Welwyn Garden City to Peterborough Great British Railway Journeys


Welwyn Garden City to Peterborough

Michael Portillo continues his journey from London to Edinburgh. Michael heads north from London, and in Bedfordshire he drives a 'locomobile'.


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For Victorian Britons, George Bradshaw was a household name.

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At a time when railways were new,

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Bradshaw's guidebook inspired them to take to the tracks.

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I'm using a Bradshaw's guide

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to understand how trains transformed Britain,

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its landscape, its industry, society and leisure time.

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As I crisscross the country 150 years later,

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it helps me to discover the Britain of today.

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After my exciting trip on the Flying Scotsman,

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I'm now following its path northwards,

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taking the slow train from London at a more leisurely pace.

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As I open my Bradshaw's guide,

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a vivid impression of Victorian Britain tumbles out.

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The metropolis which I'm just leaving

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contains the largest mass of human life,

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arts, science, wealth, powers and architectural splendours

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that in almost all of these particulars,

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has ever existed in the annals of mankind.

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London was the capital of a vast empire,

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which exceeded even ancient Rome.

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As I retrace the tracks of the Flying Scotsman,

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I hope to grasp the psyche of a people

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who ruled a quarter of the globe.

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My journey will take me up the East Coast Main Line

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from London's King's Cross, through the counties of Hertfordshire

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and Bedfordshire, and on via Cambridgeshire

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to the market town of Newark.

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I'll visit the former port of Stockton-on-Tees

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and the coastal towns of Alnmouth and Dunbar

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before finishing in Edinburgh.

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The first leg of my trip takes me deep into

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the Hertfordshire countryside, to Welwyn Garden City.

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From there, I'll travel to the county town of Hertford,

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crossing into Bedfordshire to Biggleswade

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and finally on to the cathedral city of Peterborough.

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'On this journey, I work up a sweat...'

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Oh, joy!

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Chuck the exercise bike, get a pump trolley and a mile of track.

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'..discover the archive of one of our best-known Victorian writers...'

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These were sold on the Indian book-seller stalls

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in the railways for one rupee.

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'..and get steamed up in a vintage car.'

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Apply the throttle - hurray! And we're off!

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I will leave this train at Welwyn Garden City.

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Bradshaw says, "With its sweet sylvan scenes and trout streams,

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'there's no county so rich in associations

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'and in stately seats of gentlemen,

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'as the small inland county of Hertfordshire.'

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Since the days of Queen Elizabeth I,

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with men like Francis Bacon and John Dee, and later with Isaac Newton,

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the British Isles have produced minds that enquired into

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the order of the natural world.

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And, as I hope to discover here,

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it took the Victorians to apply science to the production of food.

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24 miles north of London's King's Cross,

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Welwyn Garden City was the creation of social reformer

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and town planning pioneer Sir Ebenezer Howard.

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Established in 1920,

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it was designed to offer families a healthy alternative

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to crowded inner-city living. 80 years earlier, a booming

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Victorian population inspired new ideas in the science of farming.

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I'm heading to Rothamsted Manor, where it all began,

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to meet retired plant pathologist Dr John Jenkin.

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-Hi, John. I'm Michael.

-Hello, pleased to meet you.

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Lovely to be at Rothamsted Manor. Whose was it?

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The most famous occupant was somebody called John Bennet Lawes,

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who was born here in 1814.

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He was a gentleman who has two principle claims to fame.

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First of all, he started an experimental station

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now known as Rothamsted Research.

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But he also really established the fertiliser industry.

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What was the challenge that they were facing,

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what made the endeavour worthwhile?

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We had a growing population and so we needed to produce more food.

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We couldn't produce enough farmyard manure

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to adequately fertilise all of the crops in a rotation.

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Farmers would have supplemented that with things like wool,

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but also bones, for example.

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They were a very important source of phosphate,

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which is one of the important plant nutrients.

