Heysham to Snaefell Great British Railway Journeys


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Heysham to Snaefell

Michael Portillo sets sail from Heysham to the Isle of Man, where he discovers the horse trams of Douglas and the secrets of the giant Laxey Wheel.


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In 1840, one man transformed travel in Britain.

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His name was George Bradshaw.

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And his railway guides inspired the Victorians to take to the tracks.

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Stop by stop he told them where to travel, what to see and where to stay.

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Now, 170 years later, I'm making a series of journeys across the length and breadth of the country

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to see what of Bradshaw's Britain remains.

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I am now coming to the end of a journey, inspired by my Bradshaw's Guide,

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across the North of England, from the North Sea to the Irish Sea.

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A new network of railways

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enabled Victorians to enjoy the beauty and the history of their country.

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And the most intrepid of them even ventured overseas.

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On my last leg of this rail adventure

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I'll be visiting an island steeped in smuggling history.

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He stepped onto his ship and his trousers split,

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discharging the tea into the harbour water below him.

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Discovering Britain's fear of enemy spies in the Second World War.

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The British Government told the Manx government

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to tell all the boarding house keepers and hoteliers to move out at ten days' notice.

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And scaling the heights to view seven kingdoms.

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We're in the Guinness Book Of Records for having the oldest working tram in history.

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I started this journey on the English/Scottish border

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and it's taken me through the industrial heartlands

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of the North of England as well as mesmerising countryside.

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Now, I am on the final leg

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across the Irish Sea to the enigmatic Isle of Man.

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This last stretch begins at Heysham before crossing the sea to Douglas,

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the Isle of Man's capital,

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and ending atop the island's only mountain.

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I'm headed for the Isle of Man and my Bradshaw's makes it clear

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how new technology had made it accessible.

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"This island, in the midst of the Irish Sea,

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"may be easily reached from the three kingdoms by a few hours steam

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"as it is only 70 miles from Liverpool."

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The Victorians liked the Isle of Man because it was exotic,

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it was kind of abroad, although it was reassuringly British.

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I've taken the train west from Lancaster to Heysham, at the southern end of Morecambe Bay,

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so that I can catch a ferry to the Isle of Man.

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The ferry service has been running since 1830,

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and I can still feel the excitement and anticipation the Victorian travellers felt

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as they ventured across these waters.

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Steam power shortened distances

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and the Victorians relished their new opportunities.

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Trains and steamships brought previously far-off destinations

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within comfortable reach.

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Ships are no longer powered by steam, but this is the oldest

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continually operating ferry company in the world,

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and George Bradshaw would be delighted that it's still called Steam Packet,

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although I might have to explain to him the dotcom.

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Packets were traditionally scheduled cargo and passenger ships

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and because their original function had been to carry mail, the name packet stuck.

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Before the advent of ferry services,

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sail packet crossings to the Isle of Man had been perilous.

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Ships were often forced back to England after days at sea

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and during the winter months the island could be cut off for weeks at a time.

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Today, thankfully in beautiful weather,

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the crossing will seem, if anything, too short.

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Like a Victorian tourist bound for the Isle of Man,

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I bid goodbye to the English coast but,

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unlike a Victorian, I leave behind Heysham nuclear power station.

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Nuclear power is just one of the many changes,

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to both the physical and cultural landscape,

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that would today astonish Victorian tourists who, in their day,

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visited the Isle of Man en masse.

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Once upon a time, the island had roguish reputation.

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Author Richard Platt has come aboard to enlighten me.

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Michael, hi.

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Very good to see you.

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My Bradshaw's tells me that at one time

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the chief prosperity of the Isle of Man arose from smuggling, can that be true?

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The Isle of Man was more or less independent of the English crown for about three centuries,

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from the beginning of the 15th century.

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The taxes on the Isle of Man were very, very low.

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Enormous quantities of contraband were smuggled from the Isle of Man back to England.

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It wasn't just what we normally associate with smuggling so,

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although there was things like brandy and tobacco,

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there were also commodities like tea, which were highly taxed.

