn't it?
What was the history of the building of this bridge?
Well, it's the last link in what is now the East Coast Main Line
and it was finished in 1850,
opened officially by Queen Victoria.
She only spent 12 minutes here,
she opened Newcastle Central Station the same day
and the festivities there were so great
that she only had 12 minutes left when she got to Berwick.
Nonetheless, she opened the bridge and from this time, it was genuinely a united kingdom.
The building of this majestic structure,
38m above the River Tweed,
was the catalyst for stronger political and cultural ties,
with a line directly linking London to Edinburgh for the first time.
Escaping from the past was evidently a conscious feature of the project.
Derek, what's amazing to me here,
is I can see castle wall on either side of the railway,
so the railway was just punched straight through the old walls?
The Victorians wanted progress, of course, not historic buildings -
they had plenty of castles and this was just one more - so it went.
There's a wall that runs down to the river side - the White Wall -
built by Edward I in 1296,
when the English captured the place and began centuries of warfare.
The castle had featured in war between the English and the Scots over centuries
and its fortifications had been repaired and improved
after each devastating battle.
But the advent of the railway finally demolished it,
symbolically sweeping away centuries of conflict.
Very typical of the Victorians
and you find it all the time in Bradshaw's,
this absolute confidence in progress
and therefore, perhaps, a little bit of disrespect for history.
Berwick's very singular history has left its mark
not just on the landscape, but also on its inhabitants.
So often under siege in their history,
Berwickers have developed a strong and distinctive identity.
-Hello, are you from Berwick?
I'm very interested to know,
would you regard yourself as English, Scottish or Berwicker?
Tell me, do you regard yourself as English, Scottish or Berwickers?
-Berwickers? Now, why would that be?
Because we're neither one nor the other!
-Hello, how nice to see you.
-Are you from Berwick?
Yeah, I've lived here all my life.
Do you regard yourself as English, Scottish or Berwicker?
Em...English, but I regard myself as Berwicker if people ask.
Do you think people who live here have to be pretty tough?
You do take quite a bit of beating because you go up to Scotland
and you get called a Geordie,
you go further down south in England,
you get called a Scot, but you're not.
You're on the English border,
but that's how it is and how it's always been.
Berwick is clearly shaped by its tumultuous past.
As I leave on the railway that tied together these old warring foes -
Scotland and England -
there's one more exhilarating sight.
Now, I'm really looking forward to this
because as soon as the train leaves Berwick-upon-Tweed station,
it's going to pass over Stephenson's magnificent Royal Border Bridge.
What a sensational view!
I'm now heading due south on Stephenson's East Coast Main Line
through the stunning Northumbrian countryside.
My next stop is Alnmouth,
and I'm disembarking there for Alnwick,
another garrison town, another wonderful castle,
as recommended by my Bradshaw's Guide.
Alnwick Castle is the second largest in England,
and in Bradshaw's day,
the Dowager Duchess was distinguished
by being Queen Victoria's former governess.
The town was nicknamed the Windsor of the North,
because of the sheer deluge of royalty arriving by train.
The Duke of Northumberland was built a suitably grand
twin-barrelled 32,000 square foot railway station.
Sadly, Alnwick closed in the 1960s but, wonderfully for me,
a second-hand bookshop saves some of the rooms of the old station,
and so, to my delight,
I can step back in time with co-owner Mary Manley.
-Michael, please come in.
-Thank you very much, it's lovely!
-Oh, thank you.
-I love the... I love the open fire here.
Oh, that is one of the most popular parts of the shop.
It's real, and it's coal.
It was remarked in the paper at the time that the station was,
"A model of completeness,
"and none superior in regard to construction or furnishing
"is to be met with on the north-eastern section."
The fine features of this Victorian railway station
have been affectionately restored,
to the joy of both book lovers and railway enthusiasts.
I can't help noticing that you've got a very beautiful train as well.
-What's the story of that?
