Taunton to Newton Abbot Great British Railway Journeys


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Taunton to Newton Abbot

With purple, green and yellow ribbons flying, and sporting ankle bells, Michael Portillo is led a merry dance in Stogumber - all in the name of fertility.


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For Edwardian Britons,

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a Bradshaw's was an indispensable guide

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to a railway network at its peak.

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

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a vibrant 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 and industrial

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unrest at home.

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My journey through south-west England will continue

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the length of the peninsula that links Bristol with Land's End.

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On this part of the journey,

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I'll rake over the art and craft of gardening,

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find out how folk danced and sang

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while barons of commerce built castles,

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and discover for whom the bells tolled in Exeter

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after Queen Victoria had died.

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I began in Wales,

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where I took in the cities of Swansea and Cardiff,

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en route to the Severn Estuary and the English border.

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I admired Edwardian ingenuity in Bristol.

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And now, as I head deeper into the West Country,

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I shall cross pastures and gardens

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on my way to England's south-westerly tip.

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Today's journey starts in the Somerset town of Taunton,

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and heads to Exeter in Devon.

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From there, I'll skirt the coast, before finishing in Newton Abbot,

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destined for Dartmoor,

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where my journey's end is rewarded with a regal feast.

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On this trip, I discover how Edwardian gardens came into bloom.

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They're old-fashioned roses.

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Their scent is really powerful.

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Yes, wonderful fragrance.

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Learn how new bells pealed to herald the incoming monarch.

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Isn't that lovely?

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And I'm led a merry dance in the name of fertility.

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BELLS JINGLE

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From about 1880,

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Britain and North America were gripped by an aesthetic movement.

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Reacting against urbanisation and industrialisation,

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Arts and Crafts architects and designers

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were inspired by nature and by traditional craftsmanship

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and by the simplicities of yesteryear.

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Their impact was felt not only within buildings,

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but extended to their gardens too.

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My first stop is Taunton Station, which opened in July 1842

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as the terminus of the Bristol and Exeter Railway.

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I ventured three miles north,

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destined for the Grade I listed estate of Hestercombe.

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From this balcony, beyond this balustrade,

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is the Edwardian garden, which has been done with a touch of genius.

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This much celebrated early 20th-century garden

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is managed by head gardener Claire Greenslade.

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-Hi, there.

-Claire, hello.

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This is heavenly.

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Who created this Edwardian garden?

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So, Gertrude Jekyll is responsible for the planting plan.

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All the hard landscaping is by architect Edwin Lutyens.

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Were they exact contemporaries, Lutyens and Jekyll?

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No. She's quite a lot older than him.

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He was young and new into the scene, if you like.

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She was quite established, so it was quite an unusual partnership.

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Now, she in particular, I think, was supposedly much influenced

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by the Arts and Craft movement.

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How do we see it in her work?

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She was primarily an artist.

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As she got older, her eyesight began to degenerate.

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She basically needed a bigger canvas.

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And that's where the gardening comes into it.

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When you look at her planting, it's almost in painterly brush strokes.

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It's almost like watercolour, the colours bleed into one another.

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It was the Portman family who called on the expertise

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of the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens,

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and horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll,

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to create new gardens here in 1904.

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The family had made its fortune

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through land and estates in central London.

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Planted over four years,

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the gardens that they commissioned created horticultural fashion.

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Pre all of this, Victorian bedding schemes were the thing,

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so it's all exotics and annuals and very geometric and very laid out.

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This was very loose and informal, and much softer.

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It would have been radical.

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We all garden like this now,

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but it would have been really strange to put shrubs, roses,

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grasses, annuals, herbaceous all together.

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What did the young Edwin Lutyens bring to the party?

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I think his sense of geometry and placing and space

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so, whereas his part of this garden is very formal,

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hers softens it and flows over it.

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I always describe it like she's thrown a blanket of flowers

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over his landscaping.

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The influential double-act collaborated on over 300 gardens,

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and first met when Jekyll employed Lutyens

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to design her own Surrey home.

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Their 26-year age difference was no barrier to the long and successful

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working relationship that developed.

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Featuring a sunken parterre, a water garden,

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and a large pergola,

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Hestercombe is considered to be one of their finest projects,

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embodying a style that has come to define the English country garden.