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There was a huge expansion of illegal imports into Britain in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

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During this time, taxes rose dramatically to pay for expensive European wars.

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Farming was struggling and poverty was rising.

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Lawless or spirited citizens fought back with smuggling.

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-Did this penetrate far into Isle of Man society?

-Absolutely.

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It went right from the very, very top of society to the lowest levels.

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There's a story about a schoolteacher called Myles Crow

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who was smuggling contraband in the early Victorian times

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and he was an incompetent smuggler.

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It was very fashionable, at that time,

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for men to wear baggy trousers buckled below the knee, and he was a slim, gaunt sort of figure.

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What he did, he bought a pair of these baggy trousers

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and filled them up with tea and he was discovered

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when he stepped onto his ship and his trousers split,

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discharging the tea into the harbour water below him.

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Just add water, that's how you make tea, that's how it's done.

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That's exactly right. That's just what happened.

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Tobacco was a favourite luxury targeted by smugglers,

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many of whom were well-to-do merchants

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who could deprive the British Treasury of hundreds of thousands of pounds in lost revenue.

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Contrary to the romantic image of a striped jersey clad smuggler

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rolling barrels up a moonlit beach, most smuggling was well organised

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and took place on pitch-black nights.

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But with so much money to be made, even by lone individuals,

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smugglers like our intrepid schoolteacher were undaunted.

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When he tried to smuggle tobacco,

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tobacco at that stage was wound into ropes or ribbons.

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What he did was to undress

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and wrap the tobacco round him.

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This was quite a common technique

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but smugglers usually had the sense to wrap it over their underwear.

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Myles Crow made the mistake of stripping completely naked

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and wrapping himself in tobacco.

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The result of this was

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that, when he got on the ship,

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the nicotine from the tobacco was permeating through his skin

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and it sent him into a complete narcotic fug.

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He was having a nicotine high?

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He was having a very big nicotine high.

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A member of the crew discovered the tobacco

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and the captain was outraged that he might be prosecuted for this smuggling activity.

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So he turned Myles Crow over to the customs authorities

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and there's a description of him being unwound like a top,

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as they pulled the tobacco off him, he spun on his heels.

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In the late 18th century,

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the British Government finally tired of the huge tax losses

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and secretly purchased the island from the owner, the Duke of Atholl.

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That brought it under the control of British customs,

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making it much harder for the islanders to maintain a base for smuggling.

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Fortunately for them, in the 19th century a new source of income opened,

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mass tourism.

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Douglas, according to my Bradshaw's Guide,

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"Is a pleasant bathing and fishing port in front of a fine bay."

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And with these lovely white terraces down at the seafront

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it has all the feel of a Victorian resort.

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The Victorians are credited with inventing the seaside holiday.

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As railways made access to the coast fast and inexpensive,

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seaside towns shaped themselves into resorts.

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In the late 19th century, the working classes enjoyed increased leisure time and wages

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and imitated the well-heeled travellers by becoming tourists.

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Such holidaymakers, clutching their Bradshaw's Guide,

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might have alighted from the ferry to catch a horse-drawn tram,

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precisely as I'm doing.

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My driver, or tram lad, is Peter Cannon.

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-Do you go to the Regency Hotel?

-We go right past the door.

-May I hop in?

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Jump on.

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Peter, I never dreamed that I'd be able to ride on a horse-drawn tram in the 21st century.

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-When did all this begin?

-1876 it started.

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So what was the point of it?

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Well, a gentleman called Thomas Lightfoot retired here from England,

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saw the potential to make a few shillings,

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I think, and just set it up.

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At the time, the Isle of Man was sort of taking off a bit as a tourist resort.

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He saw a gap in the market, I think.

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And it's run continuously ever since?

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Apart from the Second World War.

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We're in the 135th year now.

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Bradshaw's describes Douglas, the island's capital,

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as "The most lively place on the island

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"and the horses trot briskly the length of the Victorian promenade."

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With tourism at its height in the Victorian and Edwardian eras,

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amazingly the horse trams conveyed a million passengers each season.

