Plymouth to The Lizard Great British Railway Journeys


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Plymouth to The Lizard

Steered by his early 20th-century Bradshaw's railway guide, Michael Portillo boldly goes to the moon by way of the Cornish Riviera Express.


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For Edwardian Britons,

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a Bradshaw's was an indispensable guide to a railway network

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at its peak.

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I'm using an early 20th century edition to navigate a vibrant

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and optimistic Britain

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at the height of its power and influence in the world.

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But a nation wrestling with political, social

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and industrial unrest at home.

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My railway journey through south-west England

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will soon reach its furthest edge and the ocean.

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At the beginning of 20th century,

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we were building enormous, invincible liners

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and also making waves across the Atlantic.

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But for many, Cornwall was home and there was work to be done.

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Whilst for others, it was a holiday destination,

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glamorised in literature and easy to reach by train.

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I began this journey in south-west Wales,

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skirting the coast as I travelled eastwards to take in Swansea

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and Cardiff, before crossing the border into England.

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I charted Bristol's aviation history

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and then enjoyed the Somerset countryside

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en route to Devon's south coast.

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Now I'm travelling west towards my final stop in Cornwall.

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Today, I start in Plymouth.

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From there, I'll reach the picturesque harbour town of Fowey,

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then make my way to the end of the line at Penzance,

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to reach Newlyn

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and finish on England's southernmost cape, The Lizard.

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On this trip, I rediscover a stylish Edwardian author.

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A little bit racy, I would have thought, wouldn't you?

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Have a bash at creating turn of the century Cornish collectables.

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And there's our image starting to come through on the front.

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And boldly go where no railway traveller has gone before.

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Even Bradshaw never went to the moon.

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'Even Bradshaw never went to the moon.'

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That is fantastic. My voice has gone to the moon and back!

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From 1904,

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Edwardian passengers could travel the 225 miles

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from London to Plymouth nonstop on the Cornish Riviera Express.

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Railways and steam ships had vanquished distance.

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But the self-confidence of this golden age of travel

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was soon to be dented.

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The sinking of the Titanic more than a century ago

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seems to be the best remembered disaster,

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with books, movies and museums dedicated to the tragedy.

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Its owner, the White Star Line, advertises in my 1907 Bradshaw's.

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The death toll was horrendous but not everybody perished.

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Plymouth is the place to ask

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what happened to those who survived that Titanic trauma?

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Plymouth owes its name to its position

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at the mouth of the River Plym.

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In 1914,

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it merged with the neighbouring towns of Stonehouse and Devonport,

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where I'm alighting today.

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Historian Harry Bennett is setting the scene at Millbay Dock.

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-Harry.

-Michael.

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-Good to see you.

-Pleased to meet you.

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Why was Plymouth so important for liners?

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Well, Plymouth is effectively central to the development

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of both the history of ocean liners, but also to the transatlantic story.

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It's in 1620 that the Mayflower set sail from Plymouth

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and, of course, is involved in founding the New World.

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And later on, in the late Victorian period,

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where you have ocean liners which are crossing from North America,

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their first key landfall, really, is Plymouth.

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And Plymouth is the point where they can get off ship,

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go into Millbay Docks and catch the train, get to London and,

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as Great Western Railway said, you can save a day by taking the train.

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From the moment the railways reached Plymouth,

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it's faster to travel by land than by sea.

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Yes. Effectively, you can go along on a train at 70-80 miles an hour

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instead of crawling slowly up the English Channel at maybe 20 knots.

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But it's after Brunel's Great Western in the 1830s

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it begins to take off.

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By the Edwardian period, it's in full swing.

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This is the point where transatlantic liner companies

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are competing with each other for the fastest crossings,

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competing for passengers, they're competing for cargo,

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and they're competing for the all-important Blue Riband,

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the vital badge which says, we are the fastest across the Atlantic.

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In 1912, the most famous ocean liner in history,

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the Olympic-class Titanic, set sail from Southampton.

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She was due to call at Plymouth on her return journey.

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Instead, Titanic struck an iceberg.