-When we put up these book columns,
I needed a way of connecting them,
otherwise they looked like they were free-standing and rather lonely,
so I thought having a model train might be an effective idea,
and people love it - not just children, but grown-ups.
Oh, no, no, I'm a grown-up, and I love it too!
It's just so completely in character with what the building used to be.
As well as bringing love and light back to Alnwick Station,
Mary's added her own touches to honour the railway staff.
Now, all these...names on the wall, what does that represent?
All the names of people we could find who worked in Alnwick Station
from 1850 till its closure in 1968.
It's a family, it's like coalminers, really, the railwaymen.
We were very aware of the...voices that go unheard in the station.
It's their voices.
So you've established a bookshop, but you're very aware that it's a bookshop in a station.
We're very aware of the station
and wanted to restore everything we could to keep it alive as that.
And, in fact, our bookshop has the same resonance, I think,
as a railway station - all classes, all ages, stories, hellos and goodbyes.
In the railway books section,
a magnet for rail enthusiasts from all over the world,
Mary's husband, Stuart, has something of interest.
-What are you reading there?
Well, we have here a very early railway book
of the Newcastle to Carlisle line built in 1836.
It has wonderful pictures in it of the line just after it was built.
These are stunning, aren't they?
The quality of the engravings is terrific.
-Is the book dated?
-The book is dated and, er...1836.
Immediately the line has been built, they bring out this beautiful book
showing, from the earliest days,
they understood the railways were a thing of beauty to be celebrated.
I think that's self-evident.
It's not just the viaducts, which are beautiful,
but they put the scenery around them
to really show, "This is part of the countryside now, and isn't it great?"
From one early railway book to another,
do you have many of Bradshaw's Handbooks?
Curiously enough, you're entirely to blame for this,
there's hardly a Bradshaw's Handbook to be had anywhere in the country.
We've sold out, and so has virtually everyone else.
I think George Bradshaw would have been humbled and rather amused
to know that, over 170 years since its first publication,
his railway guides are flying off the shelf once more.
After a glorious day, I'm heading off to find my bed for the night,
courtesy, of course, of good old George.
For my hotel tonight, Bradshaw's mentions the White Swan,
and after all these decades, it's still here.
Wealthy Victorian and early 20th-century travellers
demanded luxury and opulence on a grand scale,
and not just on the railways.
One of the most ostentatious examples of this
was the Titanic sister ship, the Olympic.
It was unsurpassed in grandeur,
having the first swimming pool on a transatlantic liner,
and a staircase that was said to be "something beyond beautiful".
Unusually, after she was withdrawn from service in 1935,
her fittings and fixtures weren't scrapped, but sold at auction.
The first class lounge was bought for the White Swan Hotel
for its patrons' indulgence.
What a wonderfully elegant dining room.
Tonight, I can swap the pleasures of railway travel, standard class,
for the luxury of transatlantic cruising first-class.
A new day and I'm up early,
leaving behind the disputed territories of the border
to travel south to the industrial heartlands of North-Eastern England.
The progress of the Industrial Revolution
from the end of the 18th century saw large-scale use of coal,
as steam engines supplanted waterwheels.
In the Victorian era, steam-powered ships and railways
spread across the world and the demand for coal was at its zenith.
My Bradshaw's says, "within a circle of eight or ten miles,
"more than 50 important collieries are open,
"employing between 10,000-15,000 hands.
"The great northern field covers about 500 square miles
"of Northumberland and Durham, and may be 1,800 feet deep."
The railways helped convert hamlets into villages, pit villages.
This economic growth, based on coal,
converted parts of Northumberland from agriculture
to create one of the first 19th-century industrial landscapes.
'The service now arriving at Watford. Watford will be the next stop.'
I've left the train at Morpeth to make a short excursion
to the centre of the Northumberland collieries, the town of Ashington.
By the late 1840s, as a result of the coalmining industry,
Ashington had developed from a rural backwater to a population of over 25,000.
