Michael Portillo is on the final leg of his journey following the route of the North Country Continental service to Harwich. Michael gets to drive The Middy.
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For Victorian Britons,
George Bradshaw was a household name.
At a time when railways were new,
Bradshaw's guide book inspired them to take to the tracks.
I'm using a Bradshaw's guide to understand how trains transformed Britain,
its landscape, its industry, society and leisure time.
As I crisscross the country, 150 years later,
it helps me to discover the Britain of today.
My rail journey that began in
Blackpool is now concluding in Suffolk and Essex.
On this part of the journey I hope to discover how the Government tried
to stoke up a railway boom that was running out of steam,
why a Suffolk manufacturer built a cathedral,
what made Ipswich wet and how an Essex town hooked up with Holland.
My route has taken me south-east across the country to the southern edge of East Anglia.
I began in Lancashire and headed east to the mighty
northern conurbations of the industrial age.
In Manchester, I joined the route of the North Country Continental Rail Service
and descended south-east-wards through the Peak District and the Fens.
I'll finish in Harwich - gateway to the Continent.
The final leg of my journey begins in Stowmarket.
I'll head east to the home of the world's first purpose-built assembly line at Leiston.
I'll visit Ipswich and finish at the terminus of the North Country Continental.
Along the way, I uncover an industrial pioneer in Suffolk...
I have never been in a building like this.
It is absolutely extraordinary.
'Discover that train companies didn't always win their battles.'
The plans of the Great Eastern were so huge that the town council objected
to the idea of having half their town demolished.
'And witness a railway renaissance.'
The Middy closed before I was born, and yet the Middy rides again.
My first stop today will be Stowmarket which Bradshaw's tells me
has a brick-built station in the Elizabethan style.
Railway Mania had created many fortunes and many bankruptcies.
I'm going to visit a line whose trains first tooted when the boom was out of puff.
Stowmarket is a small town mid-way between Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich.
It was granted a market charter by Edward III in 1347,
and a market still takes place there twice a week.
Seven miles north-east lies Brockford,
home to the Mid-Suffolk Light Railway Museum.
I'm meeting volunteer and editor of the railway's magazine John Reeve.
John, the Mid-Suffolk Light Railway, what makes it light?
Well, this is going to sound terribly train spotter-ish,
but the 1896 Light Railway Act meant that certain levels of railway could
be built without having to have their own
separate Act of Parliament,
which obviously used up enormous amounts of money and time.
So, why would the government want to promote a new sort of railway?
In the 1880s, this was a fairly depressed area.
And, as you know, Michael, this is very much a rural and agricultural area,
and they were hoping, frankly, to bring a bit more economic recovery into the area.
The Act reduced legal costs and permitted cheaper construction methods in
return for a speed limit of 25mph.
This was at a time when trains on the main line could travel at 80mph.
The plan was to link the Great Eastern Railway stations at Haughley and Halesworth,
but financial difficulties prevented the line from being completed beyond Laxfield.
So it extended for only 19 miles.
The line became affectionately known as the Middy.
From 1908, two passenger trains ran in each direction every weekday.
But passenger numbers were low.
The stations were situated far from the communities that they were intended to serve.
So, it opens, actually the beginning of the 20th century.
Yes. It opened in receivership.
When the first locomotives were delivered by Hudswell Clarke of Leeds,
they actually chained them to the lines, because the cheque hadn't arrived.
-How long does it run?
-Just under 50 years.
So it closes in the 1950s?
-Long before Beeching.
-Long before Beeching.
'The Middy made its last run on 26 July 1952.
'Passengers crowded on to the platform at Haughley to say farewell.
'Some in Edwardian costume.'
What's the recent history, because evidently there are trains running on the tracks.
Well, there was a gang of four who discovered under a great
mountain of brambles that there was a bit of this platform left.
And, with a great deal of effort and getting planning permissions and talking to the landlord,
they were able to reopen the station as you see it now, and we now have our track
and our engines and we're up and running again.
Probably busier than when the railways actually operated first time round.
What sort of rolling stock, do you have, carriages?
Well, the carriages are deliberately what would've run on the original railway.
So Victorian four-wheel coaches, both of which were found in relatively local fields.
One of which had been lived in for nearly 90 years, and when we took it
into our works, it'd still got the bedroom wallpaper on it and all that
sort of stuff, and they were both restored here.
John, you may be railway train spotters, you may be veering on fanaticism,
-but you do a huge public service actually.
Well, I'd like to think so, because this is the only standard
gauge railway museum in Suffolk,
and we're now going for planning permission to extend our line.
Absolutely fantastic. I feel the pressure rising in my boiler.
I want to take to the tracks. JOHN LAUGHS
-I have the privilege of riding with you today.
Tell me about this lovely locomotive.