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And Lawes developed a process for treating bones

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and later other phosphatic materials with sulphuric acid.

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What this does is make the phosphate more soluble

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-and more readily available to plants.

-How did Lawes get started?

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He went to Oxford. He would have been doing classics, philosophy,

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but we do know he went to lectures given by a professor of chemistry

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at Oxford, and when Lawes came back to the manor in 1834,

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without a degree, I hasten to add,

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one of the first things he did was to have one of the bedrooms here

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converted into a laboratory.

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He proceeded to essentially teach himself chemistry.

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He did experiments initially in pots,

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but latterly in small plots on his home farm here at Rothamsted.

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After eight years of research,

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Lawes took out a patent in 1842 on his super phosphate fertiliser

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and put it into production the following year.

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With his hands full at his London factory, he hired chemist

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Henry Gilbert to take charge of continuing research at Rothamsted.

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Lawes and Gilbert collaborated for 57 years,

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laying the foundations for modern agricultural science,

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and amazingly, some of the research they started continues to this day.

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The most famous example is the park grass experiment,

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begun in 1856.

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So, John, if you don't mind me saying so,

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a rather average looking field. Why is this of such interest?

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Well, they learned very quickly that the different fertilisers

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gave different yields, but they also noticed very quickly that

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there were big effects on the composition,

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and so we have some plots which have a lot of clover in them,

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other plots that have practically no clover,

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plots, for example, that are very typical of acid moorland,

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so there's a great diversity here now, which is why

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it is considered to be probably the most important

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ecological experiment in the world.

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'Close by, Rothamsted Research,

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'visited by agricultural scientists from all over the world,

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'is Lawes' lasting legacy.'

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-Hello, Angela.

-Hello, Michael.

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'Professor Angela Karp is Associate Director of Science Innovation at the centre,

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'where there's an archive of more than 300,000 plant and soil samples.'

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You have vast quantities of stuff, dating back to when?

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Actually, here is the first sample that was taken back in 1844.

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So since this date, we have been taking samples of grain like this,

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straw and soil, every single year.

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"Wheat grain 1844 from plot number one."

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But what is the point of keeping wheat that's nearly two centuries old?

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Well, these samples help us to study how what we've been doing in agriculture

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has affected our soils, for example, our environment around the farm.

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And to understand how our practices today are going to impact

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on the environment in the future.

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Alongside this historic collection are these state-of-the-art

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laboratories, focused on tomorrow's agriculture.

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The Victorian challenge was to feed a growing mass of people.

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What's the challenge today?

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The complexity has changed enormously,

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because now we have to feed more people,

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but with less land and less chemistry,

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in terms of controlling pests and diseases,

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but also less in terms of fertiliser.

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So, really, it's doing agriculture in a more environmentally friendly

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way, while still maintaining productivity.

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'Dr Nicola Hawkins is one of 200 scientists at Rothamsted Research.'

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Your experiment is intended to find out what?

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I'm looking at plant diseases.

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A lot of the crop diseases are becoming resistant

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to the fungicides that they used to control them,

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so at the moment I'm carrying out a DNA test,

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looking at the levels of resistance,

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and we're actually using some of the samples from the archive.

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So here they've been ground up and the DNA's been extracted.

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We can analyse them with technologies that Lawes and Gilbert

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couldn't have dreamed of and then we'll look at

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what point in history the resistance genes come in.

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So it's extraordinary, isn't it, that the care and attention

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that the Victorians took is still helpful to us today?

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From Welwyn Garden City, my journey takes me six miles to Hertford,

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over the River Mimram, and a famous landmark

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with a royal legend attached.

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You get a marvellous view from the Welwyn Viaduct,

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which Bradshaw's tells me is a structure of 90 feet high.

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It was opened by Queen Victoria,

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but she didn't put her trust in it by travelling across it in a train.

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Instead, she visited beneath in a horse-drawn carriage.