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Claire, apart from the swishes of colour,

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it's also the fragrances, and the sounds of birdsong,

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and the many fountains, all part of the design, I suppose?

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Yeah, I think so.

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I think having a sunken garden, as well, helps trap scent,

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helps trap sound as well, so it's quite an overall...

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All your senses are evoked.

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And were the gardens always in this lovely state of preservation?

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No, they have been restored over time.

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We were lucky enough to find Jekyll's original planting plans

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in a potting shed.

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So, as far as possible,

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everything that you see here is what was on her planting plan.

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Set within 50 acres,

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the grounds at Hestercombe contain gardens from three different eras,

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including Georgian and Victorian designs,

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sitting alongside the masterpiece by Jekyll and Lutyens.

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They all need care and attention.

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I've got some roses to deadhead.

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The idea is, the more you deadhead,

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the more the rose will keep re-flowering.

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What you don't want with a plant is for it to go to seed.

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So, when you're looking to deadhead,

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you need to be following the stem down,

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and looking for the next leaf, or to the next bud.

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So with this one, there's nothing much going on until here.

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And then that goes in the bucket.

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These roses, are they special? Are they a Jekyll signature as well?

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Yes. All the roses that we use in here are ones that she's suggested,

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thank you, and has in her plans.

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So this one is called Caroline Testout.

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And they're old-fashioned roses,

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so they don't have the modern disease resistance

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in their rootstock, so they're prone to lots of blackspot.

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We have to look after them quite a lot.

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But on the other hand, they have the scent.

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-The scent's really powerful in the old roses.

-Yes, wonderful fragrance.

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Claire, what is it that's special about Hestercombe, do you think?

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I think having three eras of garden design in one place,

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and the fact that this Edwardian garden,

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we have planted it as it was planted, as the plans said.

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So it is really like stepping back in time.

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And an extraordinary example of Lutyens and Jekyll together?

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-Yeah, definitely.

-Claire, thank you so much.

-Pleasure.

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Leaving behind the fragrant landscaping,

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I'm making my way seven miles east

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to rejoin the railway at Bishops Lydeard.

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This station lies on the longest heritage line in England,

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the West Somerset Railway.

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I'm headed for the magnificently named Stogumber,

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which, at the time of my Bradshaw's guide,

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was part of the national network.

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In fact, it represented the last piece of work

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by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the Great Western region before he died.

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Is that cup of tea a necessary part of your preparation

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-for driving the loco?

-We wouldn't go without it.

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-Or I wouldn't!

-What is it about you people that draws you so much

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-to steam?

-It's entertaining.

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I mean, yesterday she wouldn't go.

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I had her yesterday. I don't know why.

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Today she went like a rocket.

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Yeah. And you can't tell.

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-Enjoy your cuppa.

-I will.

-Thank you for that. Bye-bye.

-Cheers.

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This is the longest heritage line in England.

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-Is it attractive too?

-Oh, yes, very.

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-What are the highlights?

-The scenery. Really beautiful.

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Are you fans of steam trains?

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-Oh, yeah.

-Absolutely.

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And have you been to heritage lines all over the country?

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We go as many as we can.

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-And how do you rate this one?

-Oh, it's very good.

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-It's a nice long line, it's good.

-It is long, isn't it?

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I'm travelling just two stops,

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revelling in around eight miles of scenic Somerset landscape.

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As part of the Edwardian rejection of the modern world,

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some sought to conserve the past.

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A music teacher called Cecil Sharp

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collected and preserved the lyrics and melodies of folk music,

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meaning that, today, I'll be able to hear singing.

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Sharp began his mission here in Somerset,

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travelling the countryside by steam train and bicycle.

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The picturesque station of Stogumber

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seems barely to have changed since his day.

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-Afternoon.

-Good afternoon!

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Nearby in the Quantock Hills is Halsway Manor,

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home to the National Centre for the Folk Arts.

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Michael, welcome to Halsway Manor.

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It's such a beautiful place.

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-Come through.

-Thank you.

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Singer and folk historian Yvette Staelens

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is passionate about keeping Cecil Sharp's legacy alive.

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-The hall is lovely, isn't it?

-It is. It's beautiful.

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How important is the achievement of Cecil Sharp, do you think?

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I think it's fundamental to folk in England.

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And the material he collected is still used today.

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Schools still sing it. It was very much part of the folk revival.