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1,500 lives were lost.

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A fortnight later, 167 of her surviving crew

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disembarked in Plymouth.

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I'm taking up the story at the Duke of Cornwall Hotel

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with Nigel Voisey, whose researched the disaster.

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-What a brilliant place.

-Fantastic.

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Superb view.

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What happened to them when they got here?

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We didn't treat them very well. After the ordeal of the sinking,

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we basically locked them up behind gates

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and they weren't allowed to go home straight away.

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Some survivors were put into second or third class waiting rooms,

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but the 20 stewardesses, they fared quite better.

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-They stayed in the Duke of Cornwall Hotel.

-Where we are right now.

-Yes.

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What was the point of detaining them?

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The White Star Line did not want the actual story of the Titanic

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coming out into the public and into the press.

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So they were basically told to give their sworn statement

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and they would not speak to anyone about it.

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The catastrophe had sparked an international outpouring of grief.

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And a call for answers.

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The crew were held until they had given statements

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to a Board of Trade inquiry.

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Did their families know what had happened to them by that stage?

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When they were locked up, you had some people opening a window,

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throwing notes out of the window, saying, you know,

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"Tell my wife I'm alive, I'm safe."

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So, really, relatives didn't know

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until they actually met them face-to-face.

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It was hardly a heroes' welcome.

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Yet three-quarters of the Titanic's crew had lost their lives,

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many after sacrificing their places in the lifeboats for passengers.

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And those who survived have remarkable stories to tell.

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20 stewardesses stay in this hotel. Do we know much about them?

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We know a few bits. We've got Violet Jessop.

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She was quite a famous part of the White Star Line

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and the Olympic-class liners.

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She was on RMS Olympic

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when the Olympic had her collision with HMS Hawke.

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She was on Titanic.

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And actually, she was on Britannic when she hit a mine

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in the First World War.

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So she survived a collision, a sinking and an act of war?

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Yes, she did, yes.

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I'm re-joining the route of the Cornish Riviera Express

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at Plymouth's main station, heading west into Cornwall.

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-I'm on my way to Fowey. Do you know Fowey?

-Yes, I do.

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On my birth certificate, I have "Place of birth - Fowey",

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of which I am immensely proud.

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It is very picturesque.

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Very lovely.

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Sadly, Fowey doesn't have its own railway station.

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No, not for passengers. It does for freight.

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Mostly China clay.

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But I do remember when it did have a passenger train.

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-Did you ever ride that train?

-Yes, I did, yes.

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With my grandmother, many times.

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Do you remember what sort of a train that was?

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No, I don't. I presume it was a steam one.

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I should imagine, because it was that long ago.

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Showing my age now.

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I'll leave this train at Par,

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on my way to Fowey in search of a writer.

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Daphne du Maurier, you'll be thinking,

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but, no, Edwardians would have associated Fowey with the man

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who wrote this book - Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch.

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Also known simply as Q.

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It's time to rediscover this lost literary figure.

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Par is four miles north-east of the picturesque Cornish port of Fowey,

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where rows of colourful houses cascade towards the river.

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It's the perfect setting for a delicious Cornish ice cream.

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At the time of my Bradshaw's,

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visitors would have found a harbour newly dredged

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to accommodate the transport of China clay by boat.

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"Of all views, I reckon that of a harbour

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"the most fascinating and the most easeful,

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"for it combines perpetual change with perpetual repose.

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"It amuses like a panorama and soothes like an opiate."

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So wrote author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch,

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who lived in Fowey from 1892 until his death in 1944.

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I've come to the Fowey Museum for an introduction to Q

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from curator Helen Luther.

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-Hello, Helen.

-Michael, nice to meet you. Welcome.

-Very nice to meet you.

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And what a charming museum. Helen, I didn't know about Q.

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How famous was he in his day?

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In his day, very famous.

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A prolific author.

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What we should remember him for? Novels? Poems? What?

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Probably the most people will remember him from his poems,

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the Oxford Book of Verse,

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I think is probably what most people will remember.

