Michael Portillo finds out the secrets behind Kirkby's famous blue slate and submerges himself into a secret world of nuclear submarines in Barrow.
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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.
My Bradshaw's guide has now steered me
towards the stunning natural beauty of the Cumbrian coast.
In these parts, the proximity of the sea,
the rich mineral deposits and the network of railways has led
to industrial development centred around the mines.
On today's part of my journey,
I'll be exploding the myths behind Cumbrian slate.
That was a much bigger bang than I'd expected.
Submerging myself in a top-secret world.
Not much room here, I can tell you.
And discovering why Victorians loved the hanging town.
-This is a short-drop rope.
-Short-drop meaning, of course, that they would be strangled.
-They danced on the end of the rope.
I began my trip in Berwick-upon-Tweed and I'm
travelling through the spectacular counties of Cumbria, Northumberland
and Lancashire, finishing by sailing the Irish Sea to the Isle of Man.
Today's leg of the journey starts in Kirkby-in-Furness
and then hugs the west coast, circumscribing Morecambe Bay,
culminating in the city of Lancaster.
My Bradshaw's says that people here are engaged in the slate, iron and copper mines.
But I'm intrigued by this entry under Kirkby-in-Furness.
It says, "This place has a population of 1,666 employed in the blue slate quarries."
That sounds like quite a lot of people in Victorian times
and I'm not sure I even know what blue slate is.
I've arrived at Kirkby-in-Furness, perched on the West Cumbrian coast.
This area is renowned for its famous blue slate, which has been
coveted since Roman times.
But it was during the 19th century that production ballooned.
I've come to the Burlington quarry to find out more from Ian Kelly.
You've brought us to a fantastic vantage point and I see slates all around us,
but I'm in search of blue slate. Do you have blue slate?
Lots of blue slate here, Michael, yeah. There's a few pieces there.
And this entire mountain that we're looking at here, where the quarry is, is full of it.
And what's blue slate used for?
It's still used for roofing slate. We still make quite a lot of roofing slate.
We also make architectural products,
wall cladding, flooring, kitchen tops, anything you can
basically think of in a building that we can make from slate.
As towns and industries grew in Britain in the Victorian era,
so the clamour for good quality
building materials increased dramatically.
The question was how to transport the vast volumes of slate out of
the quarry directly to customers throughout Britain.
Historically, the Furness area had always been isolated,
with the only road across the treacherous sands of Morecambe Bay.
So the local landowners built a railway,
including the spectacular, and still functioning, Arnside Viaduct,
to allow for onward shipping, either by rail or sea.
After two years of construction, the railway opened in 1846.
They quarried the slate by hand. They made it into what we call clogs of slate,
which is a piece of slate that they could manage, by hand and with pulleys.
They would load it onto a railway bogie,
which they would then either push by hand or pull with a pony
through tunnels and out to the production area.
From there, when it's been made into roofing slates, they'd use another rail mechanism,
if you like, which was an incline, where loaded bogies would go down and empty bogies would come up.
And this took the slate about a mile down into Kirby village, where the railway station is.
Gravity-powered railways were amongst the earliest tracks in Britain,
relying on the weight of the full wagons going downhill to pull the empty wagons up.
These open-sided trucks, or bogies, as they were known,
delivered the slate straight to the railway station.
I'm keen to see more of this historic quarry,
which remains fully operational.
That is an impressive sight, I must say. This is huge, isn't it?
You can see by the volume of rock that has been extracted over the years, there's a lot gone out.
Rumour has it that it's one of the deepest man-made holes in Europe.
It looks like they've worked it down by layers over the years. Is that right?
Yeah, they've worked one level of the quarry floor and, when that's finished, they go down.
They put what we call a sink in, which is sinking into the floor,
dropping down, take another level out.
And, if you look to the east end,
you can see the different levels of where they have gone down
over the years into what's the bottom of the quarry now.
In Bradshaw's day, the slate was wrested from the rockface using only
hand tools and explosives.
The Victorian miners worked hard to ensure that the blocks remained as intact as possible,
in order to provide the best quality raw material.
Today, just 150 people work a total of seven quarries with
a high degree of mechanisation.
