Steered by his Bradshaw's railway handbook to Gainsborough, Michael Portillo wraps his head around an ingenious Victorian machine which changed shopping forever.
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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 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 from north-western to eastern England has brought me to Lincolnshire,
where I'll encounter yet another example of 19th-century industrial ingenuity,
and consider the contribution to English literature made by Britain's
longest-serving Poet Laureate.
In Ely in Cambridgeshire,
I'll be reminded that some of the era's loftiest achievements were
inspired by Victorian godliness.
My route is taking me on a diagonal across England towards East Anglia.
From Blackpool, I took in the mighty northern conurbations,
developed in the industrial age.
Leaving Manchester, I cross the Peak District using the route of the
North Country Continental Rail Service.
I'll soon traverse the Fens,
finally to arrive in Essex, gateway to Continental Europe.
This part of my journey starts in Gainsborough and heads to Lincoln.
From there, I'll travel south-east to March in Cambridgeshire
before finishing in the Fenland city of Ely.
'On this leg, I have my reaction times challenged by a mechanical marvel...'
This would drive you mad if you did this all day.
'..get carried away by the cadences of conflict...'
"Half a league, half a league, half a league onward into the valley of death rode the 600."
'And I see how today's railway is regenerating its past.'
We recycled around 46,000 tonnes of steel last year,
which is actually the equivalent of six Eiffel Towers.
My first stop of the day will be Gainsborough.
This is how Bradshaw's presents it - "agreeably situated on the eastern bank of the River Trent.
"An elegant stone bridge of three elliptical archers forms a great ornament to the town."
That's Gainsborough in a nutshell.
But should you judge a town by its packaging?
In the case of Gainsborough, perhaps you should.
-Next stop is Gainsborough Lea Road.
Situated on the River Trent, Gainsborough is Britain's most inland port.
Here a pioneering company invented a process which at the time constituted a breakthrough.
And has since become an indispensable part of our daily lives.
Wrapping and packaging.
The company was founded by William Rose.
I'm meeting sales director Andrew Mann.
An impressive sight.
-Andrew, I can't imagine a world without packaging.
What was it like?
Well, it didn't exist, it was all completely manual.
It was literally take the sweets out the jar and place it into a bag, and that was it.
And who was William Rose, who made a difference to that situation?
He was working in a tobacco shop.
It was his job to measure out, weigh and pack the tobacco.
So that was his inspiration to develop an automated machine.
What, he became fed up with having to do it?
He became fed up with having to do it, absolutely.
Did he realise fairly soon that this could be applied to other products?
He did. He very soon got into packaging things like chocolate bars,
soap tablets, anything similar.
Any consumer goods.
William Rose's invention changed the retail world forever.
A chance visit by an American businessmen, Richard Harvey Wright,
to London tobacconist in 1892 gave Rose the chance to sell his machines
to the United States.
His business rapidly grew to employ more than 50.
Did Rose's stick to doing just packaging machinery?
No. In fact, in wartimes,
they were there much involved in the military and RAF,
making turrets for Lancaster bombers, for example.
That's quite a leap from packaging machinery.
It is. It is, but they were well ahead of the game in their engineering
skills in Gainsborough.
And they turned to William Rose for his expertise.
Today the company no longer wraps products,
but it continues to make and service the machines that do.
You've got a busy shop here.
We have, yeah. This is the machine shop,
where we produce all the components.
Those components get designed in the design office.
They produce the drawings.
And in here, we manufacture the components from the raw metal.
-And all of that then goes into your machines?
-Some of the best packaging machines in the world.
Some even say that Rose's branded packaging may be how Cadbury's famous chocolates got their name.
A lovely-looking vintage machine. Looks a bit like a 1950s jukebox.
It is a bit. It was built in the 1950s by Rose in Gainsborough,
and it was designed for wrapping sweets.
Don't tell me it's still in service.
Still in operation today in a factory in Leeds.
Well, it looks like a bit of a challenge, but might I give it a go?
Just press the start button.
The machine is moving really fast.
Much faster than I can do, sliding them in.
The people who operated this machine didn't miss a one.
This would drive you mad if you did this all day.
-Definitely getting better.