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She need hardly have feared, it's stood the test of time,

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carrying, what, hundreds of high-speed trains every day.

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Having come north to Stevenage, I have to change onto

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the so-called Hertford Loop for the final journey to Hertford North.

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Bradshaw's tells me that Hertford is the capital of Hertfordshire,

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a small irregularly-built country town

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with the remains of a royal castle or palace,

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which, having been modernised, has now been turned into a school.

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After my lifetime of gaffes,

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I'm looking for a few lessons in diplomacy.

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At the time of my guidebook,

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Britain had colonies across the globe,

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and during Queen Victoria's reign,

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it would become the largest imperial power in the world.

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The East India Company ran parts of India on behalf of

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the British government and educated young men

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to be skilled administrators.

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Just outside Hertford,

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I'm meeting Haileybury College's archivist, Toby Parker.

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-Toby, I'm Michael.

-Hello.

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What a fine set of buildings the school has,

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but it doesn't look like a castle,

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which is what I expected from my Bradshaw's.

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Well, it originally started in a castle in Hertford,

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but it moved out in 1809 when the college buildings were completed.

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And they were designed specifically

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to provide a training college for the East India Company.

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Young men would have been educated here from the age of 15,

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to go out with the requisite skills to govern India.

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'2,000 of the East India College's pupils went on to become civil servants.'

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In what subjects where the students expected to be proficient?

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There was an expectation that they had a good working knowledge

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of languages such as Persian, Hindustani, Telugu

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and also mathematics, astronomy, experimental science

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and also political economy.

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The emphasis on the Indian languages interests me.

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So they were intending to administer or govern in the local language?

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Yeah. Until we see English being imposed

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as the language of rule in India, the administration

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by the East India Company was done through local courts, etc,

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where, actually, the vernacular, the local language, was used.

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They could have relied on translators,

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but there was a growing concern that actually the translators

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were subverting what the administrators wanted to do.

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Were they also taught about Indian culture and customs?

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They had lectures and examinations on Mohammed and law

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and Hindu culture, so that the young men

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had an understanding of the nuances of the cultures

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that they were going to work within.

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'Following the Indian mutiny against the company in 1857,

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'it was closed by the British government,

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'who took over direct colonial rule

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'that lasted until India gained independence in 1947.

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'The college became the independent Haileybury Boarding School,

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'and I'm intrigued to discover a lasting connection with India.

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'It became home to the archive of one of our best-known

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'late Victorian writers, Rudyard Kipling.'

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Tremendous collection of works.

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What first brings Kipling to public attention?

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Probably a series of publications

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that are produced in India, known as the Indian Railway Library,

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and these were sold on the Indian book-seller stalls

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in the railways for one rupee.

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Affordable, almost throwaway editions of Kipling's short stories.

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In 1889, he leaves India,

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having made quite a lot of money out of these publications.

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He moves to London.

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By 1894, he's published The Jungle Book.

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Jungle Book is still very well-known, it was made into a movie,

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but by comparison with all that he wrote,

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so much of this seems to have passed into oblivion.

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Why so, do you think?

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Well, he's become viewed as a controversial character.

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The associations with imperialism and, by default, colonisation,

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has made him a less palatable figure in some of the public's eyes,

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but there is probably one poem that still holds the attention,

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the interest of the British public, and that is If.

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"If you can keep your head when all about you

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"Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

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"If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

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"But make allowance for their doubting too...

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"If you can fill the unforgiving minute

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"With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,

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"Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,

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"And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!"

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For the young men at this college who dream of a civil service career

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in India, two years of study culminated in tough exams.

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I wonder whether I have what it took?

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My invigilator is the school's current master, Joe Davis.

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-Portillo?

-Yes, sir.

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Sit down. This is the political economy paper.

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One hour. You may begin.

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It's hard to imagine what was going through these boys' heads

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as they prepared to leave Britain.

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I'm sure I would have found it more than a little daunting.