But Victorian quarrying techniques are still practised today
and recognised to be highly effective.
We try to be as gentle with the rock as we possibly can.
We're using a technique over there called diamond-wire sawing.
They did use wire saws in here a long time ago,
but this is a more modern technique, used in the Italian marble quarries.
It involves drilling holes into the rock to meet up,
threading a diamond-encrusted wire around them
and then spinning it and drawing it back like a cheese wire.
Ian's taken me to the very heart of the quarry to show me
a rather more spectacular Victorian extraction technique
that's still practised today.
That was a much bigger bang than I'd expected! You talked about a little bit of gunpowder.
-That was quite a blast.
-Yeah, it is quite loud.
-So that's been a success, has it? That's just what you wanted.
In the 19th century, roof slates were made by dressing,
or hand-working, large blocks of rock.
And, unusually, this quarry's slates have traditionally had
a curved end, earning Kirkby residents the nickname 'roundheads'.
The current hand-dresser, John Earl, is going to let me
have a stab at dressing a roof tile in the old-fashioned way.
-So, a few pointers might be useful here, John!
-Grip it like that with your hand and your thumb on there.
-If you just start in there.
-OK. Just take that edge off?
Keep your finger out the way!
-You're all right.
-I'm all right, am I?
-Just keep going?
That's not quite as beautiful as yours, is it, John?
The hardest bit is getting a straight line. Once you get that, you're away.
-Ah, I'm getting the hang of it now. Yes.
Oh, I'm getting the hang of that now.
Right, here goes.
-There we go.
-There we go!
It's not quite like yours, is it, John? Oh, dear, oh, dear!
-Thank you very much indeed.
Having got the chop from my tile-dressing job,
I'm now following the route that the slate would've taken,
south down the rails to the port of Barrow-in-Furness.
I'm told that this line provides one of the most delightful
railway journeys in England,
sandwiched between the Irish Sea to the west and
glimpses of the Lake District to the east.
These mountains produce more than just blue slate.
As my Bradshaw's puts it poetically, "Iron is now forged in this vicinity
"where the stag, wolf and wild boar were formerly hunted."
Local landowners and entrepreneurs put in this railway line to
Barrow-in-Furness, and there, they constructed a dock
and a steelworks, and they used that steel to build ships.
During Queen Victoria's reign,
Britain became the most powerful trading nation in the world.
At the heart of this was the successful development of steam technology.
It powered not only the railway network,
but also the ships that operated on the major trade routes to
India, South Africa, the Orient and Australia.
British shipyards came to dominate the world as they pioneered
the use of iron and steel in shipbuilding.
With iron ore in the Cumbrian hills, Barrow-in-Furness grew from a
tiny hamlet to a major shipbuilding town, home to the largest steelworks
in the world by 1876, earning it the moniker 'the Chicago of the North'.
The dockyard is still going strong,
famous for building a very special type of boat,
first constructed here in the Victorian period - submarines.
I've been granted very special access to the top-secret Devonshire dock.
My guide is Brian Hurley.
It is enormous, isn't it?
-I mean, it's like the last scene of a James Bond movie, isn't it?
It's a phenomenal building. It's 17 storeys tall.
It's probably the biggest open space that we have in the country.
At the moment, from what I can see, you've got two boats,
as you call them, two submarines under construction.
How are they getting on?
Well, behind you, you can see Audacious. This is boat four.
She's in what we call open outfit.
And on the south build line, we have Artful,
which is now into closed outfit, where we're now finishing systems
and getting ready to hand them across to the commissioning teams.
Astonishingly, submarines have been built at Barrow since 1886,
when the shipyard built its first submersibles for the Danish.
Earning a growing reputation for quality built boats, the shipyard
claimed at the turn of the century to be the only one capable
of designing, building, engining, and arming its own vessels.
What is the challenge of making a submarine?
The challenge of making a submarine, it's putting all the things
that you wouldn't want to put together into one tin can.
So, effectively, you've got a nuclear reactor, you've got a power station, you've got a hotel.
You've got high-voltage systems, you've got high-pressure systems, all inside a confined space.
That's the one thing you wouldn't want to do. You'd want as much space as possible.