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It is the world's oldest surviving horse-drawn tram service

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and it runs on tracks making it, in my book anyway, a railway.

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How long have you been with the tram?

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Some people might say too long.

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1975 I started, so I've been here for 35 years.

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And was it busier in those days?

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Yes, at the moment we run a 20 minute service.

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When I first started we probably run a 2 1/2 minute service.

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So that would be 16 trams, now it's only two.

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How many horses, today?

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Today, we've got 20 working horses

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and some younger ones who are just going through the training process.

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-Easy, lad, easy, easy, easy.

-What sort of horses do you use?

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Basically, they're Clydesdales, Shires would be too heavy, really.

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Clydesdales are just about right for this sort of thing.

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-This is your stop here now, Michael.

-Thank you very much, Peter.

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-You're welcome.

-Thank you.

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-All the best.

-Thank you.

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I've descended from the charming tram onto the grand Victorian seafront

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in order to find my lodgings for the night.

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For once, George Bradshaw is less than complimentary

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about some of the island's accommodation.

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According to Bradshaw's, "In the Isle of Man there are

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"no roadside inns worth the name

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"and the ale is wretched stuff."

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But then he says, "That living is tolerably cheap here

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"and the lodgings moderate."

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He says, "Excellent board and lodging being had for £30 per annum."

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Actually, I wasn't thinking of staying that long.

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After a fascinating day's travel,

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I plan to get an early night and rise with the lark,

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just as my Victorian forebears might have done,

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as I sense there are many more treats to come on this quirky island.

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The Regency has served many visitors over its 150-year career,

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but I understand that the Second World War brought long-term guests

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who weren't visiting of their own free will.

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Intrigued, I'm meeting local radio presenter and voice of the Isle of Man for 30 years

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Terry Cringle.

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Good morning, Terry.

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Good morning, Michael. Welcome to the Isle of Man. La Isla de Man.

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Very good to see you.

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Now, I believe you actually come from this very spot, more or less?

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Yes, this is my home territory.

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Behind you, you see that block of apartments,

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before that was built there was a block of boarding houses, private hotels if you wish,

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my parents' one was right in the middle of it

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and that's where I was born and brought up.

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The shore down there was my adventure playground.

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-I loved it and I still do, actually.

-So your parents had a boarding house?

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-Yes.

-Made a good living?

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Oh, yes, they did.

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I mean, we're talking about the '30s now,

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that was when thousands of people came to the Isle of Man on holiday, not like today.

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It was known as the playground of Lancashire.

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What's your most enduring memory of childhood?

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Obviously the war, I was eight years old when it started, 1939.

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And then everything changed, dramatically, especially when it came to 1940.

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That was when the British Government told the Manx government

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to tell all the boarding house keepers and hoteliers to move out at ten days notice.

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Get out completely, find somewhere else to live, find another way of making a living.

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It was very drastic.

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Why was this?

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And this was because the plan was to turn all these buildings into internment camps for enemy aliens.

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They were German, Austrian, people who happened to be living in Britain at the time

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and found themselves on the wrong side of the war.

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And they were swept up and brought over here, thousands of them,

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because they might have been a potential threat to national security.

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Worried by the possibility of spies infiltrating the war effort

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the British Government sent 14,000 enemy aliens to be interned on the Isle of Man.

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The hotel where I stayed last night

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was one of the many used as an internment camp.

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One of the internees, Italian Signor Jovinelli,

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gives an impression of a very self-sufficient community.

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"In the basement was the barber's shop, the carpenter's shop

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"and the welfare office.

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"And an Italian elementary school which I ran for the sailors

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"who couldn't read or write even in their own language."

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-What happened to your parents?

-They were fortunate.

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Their boarding house was handy and that was not requisitioned,

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they didn't have to get out.

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But it was turned into billets for the British Army guards

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who guarded the prison camps.

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But, for me, the soldiers in the house was tremendous.

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Khaki uniforms and bayonets and Short Lee Enfield rifles, that was great.