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Portillo, stop writing now, please.

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Let me have a look.

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HE SIGHS

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Not very good, is it?

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No India for you.

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Home civil service, I think, Portillo.

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Public works, if you're lucky.

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It's a new day on my journey

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retracing the route taken by the famous Flying Scotsman.

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My next stop will be Biggleswade.

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Bradshaw's tells me it's a market town in Bedfordshire

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and recommends Old Warden House, property of Lord Ongley.

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I hope to discover that Robert Henley Ongley

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was no common-or-garden Baron, but rather a pleasure peer.

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Biggleswade was a farming area, growing wheat and barley

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and supplying vegetables to the capital.

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It became the first town in Bedfordshire to have a mainline station

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when the Great Northern reached here in 1850.

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Just west of the town is the village of Old Warden.

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Samuel Ongley's 17th-century mansion, described in my Bradshaw's,

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was replaced in the late 1800s,

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but its wonderful Swiss Garden has been preserved.

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I'm meeting Christine Hill, who's written a book about the estate.

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Who was Lord Ongley?

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Lord Ongley was the fifth in line of the Ongley Squires

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of Old Warden and he inherited the estate at a very young age.

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His father died when he was just 11, and in 1824 he came into the money.

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What do you think would have been the inspiration for these gardens?

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During the 1820s, a lot of young nobility,

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landowners, were going off to Europe to look at the picturesque scenery

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over there, and he developed a passion for the Swiss.

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We don't know whether he actually went to Switzerland,

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but he took on the picturesque style,

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as his theme for both the Swiss Garden

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and the village of Old Warden.

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He made his villagers wear clothing with a Swiss theme.

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Red cloaks, tall hats and red neckerchiefs.

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Dotted amongst the Alpine lawns and pines

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are statues and elaborate follies, including

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this Swiss-style thatched cottage that Ongley used as a teahouse.

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Once you've built a garden like this, I suppose

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-you want to entertain, is that what he did?

-He did entertain.

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A newspaper report tells us that in 1832,

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he laid on a big bash for the local nobility.

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They were dancing quadrilles

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and had a special band brought up from London.

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It says that from every turn there were exotic birds

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walking in front. And we know that Ongley had an aviary,

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and today, of course, we have peacocks in the garden still.

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Ongley seems like quite an attractive character to me, what was his fate?

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Well, he wasn't a good businessman,

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and his money went.

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By 1854, he had given up in Old Warden.

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He moved down to Bushy Lodge at Teddington,

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overlooking Hampton Court, and it was there he died in 1877.

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Old Warden House was bought by Joseph Shuttleworth,

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who made his fortune producing steam-powered farming machines.

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His grandson Richard inherited his love of engines

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and started to amass aircraft and cars here on the estate.

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Following his death in a flying accident at just 31 years of age,

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his mother, Lady Dorothy, opened his collection to the public.

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Richard Shuttleworth's passion for machinery

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has been vigorously sustained and Shuttleworth now has

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a permanent collection of aircraft and motorcars, all in working order.

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Today is gala day,

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and the extraordinary engineering on display is matched

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only by the extraordinary crowd that's come to see it.

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-Hello, happy picnickers, how are you all? Lovely to see you.

-Lovely to see you.

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So, you're beautifully turned out, congratulations to you. Why?

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It's a Roaring '20s race day.

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We're re-enactor historians for Shuttleworth.

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Shuttleworth asked us along to come and be 1920s for them.

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Are you sort of paying a tribute to Richard Shuttleworth?

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Very much so and also Lady Dorothy as well.

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-Who continued it all.

-Absolutely.

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Yeah, yeah. And are you enjoying the airshow?

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Oh, yes. Brilliant.

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As well as 40 airworthy vintage planes,

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this 20th-century collection includes around 70 vehicles

0:21:190:21:23

and it's managed by Stuart Gray.

0:21:230:21:25

-Stuart, hello.

-Hello, Michael.