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As editor of the first Oxford Book of English Verse published in 1900,

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Q helped to shape Edwardian Britain's taste in poetry.

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His popular fiction was inspired by his native Cornwall

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and his adoptive home, Fowey.

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He immersed himself totally in the community.

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Fell in love with Fowey and the view.

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Later fell in love with a Fowey girl, who he married,

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and then visited Fowey many times before he settled.

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The Astonishing Story of Troy Town, published in 1888,

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is a likely disguised depiction of Fowey.

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It was so well-known to Edwardians that a 1905 guide

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aimed at passengers on the Cornish Riviera Express

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used Troy Town as a synonym for Fowey.

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So, what kind of impression of Fowey do we get from these books?

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A bit eccentric, I think.

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Erm, people used to have fun.

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There was certainly a lot going on.

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There were stories...

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historical stories that are interwoven into his novels.

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So some of it is factually based, but a lot of amusing goings-on.

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It was thinly disguised so people were in on the joke.

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They knew this was Fowey, did they?

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-And some people knew who was being referred to.

-A-ha!

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Did it attract people to Fowey?

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People would flock, as they do now, for modern authors,

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but they would certainly flock to Fowey for Q.

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What did he look like?

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A slight man.

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Slim and not very tall.

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But he was a very snazzy dresser.

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He was known for his loud ties and lairy jackets.

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And, in fact, here we've got a bowler hat.

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One of the many bowler hats,

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because he had them to match his jackets.

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And it's a brown bowler hat.

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-A little bit racy, I would have thought, wouldn't you?

-Yes.

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Some people likened him to a ticket tout with his colourful dress.

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-I think I'll take it off, then.

-I also have a photograph sure of Q.

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How splendid.

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So his hat and his tie matched.

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I'm getting to like this Q fellow rather a lot.

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Yes, I thought you would.

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His close friend Kenneth Grahame

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based the Wind in the Willows character Ratty on Q.

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And there's another literary connection that I'm keen to explore.

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In 1929, novelist Daphne du Maurier moved to Fowey.

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Writer Polly Gregson can tell me more.

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Polly, many people associate Fowey with Daphne du Maurier

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and I'm just thinking, did Q and she ever meet?

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Yeah, definitely, actually, they knew each other really well.

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She was sort of taken under his wing slightly.

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When she first came to Fowey as a holiday destination,

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she spent a lot of time here as a really young 22-year-old

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trying to write her first novel.

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She was finding it a bit difficult and he really helped her.

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He was a father figure.

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She was incredibly close to his daughter, also called Foy,

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but with a Y, not a W-E-Y.

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You studied them both.

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Can you see in her work that she was a sort of pupil of Q's?

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Erm, I think that interpretation is definitely relevant

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with regards to their way of describing Cornwall,

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the kind of adjectives they used, and, of course, the characters.

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You can really recognise typical Cornish people

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portrayed in both of their novels.

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This literary tradition really means something to Fowey, doesn't it?

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It produces a lot of tourists, apart from anything else.

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It absolutely does, and I think that was originally part of the reason

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why Q was interested in promoting it to such an extent,

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because during the 1890s there was the tin crisis

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and there was a lot of financial problems happening.

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I think Q's effort as a, kind of, promoter of Cornish culture

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was to write this into his novels in a way that was interesting

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for other people to read and would actually attract people

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to this "Cornish Riviera", that was the sort of phrase

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that was bandied around a lot at the time.

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I'm back on the route of the old Cornish Riviera Express,

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on the final leg of my journey.

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Today, as in 1904,

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passengers are rewarded with the glorious sight

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of Saint Michael's Mount.

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I'm alighting at Penzance Station, bound for neighbouring Newlyn.

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I shall explore in the morning.

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Newlyn harbour, poised where the English Channel meets the Atlantic,

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has long been a fishing port.

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Today, it's one of the largest in the United Kingdom.

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Fishing at the mercy of the weather and the seasons

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offers precarious employment.

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And around the turn of the 20th century,

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Newlyn pioneered a project to help local fishermen.