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The Isle of Man isn't part of the United Kingdom, but a Crown dependency,

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and its Parliament, the Tynwald, has been in existence for over 1,000 years.

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The island is known as a tax haven because it is able to pass its own laws

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and to levy taxes at much lower rates than Britain's.

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My Bradshaw's Guide tells me

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about the history of smuggling on the island.

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-That was a time when people didn't want to play the British taxes.

-Yes.

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Today it's a low tax regime.

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Is there a kind of antiestablishment feeling amongst Manx people,

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that they don't want to pay too much over to government?

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That's true enough.

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They believed, as far as they were concerned,

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this was their island and they wanted to run it their way.

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That still applies, I think, to this day because we still have a little trouble over taxes with the UK.

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I think, down there in London,

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they remember us, "The Isle of Man is a smuggling centre, you know.

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"I know it's 250 years ago but I think the spirit is still there."

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The islanders' fiercely independent character

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has brought it to occasional friction with the United Kingdom.

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And I imagine when the Victorians were flocking to the island to holiday,

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the encounter with a distinct cultural identity was intriguing.

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It's one of the things that even now rewards the traveller.

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In Bradshaw's day the island wasn't

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wholly reliant on tourism for its wealth.

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Victorian engineering success allowed the Isle of Man to exploit its mines, too.

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In the entry for Laxey, my Bradshaw's says, "Kirk Lonan is on a stream

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"which passes mines of lead, copper and slate."

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It's time to put on the hard hat.

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Laxey is a small village,

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just seven miles north of Douglas on the east coast of the island,

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where lead and zinc mining began in the 18th century.

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My guide in the tunnels is local historian Andrew Scarfe.

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Bradshaw's Guide tells me that they mined copper and lead here, is that right?

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That's right, Michael, yes.

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Lead was the main mineral they were looking for,

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it was a very valuable ore at the time.

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-And was this a fairly extensive mine?

-Oh, it was indeed.

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The section we are in now is only really a very, very small portion of the mine.

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Originally, it went down to about 2,000 feet deep.

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Once the railways arrived, from the 1830s onwards,

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excellent building materials could be carried around the country.

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Whilst lead was popular as a roofing material,

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iron provided the superstructure for monumental buildings

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such as Kew Gardens' greenhouses and the spectacular spans at railway stations,

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such as Newcastle Central and London St Pancras.

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I see we're walking on tracks, was there a railway system in the mine?

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There was, yes. There was a small steam railway which actually ran in for about two miles underground.

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As far as I'm aware it was the only mine in Britain that had a railway

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that went in in such a manner underground for such a length.

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That was used to bring the mine minerals out to the surface.

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Originally, ponies pulled the wagons full of ore,

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but in 1877 two miniature steam locomotives, named Ant and Bee, replaced horse power.

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The railway ran the full-length of the main level of the mine,

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carrying ore out to the washing floors above ground

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where it was prepared for shipping.

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But the mine's ingenious steam railway

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wasn't the only feat of Victorian engineering brilliance

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developed here on the Isle of Man.

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We came in just now from what appeared to be ground level and yet

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this mine is sopping wet.

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We've been dripped on all the way through.

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Water has obviously been a problem here.

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It was a major problem right through the history of the mine with the water seeping in

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and flooding the lower workings.

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And so what did they do about that?

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Well, there's no coal on the Isle of Man to build a traditional steam-pumping engine.

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So they actually used the water, which was the problem,

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to drive a waterwheel.

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And not just any waterwheel.

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Lady Isabella is the biggest working waterwheel in the world.

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Way ahead of its time as an eco-powered pump,

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this dramatic example of Victorian engineering, built in 1854,

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pumped an astonishing 250 gallons of water per minute from the mine 1,500 feet below.

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It really is a fantastic piece of machinery, isn't it? How big is it?

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72 foot six inch in diameter, six feet wide and 227 feet circumference

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and it's the world's biggest working water wheel.