This locomotive was built in 1928 by the North Eastern Railway.
Would similar locomotives have run on this line?
Very similar, yeah.
Does she behave well?
-She behaves quite well for her age.
-I know the feeling. Can we give it a go?
-Thank you. Hello.
First of all, check that we have brake.
This gauge here.
-20, 21 inches of vacuum which is what we need.
So we're safe to go.
Just open the regulator up now.
If you bring it to about here before anything starts to happen.
-And then something will start to happen?
-Something will start to happen.
What about a whistle? WHISTLE BLOWS
Now they know we're coming.
Open. That's it.
And we're off!
-What incline is this?
-One in 46.
One in 46.
Which is quite steep by railway standards.
Because of the incline, we can keep
steam on right till the last minute.
Excellent. Quite a nice rhythm to this locomotive.
The Middy closed before I was born, and yet the Middy rides again
thanks to the enthusiasm of people like this.
Coming into the station.
-What do we do now?
-Shut the regulator.
Shutting the regulator.
-Put your brake on.
Or be ready to brake rather than put it on.
Brake about now.
TRAIN BRAKES HISS
And pulley on.
-We made it!
-We made it.
-Thank you, Paul.
-Thank you, Ed.
I'm picking up my next train at Halesworth, where the Mid-Suffolk Light Railway
was intended to finish.
From there, I'll take a 14-mile journey south on the East Suffolk line.
I'll be leaving this train at Saxmundham headed for Leiston.
Bradshaw's remarks that Suffolk may be called almost exclusively a farming
county, agriculture being conducted on the most improved principles.
Improvements, because the feeding of the masses increasingly required mass production.
A ten-minute drive east from Saxmundham is Leiston.
During the 19th century this rural Suffolk town became an unexpected
trailblazer for the Industrial Revolution.
Until the age of steam, agriculture relied on human labour and horsepower.
Richard Garrett & Sons was established in 1778, and the company
made sickles, scythes and other farm equipment.
Steam revolutionised the production of the tools.
I'm hoping to learn more from Anna Mercer,
curator at the Long Shop Museum.
Anna, I have never been in a building like this.
It is absolutely extraordinary and beautiful and so well-preserved.
It's fantastic, isn't it?
The workers called it a cathedral.
For reasons that you can see.
It has these fantastic windows, lots of light.
It's a magnificent building.
We believe it was the world's first purpose-built assembly line production building.
Richard Garrett had built steam engines at Leiston since the 1830s, and the
Long Shop enabled him greatly to increase his company's productivity.
Inspiration came to Garrett at the Great Exhibition in 1851, where he
met American gun-maker Samuel Colt, who'd introduced assembly lines
to the workshops that produced his revolvers.
The meeting proved a breakthrough for Garrett, and on his return to
Leiston he built the Long Shop.
The engines were actually moving through the building?
They were, yes. They came in at the door at the end there.
Obviously with their wheels and with the boiler, and then they had parts
fitted to them as they moved along this central aisle, and there were
lathes and machinery all down either side, and parts being made in the upstairs floor as well,
the smaller parts, and lowered down using the crane.
And engines like this one were produced?
-"Choo-choo," but not quite?
No, this is a portable engine, it's not a traction engine,
it doesn't move itself,
so you have to hitch it up to horses, and then it's got this big drive
belt wheel on here, which when the engine is moving,
it spins the wheel and then the belt can be used to drive all sorts of
Typically a threshing machine.
Steam transformed the productivity of agriculture,
increasing yields and helping to feed a growing population.
Around 15,000 portable steam engines were built at the Long Shop,
95% of them sold abroad.
With all these lovely steam engines, did they make use of the railways?
They did, indeed. In fact it was Richard Garrett's works here in Leiston
that helped bring the railway to this part of the country.
In the 1850s, when they were increasing production here,
it was obviously much more convenient to get them out by railway.
Could you get from the factory to the railway by train?
Yes, Garrett's had sidings and they had a special little works railway
which was a sort of tramway which was pulled either by horses or by
cable-driven trucks, and after that they introduced their own little works locomotive, Sirapite,
and that drove the trucks to and from the station and the station sidings.
The 20th century was less successful for Richard Garrett & Sons.
After the First World War, the company failed to invest in the internal combustion engine and was
forced to write off bad debt from the sale of steam engines to revolutionary Russia.
And the company did in fact go into decline?
It did. It went into liquidation in 1931.
Richard Garrett & Sons was purchased in 1932.
Business continued, but the long history of family control was over.
The Leiston works finally closed in the 1980s, bringing a chapter of
British industrial history to a close.
The end of my journey is approaching, and I'm rejoining the railway for my
final morning's travel.
My next stop will be Ipswich.
The guidebook tells me that it's favourably positioned for commerce.
