Michael Portillo follows the example of Victorian archaeologists at Hadrian's Wall and sees how the Victorian railways first fuelled invention in Wigton.
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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 breath of the country
to see what of Bradshaw's Britain remains.
My Bradshaw's is now guiding me across Northern England.
The castles that I've seen recently remind us
of the long wars between the Scots and the English.
And now I'm going to visit the very icon of that enmity.
For, as even recent history has shown us,
rulers who want to maintain separation between peoples build walls.
On today's leg of the 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 that a beautiful thing?
-Oh, it's beautiful, aye.
I started this journey in Berwick-upon-Tweed,
and I'm travelling southwest across the shoulder of England,
and will end my trip by crossing the Irish Sea to the Isle of Man.
Today's leg of the journey begins at Bardon Mill,
on historic Hadrian's Wall,
and takes me through Cumbria's breathtaking landscape
to the industrial town of Wigton.
My Bradshaw's says that Hadrian's Wall is nearly
700 miles long from sea to sea.
I'm afraid that's wrong by about a factor of ten.
It's much shorter than that.
Bradshaw's goes on to say,
"It was built by the Roman conquerors of Britain
"to secure themselves from the troublesome savages beyond."
Scottish viewers may wish to quarrel with the accuracy of that as well.
Having studied History at university,
I've always been drawn to Britain's Roman past.
So I'm alighting at Bardon Mill,
on the Hadrian's Wall country line,
32 miles from Newcastle,
to see the iconic barrier between
warring populations which stretches back two millennia.
If you love history, as I do, you'll adore Hadrian's Wall.
The Emperor Hadrian was facing rebellions in Libya, in Egypt.
How history repeats itself!
And he thought he might at least limit his problems
by building a wall to keep out the Caledonians.
It runs from coast to coast.
It was 11 feet high. It had ditches.
It had a castle every mile.
It had fortresses big enough to hold 17,000 troops.
Four legions built it in eight years.
It was the most fantastic engineering project.
You have to be impressed.
And you have to be depressed
that so much effort was put into keeping two peoples separate.
The Victorians, with their new-found freedom to travel on trains,
loved to visit ancient sites.
One of their favourite destinations was
the Roman garrison fort of Vindolanda,
where they indulged their passion for the new craze of archaeology.
I've followed in their footsteps
and I'm meeting site director Patricia Birley.
I've just come from Hadrian's Wall.
How does the fort here relate to Hadrian's Wall?
Well, you're standing a mile south of Hadrian's Wall here, Michael.
There were forts like Vindolanda
about every seven to eight miles along the Stanegate Road.
And it used to protect the road for travellers, trade and so forth.
And make a frontier, really.
The aristocracy had habitually undertaken the grand tour of Europe,
exploring the Renaissance and classical antiquities.
From the early 1800s, the British started to take an interest
in their own Roman history.
Archaeology increased its appeal and the Victorians realised
that there were treasure-troves to be explored
within their own country.
However, their methods of excavation were somewhat basic.
We have a term for it in the North of England,
we call it "howking", which is digging a hole to find something.
But having said that, the antiquarian excavators
did try to record everything that they were doing,
and indeed gave papers to the newly-formed
literary and philosophical and archaeological societies
that were springing up.
That was the start of what we would call modern archaeology.
The first tourist group to visit Vindolanda arrived in 1849.
Their only access to the site was on a far from luxurious industrial railway.
This wagonway had been built to carry stone from the quarries.
Our first pilgrims got in the, I hope, cleaned-out wagons.
And the wagons stopped just on the hillside beyond us there.
And the pilgrims got out and they had a good look around,
and had their, no doubt, little talk,
and then got back into the wagons, and away they went,
back down to the newly-opened railway line,
which must have been very exciting for them.
It brings a wonderful picture to mind, doesn't it?
These earnest Victorians in partially cleaned out
stone wagons arriving to pay tribute to this site.
The popularity of hands-on archaeology
rose throughout the 19th and 20th centuries,
leading to improved understanding of Hadrian's Wall,
military history and Roman Britain.
I've moved to the site of the modern-day excavations
at the fort of Vindolanda
to meet archaeologist Justin Blake.