The railways also grew exponentially,
carrying the coal to the expanding docks of Newcastle, Sunderland and Jarrow
on the Northumberland and Durham coasts.
In these former pit villages,
you can taste the history of the coal industry.
These were very tightly knit communities.
Miners and their families living cheek by jowl with other miners and their families.
I'm interested to discover what these pitmen did in their spare time
to escape their often dangerous and grimy working lives at the coal face.
So I've come to the Woodhorn Colliery Museum
to meet author William Feaver.
Here we are at Woodhorn colliery, which is now a museum,
but describe it to me in its heyday of production.
Well, trains and convoys of coal wagons going up and down,
backwards and forwards, endlessly.
It was like a great traffic junction and this was the middle of the coal yard.
Pithead above us, where everything went down, everything came up.
And remember, coal ran the country.
Without coal, there wouldn't have been any trains, and nothing else, no power, in effect.
So this was an industrial hub.
How would you describe the life of the miners in those days?
Life as a pitman was hard at the best of times.
Apart from anything else,
you spent most of your working life in the dark.
Dangerous life, I mean, death was a possibility.
1% fatalities a year was considered rather a good statistic.
Think of that, with that number of people working.
It was not just a hard life,
but a life in which there was no alternative.
Ashington was a one-industry place, and because of that,
both a great pride in the industry because it was a skilled industry,
and a sense of, I think,
being captive, limited by this hard drudgery.
And the miners came together with this sense of camaraderie,
this idea that they had to put their leisure time to good use,
and an idea that they wanted to make something better of their lives.
There was a huge appetite for self-improvement. This is from the late 19th century onwards.
In the Workers' Educational Association,
which was a further education system, it set up classes wherever needed,
and here, the classes were particularly active.
There was one particular class which really has now gone down in history.
The Ashington group, or Pitmen Painters, as they're affectionately known,
are special because they offer us a unique view of miners' lives.
The pitmen first came together in 1934
to study something different, art appreciation.
Robert Lyon, a lecturer from Durham University,
became their tutor and the results of those classes now hang in the Woodhorn Museum.
How powerful, how, er...
How extraordinary, how very, very moving. Very sensitive, aren't they?
So... So real. And these were done by pitmen?
These were done by pitmen,
and they were done starting in 1934, going right through until the 1980s.
Initially, the men painted subjects which reflected their pastimes,
growing food on their allotments, racing whippets and pigeons,
but it became clear that the greatest art
would spring from their daily working lives,
and increasingly, they painted how it was to work in the mines.
In those days, you hardly took photographs underground.
If you did, they were big plate cameras, and black and white.
This is underground in colour.
It wasn't black and white down there,
it was brown and russet and shadowy and subtle.
Because they worked there all their daily lives,
they could do images which were completely unknown to people outside.
And so this is what it was like in the '30s,
when the second stage of jobs for someone going down the pit
at the age of about 13 would be to look after pit ponies.
Jimmy Floyd shows a rather illicit thing going on,
which is feeding the pony in his break.
It's something which nobody else would have thought of recording,
nobody else has ever recorded, nobody ever will record now
because it's all vanished.
The paintings that survived were collected together by the miners
and stored in a small hut for over 30 years.
The pictures, hung together, are exactly as I think the group is.
Not individuals, it's a group that echoes and re-echoes,
talks among itself, backchats, laughs, shares the memories.
The amazing thing is that nowhere in the world is there anything like this.
There has never been a working men's movement
that's kept its best pictures, kept them together,
and had such an extraordinary, touching, and now historic subject.
The coal industry has virtually gone, these pictures are here.
Sadly, the Ashington pitmen painters are all dead now.
I'm moved by these paintings, an unsentimental depiction
of their lives, hewing the stubborn coal from the earth.
The very coal that powered the mills and the locomotives.