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These are songs that we still find interesting today.

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Were these songs in danger of being lost?

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Very much so, actually. It's not about composed, written songs.

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It's about songs passed from person to person

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through what we call the oral tradition.

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And Sharp came to Somerset, and on the 22nd of August, 1903,

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there was an iconic moment in folk history

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where he heard the gardener at the vicarage, John England,

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singing The Seeds of Love.

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# I sowed the seeds of love

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# And I sowed them in the spring... #

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So, a really gorgeous song, and apposite for a gardener to sing.

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That was the first song Cecil Sharp collected.

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-Wait a minute, you're not telling me the gardener was called John England?!

-Isn't it terrific?

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Yes, absolutely! You couldn't write it any better, could you?

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Cecil Sharp collected nearly 5,000 tunes in England and North America

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and took photographs of the many singers and dancers that he met

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on his travels.

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These portraits provide a valuable record of the rural working classes

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of the time.

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I think it says a lot about Sharp

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that he was able to get the confidence of people

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so they would give him these songs.

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But he could not publish what he heard,

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because, clearly, Edwardian sensibilities would not allow this.

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Some of this material was, frankly, edgy, let's say.

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So they had to soften the words.

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What's the song we're going to hear from the choir this afternoon?

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We're going to sing a version of Blow Away The Morning Dew,

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which was collected across the South of England.

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It's really about a battle of the sexes.

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-Wow, I can't wait! And the choir's ready?

-They are.

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CHOIR HUMS

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# There was a shepherd's boy

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# Keeping sheep upon the hill

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# He laid his bow and arrow down

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# For war to take its fill

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# And sing blow away the morning dew

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# The dew and the view

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# Sing blow away the morning dew

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# Sing blow, blow, blow. #

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Bravo, bravo, bravo!

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After his initial interest in collecting folk songs,

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Cecil Sharp turned his attention to traditional dances.

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MORRIS DANCE MUSIC PLAYS

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BELLS JINGLE

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Brian Heaton is a member of the West Somerset Morris Men.

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Bravo, bravo, bravo!

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So, how far back does Morris dancing go, Brian?

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Well, nobody really knows, Michael.

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It's lost in the mists of time.

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What's it all about, then?

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Well, it's fertility rites, and things of that kind, you see?

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-No?!

-Absolutely, yes.

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Now... I'll give it a go!

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Hello, do you mind if I step in?

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So, what are the basics here?

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Basic step is a single step in front.

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Yes. And you dance that to the beat of the music.

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-That's the tricky bit.

-That's all the step is.

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Right, OK. But what about this swordplay, then?

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The swordplay! The chorus, as we call it!

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It's like a sword or sabre.

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We swipe at the top, carry through,

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round the bottom...

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Thank you!

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Thank you.

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As evening draws in,

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this train is taking me towards the historic city of Exeter.

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Its diocese dates back to the 11th century,

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and the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter to the 12th.

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I'll have to leave my visit there till the morning,

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but nothing buttresses my good humour

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like a good English cathedral.

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This building, at the time of my guidebook,

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was the newly opened eye infirmary in Exeter.

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Look at the size of it.

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It was second in importance only to Moorfields.

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It's now a hotel, somewhere for me to get 40 winks.

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I'm beginning my day at a spot visited by Her Majesty the Queen

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on her Golden Jubilee tour of the country in 2002.

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She was greeted by crowds of well-wishers

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outside Exeter Cathedral.

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I'm here to find out how the city prepared for another royal occasion

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exactly a century earlier.

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Whose mug is this?

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It is Edward VII's, and it was made for his coronation in 1902.

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Most people had known no monarch other than Victoria,

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who had reigned for 64 years,

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and she was much mourned.

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But, then again, it was a new century.

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There were motorcars and telephones, and soon there would be aeroplanes,

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the possibilities of the future were untold.

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It was time to ring in the new.

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BELLS PEAL

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Exeter Cathedral's history stretches back almost 1,000 years.

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145 feet tall and 383 feet long,

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it's a shining example of Gothic architecture.

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What you see when you enter this cathedral is a sight

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that you'll have in no other medieval structure.

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And it is the length, almost the infinity,

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of this beautiful, vaulted ceiling.

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And what is so miraculous is the lightness of the whole thing.