-Nice to meet you.
-It's good to see you.
-Good to see you.
What is it you're excavating here?
We're right in the middle of a barrack room.
And it was built in our early third-century fort at Vindolanda.
So this is where eight men would have slept overnight,
cooked meals, socialised together.
And then, I wouldn't be at all surprised if they moaned
about life on the northern frontier up to a point as well.
What do we know, from what you've discovered, about how they were living?
Well, we know that they'd been using olive oil,
cos at the back end of last week, we found a beautiful neck
from an olive oil jar.
Which is this one here.
So we've got the handle over there, and part of the spout.
It's a huge globular bowl.
Usually, they hold about 50 or 80 litres of olive oil.
Lovely, thick clay, isn't it? Wow.
It really is, yeah. It's been imported from the south of Spain.
So it's travelled
a long way to get to Vindolanda.
Best of all, we know that they'd been playing games and socialising
because just this morning,
we found a wonderful little black-glass gaming counter.
You found that this morning?
Yeah, it came out literally about ten minutes before you arrived to see us.
'I can't resist a little dig myself,
'just in case another Roman treasure lurks below the surface.'
Now, I hope that you planted some gem that I can find here...
to encourage me.
It's one of the wonderful things about archaeology, I think.
You just never know what's going to be underneath the soil.
You've been finding bits and pieces of these people's lives.
-What impression do you have of them?
-It's very like modern society.
It's a huge spectrum of all sorts of different people doing all manner of different jobs here.
So you get very different impressions in each little bit that you dig in, I think.
-Well, I am your slave. Back to work.
-Back to work. Quite right as well.
It's back to the tracks,
though thankfully, not in a horse-drawn mineral wagon,
as my Victorian forerunners would have done.
One of the things that the Romans found attractive
about Northern England was its wealth of minerals,
and my Bradshaw's refers to,
"Mineral specimens that may be procured in the caves."
And also refers to the, "Large lead mines which also produce silver and copper."
Of course, in the 19th century, these minerals could only be
exploited successfully using the railways.
Leaving Hadrian's Wall behind, I'm heading west to Haltwhistle,
to make the journey to Alston in Cumbria,
and the South Tynedale Railway.
This branch line was key to transporting the coal,
lead and other minerals mined in the area.
But at the beautifully restored station,
I'm taking a moment to investigate a clever invention
that was to change the way we travel on trains.
One ticket on your lovely railway, please.
That will be £6, please.
Thank you very much.
Now, that is what I call a railway ticket.
All my young life, that's what a railway ticket looked like.
It wasn't orange and it wasn't made of paper.
It was just a lovely bit of card like that.
What was the history of these tickets?
Apparently, a revolutionary ticket system was introduced in this area.
South Tynedale line enthusiast Tom Bell will show me its simple brilliance.
Why is it called the Edmondson System?
Well, Thomas Edmondson was appointed station agent at Brampton
by the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway when it opened in 1836.
Brampton is pretty close to here?
It's about 20 miles from here,
and it's also on the main line of the company that built this branch line.
So what's the great breakthrough about this system?
Well, first of all, if you look at this ticket,
you'll see that it has a serial number printed on.
The first thing he did was design the system
to serially number all the tickets from one to 9,999.
And that meant that you could actually print tickets
-for one station to every destination that people wanted to travel.
You had the price, you had the class,
you had whether it was adult or child, or single or return.
Prior to this invention, railways issued handwritten tickets,
as stagecoach operators had done.
But they'd had only half a dozen passengers.
With hundreds of people using the booming railways,
the introduction of the Edmondson numeric ticketing system
met the modern need.
It also prevented unscrupulous clerks from lining their pockets,
as they had to reconcile daily the cash against the unsold serially numbered tickets.
The system spread rapidly across the country and, amazingly,
served the UK's railways for over 150 years until the dawn of the computer age.
Now, if you are going to have numerical sequences,
it's pretty important to keep your tickets tidy and in order.
-Did he also invent these racks?
-He invented the racks.
Small racks for little used destinations.
And the big racks for frequently used destinations.
And the tickets were put in with the lowest number at the bottom.
And each station had a ticket assembly like that.
