On the final leg of his journey from west Wales to East Anglia, Michael Portillo begins in Oakham before heading east to Stamford and on to Cambridge University.
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For Victorian Britons, George Bradshaw was a household name.
At a time when railways were new, Bradshaw's guidebook inspired them
to take to the tracks.
I'm using a Bradshaw's guide to understand how trains transformed
Britain - its landscape, its industries, society
and leisure time.
As I crisscross the country 150 years later, it helps me
to discover the Britain of today.
I'm now concluding a journey that began in West Wales
and will end in East Anglia.
Today I want to learn about how the Victorians pioneered moving images,
the forerunners to cinema and television,
and how a Cambridge graduate developed the most original theory
since the creation.
This week I have travelled from east to west across Bradshaw's Britain.
I began in Pembrokeshire and moved across South Wales to
Herefordshire and on to the Cotswolds.
I passed through Oxford, the city of dreaming spires,
and traversed Bedfordshire.
And I will finish at another academic citadel.
On this leg of my journey, my first stop will be Oakham from where
I'll head east to handsome Stamford then on south to Peterborough
before ending my journey at the great university city of Cambridge.
Today I get to grips with a Victorian melodrama...
It's a story about a signalman who gets the opportunity
to either save his son or crash a train.
..hear ghoulish hospital tales...
Something like an amputation would
have taken round about 2-3 minutes, have to work extremely fast.
..and learn about the student days of Charles Darwin.
These are the actual beetles that he gave him
so much pleasure and so much obsession
when he was an undergraduate.
This is absolutely stunning!
My first stop will be Oakham in Rutland.
Bradshaw's draws my attention to the Shire Hall which "stands
"within the ruined walls of the old castle founded by the Ferrers
"family soon after the conquest.
"Over the gates are several gilded horseshoes
"with the names of noblemen by whom they had been given.
"It had been quite an immemorial custom to ask every peer
"who visits the town for one or else to pay a fine."
All this talk of horses and gifts has me quite intrigued.
Oakham is a market town dating back to Anglo Saxon times.
At its heart lies a 16th-century butter cross
where butter was traded and clergymen preached.
Not far from the town is a traditional blacksmith's,
which now produces ornamental and architectural ironwork.
It is not often called upon to produce a gilded horseshoe
but it retains the skill to do so.
I'm meeting the owner, John Spence.
-Hello, John. Very good to see you.
Bradshaw's Guide tells me about these horseshoes at Shire Hall
and I understand you know a bit about them.
Yes, I've made a few horseshoes in my time there.
By the way, how long has your family business been going, then?
We've been going as a business since 1896. I'm 5th generation
continuous father to son, father to son.
And how many horseshoes have you personally made for the castle?
-And who were they for?
Well, there was Prince Charles,
Princess Alexandra, and the last one,
the Duchess of Cornwall, we've just done recently.
John's company made its first horseshoe for the Shire Hall
in 1981 in a manner recognisable to blacksmiths down the ages.
My horseshoe today has been cut out with a laser.
But that's where the hi-tech stops.
The letters have been welded on and will be decorated by hand.
John that is absolutely lovely. "Great Railway Journeys 2014"
and a fantastic locomotive. Is this finished?
Yes, well, the letters need painting black.
Well, you've gone to so much trouble,
would you mind if I just give you a hand
by painting a couple of these letters?
Have you got any pointers for me, what should I be doing here?
Don't get too much paint on your brush.
And I say, they're quite intricate, and they're quite small as well.
Let's hope my paintwork will pass muster
at Oakham Castle's Shire Hall,
one of England's finest examples
of late 12th-century domestic architecture.
Mr Leader of Rutland County Council.
Though I am not a peer, sir, but the most humble commoner
I have the honour to present a horseshoe to Oakham Castle.
Thank you so much.
Normally, it's a member of nobility we would receive this from,
but today we're very happy to receive it
from a member of nobility of the media!
Thank you very much indeed.
This is the most extraordinary building.
Tell me, how did this tradition of the horseshoes begin?