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Those stone struts that hold the roof aloft,

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they're almost like fingers in prayer

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that have separated and been locked in place.

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Hello, Ian.

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I'm meeting long-serving ringing master Ian Campbell

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to find out how this ancient building was updated

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to usher in the Edwardian era.

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Gosh, Ian, how many steps are there?

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There's a lot, but if you take them two at a time,

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there's only half as many.

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Ah, good point.

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We're ascending the South Tower, up to the belfry.

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Ian, what a very impressive space.

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What bells do you have here?

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-How many?

-There are 14 bells.

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And the biggest bell, Grandisson, the tenor, is 72 hundredweight,

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that makes it the second-heaviest bell in the world

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-that will ring in a full circle.

-And that's about four tonnes?

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Just about four tonnes, yes.

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What was it that happened here

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around the time of the coronation of Edward VII?

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Grandisson was not a very good bell,

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so it was recast, and at the same time, Fox, the seventh, was cracked,

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so that was recast, as well.

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And when they recast it they put an Edwardian penny in the mould,

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and you can see it on the side of the bell now as part of the casting.

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And can we hear the bells today in their glory?

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If you're feeling very brave, we'll have a go.

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Brave? Hmm!

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I've heard that it usually takes four people to ring Grandisson.

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-Right.

-I suggest you climb up on the box.

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But I'm taking on this beast of nearly four tonnes

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with just a little assistance from Ian.

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Stretch up high and pull it very gently down and let it go up again.

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But you'll feel it's quite heavy.

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So, let it go up as far as it wants to go and then pull it down.

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And then in a minute you'll be off the bottom of the sally,

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which is the furry bit.

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BELL CHIMES

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Right, so it's chiming.

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Isn't that lovely?

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What a great, deep sound.

0:21:310:21:34

I've made Grandisson chime.

0:21:390:21:41

But really to ring an English church bell,

0:21:410:21:45

you need to swing it through 360 degrees.

0:21:450:21:48

-Shall we give it a go?

-We'll give it a shot.

0:21:490:21:51

Perhaps I'll have more luck with its smaller sibling, Fox.

0:21:510:21:55

BELL RINGS

0:21:550:21:56

With bells ringing in my ears, there's just time

0:22:080:22:11

to pick up a newspaper before continuing my journey.

0:22:110:22:14

I'm leaving Exeter and heading south.

0:22:220:22:24

WH Smith was a man who realised

0:22:280:22:31

that the railways transformed the national distribution of newspapers

0:22:310:22:36

and he established a near monopoly of bookstalls on railway stations.

0:22:360:22:42

Those who had traditional money

0:22:420:22:44

regarded people who made their fortunes in commerce

0:22:440:22:47

as the new rich, the nouveau riche -

0:22:470:22:51

people who had to buy their own furniture.

0:22:510:22:54

Nonetheless, that new wealth cascaded down the generations.

0:22:540:22:59

Well-heeled Edwardians used this stunning route to reach

0:23:130:23:17

the fashionable Devon seaside resorts of the English Riviera.

0:23:170:23:21

But I shall alight at the inland stop of Newton Abbot,

0:23:360:23:40

bound for Dartmoor National Park.

0:23:400:23:42

My destination is the imposing Bovey Castle.

0:23:450:23:48

Author David Parker has studied its Edwardian roots.

0:23:530:23:57

-Hello, David.

-Hello, Michael, nice to speak to you.

0:23:590:24:02

David, Bovey Castle is certainly quite a pile, isn't it?

0:24:020:24:05

-It is, indeed.

-Who built it?

0:24:050:24:07

It was built by a man who went under the name of Freddy Smith

0:24:070:24:11

to his friends, but his father was William Henry Smith,

0:24:110:24:14

of WH Smith & Sons, the celebrated stationers,

0:24:140:24:18

so he inherited in 1891 all his father's wealth.

0:24:180:24:22

-A considerable fortune?

-A considerable fortune -

0:24:220:24:25

many, many hundreds of millions in today's money.

0:24:250:24:28

Freddy built this in 1907,

0:24:280:24:30

as Bovey Manor, at the height of the Edwardian prosperity of his company.

0:24:300:24:36

What was it that the Smith family aimed to do with such a house?

0:24:360:24:41

He built this purely as a shooting lodge,

0:24:410:24:44

where he could bring all of his friends, show off his wealth,

0:24:440:24:48

and show off the countryside, and entertain them,

0:24:480:24:50

hunting, shooting and fishing.