And, like a cardsharp, you dealt from the bottom.
Mmm... Very nice.
How can I help you today?
Can we have a family ticket, please?
-I can't help noticing you've got a dog.
-Would you like a dog ticket as well?
-Let me do the dog ticket first. That's easy enough.
One dog ticket.
-Here we are.
From its opening in 1852,
this railway was important not just for the ticketing system.
The lure of lead in the wild hills
brought the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway to Alston.
And with the South Tyne Valley also producing large quantities of coal,
the arrival of the railway was the catalyst for major growth in mining.
Today, happily, the line is still open,
as a heritage narrow gauge railway.
It's lovely to be on the South Tynedale Railway.
Historically though, this is the railway
that used to bring the lead from the mines, isn't it?
It was built to take the lead out of the North Pennines orefield.
Now, my Bradshaw's also mentions silver coming from those mines.
Any record of silver?
Yes. Although most of the ore was lead and zinc,
there was a small amount of silver brought out as well.
In the Victorian age, lead had become a very important commodity
for the production of piping, roofing and paint.
The lead mines brought jobs and prosperity to the area.
And the railway began to transport both the ore
and the population drawn to the valley.
It used to take a fair number of passengers
and it also was very early in the tourist industry,
because the North Eastern Railway ran special trains
after Easter up to Alston for people to rent cottages for the summer.
We are running through some beautiful countryside.
It's known as England's last wilderness.
But if you look around, the landscape is entirely manmade.
It's been manmade since the Roman times.
Mainly by the lead miners since the 17th century.
It's time to retire for the evening.
So I'm headed for the small village of Gilsland
on the edge of the Northumberland National Park,
situated hard upon Hadrian's Wall.
As the Victorians began to travel by train, they needed places to stay.
And Bradshaw's contains recommendations for the weary tourist.
Where to stand, such a pretty evening?
Bradshaw's has the answer.
"A good sulphur spring which issues from a cliff in the glen
"at the back of Shaws excellent hotel."
Well, the hotel has changed shape and name,
but I bet the spring is still there.
To compete against their rivals, Victorian hotels liked to offer
health experiences and the sulphur springs fitted the bill perfectly.
My guide is local historian Will Higgs.
This is the fountain to which the sulphur water has now been piped.
Although that was quite a long time ago and, unfortunately,
the pipe seems to be getting blocked and it's pretty well dried up.
But you can certainly smell the stuff.
Whoa! That's terrible! Rotten eggs!
-Oh, it's delicious.
And that's not the only attraction of the hotel.
Deep in the dreamy glens,
a rather suggestive-shaped boulder called the Popping Stone
enticed the straight-laced Victorian tourists
to cast aside their inhibitions.
Well, here it is, the famous Popping Stone.
Legend has it that this is the spot where Walter Scott
proposed to his wife, Charlotte Carpenter.
It seems to have had associations with courtship,
and possibly even fertility.
-And what did the Victorians make of that?
-They had plenty of fun.
And certainly, the holiday-makers who came here on the train
frequently made a beeline for the Popping Stone.
And many of them had their photographs taken on it.
I've got a picture postcard here from 1910
showing a very smart chap with a lady sitting on the stone, much as it is today.
But there's more to that photograph.
I think it gives us a little hint of what's at the heart
of the hotel's allure.
If you look at the inscription on the back.
Mr Bonar and Mrs Wilson.
What's Mr Bonar doing with Mrs Wilson on the Popping Stone?
And they seem to look rather shifty as well. If you look at them...
Oh... It's a place for dirty weekends.
I hope they came by train.
You may have gathered that I love Victorian railway architecture.
And it's a beautiful summer's morning.
What better time to see a viaduct?
I'm rejoining the line at Haltwhistle Station in Northumberland,
travelling past the fabulous Roman mile castle of Poltross Burn,
on my way west towards Carlisle.
This countryside is simply stunning.
Oh, to be in England now that summer is here,
and to be on a train.
Discussing this beautiful landscape,
Bradshaw's refers to the stunning views and to the ravines.
This was not easy territory for early Victorian railway builders.
But nothing was going to slow them in their progress.
I'm headed to the viaduct at Wetheral,
a place that Bradshaw's says is,
"pleasantly situated on the Eden."