Barrow won the contract for the Royal Navy's first five submarines.
Built and launched in utmost secrecy in 1901,
the HMS Holland One could dive to a depth of only 100 feet
and had to surface every day.
But the Admiralty was sufficiently convinced to continue
with submarine development.
Six decades later, the shipyard constructed Dreadnought,
Britain's first nuclear-powered submarine, launched in 1960 by the Queen.
I name this ship Dreadnought.
May God bless her and all who sail in her.
Do you have a sense, working here, of the heritage of submarine building?
Is it something you're aware of?
Well, certainly, from my perspective, I'm fourth generation in shipbuilding.
My father actually worked for me on Ambush as a paint supervisor.
Before that, his father was a rigging supervisor on one of the boats.
And then, before that, his father was a machinist in the shipyards.
So, yes, the heritage and the legacy rests quite heavy with me
and I'm quite emotive about the whole build of submarines in Barrow.
As I walk beside the leviathan that is HMS Audacious,
it's riveting to recall that all this began with Victorian entrepreneurs.
Their construction of the Furness railway in the 1840s,
to carry iron ore, slate and limestone,
allowed for the immense expansion of the deepwater port at Barrow.
Being underneath the submarine now, you get another idea of how big it is.
Things have really come on over the years, haven't they?
Yes, certainly. The Holland class submarine that we first built was just over 20 feet long.
The Astute class submarine is just over 300 feet long.
I've been given the rare privilege of going onboard the nuclear-powered submarine HMS Ambush
as she lies in the water undergoing final tests before her sea trials.
Not much room here, I can tell you.
Fantastic, isn't it? You enter a different world.
And, as you warned me, not much headroom here, is there?
No, it's quite confined inside the submarine.
-Where are we now?
-We are in the control room of HMS Ambush.
So all the information would be displayed here?
The control room isn't the traditional control room you'd expect to see with the periscope.
We have externally mounted masts and digital input, so what you see on
the screens in front of you are the digital outputs from the masts.
I'm rather amazed to discover that 21st-century submarines don't
necessarily have traditional periscopes.
The Astute class are the first British submarines to use
high-spec video technology instead.
And the commanding officer sits here?
The commanding officer's chair has a perfect view of what's seen in the control room.
Beautifully air-conditioned. Wires everywhere.
So this is, what do you call it, the senior rates' mess?
Senior rates' mess, yeah.
So, the senior non-commissioned officers on the boat?
-That's right, yeah.
-How many are they?
There's approximately 30 on the boat.
30, wow! Not so big for 30, is it? What will they do in here?
Well, they'll spend some of their recreational time.
They do all their eating, drinking, within this facility.
-Obviously in shifts.
-In shifts, yeah.
The guys work four on, four off, so they rotate through this facility.
And how many months is the same crew at sea?
The patrol could last three months and that's based, primarily,
on the amount of food that the submarine can carry.
Before I leave, I want to meet someone who's spent his whole working life
as a welder on the submarines, Joe Murphy.
Very nice to see you. They told me to look you up.
They told me you're a bit of a welder, is that right?
I've been welding 40 years, but I've been teaching for another six.
-Teaching others to weld?
-It's nice to pass on your skill to somebody else, you know.
-And how do you feel about this work you've done here?
The boats that we build are built to the highest specification in the world.
There's nobody else builds them like we build them. So it's great.
But I get a lot of satisfaction from what I do now.
What we are trying to instil in the lads is pride.
It's pride in the work. That's everything.
Neatness - when I look at welding and I see the neatness,
I can see the concentration that these lads have put into that.
And neatness equals pride. And that's what it's all about.
Pride in your work. Pride keeps our crews safe.
That's what keeps the water out. This town depends on this shipyard.
Without this shipyard, that town'll fold behind it, you know.
Let's hope that never happens. Joe, a real privilege to meet you.
-Thank you very much.
-Thanks for talking to me. Bye.
-Thank you, Michael. Bye, now.
I was once the political boss of the Armed Forces
and I've always found it humbling to meet the people whose energy
and skill provide the nation with its submarines.
For my overnight stop, I'm taking the west coast mainline
and crossing the border into Lancashire, headed for Lancaster.