0:24:500:24:52

It was the height of the period of Edwardian conspicuous consumption.

0:24:520:24:56

Did the Smith family face snobbery from aristocrats?

0:24:560:25:00

The celebrated WH Smith had been on the receiving end

0:25:000:25:04

of a lot of snobbery at the time. Freddy, his son,

0:25:040:25:07

did not seem to have so much snobbishness attached to him.

0:25:070:25:11

He had the advantage of going to Eton and Oxford.

0:25:110:25:15

So, with a couple of generations they were there,

0:25:150:25:17

-firmly into the aristocracy?

-They were firmly into the aristocracy.

0:25:170:25:20

The Edwardian years of pleasure and indulgence were cut short in 1914

0:25:200:25:26

by the First World War. As an officer in the Devon Yeomanry,

0:25:260:25:29

Freddy Smith fought at Gallipoli and in the Middle East.

0:25:290:25:33

He died in 1928,

0:25:340:25:35

and the manor was sold to the Great Western Railway

0:25:350:25:39

to pay off a million pounds' worth of death duties.

0:25:390:25:41

What did the GWR do with it?

0:25:430:25:45

They turned it into a hotel.

0:25:450:25:47

Nobody else wanted it.

0:25:470:25:48

It was just a huge aristocratic pile that nobody wanted.

0:25:480:25:53

Bovey Castle is no longer owned by the GWR,

0:25:560:26:00

but it remains in use as a hotel.

0:26:000:26:03

Thank you.

0:26:080:26:09

Head chef Mark Bard has been busy preparing a feast

0:26:090:26:13

fit for the lavish tastes of the nouveau riche and, indeed, the King.

0:26:130:26:18

His pot roast white chicken stuffed with truffles and poached

0:26:190:26:23

in Sauternes wine is a modern variation of Poularde Edouard VII,

0:26:230:26:28

served at King Edward's coronation gala dinner.

0:26:280:26:31

-Please enjoy.

-Thank you very much indeed.

0:26:320:26:35

-My pleasure.

-Looks delicious.

0:26:350:26:36

So, truffles lurking here under the skin.

0:26:390:26:43

Mmm!

0:26:470:26:48

Chicken is very, very flavoursome.

0:26:490:26:52

It's very, very rich.

0:26:520:26:53

It is, um, it is a great Edwardian dish.

0:26:530:26:57

This was the time of ostentation.

0:26:570:27:00

I'm going to enjoy this.

0:27:000:27:02

Exeter Cathedral's new bells rang out to mark the arrival

0:27:120:27:17

of the Edwardian age.

0:27:170:27:18

In gardening, Gertrude Jekyll abandoned Victorian formality

0:27:180:27:23

in favour of looser splashes of colour.

0:27:230:27:27

After railways and factories had transformed this country,

0:27:270:27:31

Cecil Sharp toured the villages

0:27:310:27:34

in search of traditional songs and dances.

0:27:340:27:37

But in truth Britain was no longer a rural society.

0:27:370:27:42

To the horror of the Edwardian landed classes,

0:27:420:27:45

this Bovey estate was built up on the proceeds of trade.

0:27:450:27:50

How vulgar!

0:27:500:27:51

Next time -

0:27:570:27:59

I rediscover a stylish Edwardian author...

0:27:590:28:02

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

0:28:020:28:05

..have a bash at creating

0:28:050:28:07

turn-of-the-century Cornish collectables...

0:28:070:28:09

And there we are.

0:28:090:28:10

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

0:28:100:28:13

..and boldly go where no railway traveller has gone before.

0:28:130:28:16

Even Bradshaw never went to the moon.

0:28:160:28:19

RECORDED MESSAGE: Even Bradshaw never went to the moon.

0:28:190:28:21

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

0:28:210:28:25

With purple, green and yellow ribbons flying, and sporting ankle bells, Michael Portillo is led a merry dance in Stogumber - all in the name of fertility. He visits a celebrated Edwardian garden at Hestercombe to discover the fruits of an unusual partnership and learns how to deadhead the roses. There is a trip aboard the longest heritage line in England and the chance to ring in the new era at Exeter Cathedral before dining out in style on King Edward VII's coronation gala dinner at Bovey Castle.