-Yeah, you're getting the hang of it.
Ah! Enough of that, end of scene, it's a wrap.
From Gainsborough, I'm rejoining the Sheffield to Lincoln line,
and travelling 19 miles south-east to the county town.
I'm on my way to Lincoln,
which Bradshaw's tells me is a cathedral town and capital of Lincolnshire.
The Roman Lindum, from which the present name is derived.
Thinking about science and engineering,
it's clear to me that the Victorians applied their reason,
but they weren't immune to rhyme.
They lived their lives in prose, but they were moved by verse.
I'm on the trail of a melancholy poet who brought Queen Victoria
great comfort during her long years of widowhood.
-We will shortly be arriving at Lincoln Station.
Lincoln's fortunes have ebbed and flowed.
During the 13th century, it was the third-largest city in England.
But by the beginning of the 18th, it was described as a one-street town.
"I cannot rest from travel.
"I would drink life to the lees."
I can empathise with those words from the pen of Lincolnshire's most
famous native, born in 1809.
When I was last here, I missed this fine statue of a Lincolnshire man.
Alfred Lord Tennyson, a great Victorian.
He is honoured now by standing in the shadow of Lincoln Cathedral in
perpetuity, although he entered the valley of death back in 1892.
Today the city is home to the Tennyson Research Centre.
Grace Timmins is the collections officer.
Welcome to the Tennyson Research Centre.
And all this is to do with Tennyson?
-This is really quite a collection.
It is. It's the most significant collection of Tennyson-related papers in the world.
Where was he from?
He was born in Somersby, which is a hamlet in the Wolds.
He was one of 11 children born in 13 years.
Do we know a lot about Alfred's childhood?
Yes. He did have formal education between the ages of seven and 11.
But it didn't suit him at all, he didn't like it,
and his father took him out of school to home-educate him.
So these books over here are the books that really furnished his mind
and his imagination.
Over here, there's a book that his father set him as homework.
It's Virgil's Aeneid,
and you can see all the work that has gone into translating it.
But what you can also see at the front is Tennyson's own doodles.
And this is a picture of his beloved homeland.
There's little bits of music coming out of it there.
And there's also, he's done here the address that many of us I think have
put into books, "Alfred Tennyson, Somersby in Lincolnshire, in England,
"in Europe, in the world, in the air, in space."
Isn't that extraordinary? Did he achieve early fame with his poems?
Some of the poems that he wrote at this period,
such as The Lady of Shalott,
remain some of his most popular and most well-known today.
In 1827, Tennyson had entered Trinity College, Cambridge,
and became friends with fellow student Arthur Hallam,
who became engaged to his sister.
In 1833, Hallam died of a stroke at the age of only 22.
His big breakthrough was with In Memoriam AHH, to give it its full title,
which is a collection of poems dealing with the grief that he felt
at the death of his best friend.
It took him about 14 years to write.
And this is in his own hand.
This is a gem, and you can actually see where he's altered things.
Absolutely. It's a marvellous object of Victorian culture.
And with this comes fame and success.
Absolutely. It becomes the favourite poem of a whole range of people.
Prince Albert loves it.
We do actually have a letter from Prince Albert here,
where he is asking Tennyson to put his name in the front of a later volume.
"Will you forgive me if I intrude upon your leisure with a request
"which I have thought for some little time of making?
"That you'd be good enough to write your name in the accompanying volume of your poems."
A royal autograph hunter.
Absolutely, it's funny!
In 1850, Tennyson was appointed Poet Laureate,
and wrote In Memoriam, recalling Hallam,
but from which Queen Victoria would draw comfort after the death of Prince Albert.
After what the Times reported as a "hideous blunder" during the Crimean War,
Tennyson wrote the Charge of the Light Brigade.
What does he do while he's Poet Laureate?
Well, the third thing that he does is write The Charge of the Light Brigade.
What we've got here is evidence of how difficult he found it
to get to a final version.
He has crossed out the "half a league, half a league, half a league onward" verse,
and put it up to the top.
He moves it back down again here.
Isn't that remarkable?
And then he moves it back up there.
This is absolutely fascinating.
This is very typical of Tennyson, isn't it?