It seems to date right back from when the hall was built
by the Norman barons only 100 years after the Norman conquest,
and they were the barons who were in charge of shoeing all the
horses of William the Conqueror's army. They had this tradition
that if somebody passed across their lands and wouldn't pay their tolls,
they could take a horseshoe off of them, so they couldn't get through.
So, it seems to have grown up from this into this incredible
tradition that we've got here.
The very oldest one that we have is 1470 one from Edward IV
given during the Wars Of The Roses, an incredible amount of time ago.
And in the middle here,
clearly Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
Queen Victoria here?
She is indeed, there's a matching pair of two horseshoes
on the left, Queen Victoria's mother
and on the right was Queen Victoria herself
when she was still Princess Alexandrina Victoria.
The hall is very sparsely furnished, but what are these benches for?
This is the oldest serving courtroom in the country dating back to 1229.
It is still used. It is used every other year,
we have a visit from a judge...
-What, regular trials?
I can imagine that some severe justice has been dispensed here
over the centuries.
Now look, I feel very embarrassed about this
cos I didn't know there was such distinguished company
and I brought my humble horseshoe.
What will you do with it? Have you got a basement you can put it in?
Certainly not! But we do have a spot over there,
which is in a prominent position beneath
the Duke of Wellington which we thought would be appropriate for you.
I am overwhelmed. Thank you.
A distinguished spot among illustrious company.
An honour indeed.
My journey takes me eastwards towards Stamford in Lincolnshire.
"Stamford," says my Bradshaw's,
"is pleasantly situated on the banks of the Welland River.
"It is remarkably picturesque."
So much so that it has often been used as a location for film-making
and I want to understand how the Victorians
whetted our appetite for the movies.
I shall begin around the "many handsome public edifices
"among which we may mention the theatre and the assembly rooms."
Stamford today is a prosperous market town
and a magnet for tourists who come to appreciate its medieval inns
and handsome Georgian stone buildings.
'Jill Collinge is to be my guide.'
There are lots of places that were pretty in Victorian times,
but not so very much today.
Why does Stamford remain so beautiful?
It's because of the railways.
The Great Northern Railway should have been coming through the town.
There was opposition from the local lord of the manor,
the Marquess of Exeter, who was very opposed to change.
Earl Fitzwilliam in Peterborough really encouraged the Great Northern
to go to Peterborough, which of course it did.
This caused great trouble amongst the businessmen
of the day in Stamford, but nevertheless
because of these building restrictions,
Stamford avoided any ravages of Industrial Revolution.
So, today you see very much an 18th and early-Victorian town.
And for that very reason, it has been chosen again and again
as a location for filming.
George Eliot's novel Middlemarch was filmed by the BBC here
about 18 or so years ago and it was a wonderful backdrop
for the film to take place, very little had to be changed in the town.
And Pride And Prejudice, the most recent filming has been done here
on two main streets that are used often for the filming.
It was a beautiful backdrop.
That was the 1790s that that was being filmed in.
So we're very lucky.
I'm heading for what were, in the 18th century,
the assembly rooms on St George's Square
and also home to one of England's earliest provincial theatres.
Today, it's an arts centre.
Richard Rigby knows all about a very early form of cinema,
which was enormously popular in Bradshaw's day - the magic lantern.
I quite like to dress extrovertly, but what are you dressed as?
I dress as a showman. I am a magic lanternist and we all...
we all put on a bit of a show.
I love the hat particularly. Do you mind if wear your spare?
Oh, I'd be delighted. It will go very well with your jacket.
Right, I'm ready for the show.
So magic lanternists, what, they would go from town to town
giving performances, would they?
Yes, they were known as 'galante' men.
They go all over Europe and
they would project onto any whitewashed wall
or just a sheet of muslin.
Of course, it had to be dark
because all they had as an illuminant would be a candle.
-What's the earliest slide you have got?
-Ah! That's this one here.
It's a panorama - Christmas dinner in the big house.
That is slid through the lantern, hence the word 'slide'.