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Coppersmith Michael Johnson keeps the tradition alive.

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-Hello, Michael. I'm Michael, too.

-Michael, nice to meet you.

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What an extraordinarily picturesque workshop.

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-I've never been in a place quite like it.

-Thank you.

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I associate Cornwall with tin

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but it was big in copper, as well, was it?

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Everyone thinks of tin and Cornwall,

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but, really, copper was so much more important in Cornwall early on.

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Cornish copper went all over the world.

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John Drew Mackenzie started this workshop, the Copperworks, in 1890.

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Mackenzie was part of a school of artists

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who based themselves in Newlyn at the end of the 19th century

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when the railways had made Cornwall accessible.

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The fishing industry was struggling. Mackenzie was an illustrator

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and he was looking to try and find a way to augment

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the fishermen's income to give them something else to do.

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Clearly, the guys were not going to do silk work, silver enamel,

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but they were good with their hands,

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so copper seemed an obvious one to do.

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And the fishermen took to this work, did they?

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They did, yes, no, definitely.

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Mackenzie himself had little expertise.

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To teach them this new skill,

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he brought in from London coppersmith John Pearson.

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Soon enough, the fishermen were able to reproduce MacKenzie's designs

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onto household objects.

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Today, their works are collectors' items.

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John Pearson was the creme de la creme of copper workers

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in this country.

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I've got a lovely piece of his here.

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That is extraordinary.

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That's a stunning piece that a client's brought in for restoration.

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It's now fully restored. A client brought it in and said,

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"Could you show me how to polish it, Mike?"

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To which I took a deep intake of breath and said,

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"Please don't go anywhere near it with any polish."

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The patina is exquisite. The patina is very deliberate, too.

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Pearson chose to create a lot of darkness in his work.

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Gorgeous thing.

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Now, Michael, I don't suppose that we'd achieve this on a first outing,

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but would you just like to show me the nature of the work?

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I will, yes.

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We're working on a series of little boats at the moment.

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-We'll have a go at making one ourselves.

-Aye, aye, captain.

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Here we go.

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-And that's the start of the boat.

-Very good. What next?

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Time to heat it up to anneal it. We've got to get the metal soft now.

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We're going to get it red hot and staunch it in cold water.

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Newlyn fishermen learned a technique known as repousse.

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They beat the pattern out of the copper against a lead block.

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My little trick is not the lead block, so much as Blu Tack.

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And we're going to hammer inside the line we've just chiselled.

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And there's our image starting to come through on the front.

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Isn't that lovely? That's really very satisfying.

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As they say, here's one we made earlier.

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It's a steam train cabin. That is superb.

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-Look at that with a little funnel.

-And there's our fish.

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And here it says GBRJ.

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-And may God bless all who sail in her.

-Thank you, Michael.

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I leave my hammer and chisel behind to proceed to my last destination.

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Beyond the railway tracks, down the rugged Cornish coast, is The Lizard,

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the southernmost tip of the British Isles,

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where an historic event took place at the dawn of the 20th century.

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Here's a piece from a newspaper dated December 17th 1901

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in a column called Gossip of the Day.

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"Signor Marconi has authorised the correspondent of The Times

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"in St John's, Newfoundland, to state that the electric signals

0:21:020:21:06

"received by him from his Cornwall station

0:21:060:21:09

"were distinct and unmistakable.

0:21:090:21:12

"He's asked that the fact may be stated to the King,

0:21:120:21:15

"who has always taken so deep in interest."

0:21:150:21:19

Some breakthroughs in technology make you gasp.

0:21:190:21:22

This must have seemed like magic

0:21:220:21:25

and it happened from here.

0:21:250:21:28

Inventor come engineer extraordinaire, Guglielmo Marconi,

0:21:290:21:34

was the first person successfully to send a radio signal

0:21:340:21:38

across the Atlantic Ocean.

0:21:380:21:40

He'd stationed himself here in Poldhu.

0:21:400:21:44

Keith Matthew is a member of the Poldhu Amateur Radio Club

0:21:440:21:48

and a Marconi enthusiast.