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Whilst the wheel operated night and day

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to keep the waterlogged tunnels safe for the miners,

0:21:120:21:15

it also became immensely attractive to tourists,

0:21:150:21:19

an astounding 13,000 visiting in 1877 alone.

0:21:190:21:23

Was this created by one of the great Victorian engineers?

0:21:250:21:28

It was created by a chap called Robert Casement who,

0:21:280:21:31

believe it or not, was actually born here in Laxey.

0:21:310:21:34

He was a self-taught engineer.

0:21:340:21:36

Because I would say this was, you know, one of the great Victorian engineering wonders

0:21:360:21:41

but it was created by a local man.

0:21:410:21:43

It was indeed. Yes, a self-taught man, an engineer, a millwright.

0:21:430:21:46

This was a very famous opening in its day

0:21:460:21:48

because I've got here an Isle of Man £20 note and this shows the opening ceremony.

0:21:480:21:54

A wonderful illustration, actually, of all these Victorians gathered around.

0:21:540:21:59

Yes, September 1854, and there was about 3,000 people all came out to Laxey

0:21:590:22:03

to witness the official opening ceremony of the new waterwheel.

0:22:030:22:07

Both the waterwheel

0:22:120:22:14

and the railway have been restored to their full Victorian glory.

0:22:140:22:18

The locomotives ply again along the route where the metal ores once travelled,

0:22:180:22:24

a quarter of a mile up the valley to the mine entrance.

0:22:240:22:28

-You all look very splendid.

-Thank you.

-Thank you.

-Very smart.

0:22:280:22:31

Never designed for passengers, it's perfectly formed but small.

0:22:310:22:34

It's quite low, isn't it? Well, in I go.

0:22:340:22:37

TRAIN WHISTLES

0:22:420:22:44

The Isle of Man really seems to be laced with railway lines.

0:22:520:22:56

It's a kind of trainspotters' paradise and unfortunately,

0:22:560:23:00

during my brief stay on the island, I've only the chance to visit

0:23:000:23:04

one, two, three of the many that there are.

0:23:040:23:07

I'm coming to the end of both my Bradshaw's journey

0:23:070:23:11

and my visit to the Isle of Man, but I don't intend to leave

0:23:110:23:15

before using the third railway on my wish list which promises to be the most spectacular.

0:23:150:23:21

I'm about to go up the mountain of Snaefell and,

0:23:210:23:26

according to my Bradshaw's, "The view from the summit embraces the island

0:23:260:23:31

"and the sea in which it is set, as far as the shores of England,

0:23:310:23:35

"Wales, Scotland and Ireland, if the air is sufficiently clear."

0:23:350:23:41

And, according to the locals if the air isn't sufficiently clear,

0:23:410:23:45

like on a wet day like today, you can't see your hand in front of you.

0:23:450:23:50

By the middle of the 19th century the Victorians had

0:23:530:23:56

overcome their fears of the revolutionary railway technology

0:23:560:24:00

that they had once thought might suffocate or boil its passengers.

0:24:000:24:04

In fact, the majority of the populace had fallen in love with rail travel

0:24:040:24:08

so the thriving tourist industry on the Isle of Man,

0:24:080:24:11

encouraged the development of 70 miles of steam and electric railways

0:24:110:24:15

to satisfy this thirst for adventure and exploration.

0:24:150:24:19

One example is about to take me to the peak of the only mountain on the island.

0:24:240:24:29

I've chosen to travel on the Snaefell mountain railway

0:24:360:24:40

which ascends five miles from Laxey to the summit of Snaefell,

0:24:400:24:44

2,000 feet above sea level.

0:24:440:24:46

Railway worker Richard Little is my fellow passenger.

0:24:490:24:52

-Richard.

-Hello, Michael.

0:24:540:24:56

This is an electric railway, so it is a fairly early electric railway

0:24:560:24:59

but I was intrigued when I was standing up there

0:24:590:25:02

that there's a raised third rail in the middle, what's that?

0:25:020:25:05

That's a fell rail.