-And that goes right back to 1640, 1650, that sort of time.
What other sorts of moving image did they develop?
We've got Mr Pickwick here.
See if you can get him to skip for me.
-Isn't that lovely.
Magic lantern performances became hugely popular entertainment,
and played an important part in educating Victorian society.
They were used to tell Bible stories and by the Temperance movement
as well as to demonstrate scientific principles.
Remember, these were more important than books
because most people couldn't read, but they could understand a picture.
Richard has offered to put on a magic lantern show for me today
in the old theatre, opened first in 1768 and reopened in 1978.
We have set up a little Victorian melodrama.
It's a story about signalman who has the most dreadful dilemma.
He gets the opportunity to either save his son or crash a train.
HE GASPS Would you like to do the reading
-and I will operate the lantern?
-I would love to.
"I have been in the box from a youngster,
"and I've never felt the strain of the lives
"which my right hand held in every passing train.
"That day, the missus went shopping,
"took the train to the city.
"So she settled to leave me Johnny.
"The boy would be safe with me.
"It was rare, hard work at Christmas with trains from ere and yon.
"With a start, I thought of Johnny and I saw the boy was gone.
"'Twas 100 lives or Johnny's.
"Oh, heaven, what should I do?
"On the wind came the words, 'Your duty!
"'To that you must always be true.'"
"She had seen him just as the engine of the Limited closed my view
"and she leapt on the line and saved him
"just as the train dashed through.
Fantastic Victorian melodrama brought to life on the big screen.
After a good night's sleep, I'm heading back to the station.
I've heard that there's a bookshop
that could be of particular interest to me and I can't resist.
Do you deal in antique books about trains as well as modern books?
Yes, yes, we do. That's how the business started.
I wonder if there are any old copies of Bradshaw's here.
Bradshaw Timetable for November 1896.
I would think a timetable for 1896
is somewhat limited in its usefulness!
Well, it's not useful for today, but it is a historical document.
It shows the passenger services as they were at that time.
Well, let me give you back that very precious Bradshaw
as I continue my journey with mine.
Great pleasure to see you. Goodbye.
From Stamford my train will take me out of Lincolnshire,
south east to Cambridgeshire and the city of Peterborough.
Bradshaw's is not exactly enticing about Peterborough.
"The country is flat and uninteresting in winter.
"It has but one church beside the cathedral,
"which is the only object of interest."
But more relevantly it tells me that Peterborough is on
the Great Northern Line where three or four other lines strike off.
At this important junction, I think it might be the right place
to think about the conditions of Victorian railway workers
and in particular what happened to them
when they were injured during the course of their dangerous work.
With the opening of the line to Peterborough by the London
and Birmingham Railway in 1845, the cathedral city began to expand.
The Great Northern Line arrived five years later
and transformed it from a market town to an industrial centre.
The area became Britain's leading producer of bricks,
clay being plentiful in the area.
Despite Bradshaw's reservations, I think the city rather grand
with an abundance of stately buildings.
I'm on my way to one now.
Opened in the centre of town in 1857,
the Peterborough Infirmary was the city's first hospital.
Today the building houses the city's museum,
but evidence of its former use has been preserved.
I have come to meet Stuart Orme to find out more.
Stuart, this lovely building doesn't feel like an infirmary.
It has the feel of an elegant town house.
Well, it was an elegant town house,
of course, before being the first hospital in Peterborough.
And you'll have come in through the front door,
that was the main entrance for emergency patients
and also for men coming into the hospital.
The back door, which is down here at the bottom of the staircase,
which is now the entrance to our art gallery,
that was the women's entrance. So, Victorian values, of course,
men and women having separate entrances.
So, of course, there's no naughty touching going on
as patients inside the building.
From the outset, the main users of the hospital
were railwaymen injured at work.
So vulnerable were they to accidents that they
and their families began an early form of health insurance.
They paid a penny a week into a medical fund.
The injuries suffered by railway workers toiling amid heavy
machinery all too often resulted in peremptory amputations.
Upstairs, the hospital's original operating theatre
has been preserved.