0:21:480:21:50

Keith, we're actually seated on the ruins of Marconi's station.

0:21:500:21:54

We are indeed, yes.

0:21:540:21:56

When he sends a message from here in 1901,

0:21:560:21:59

does he think it's going to reach the New World?

0:21:590:22:02

Well, his entire future reputation depended on it.

0:22:020:22:05

I think, yes. Well, he was young and supremely confident.

0:22:050:22:10

Born in Italy in 1874 to an Italian father and an Irish mother,

0:22:110:22:17

Marconi's bold ideas found supporters in Britain.

0:22:170:22:21

To the world's maritime superpower,

0:22:220:22:24

the potential value of wireless communication was obvious.

0:22:240:22:28

Many physicists had thought it impossible,

0:22:290:22:32

but here in Cornwall, Marconi proved that a radio waves

0:22:320:22:36

could travel beyond the horizon.

0:22:360:22:39

He thought that the waves

0:22:390:22:40

more or less travelled over the surface of the ocean,

0:22:400:22:43

and he thought that it was the conductivity of the saltwater

0:22:430:22:47

that carried the waves across.

0:22:470:22:49

He was incredibly lucky in this

0:22:490:22:51

because the theory was completely and utterly wrong.

0:22:510:22:54

We now know that there is this layer of ionised air

0:22:540:22:59

in the upper atmosphere which, in fact, bounces the waves down.

0:22:590:23:03

Marconi, of course, had no idea of this at the time.

0:23:030:23:06

I suppose everyone is entitled to their luck.

0:23:060:23:09

What was it that he was sending and that was received in Newfoundland?

0:23:090:23:13

It was only a signal.

0:23:130:23:14

Marconi had got used to using the S,

0:23:140:23:17

dit-dit-dit, dit-dit-dit,

0:23:170:23:20

which could be easily distinguished from the natural, sort of,

0:23:200:23:24

bangs and crashes caused by lightning strikes and so forth.

0:23:240:23:27

How quickly did it advance to becoming something reliable?

0:23:270:23:31

Marconi, being always a showman, he, in fact,

0:23:310:23:34

managed to get Theodore Roosevelt to send a message to Edward VII.

0:23:340:23:38

As it happens, the conditions were very good on that night

0:23:380:23:42

and Poldhu heard the signal clearly, replied that all had been received,

0:23:420:23:47

and this was the first two-way contact

0:23:470:23:50

between the USA and the United Kingdom.

0:23:500:23:53

Marconi's achievement laid the foundation of telecommunications.

0:23:550:24:00

Six decades on, this Cornish peninsula

0:24:000:24:03

played another pivotal role in broadcasting history.

0:24:030:24:07

A vivid memory from childhood,

0:24:080:24:10

switching on a flickering black and white television

0:24:100:24:14

to see the first-ever live transmission

0:24:140:24:17

from the United States to Europe.

0:24:170:24:20

At the time, a satellite was a household name, Telstar,

0:24:200:24:25

and a place name was on everybody's lips - Goonhilly.

0:24:250:24:30

On the night of the 11th of July 1962,

0:24:330:24:36

from space, Telstar received and forwarded images

0:24:360:24:41

to Goonhilly's first dish.

0:24:410:24:43

This place has been shaping the British telecommunications industry

0:24:440:24:48

ever since.

0:24:480:24:49

Matt Cosby is chief scientist at the site.

0:24:510:24:55

I think, actually, for anyone who's reasonably young

0:24:570:25:01

and so used to telecommunications, it's difficult to understand

0:25:010:25:05

what I feel contemplating Goonhilly 1,

0:25:050:25:08

because I remember how it all started.

0:25:080:25:10

And that really is a wonderful piece of historic heritage.

0:25:100:25:14

Absolutely, yeah, and that's where it all started.

0:25:140:25:17

The geographic advantage that was exploited in Cornwall by Marconi

0:25:170:25:22

-was exploited again by this dish.

-Absolutely.