And having seen Stephenson's Viaduct on the River Tweed,
the remarkable thing about Wetheral is that it's much older.
Surprisingly, for such a small rural community, the village of Wetheral
entered the railway age very early, in the 1830s.
The Newcastle to Carlisle line,
linking the east and west coast of Britain,
needed a spectacular piece of pre-Victorian engineering
to straddle the daunting 100-foot gorge over the River Eden.
And that indeed is what they got.
And now we cross the fantastic viaduct.
The driver's slowed right down to give us a view.
We are so high up above the river.
Isn't that spectacular?
-How are you doing?
-I just wanted to thank you for going so slowly over the viaduct.
-Isn't that a beautiful thing?
-Oh, it's beautiful, aye. Did you get a good view?
-Oh, I got a wonderful view.
It's such a beautiful piece of architecture, isn't it?
-It is beautiful, aye. You haven't got a spare book, have you?
There we are, there's Bradshaw. You can touch it.
Bye, driver. Thank you.
-Thank you. Bye!
Completed in 1834, the Eden or Wetheral Viaduct
was one of the first railway viaducts to be built in Britain.
It's a notable early architectural triumph,
built four years before Victoria came to the throne.
It linked not only the burgeoning cities of Newcastle and Carlisle,
but also the villages on opposite sides of the river,
Wetheral and Great Corby.
And I'm hoping that no lesser personage than the Mayor of Carlisle,
Barry Earp, can tell me more.
-Barry, well met.
-Welcome to Wetheral. Lovely to have you with us.
Ordinary Victorians must have thought it spectacular.
I mean, it's a great engineering achievement. And a thing of beauty.
It was a thing of beauty.
People used to come from Carlisle for day trips out.
They enjoyed the river trip across to Great Corby,
and then walked across the viaduct back into Wetheral.
Locals, meanwhile, were sidestepping the cost of a ferry
to travel between the two villages, and risking life and limb
to walk across the viaduct.
So in 1851, the railway was forced to build a walkway at the side of the track,
which is still in use today.
But there was a catch.
The walkway over the viaduct
cost the people a halfpenny
in the old L, S and D coinage.
And it was a halfpenny there and a halfpenny back.
And this started in 1851 and continued until 1956,
by which time, the cost had gone up to a penny each way.
The toll was finally scrapped in the late 1950s.
But Wetheral Station has another claim to fame.
Despite being closed in the Beeching Cuts of 1967,
Barry and the Parish Council succeeded in having it reopened in 1981.
I also have to comment that your station is delightful, Wetheral station.
Not least this fantastic bridge on which we are standing.
I'm so pleased to see it open.
Wetheral was a growing village and it had more and more people actually living here.
And, of course, it is only a very short distance into Carlisle,
so it was a lot easier and cheaper in actual fact to use the train.
It's always extremely cheering to hear about the reopening
of a station once consigned to history.
And all credit to Barry and his colleagues for campaigning hard.
Now I'm on the last leg of today's journey.
To Carlisle, to catch the Cumbrian coastline to the market town of Wigton.
Well, after all that beautiful open countryside, Carlisle feels like a big place.
It's where I'm changing train.
Well, this is an extraordinarily crowded train,
so I'll have to stand here and tell you that I'm headed for Wigton,
which my Bradshaw's guide tells me,
"has print and dye works."
Now, I have a feeling that those works are no longer there.
But I'm interested to see what happens in Wigton today.
TANNOY: We are now approaching Wigton.
-Why is the train so crowded?
-It's the first train from Carlisle.
There's only...there's only one in three hours.
This is the first train from Carlisle this morning, you see. So that's why it's overcrowded.
-It's not usually as bad as this.
It isn't usually... Usually, you can go up and down the train.
-It's been a very intimate experience.
-I can only apologise.
-Not a problem. I do apologise.
-No, no. Not at all.
We enjoyed it, actually. It was fun! Bye!
The Victorian era saw some of the most important innovations of the last two centuries.
From the light bulb to effective anaesthesia, and plastic.
Invented by Englishman Alexander Parkes in 1856,
the first synthetic plastic, Parkesine,
was demonstrated at the World Fair in London.