Ah! Absolutely macabre and creepy!
'It's chilling to imagine conditions for patients here.'
Well, of course, this was far more sophisticated
than your railwaymen in the 1850s would have been used to.
This is actually dating to the 1890s and the beginnings of modern surgery.
Back in 1850s, you would have been treated in the patient waiting room
downstairs, so you imagine sort of people sitting there
waiting to see their doctors, the curtain pulled across the room and
somebody brought in for an amputation on the other side of curtain,
which wouldn't have been a pleasant prospect
for either of the people concerned, I would suspect.
And certainly railway workers working on dirty yards,
a significant problem is going to be of infection,
so therefore the only solution you've really got is to actually amputate
the limb altogether. And the operations themselves
would have been very crude.
So with a surgical knife like this being used to sever your way
through the flesh, so you could get down to the layers bone underneath.
Generally speaking, something like an amputation would have
taken around about 2-3 minutes.
Have to work extremely fast and extremely precise because you're
quite literally worried about your patient either dying of shock
or bleeding to death on the operating table
because of course, they're conscious.
So once you've got through the flesh,
then you move on to removing the bone underneath.
You've left behind a flap of skin which you can fold over
and hopefully create a pad for the wound.
During Queen Victoria's reign, medicine passed many milestones
as research and experimentation advanced.
One of earliest developments was the use of anaesthetics
as a result of which you get the use of these sorts of things.
Place over the nose and mouth of the patient
and then you can put a few drops of chloroform on to the outside
and they're out for the count. Meaning that you can do much more
sophisticated, invasive surgery and don't have to worry about
the patient immediately expiring from shock.
But the biggest concern in medical practice was the risk of infection.
During the 1860s, Dr Joseph Lister began to use carbolic acid
to disinfect operating theatres.
So what he does is he arranges within his surgical procedures
that there is a sort of dilute spray, 5% carbolic, sprayed from something
that's like a brass garden sprayer.
That spray all over the room literally saturating patients,
the nurses, the doctors, everything in carbolic,
but at least it kills the germs.
By end of the 19th century, there's a realisation you can go one stage
further - rather than just killing the germs, you can try and eradicate
them and make sure they're not there in the first place.
Hence now we've got nice white clean surfaces with the walls
in here, white, clean floor. It makes it easier to keep the place clean
and make sure there are no germs in here in first place.
How big a change does it make, then?
Back in 1830s, you probably stood at best 50-50 chance
of surviving an operation. By the 1890s, it's about a 2.5% death rate.
So, it's basically a dramatic shift in half a century.
So, the Victorians preside over the most enormous advance in surgery?
Absolutely. It's one of those quantum leap periods
of technology, if you like, in terms of surgery and surgical technique
and of course, importantly the survival rates thereafter.
It seems that the Victorians established the principles
of theatre practice as we know it today.
'The final leg of my journey takes me
'southeast to my undergraduate stomping ground.'
"The University of Cambridge," says Bradshaw's,
"is second to no other in Europe in any single
"department of literature, and in mathematics has no rivals."
I'm on my way to Christ's College, which Bradshaw's tells me
was founded in 1442 and has two courts, one rebuilt by Inigo Jones.
The purpose of the university is to teach its students to think.
I'm going to Christ's in pursuit of one who thought back to
first principles to the very origins of life.
Cambridge is a small and architecturally beautiful city,
which grew up as an inland port on the River Cam.
The mix of colleges, churches, bridges and gardens have made it
an attractive and popular place to visit.
Founded in 1209, the university today has 31 colleges.
Charles Darwin came to Christ's College in 1828.
I want to learn about the author of On The Origin Of Species.
Most of us know Charles Darwin from the photograph of him
as an older man with a big, bushy beard.
But the Charles Darwin who had rooms at Christ's looked like this,
and the intellect that developed the theory of evolution
was nurtured here.
I'm heading to the handsome library, which holds over 80,000 books
and manuscripts and serves students, fellows, researchers and staff.
'I believe it also hold records of Darwin's of student days.'