-Lovely to see you.

0:21:270:21:30

Now, you're leaving a bit of a vapour trail today.

0:21:300:21:33

-What are you driving?

-I'm driving a 1900 Locomobile.

0:21:330:21:36

-A Locomobile. A steam car.

-American steam car.

0:21:360:21:40

An American steam car. And why is it in the Shuttleworth collection?

0:21:400:21:43

Locomobiles were very popular at the turn of the century

0:21:430:21:46

and Richard Shuttleworth actually bought this car in 1932, I believe,

0:21:460:21:51

and it turned out to be one of his most favourite cars.

0:21:510:21:54

-And what's it like to drive?

-It's fun. You ought to have a go.

0:21:540:21:58

I'd love to.

0:21:580:22:00

This is your steering, it's a tiller steer and there's your throttle.

0:22:030:22:07

How far can we go in this, Stuart?

0:22:070:22:09

Well, Richard did the London to Brighton run in 1934.

0:22:090:22:12

I think we'll do something slightly less ambitious.

0:22:120:22:15

So, foot off brake.

0:22:150:22:17

We've obviously got steam.

0:22:170:22:18

Apply the throttle - hooray!

0:22:180:22:20

And we're off!

0:22:200:22:22

At the end of Victoria's reign,

0:22:270:22:29

on Britain's roads it was full steam ahead.

0:22:290:22:32

I'm heading back to Biggleswade station to continue 35 miles north.

0:22:450:22:51

Next stop, Peterborough, which Bradshaw says,

0:22:550:22:57

"..is a cathedral town on the River Nene

0:22:570:23:01

"and on the Great Northern Railway,

0:23:010:23:03

"where three or four other lines strike off."

0:23:030:23:06

One line, running along the river valley,

0:23:060:23:09

was struck off the map for a number of years,

0:23:090:23:12

but has steamed back into life.

0:23:120:23:14

Although it boasts this impressive 12th-century cathedral,

0:23:280:23:32

Peterborough was a small market town until the arrival of the railways,

0:23:320:23:35

which transformed it into a bustling industrial centre.

0:23:350:23:39

The London and Birmingham railway completed the first railway line

0:23:410:23:44

to Peterborough in 1845, which ran via Northampton.

0:23:440:23:48

It became one of the last victims of the Beeching cuts of the 1960s.

0:23:480:23:53

But today, a seven-and-a-half-mile stretch of the track

0:23:530:23:56

is home to the heritage Nene Valley Railway.

0:23:560:23:59

It's based just west of the city in the pretty village of Wansford.

0:24:010:24:04

But, before I board one of its trains,

0:24:040:24:07

I'm going to do something I've always wanted to do,

0:24:070:24:10

helped by volunteer Phil Marshall.

0:24:100:24:12

-Hello, Phil.

-Hello, Michael.

0:24:120:24:14

And what a wonderful vehicle this is,

0:24:140:24:16

an old pump trolley if I'm not mistaken, is that right?

0:24:160:24:19

It is indeed. Built by the North Eastern Railways in about 1907.

0:24:190:24:23

Many of these left?

0:24:230:24:25

I would say there's around about 20 of them remaining,

0:24:250:24:28

of which there's three or four of them, maximum, that are operational.

0:24:280:24:31

Really? Oh, wow, so it's really rare.

0:24:310:24:33

-It's brilliantly simple, isn't it?

-It is indeed. There's no gearboxes.

0:24:330:24:37

Even to get it from forward to reverse you simply rock the handle the opposite way.

0:24:370:24:42

And what was its main use?

0:24:420:24:43

Before the days of the van, the only way to get down the track

0:24:430:24:46

was for them to actually jump on one of these trolleys

0:24:460:24:49

and the gangers would have probably have done about sort of ten

0:24:490:24:54

to 20 miles on it a day as they inspected the track.

0:24:540:24:57

Well, can we take it for a spin?