This sense of rhythm.
"Half a league, half a league, half a league onward, into the valley of death rode the 600."
-I mean, obviously you can feel the horses galloping towards the guns.
'Tennyson's life spanned every decade of the 19th century,
'and he bore witness to the birth of the railway.'
Did he write about trains?
He uses the train as a metaphor for progress in his poem Locksley Hall,
but he gets it slightly wrong.
Let me read it to you.
"Forward, forward, let us range,
"let the great world spin forever down the ringing grooves of change."
Now, he realised he'd got this wrong, that trains don't run in grooves.
And his son explained it as being the result of his seeing the train,
the very first train that went from Liverpool to Manchester in 1830.
And because of the increasing twilight,
and because of the crowds of people, and because of his own short-sightedness,
he couldn't see exactly how the train was working.
And he thought it ran in grooves.
It strikes me that Tennyson has passed out of fashion a bit.
What was his popularity like during his lifetime?
He was incredibly popular in his lifetime.
He was as popular as Charles Dickens.
My route now takes me up a street voted Britain's Best Place in 2011.
It's aptly named Steep Hill.
I'm skirting the walls of the Norman castle on my way to a refreshing ale
in the Victoria pub.
The pub hosts a group of enthusiasts,
who are keeping Tennyson's legacy alive in Lincoln.
Good evening. Do I have the pleasure of joining a group of Lincoln poets?
-And what you call yourself?
Lincoln Creative Writers.
Very good. And you meet here in the pub.
And what do you do apart from drink pints?
We have a workshop, we do a bit of writing together.
Have you been inspired by Lincolnshire in the way I think Tennyson was?
Yeah, definitely. I think, obviously living here and writing contemporary
stuff, you can't help but be influenced by where you live, so...
Would you mind giving me a sample, please?
It's called Peregrines Nest.
"I live in a city where peregrines nest on angels' wings,
"where the exhaled breath of a thousand travellers up its hill hangs in the air with its history,
"seeping into every cobble,
"flowing into glasses in bars held up by our veteran souls,
"where men tell tales of older times, of forgotten times,
"where our city continues to grow,
"fields of rye and rape make way for houses,
"where new stories are born and raised and schooled,
"because this is a city that for a thousand years has never slept,
"although at times is sleepy,
"a city that bends a king's knee, a city that changed the world.
"This is my city.
"This is our city.
"This is a city where peregrines nest on angels' wings."
I found that very beautiful.
I particularly sympathise with the exhaled breath of the people struggling
their way up the hill, which is something that I did this afternoon!
I'm rejoining the root of the North Country Continental Rail service and
travelling 60 miles south-east into Cambridgeshire.
My first stop on this new day will be March.
Bradshaw's tells me it's a village in the parish of Dodington.
"Numerous Roman coins and other antiquities have been discovered."
But my currency is different - industrial archaeology.
Set amongst Fenland, March boasts the 11th-century St Wendreda's Church,
about which John Betjeman enthused that it was worth cycling 40 miles
in a headwind to see.
In the 1920s and '30s,
the London and North Eastern Railway built the Whitemoor freight
They became the largest in Britain, and second largest in Europe.
I'm meeting Joanna Clarke from Network Rail.
Well, Joanna, an impressive sight.
Tell me about it in its heyday.
Back in the 1920s,
London and North Eastern Railways created a huge marshalling yard.
This is where all the trains would have been marshalled,
a strategic point for the whole of the supply chain out to Anglia and
the rest of the country. It would have had around 3,000 wagons here.
Around 25% of the inhabitants from March and the local area would have
been employed here.
So it was huge.
Nowadays with motorways and lorries and so on,
it's quite hard to understand how strategically important the railways were.
But I suppose every sort of good and freight went from here.
It did indeed, yes.
We would have seen coal, steel,
all types of materials being taken by rail from March.
During the war, of course, strategically it was very important,
and they actually built a decoy site to the south of this site so that
the German bombers were diverted, so that this place stayed intact
because of its strategic importance.
'As increasingly freight switched to the road network in the 1960s,
'the yards fell into decline.
'And closed in the 1990s.'