'College librarian Amelie Roper has agreed to show me
'some items of interest.'
So here we have letters documenting his great passion
for beetle collecting.
So here we have a letter to his cousin Fox.
So you can see it begins, "My dear Fox," and then he's saying,
"I'm dying by inches from not having anyone to talk to about insects."
It's lovely, isn't it?
Now, change of handwriting here, is this someone different?
No, this is still Darwin,
but this is some 30 years later. So, this is 1858 now.
And this actually records the time when his son William
started at Christ's and this is a very evocative letter.
"I was in old court, middle staircase
"on right-hand going into court
"up one flight, right-hand door and capital rooms they were."
I'm keen to see these 'capital' rooms
and have arranged to meet there the Curator of Insects,
Dr William Foster, of the University Museum of Zoology.
-OK, so here we are.
Charles Darwin's undergraduate rooms are beautifully preserved.
Darwin studied for a Bachelor of Arts degree at Christ's
and his interest in natural sciences began as a hobby.
Rumour had it that initially he was not a particularly conscientious
student, enjoying the finer things of life like hunting and dining.
Where does the story begin, William?
Well, the story begins with Darwin being at Cambridge.
And as you've already heard, his big passion was collecting beetles.
I mean, nothing else that he did at Cambridge excited him so much.
So, these are the actual beetles that gave him so much pleasure
and so much obsession when he was an undergraduate.
This is absolutely stunning to see so many...
-Well, hundreds of them in there.
-It was very fashionable for
biologists in that period to collect things in a kind of competitive way.
Beetles are good. Lots of species, easy to preserve,
and people were collecting them.
In 1831, Darwin set sail aboard HMS Beagle.
During the two-year voyage around the world, he collected
thousands of specimens - among them, Galapagos finches.
Darwin noticed that the songbirds on the different
islands in the Galapagos, while similar, showed variations in size,
beaks and claws from island to island.
He would later conclude that, because the islands
are isolated from each other and from the mainland,
the finches on each island had adapted to local conditions
I think importance of Beagle finches to Darwin's ideas of evolution has
-been hugely exaggerated.
-He himself was a little bit unsure about
the identifications of what island they came from, so he didn't want to
erect any kind of false hypotheses on the basis of the finches.
It was more that his theory helped explain the finches
than his finches helped explain his theory.
'After his Beagle voyage, Darwin spent eight years studying
From 1846 to 1854 he worked on barnacles, the Cirrepedia.
By really studying one group, he began to realise
that the boundaries between species was not as immutable and absolute
as everybody had thought at the time.
This work on the variation in a species helped him to formulate
his theory of evolution, incorporated in the famous book
that changed the world's view of life.
I am rather in awe of this object here.
This is the first edition of On The Origin Of Species, 1859.
All things considered, what is the significance of this book?
I think this book is the most important book ever written.
After this, nothing was the ever same again.
Human beings were no longer, could no longer consider themselves special,
at the centre of the universe.
We are one species amongst millions, evolved from them,
and things will evolve from us. Everything changed after this.
My journey that began in West Wales ends here.
As we know from our own age,
progress in communications is revolutionary.
In the 19th century, it was the spread of the railways
and other developments such as in photography as I saw in Swansea.
But nothing is as powerful as an idea.
At a time when religions of the Bible were universal,
the theory of a graduate of this college, Charles Darwin,
shook Bradshaw's world to its roots.
The scholarship of the Victorians is their most important legacy.
On the final leg of his journey from west Wales to East Anglia, Michael Portillo begins in Oakham, where he learns of a noble tradition dating back to the Middle Ages. Following in the footsteps of peers over the centuries, he determines to take part. Heading east to Stamford, Michael discovers why the town is such an attractive location for period dramas and takes part in a Victorian melodrama.
A ghoulish scene awaits in Peterborough as Michael visits a Victorian operating theatre where railwaymen were treated. Michael's last stop on this final journey is Christ's College at Cambridge University, where he learns about the student days of the father of evolution, Charles Darwin.