0:25:220:25:24

And it's the fact that we're so close to America.

0:25:240:25:27

We're also high up here on the peninsula, about 100 metres high,

0:25:270:25:30

so we've got a very good horizon view,

0:25:300:25:33

which makes it ideal for communications.

0:25:330:25:35

Big dishes like this one, what are you using them for now?

0:25:350:25:39

So, the larger antennas have become more redundant

0:25:390:25:43

because the spacecraft have become better, higher power,

0:25:430:25:46

more sensitive, so you don't need the large apertures.

0:25:460:25:49

They can be used for other things.

0:25:490:25:51

What we're currently using them for is forming part of Nasa's deep space network.

0:25:510:25:54

The antenna we're sitting under here, Goonhilly 6,

0:25:540:25:57

is currently tracking the moon.

0:25:570:25:58

So if you want to go downstairs and look at tracking the moon.

0:25:580:26:02

Sounds pretty good. Thank you very much.

0:26:020:26:05

Using the reflective quality of the moon's surface,

0:26:050:26:08

we're going to send a radio signal all the way up there

0:26:080:26:11

and receive it back on Earth.

0:26:110:26:13

Radio amateur Brian Coleman is going to help me to perform

0:26:130:26:17

this moon bounce.

0:26:170:26:19

-Brian, I'm Michael.

-Hello, Michael.

0:26:190:26:21

So, I believe we're doing something with the moon.

0:26:210:26:25

Yes, we're going to send the letter S to the moon

0:26:250:26:27

and wait for its echo to come back after 2.6 seconds.

0:26:270:26:30

The same letter that Marconi used.

0:26:300:26:33

-And that's three dots, isn't it?

-It is indeed.

0:26:330:26:35

THREE DOTS

0:26:360:26:38

DOTS ECHO BACK

0:26:390:26:41

-All the way to the moon and back?

-Indeed.

0:26:410:26:44

Would I also be able to send a voice message in the same way?

0:26:440:26:46

Yes, you certainly can.

0:26:460:26:48

Even Bradshaw never went to the moon.

0:26:480:26:51

'Even Bradshaw never went to the moon.'

0:26:510:26:54

That is fantastic. My voice has gone to the moon and back!

0:26:540:26:57

Great stuff.

0:26:570:26:58

With Marconi sending radio waves across the Atlantic

0:27:140:27:18

in the year that Queen Victoria died,

0:27:180:27:20

the new Edwardians were aware that new technology ushered in a new age.

0:27:200:27:26

As I discovered when I was in south Wales, it was industrial strife,

0:27:260:27:31

not least in the railways, and violence from militant suffragettes.

0:27:310:27:36

But as Britain approached a century without war

0:27:360:27:40

on the European continent,

0:27:400:27:42

and since the German Kaiser and the Russian Tsar were nephews

0:27:420:27:46

of the British King,

0:27:460:27:47

what could possibly disturb the international peace?

0:27:470:27:51

Next time, of the chips are down but I'm on the up.

0:27:590:28:04

He-he!

0:28:040:28:06

Oh, let's play again.

0:28:060:28:08

I hear a tale of wartime resilience.

0:28:090:28:12

There was a rumble in the air, people thought it might be thunder,

0:28:120:28:15

but it wasn't, it was the shells from the German Navy.

0:28:150:28:18

And I get a taste of Edwardian temperance.

0:28:180:28:21

"Not even a dipsomaniac would have touched this mixture

0:28:210:28:24

"of fungus and smelly liquid."

0:28:240:28:26

-That's superb.

-She had a way with words.

0:28:260:28:29

Steered by his early 20th-century Bradshaw's railway guide, Michael Portillo boldly goes to the moon by way of the Cornish Riviera Express! On the trail of an historic achievement made at the dawn of the Edwardian era, he investigates the first radio signal to be sent across the Atlantic.

In Plymouth, Michael uncovers what happened to surviving crew members of the most famous ocean liner in history, the Titanic. And at Fowey, he rediscovers a lost literary figure known as Q, who immortalised the town in his novels.