Part of the old site did get sold off,
so this is only a small part of what would have been here back in the '20s in the heyday.
'In 2004, a renaissance began at Whitemoor,
'as Network Rail reopened part of the old yards as a distribution centre
'from which to transport maintenance materials across the network.'
Today, in terms of everything that the railway needs,
this is the core of its supply chain.
Whitemoor here is the biggest of three of our depots.
From here, we will ship everything that we need for the railway, and
that could be sleepers, concrete sleepers, timber sleepers, rail.
Any material that we need to upgrade the railway.
'Seven years later, the once-abandoned Whitemoor yards expanded again.'
The other part of the site,
which is the really interesting and exciting part,
is the major recycling that we do here.
Since 2011, this has been the National Track Materials Recycling Centre.
So all of the materials that come back from work sites come back to
Whitemoor to be sorted, graded and recycled.
-Well, that's what we need to look at.
'Each year, over 500 miles of used rail,
'800 switches and crossings and 50,000 tonnes of contaminated ballast
'are processed at Whitemoor.'
A remarkable view from here.
It is, it's fantastic.
What actually is this tower about?
So, this is a ballast washer.
'Ballast is the stone and gravel bed on which the track sits.
'It helps to drain water and hinder weeds, but becomes soiled.'
We bring in our hazardous ballast,
the ballast that is covered in contaminants, oil,
all of the nasty stuff.
It comes up on the conveyor belt.
This acts as a washing machine for the ballast.
It comes out that side into different-sized aggregate,
which we can then sell into the construction industry.
You've got a tremendous site here.
What else are you able to recycle?
We recycle all of our sleepers.
So timber sleepers, we will grade them.
If we can use them back in the rail network, we will.
-What about the rails?
-Where possible, if we can re-use the rail,
we'll re-use it again in the rail network.
Otherwise, it gets chopped up and it gets sent to the furnace as scrap.
We recycled around 46,000 tonnes of steel last year,
which is actually the equivalent of six Eiffel Towers.
May we see your ballast washing machine in action?
Yes, follow me!
'The controls to turn the washer on are below the ballast tower.'
Here we are. And if you want to just press the start button on the screen.
Press the green start button.
Vast quantities of contaminated ballast are cleaned every year with this machine.
It would otherwise be sent to landfill,
so thousands of lorry journeys are saved.
And here we are at the end of the process now, with lovely. clean ballast.
-I must say, you scrub it up really nicely.
The final leg of my journey takes me 13 miles south-east,
into the heart of the Fens.
I'm on my way to Ely.
My guidebook tells me that, "the principal object of interest is its
"venerable cathedral, founded in 1070.
"510ft-long, and the Norman nave 270ft-high.
"Bishop Allcock's perpendicular Chapel, Northwold's tomb, the Lady Chapel,
"Lantern Tower and Scott's screen should be noticed. "
Ely is built on a 23-square-mile clay island,
the highest land in the Fens.
The Fens were drained in the 17th century,
but the city had already been named after the area's most popular catch - eels.
Ely grew up around the magnificent 11th-century cathedral.
The enormous structure known as the ship of the Fens towers above the
city, its marshy surrounds and the river, the Great Ouse.
Will Schenk is a guide at the cathedral.
-Good to see you, how do you do?
-Welcome to Ely.
A fantastic prospect.
Bradshaw's tells me that the foundation of the cathedral is 1070 AD.
When would you date it to?
I date it much further back.
It does go back a lot further.
The original foundation is from the seventh century, to 673,
but he's probably referring to the Norman structure,
which is maybe 20 years after the Conquest.
So about 1085, 1087.
What happened to it after that?
Well, during the Vikings, it would have been destroyed.
It would have been refounded in the tenth century.
And when you have the Normans coming in 1066, about 20 years later,
they pulled down whatever Anglo-Saxon church would have existed and they
rebuilt this great Norman church.
What we look at now, is that substantially a Norman cathedral?
The nave, the two transepts, the entire west end, this extraordinary tower.
So yes, the bulk of the cathedral is still Norman,
which takes people by surprise.
Bradshaw's lists a whole number of things that I need to see in the cathedral.
-I was intrigued by Scott's screen.