It was derived from cellulose,
and began an industry that would
radically change the way we live.
Wigton, just east of Carlisle, was struggling at the end of the 19th century,
as its traditional industries declined.
But another unique invention from the use of cellulose came to its rescue,
as engineering specialist Roy Crosthwaite is going to explain.
What was the industrial history of Wigton?
Well, the industry was based around tanneries, and dye works for cotton,
which was one of the principal products produced in Wigton at the time.
You now produce something completely different here.
We do, indeed.
We actually manufacture cellophane and polypropylene films on this site.
Cellophane's been produced since 1933.
What's the raw materials for that?
Wood pulp is the principal raw material,
which is brought in by steam trains down these very lines.
During the 19th and early 20th century,
synthetics were in their infancy.
It was a period of experimentation.
Inkwells, cutlery handles, and the very earliest gramophone records
all pushed the boundaries of synthetic production.
With the records, rather revoltingly,
being made from mixed beetle excretions and powdered minerals.
Whilst these innovations were useful enough,
plastics and what would become cellophane
didn't really take off until the 20th century.
'You'll put on your plastic raincoat.
'Put up your plastic hood.
'Oh, wait a bit, it's stopped now.
'So you can open your plastic bag to see if that plastic hood has messed up your hairdo.'
Roy's company specialises in food and product wrapping,
and is the largest employer in Wigton.
This company and town have boomed on the back of invention.
But it was the ease of movement offered by the railway,
including a set of sidings running into the heart of the factory,
that allowed an isolated Cumbrian town to compete globally.
And it's because of the railway, in fact, that we actually had the factory.
We brought in raw materials, our product was exported or shipped out by train.
So it was quite significant.
And without this, there's no doubt, there'd be no factory.
One of the company's key products is cellophane,
which was invented in 1908 and is now used worldwide in packaging.
It's made from cellulose viscose,
which, to my surprise,
is derived from wood pulp.
So here is the most interesting part of the process.
We've manufactured the viscose.
It's then pumped in through the slop dye into a bath of sulphuric acid.
When hey presto, it hits the acid and forms the film.
And this film will then be drawn off and fed down the casting machine,
where the sulphur is washed out, and it forms into cellulose.
It's as simple as that.
Ha-ha! As simple as that.
I mean, I see this product every day of my life.
-And, of course, it has never occurred to me to think about how it is made.
The cellophane made here would be found on everyday consumer products,
from chocolates to perfume, cheese to teabags.
I saw the wood pulp at the beginning, a lovely natural resource.
But then, of course, food wrappings come out at the other end,
and very often, they are part of litter in our society.
What can we do about that?
Well, we have developed a product recently which is biodegradable,
and it will actually degrade in six weeks.
You put it in the family compost heap and in six weeks' time, it's back to nature.
I have to tell you, I was a little bit disappointed
when I came here that your railway lines were no longer in use.
-You don't use the railways any more?
-Not really, no.
Although we do pay Network Rail a retainer,
so we have the option to use the siding some time in the future.
The company stopped using the railway for transport
in the late 1960s, once the M6 motorway reached Carlisle.
And road haulage sadly proved cheaper than rail.
But given that the infrastructure still exists on the site,
I hold a hope that maybe for this company at least,
the railways might rise again.
I've rarely seen such unspoiled country as on this journey.
But this terrain has always been made to work for man.
The Romans quarried its stone,
the Victorians mined its lead.
And now it produces manufactured goods,
including some new products
that aim to be as green as this landscape.
When I continue my railway adventure,
I'll be taking a train from coast to mountain top.
Every now and again, a little smut hits the eye
to remind you of the joys of steam travel.
Gaining rare access to an industry that divides opinion worldwide -
And it is absolutely massive.
Well, the golf ball itself is probably about 60 metres high.
And being present at the unveiling of an extremely rare Cumberland treasure.
This is, I must say, a rather emotional moment, isn't it?
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
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.
Michael 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 gets his hands dirty following the example of Victorian archaeologists at Hadrian's Wall, discovers how the invention of the ticket machine made a big difference to 19th-century rail users, and sees how the Victorian railways first fuelled invention in Wigton.