0:24:570:24:58

-We can indeed.

-So, chocks away.

0:24:580:25:00

A bit of elbow grease to begin with.

0:25:030:25:05

And she moves!

0:25:060:25:08

And off we go.

0:25:090:25:10

Once she's rolling, it's a lot easier.

0:25:100:25:12

Oh, joy.

0:25:130:25:15

The wind in my hair.

0:25:150:25:18

No locomotive.

0:25:180:25:19

Muscle power!

0:25:190:25:22

What gargantuan speed have we reached now?

0:25:290:25:32

About 8mph, I would say.

0:25:320:25:35

8mph, and it feels like 120.

0:25:350:25:39

Oh, I'm enjoying this!

0:25:410:25:43

Chuck the exercise bike, get a pump trolley

0:25:470:25:50

and a mile of track.

0:25:500:25:52

I think, after that, I've earned a more restful ride back to Peterborough.

0:26:000:26:04

After you.

0:26:070:26:09

The Nene Valley is one of around 100 heritage railways

0:26:130:26:17

across Britain that keep alive the romance of steam.

0:26:170:26:20

It was resurrected in the 1970s and is run by a group of up to 250 volunteers.

0:26:210:26:27

Marketing manager Gerry Thurston is joining me for tea.

0:26:280:26:31

Congratulations on the Nene Valley Railway,

0:26:340:26:36

which is absolutely delightful.

0:26:360:26:38

When it was in full use, what was it used for?

0:26:380:26:41

Absolutely everything that a branch line would be used for,

0:26:410:26:43

from the, literally, the schools' specials trains

0:26:430:26:46

right the way through to freight and there was a couple of quarries

0:26:460:26:49

so they'd bring the stone in that way.

0:26:490:26:51

There are lots of heritage railways in Britain, thank goodness.

0:26:510:26:54

What's special about the Nene Valley Railway?

0:26:540:26:57

I think probably the fact that we run between

0:26:570:27:00

the wonderful cathedral city of Peterborough

0:27:000:27:02

and out of the rurality of the Nene Valley itself.

0:27:020:27:06

We do have literally one foot in the city and the other in the country.

0:27:060:27:10

The Nene Valley Railway evokes the age of steam,

0:27:260:27:30

a time when the urban population was swelling.

0:27:300:27:33

John Lawes wrestled with how to increase food production.

0:27:330:27:37

Meanwhile, the East India College was harvesting young British minds

0:27:370:27:41

to govern India.

0:27:410:27:43

Rudyard Kipling won a Nobel Prize, but is now largely out of fashion.

0:27:430:27:48

Perhaps, had imperialism not been discredited,

0:27:480:27:52

his reputation would stand higher today,

0:27:520:27:55

but that's one of the big ifs.

0:27:550:27:57

'Next time, I rally a crowd of choristers...'

0:28:050:28:08

-Has your chanting ever been atrocious?

-No.

0:28:080:28:12

'..get friendly with a prickly chap...'

0:28:130:28:15

Hello, Charles.

0:28:150:28:17

Charles is certainly not lacking in energy or strength, is he?

0:28:170:28:20

He's quite a character.

0:28:200:28:22

'..and get fired up with a Victorian chemist.'

0:28:220:28:25

Let there be light.

0:28:260:28:28

After the excitement of his ride on the Flying Scotsman, Michael begins a new journey with his Bradshaw's guidebook north from London, following the historic service's path at a more leisurely pace. Along the way he is forced to expend more effort than usual on the rails as he pumps a track inspection trolley. A Swiss garden in Bedfordshire delivers an unexpected spectacle of early 20th-century engineering marvels and the chance to drive a 'locomobile'.

Michael then goes back to school at Haileybury, once a training college for the East India Company, where the master is unimpressed by Portillo's exam performance. At Rothamsted Research, Michael discovers the Victorian origins of the fertiliser industry and a treasure trove of plant and soil samples.


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