0:25:050:25:07

That's necessary to clasp it and so protect it from the winds and turbulence which,

0:25:070:25:11

as you can see, are quite strong on this mountain.

0:25:110:25:14

-To stop us blowing off the top?

-Yes, yes.

0:25:140:25:17

Snaefell Electric Railway was built in 1895 in just seven months.

0:25:220:25:27

Five miles straight up the mountain.

0:25:270:25:31

It's the only electric mountain railway in the British Isles

0:25:310:25:34

and it relies solely on rail adhesion to overcome the steep gradients.

0:25:340:25:38

Riding on it more than a century later, it's a joy to experience a Victorian design

0:25:380:25:44

so little changed since its inception.

0:25:440:25:47

You've got a very picturesque fleet of cars, are they reproductions?

0:25:470:25:53

No, no, all our rolling stock is all the originals.

0:25:530:25:56

So we're talking about 1890s rolling stock?

0:25:560:25:59

Yes, yes. In fact, we are in the Guinness Book Of Records for the Manx Electric Railway

0:25:590:26:02

for having the oldest working tram industry.

0:26:020:26:06

So we are doing well.

0:26:060:26:07

You can just imagine then,

0:26:070:26:09

that in these very cars, Victorian tourists would have taken this trip up to the top of Snaefell.

0:26:090:26:16

Yes, in the tourism peak

0:26:160:26:18

we had around 900 tourists travelling up and down in one day,

0:26:180:26:23

which is a very impressive amount.

0:26:230:26:25

Still achievable today during special events and, of course, good weather helps.

0:26:250:26:29

Now, I suppose on a clear day we'd be having a fabulous view from here?

0:26:290:26:34

Yes, at the summit on a clear day you would see the seven kingdoms,

0:26:340:26:39

which is England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Isle of Man

0:26:390:26:42

and the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of the sea.

0:26:420:26:46

Today, however, you're lucky enough to see a fine example of Manannan's Cloak,

0:26:460:26:50

which is part of Manx folklore.

0:26:500:26:52

Manannan, being the God of the island,

0:26:520:26:54

he uses his cloak to hide the island from invaders,

0:26:540:26:57

Viking invaders and attackers.

0:26:570:26:59

So, as you can see, the island's getting shielded nicely.

0:26:590:27:03

It seems that today the God Manannan fears invasion very much

0:27:090:27:14

because the top of Snaefell is wrapped in a cloud

0:27:140:27:17

and deluged from the kingdom of heaven.

0:27:170:27:20

The Victorians flocked to the Isle of Man for the thrill of venturing abroad

0:27:240:27:30

and, indeed, they do things differently here.

0:27:300:27:33

But those early tourists also found railways

0:27:330:27:37

and examples of engineering excellence that were reminiscent of home.

0:27:370:27:43

They also encountered an indomitable spirit

0:27:430:27:47

which is characteristic of all of us born in these islands.

0:27:470:27:51

On my next journey, my Bradshaw's is leading me across the Irish Sea.

0:27:550:28:00

Starting in the Republic of Ireland, I'll travel on the island's very first tracks

0:28:000:28:04

and then head up the east coast and onto Northern Ireland.

0:28:040:28:07

Along the way I'll be meeting some unusual train passengers at Dublin zoo.

0:28:070:28:12

I think if I were a ticket collector and I came across a crocodile on the train

0:28:120:28:16

I probably wouldn't seek to extract the fare either.

0:28:160:28:19

Putting myself in a train driver's shoes. Oh. Oh, dear.

0:28:190:28:23

I think we're all dead.

0:28:230:28:25

And taking a white knuckle tour of the stunning north east coast.

0:28:250:28:28

I read the Bradshaw's description of this bridge

0:28:280:28:30

but nothing prepared me for what it's really like.

0:28:300:28:34

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:460:28:49

E-mail [email protected]

0:28:490:28:53

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.

Here, Michael sets sail from Heysham to the Isle of Man, where he discovers the horse trams of Douglas, the 19th-century secrets of the giant Laxey Wheel, and the Victorian history of the delightful Snaefell mountain railway.