Can that be a reference to George Gilbert Scott?
Almost definitely. George Gilbert Scott was the architect in charge of
essentially the Victorian restoration.
'In 1322, the central cathedral tower had collapsed and been rebuilt by medieval craftsmen.
'By Victorian times, further work was needed.
'George Gilbert Scott was chosen to oversee the process.'
He was first employed by the Dean, George Peacock,
in 1847 to move the choir,
and subsequently went on to restore the entire octagon tower.
So he constructed a new choir space for the chapter.
And the screen is part of that, very integral to that space.
Scott was born in 1811,
and became one of Britain's most prolific architects,
designing or restoring over 800 buildings.
Fascinated by medieval structures,
he was known for his work in the Gothic Revival style,
and designed the Albert Memorial in London.
What astonishes me, Will,
is that such a perfect and massive building was constructed in the 11th and 12th centuries.
Yes, and you have to imagine it also looked quite different.
It was painted, plastered and painted, even gilded.
So as you would have come in from the west,
-it would have been as if you are seeing an image of paradise.
Now, the floor that we've been walking over,
that's George Gilbert Scott as well.
And if you look up, you have this marvellous ceiling from the 1850s.
And then above us, a most unusual and remarkable thing.
That's the octagon lantern.
That is what is unique, extraordinary, the masterpiece, really, of Ely.
It is dating to the mid-14th century and is a wooden construction built
out over this space.
And that also has some Victorian influence?
Oh, it has a great deal of Victorian paintwork.
So Scott, one of the responsibilities he had was to restore the octagon.
Originally, the actual lantern would have been much plainer.
So now you're looking at something that is really a work of the high Victorian style.
-And the screen?
The screen is just here behind you.
He's working in the Gothic style,
but he's not imitating any known actual screen.
It is a work of genius,
because you see through it all the way to the reredos at the very back,
which was the focal point that he created.
Was George Gilbert Scott, who designed so many churches, actually religious?
Very much so.
Church of England, his father was a rector.
So were many of his brothers.
They'd studied for divine orders at Cambridge.
In fact, he was the black sheep of the family. He went into architecture.
So George Gilbert Scott is mostly associated with religious architecture,
but in point of fact, he also designed St Pancras Station,
which might interest you, the Midland Hotel.
And there is something here that I think I'd like to show you that relates
to your interest in railways.
-I'm in suspense.
Now, this is a memorial to two individuals who died in a tragic railway accident in 1845.
They were first the driver, Pickering, and there was the stoker Edger.
What's particularly tragic is that their names are misrepresented.
It was not William Pickering, it was Thomas Pickering.
And it was not Richard Edger, it was Richard Hedger.
They died in a tragic accident on the Thetford to Norwich line.
The engine exploded, it came off the line.
The driver and the stoker were
crushed to death underneath the engine.
They had this poem, The Spiritual Railway.
"The line to heaven by Christ was made.
"With heavenly truths, the rails are laid.
"From Earth to heaven, the line extends to life eternal,
"where it ends."
Gosh, a bit dated, isn't it?
Well, not really. At the time, it would have been very contemporary.
The railways would just have arrived in Ely in 1845.
So something like this would have seemed very modern.
Nothing more modern than the railways.
A statue of Alfred Lord Tennyson stands in the shadow of Lincoln Cathedral.
And here at Ely Cathedral,
the work and influence of
Sir George Gilbert Scott are writ large.
Each was the son of a rector,
at a time when God loomed large in the affairs of men.
The railway age was also an era of assertive Christianity,
when poets permitted themselves to see life as a train journey,
away from sin and towards heaven.
'Next time, I uncover an industrial pioneer in Suffolk...'
I've 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!
Steered by his Bradshaw's railway handbook to Gainsborough, Michael Portillo wraps his head around an ingenious Victorian machine which changed shopping forever. In Lincoln, he discovers the verse and popularity of 19th-century poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and finds poetry thrives today in a city pub.
In the Cambridgeshire Fens, Michael recycles rails and ballast at what was once the largest freight-marshalling yard in Europe. At Ely, Michael discovers that the city's magnificent cathedral was restored by the Victorian architect George Gilbert Scott.