The city's port was one of the busiest in Britain
during the 19th century and the railway station is inspired by
the towering 13th-century fortress beneath which it nestles.
My Bradshaw's refers to Lancaster castle station as being,
"the Northern terminus of the Lancaster and Preston Railway.
"The station is a very neat building, erected of fine white freestone."
And I love the fact that it's been made to look like a castle.
I'm staying overnight at a Bradshaw recommendation, the King's Arms.
But he's not the only great Victorian
who took a shine to the place.
Bradshaw says that Charles Dickens stayed here in 1857 and remarked
that his orders were, "promptly executed, as all orders are in this excellent hotel."
-Which floor is that?
-Fourth floor, sir. Enjoy your stay, sir.
-Thank you very much. Good night to you.
-Thank you. Good night, sir.
Sleeping where Dickens once did was certainly novel.
With the arrival of morning, I'm up early to head into town.
My breakfast order was promptly executed and that's put me
in a good mood for a new day.
The late 19th century saw an increase in leisure time for all,
with the five-and-a-half day week becoming standard.
Lancashire, as the gateway to the Lake District,
experienced an upsurge in Victorian tourists, as train companies
such as the Furness Railway widened their remit,
from ferrying industrial traffic to embrace the carrying of fare-paying passengers.
My next destination was a favourite location for Victorian visitors.
Although perhaps, as I'm led to believe,
not for the most savoury of reasons.
My Bradshaw's says, "Standing on a hill west of the town,
"it includes the shire court, county jail, four or five old towers,
"of which the dungeon, 90 feet high, is the oldest."
And, to my amazement, I see that even today,
it has a notice describing it as Her Majesty's Prison Lancaster Castle.
I've come to Hadrian's tower -
one of a number of towers that defended the castle -
to meet Steve Allen,
my guide to this ancient bastion.
-Hello, Michael. Welcome to Lancaster Castle.
-It's a magnificent building.
How old is Lancaster Castle?
Well, there's been a fortification here since Roman times.
But it was the Normans who rebuilt it and turned it into this stone fortress.
They controlled Lancashire and what is now South Lakeland area from here.
And how long has it been a prison?
Well, it's been a prison, really, since Norman times.
It's got a history stretching back nearly 900 years.
In fact, the prison here is the oldest working prison
in the country, or rather it was, until March of 2011 when it closed,
although it still receives and dispatches prisoners to criminal court here.
The court, housed within the castle, began dispensing justice in 1800 and
is the oldest continuously working criminal court in the country.
Visitors could be forgiven for thinking this more like
a torture chamber, looking at the shackles hanging from the walls.
These chains were often used for prisoners who were sentenced
to transportation to Australia.
Shockingly, Lancaster Crown Court sent many hundreds of men,
women and even children Down Under.
Steven wants to show me another room in this labyrinthine fortification
that has a macabre history.
What took place there, he believes, is the real reason that Victorians flocked to the castle.
-So here we are now, Michael, in the drop room.
Yeah, it's a kind of en-suite execution facility,
as part of the rebuild and extension of the castle here.
And this is a short-drop rope, with a noose.
Short-drop, of course, meaning that they would be strangled.
-They danced on the end of the rope.
Three, four, five, six minutes, and this would be in full view
of thousands of people who'd come to the town to see the execution.
In Victorian times, public hangings were very popular
and people would come from miles around to watch.
Special trains were laid on, as the poet AE Houseman recalled about his native Shropshire.
"They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
"The whistles blow forlorn,
"And trains all night groan on the rail
"To men who die at dawn."
This window is also a door.
It's a wooden door, disguised on the outside as a stone window.
The door opens inward and the parties step out onto
a temporary wooden platform that's been erected the night before.
Sort of kept here in a easy-to-assemble kit version for these special occasions.
And outside, this vast crowd of people who've all packed in to every available bit of space.
In fact, the vicar was able to charge people to stand, or perch, up there on the roof,
so that they could get a good gallery view seat of the operation.
And even today, you can see the holes in the wall of the castle there,
where the superstructure was attached.
And the noose would be put around the condemned man's neck
and then a hood put over their head.
The sheriff, or his deputy, would read a proclamation.