To reach the last stop on this leg,
I must return to the main line that runs south from Edinburgh,
to leave behind Northumberland and enter Tyne & Wear.
A quick change at Newcastle affords me a real treat.
Now, this is one of my favourite views from a train in Britain.
Down the River Tyne between Newcastle and Gateshead.
Isn't that fabulous?
I often mention how the railways spurred the development of coal,
but of course, the converse was just as true.
Many of the important breakthroughs in rail technology
were made by mining engineers, and the pits were using trucks
on tracks long before the invention of the moving steam engine or locomotive.
As early as 1620, mines were using rails and trucks within the pits to move coal.
As the Industrial Revolution burgeoned,
the Victorians increasingly demanded steam power for industry and railways,
requiring huge quantities of coal to be moved from pithead to dock.
One of the earliest innovations for this work was the rope-hauled railway.
I've come to the Bowes Railway Museum near Gateshead,
with engineer John Young, to see the only surviving example in the world.
John, if I understand it, you've brought me to this spectacular place because this is one
of George Stephenson's early railway miracles, isn't it?
Yes, we're on the site of Springwell colliery.
This is the top of the hill where the full wagons going down
would pull empty wagons up, powered by gravity.
So, if I understand this correctly, this is operating by gravity and by balance.
You've got six full wagons going down
and they're pulling up six empty wagons to the summit?
Yes, a very unique system, couldn't be bettered from 1826 to when it shut in '74.
Designed by George Stephenson when he was a colliery engineer,
the rope haulage covered nine miles from pithead to port.
Gravity alone allowed the full wagons to move downhill
and, as they descended, to pull the empty ones up.
Where coal-laden trucks had to travel uphill,
a stationary steam-powered winch was used.
This system was said to be so efficient that the first load of coal through in the morning
would be enough to pay the wages of every man
working on the railway that day.
This must have been a dangerous place to work?
Very. I mean, the death list for this site is in its hundreds.
Banksmen would have to run in front of full wagons to take the ropes off,
and other men to run alongside to put brakes on.
So if it's your job to run down in front of six fully-loaded
wagons of coal as they're gaining speed to get that rope off,
-and you happen to trip, what was the consequence?
Although the Bowes system closed in 1974,
the technology was in operation much as Stevenson had designed it for just shy of 150 years.
So they're now running down just on gravity, are they?
It's gravity pulling them out. What I'm having to do now is control the rope speed.
As you see, the rope's jumping up and down.
If you just let it pay out under its own weight,
the wagons would just go out of control and fly off down the yard.
Without the ingenuity of engineers working on mining and shipping coal,
it's doubtful whether the key developments of the locomotive and the railway
could have evolved with the extraordinary speed that they did.
The railway was an awesome technology,
powerful enough to rub out borders
and link previously hostile cultures,
but as it stimulated the Industrial Revolution,
it created new communities based on coal,
and they had their own distinct and celebrated cultures.
'On the next step of my journey,
'I'll be getting down and dirty in a Roman barracks.'
Well, I am your slave, back to work.
Back to work - quite right as well!
'Discovering a small invention that made a big difference to the travelling public.'
-Let me do the dog ticket first, that's easy enough.
One dog ticket.
'And drinking in spectacular engineering triumphs in the Cumbrian countryside.'
-Thank you for going so slowly over the viaduct.
-Isn't it beautiful?
-Oh, it is, aye.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]co.uk
Michael Portillo takes to the tracks with a copy of George Bradshaw's Victorian Railway Guidebook. Portillo travels the length and breadth of the country to see how the railways changed us, and what of Bradshaw's Britain remains.
He travels through some of northern England's most dramatic scenery, from Berwick-upon-Tweed, crossing the Pennines to the Lake District before completing the journey on the beautiful and unique Isle of Man.
Here, Michael discovers the unique cross-border history of Berwick-Upon-Tweed, hears the unique story of the Pitman Painters of Ashington and sees first-hand the perils of working on the rails in Victorian times.