'Vessels of any burden can navigate the Orwell to the town itself,
'where a wet dock of considerable magnitude has been constructed.'
Another 19th-century mega-project,
and possibly another Victorian engineering hero.
Ipswich is one of the oldest continually inhabited towns in England.
Historic buildings such as the Ancient House stand in a network of streets
which is still recognisably medieval.
The imposing Orwell Bridge just south of Ipswich carries vital freight traffic
from the Port of Felixstowe across the River Orwell.
The river has been the source of the town's prosperity.
Stuart Grimwade is a director of the Ipswich Maritime Trust.
Stuart, Bradshaw's tells me that Ipswich is favourably positioned for
commerce. Has it been going on for a long time?
Absolutely, yes, since the seventh century.
There's evidence of wine trade in those days.
Ships were brought across the North Sea.
After that, there was a period of Viking raids into Ipswich, so perhaps
that was not a growth period.
Although the Vikings settled in this area immediately.
They are famous for raping and pillaging,
but in fact they realised the value of this place to trade,
and so this led to a very successful merchant business in wool to the Continent with
merchants' houses all along the quays here where we are now.
The guidebook also mentions one of the virtues of the place,
that you can get into the middle of the town on the river, but I assume the river is tidal.
The river's tidal and the dock quay here was tidal.
That was no problem in the Middle Ages when ships were smaller,
but in the 18th century ships were getting larger,
but the river was silting up, and ships got larger and couldn't get up
to the quays so easily.
By the 19th century, Ipswich had become a major industrial centre,
producing farm machinery and railway parts for Britain and abroad.
But the tidal port limited the town's trading potential.
The river commissioners raised £25,000 to put towards the development of a wet dock,
which was to be the largest dock of its kind in Britain.
In 1837, as Queen Victoria ascended the throne,
an Act of Parliament authorised the Ipswich dock commissioners to begin work.
The water level in the wet dock was to be maintained at sufficient
depth to enable ships to float.
-Well, the best way to see the dock is from the water.
-Mmm. Thank you.
A 16-year-old, Edward Caley, was commissioned to draw up detailed
plans and to survey the town.
His exquisite sketch books survive today.
When construction began,
the chief engineer Henry Palmer appointed Caley assistant engineer,
and this young prodigy took on sole responsibility for the building of the wet dock.
Edward Caley became the site engineer for the project aged 20.
A remarkable achievement at that
age to be responsible for what was the
largest construction project of its kind in Britain.
Give me an idea of how big a project it was to build the wet dock.
Well, it was a massive project.
There were 33 acres of mudflats to be excavated by hand.
There were 55 men employed to do the digging.
It took three years to dredge out
the mud and create the start for the laying of
the foundation and the stone of the lock.
So you make a big hole and then you edge it presumably in stone or rock, do you?
Well, yes, the engineer Henry Palmer specified the best quality brick,
the best quality stone and there was a lot of controversy about the cost,
as always, but his specification was so good that the quay that you see
now is still there as he instructed, and as he built it.
The wet dock opened in 1842.
It cost around £130,000, an expensive project,
but Ipswich was transformed.
Immediately it had the effect of attracting industry.
Prior to that, there'd been small warehouses and merchants' warehouses.
The industrial age brought factories all around the dock.
What other trades were here around the dock?
Lots of trades associated with shipping.
Mills, warehouses of all kinds,
importing everything you can think of.
-Railways came as soon as the dock was built.
A railway all around the edge of the dock.
Most goods were transported by rail in those days, and so the railway
system was integral to the success of the dock.
Rail freight traffic to the Victorian wet dock ceased in 1992.
Today there's a marina, and its mercantile past has given way to
modern housing and leisure developments.
I'm on my way to Harwich, changing at Manningtree.
I'm approaching my terminus.
The final leg of my journey on the route of the North Country Continental
takes me to the end of what is known as the Mayflower line, which links
Manningtree in Essex with Harwich.
I'll leave this train at Harwich Town.
I'm told that it's a sea port and packet station with a number of maritime advantages.
'Built on a peninsula,
'close to where the Rivers Star and Orwell join the German Ocean.'
I want to see how Harwich used those advantages to become a major gateway
for the Continental explorer.
Harwich received its charter in 1318,
and today the entire old town is a conservation area.
Seafaring is in its blood.
Sir Francis Drake and his fleet took refuge at Harwich during the battle
against the Spanish Armada in 1588.
And one of history's most famous vessels, the Mayflower,
which transported the pilgrim
fathers to the new world, was built here.
Author Stephen Brown has lived in Harwich for much of his life
and spent 18 years working at the port.
We're now walking down from Harwich Town station,
where Victorian passengers would have made their way from the station down
to the pier front to catch their steamers to the Continent, and you
can imagine in the old days, with all the hat boxes and luggage and steamer trunks,
it would have been quite a hike to have dragged all that with them,
seeing as the journey's about a quarter of a mile.