The priests say a prayer
and then the officials would withdraw,
the executioner stepped down, pulled the lever, released the bolts,
and, uh, we're in business.
Lancaster Court is said to have sentenced more people
to swing from the rope than any place outside London,
earning it the epithet 'the hanging town'.
But as the century progressed, the authorities realised that the crowds
were more entertained than deterred from committing hideous offences.
So a parliamentary act of 1868 finally removed executions to
within the prison walls.
With all the dramatic landscapes that I'm travelling through,
it's hardly surprisingly that I'm passing over some spectacular bridges.
Bradshaw's attention was caught particularly
by the one I'm approaching now,
just east of Lancaster, on my last leg of today's journey.
My Bradshaw's says, "Further up the River Lune is the aqueduct bridge,
"with five semicircular arches, each with a 70-foot span.
"This magnificent undertaking conveys the Lancaster Canal
"over the Lune and under one of the arches,
"the north-western railway line passes up to Yorkshire."
With a wonderful description like that, of railway and aqueduct,
I just have to see it.
Before he turned his attention to the railways,
Bradshaw had made his mark in 1830 by publishing a guide
to the canals of Lancashire and Yorkshire.
Throughout the 18th and 19th century,
the canals were the lifeblood of the Industrial Revolution.
At a time when the roads were poor and haphazard,
a single barge could transport ten times the cargo of a horse and cart.
Britain was the first country to acquire a nationwide canal network,
over 4,000 miles of waterway at its height.
And this led to some stunning engineering
and architectural breakthroughs.
The Lune Aqueduct is just such an achievement.
I'm taking a barge on the Lancaster Canal over the River Lune to
meet canal expert Andrew Tegg.
Setting foot on this aqueduct towering above the river, I'm very impressed.
This is a fantastic achievement,
quite early in the Industrial Revolution.
Very much so.
I mean, this was conceived and constructed in the late 18th century.
And it's a great example of the engineers' art and ability at that stage.
It was mainly constructed using rudimentary machinery and manpower.
And what was the purpose of the canal?
The canal was constructed really to link the coalfields
in the Wigan area with the South Lakeland area for limestone.
So it was always known as the black and white canal.
Because I'm always banging on about railways,
I'm in some danger of forgetting that, of course,
before the railway revolution, there was a canal revolution.
There was a canal mania.
There was. In the late 18th century, you know, canal technology was the future.
It was the High Speed Two of its generation.
It really revolutionised transport.
And canals like this were very much an example of that.
They made the movement of goods very, very profitable and, therefore,
investors were very keen to invest in such schemes.
On its completion in 1797, the aqueduct was inscribed with a Latin motto which translates,
"Old needs are served, far distant sites combined. Rivers by art to bring new wealth are joined."
But the golden age of water transport came to an end in the mid-19th century,
and it was none other than the more competitive railway network that drove it into disuse.
But thanks to conservation and tourism over the last few decades,
the British canal network is starting again to display scope and beauty.
That is glorious!
That is so elegant, isn't it? That is a thing of beauty.
It absolutely excels my expectation when we were walking up there.
It's... Well, I mean, it is so 18th century, isn't it?
It's just...just magnificent.
On this leg of the journey, I feel I've seen the span
of the Industrial Revolution, from an 18th-century aqueduct
to a 21st-century nuclear-powered submarine.
The common thread is the vision of brilliant engineers,
the sort of people that George Bradshaw admired,
the sort that I revere.
On the next step of my rail trip,
I'll be visiting an island steeped in smuggling history.
He stepped onto his ship and his trousers split,
discharging the tea into the harbour water below him.
Discovering Britain's fear of enemy spies in the Second World War.
The British Government told the Manx Government to tell all the
boarding house keepers and hoteliers to move out at ten days' notice.
And scaling the heights to view seven kingdoms.
We're in the Guinness Book Of Records for having the oldest working tram in history.
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 of Bradshaw's Britain remains.
All this week 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.
This time, Michael finds out the secrets behind Kirkby's famous blue slate, submerges himself into a secret world of nuclear submarines in Barrow, and sees why the executions at Lancaster Castle drew the Victorians in their droves.