As the railway network expanded,
the companies were keen to seize the opportunities offered by Continental
travel and ran services to Europe using their own vessels.
Harwich was one of the most successful examples.
So, Stephen, when did boat services begin between Harwich and the Continent?
The then-operator of the railway, the Eastern Counties Railway,
first set sail from along this pier here, which is commonly known as
Halfpenny Pier, when it was one old halfpenny to access the quay if you
weren't actually travelling by steamer.
The Great Eastern Railway was created in 1862 and they were then given
Parliamentary permission in 1863 to actually own and run their own steam
ships. Prior to that, they had to use chartered vessels.
The service was daily and they would sail to Rotterdam and obviously to
Antwerp as well.
These services were eventually marketed to people in the north of England, weren't they?
Yes, they were. Originally most of the market was for the people travelling out of London,
but when they built the north curve at Manningtree Station which links
on to the main line between London and Norwich,
they then could get access to the North Country Line and it was possible
for people in the very north to come by boat train down to Harwich.
In 1874, an ambitious decision was taken to build a completely new deep water port
two miles upriver.
It was named Harwich Parkeston Quay after Charles Parkes,
chairman of the Great Eastern Railway, and it opened in 1883.
Why was it necessary to build a new port upstream?
Well, basically the operations of the Great Eastern Railway had totally
outgrown facilities and the availability of land
in Harwich Town.
The plans of the Great Eastern were so huge that the town council objected
to the idea of having half their town demolished, and so the railway then
looked around for some other land, and they found an area of pretty much
marshland, tidal saltings and just rough grazing, and they set about
reclaiming about 600 acres of land, building a whole brand-new terminal,
a huge place which was likened to the Liverpool of the east in its day.
I'm retracing my steps along the Mayflower Line to the terminus of the old
North Country Continental.
Harwich became Britain's most important passenger port.
It endured heavy bombing in the Second World War and survives today
despite the competition from other ports,
the Channel Tunnel and air travel.
It plays host to cruise liners departing for Scandinavia and has
morning and evening ferry sailings each day
to Rotterdam and the Hook of Holland.
You could easily mistake this for a cruise liner.
I've entered the ship at deck number nine, and below me
there are many decks of cars and lorries, and all the public spaces
here are simply vast.
Those decks conceal close to 5km of roadway
and there's room for 1,200 passengers.
It's like a very long, thin hotel and, indeed,
with corridors about 200 metres long,
you don't want to forget where your room is.
What an amazing cabin.
With just over three hours to prepare the ship for its next voyage,
I've offered cabin attendant Marvin a helping hand.
Tuck that in nice and firmly at the top.
First you need to do this here, sir.
Do the other side.
-You take such care over it.
Lovely sheets. How is that looking?
It is good.
Lovely soft pillows. MARVIN LAUGHS
Captain Neil Rice is preparing for the morning crossing to Holland.
Good to see you. I'm just amazed by how high we are here.
A huge vessel. These ships actually fill up, do they?
Yes, about four times a week we get
full up on the night crossing from the Hoek van Holland.
Do you get big seas between here and Holland?
If the wind's from the south, which is mainly is,
it's quite a comfortable crossing.
If the wind's from the north,
then the swell can pick up and it can be a little bit more uncomfortable,
but we have stabilisers and it's not a bad crossing.
I want to wish you a calm and prosperous voyage.
Travelling through Manchester and Sheffield to Harwich by train,
I've retraced the so-called North Country Continental route.
The Victorian boarding his steamer could be confident
of Britain's superiority.
The Royal Navy was easily the largest in the world.
Britain was the first to industrialise and to build railways.
Men like the Stephensons and Charles Darwin had kept Britain at the
forefront of engineering and science.
The Britons on this ferry today must venture forth with rather more humility.
'Next time, I take to the seas in a 100-year-old lifeboat...'
It's wonderful to feel the sense of teamwork
as I pull the oars with this wonderful crew.
He deserves to be remembered as
someone who spoke up for Irish culture and
Irish political rights at a very, very dark time.
'..and abandon the trains for a taste of the travelling life.'
Reigns in hand, and we're all ready.
Michael Portillo is on the final leg of his journey following the route of the North Country Continental service to Harwich. Along the way, he meets volunteers on the Mid-Suffolk Light railway and is allowed to drive The Middy. In Leiston, Michael uncovers an intriguing industrial pioneer - the world's first purpose-built assembly line. The work of a young Victorian engineering prodigy impresses Michael in Ipswich. In Harwich, he discovers how the port became a gateway to the continent and was then superseded by a new deep-water port further inland. Michael lends a hand below decks to ensure all is shipshape before one of the vast ferries leaves for the Hook of Holland.