The Cotswolds Britain by Bike


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The Cotswolds

As she cycles through the Cotswolds, Clare Balding reveals how two men - both called William Morris - helped change the face of heritage tourism in Britain.


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Sixty years ago, an extraordinary man called Harold Briercliffe

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wrote a string of books about his great passion - cycling.

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Now largely forgotten, these overlooked gems were the culmination of a lifelong journey.

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His destination? The whole of Britain.

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On two wheels.

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Over half a century later,

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armed with one of his trusty cycling touring guides,

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and riding Harold's very own bicycle, a Dawes Super Galaxy,

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the touring cycle of its day,

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I'm re-tracing his tracks through the glorious landscape he loved.

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I'm going in search of Britain by Bike.

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This is the Cotswolds, the Heart of England.

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Lush, green uplands,

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inviting meadows, picture postcard views with burbling brooks.

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No wonder the Cotswolds is, for most people,

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the prettiest place in Britain.

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I'm setting off to explore almost 45 miles of this perfection

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in a journey that provokes some

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fascinating questions about why we preserve the countryside this way.

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It's a trip packed with beauty, a dash of folly,

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oh, and TWO men, both, rather confusingly, called William Morris.

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And tourists. Lots of tourists.

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It's not difficult to see why this area of the country is so appealing to visitors from across the world.

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There's something completely timeless about the sleepy villages,

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the yellowish stone of the buildings, the church spires

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rising above the hedgerows.

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Harold Briercliffe was very keen on it, but he was not a man to be fooled by appearances,

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and he was well aware of how much hard work goes into maintaining beauty like this.

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I'm following parts of Harold Briercliffe's 343-mile cycle tour

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from Reading to Oxford, a distance of just 26 miles as the crow flies.

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My journey starts in Broadway, and then heads southeast on to

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Burford, Blenheim and finally the city of Oxford.

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Harold, a no-nonsense northerner, originally from Rochdale, set off

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with tyres pumped, vowels flattened and a readiness to be under whelmed.

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'Nearly everyone who visits the Cotswolds

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'comes home with a favourite village.

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'"The most beautiful," is a typical superlative.'

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For many, that place is here...

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the very epitome of an English country village,

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known as the Jewel of the Cotswolds. But not by Harold.

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This is Broadway, one main street, very broad, as the name would suggest.

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Lovely, big houses, set back from the road, built in Cotswold stone,

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which gives them a warmth and vibrancy,

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but Harold wasn't particularly taken with it.

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It was a bit too much for him.

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He preferred his beauty to be a bit more natural, more rugged,

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this place, for him, had a little too much lipstick, mascara.

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'There is more than a little unnecessary artifice about it all,

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'like a pretty woman who has made up rather too well.'

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That's the doctor's surgery.

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It looks like a museum. Seriously, that is the doctor's surgery!

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He's doing good trade, a lot of people.

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All right? So, tell me, what brings you to Broadway?

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This is exactly

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what we thought England would be.

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The teashops and the thatched cottage roofs,

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just the buildings themselves and the quaint little streets.

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Everyone's drawn to this vision of rural Britain.

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People want to live here, and they want to live in traditional Cotswold stone houses.

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I'll tell you what, this is interesting,

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because this is something that would really have changed since 1949. House prices.

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There is a seventeenth-century listed house here, mind you,

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it has got 9.4 acres with it, guide price, 1.8 million.

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Gee whiz!

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And if you can't live here...

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well you can always visit. And millions do.

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Remarkably, Cotswolds tourism was well established,

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even when Harold Briercliffe came in the 1940s.

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Former MP Gerald Nabarro

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once claimed the village earned

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more foreign currency than anywhere of its size in Britain.

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But there's a price to pay. You can't have your cake and eat it,

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admits local teashop owner Laurie Avery.

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Harold came through here in late '40s... how much has it changed?

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Broadway has been a tourist centre for probably 60, 70 years.

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In the early days, it was mainly centred around the antiques trade

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and the arts trade.

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And it has just continued.

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The tourist season now runs here from March

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until the end of November, probably,

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and a little bit of Christmas,

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and we have two quiet months now in January and February.

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Many people retire to Broadway

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because they think they're going to get a quiet life,

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and they just get people looking through their front windows

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most of the time.

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Always being 'on show' can produce a theme park version of village life.

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And Broadway's place on the map actually increased this effect, according to cyclist Harold.

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'Broadway's position on a main highway

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'has given it a prominence which has not been altogether to the good.

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'The prettiness and trimness seem to be overdone.

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You know, he's right.

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He's right about this place.

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It's as if everything's made for show. It's as if it's not quite...

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I mean, it's lovely, and it's pretty,

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and it's wonderfully maintained and there isn't a scrap of litter, but it doesn't quite feel real.

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It feels as if it's a film set.

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It's not, but it feels like it.

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In search of something a bit more real,

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I'm heading uphill to my next destination,

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which is shamelessly fake.

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Leaving the village behind, I'm on my way to Broadway Beacon,

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with its commanding views of the whole area.

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Now, Harold recommended taking a little detour to go and see Broadway Tower,

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which is described as "The highest little castle in the Cotswolds."

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Apparently it's worth getting up there.

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This medieval castle, is a piece of architectural whimsy, an 18th century folly constructed

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by local aristocrat, the 6th Earl of Coventry.

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And Harold Briercliffe was very grateful he'd taken the trouble.

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'Here, at an altitude of 1,024 ft,

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'there is a tower, built in 1798, and from it, the eye ranges over

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'a panorama as varied as it is beautiful.'

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You hardly ever get a perspective like this,

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see for 50 miles in every direction.

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It's a complete 360.It's fabulous.

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What's amazing about this beautiful view

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is that not only is it the same as the one

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Harold described, but some of this countryside has changed

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precious little for almost two centuries.

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The pattern of the fields, hedgerows and dry stone walls are all still here.

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And that's what gives the landscape its unique appeal.

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With the naked eye, you can see Gloucestershire and Herefordshire and Worcestershire as well.

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You can see the Malvern Hills, which are 25 miles away.

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Beyond them, slightly shrouded in cloud, 50 miles away, are the Black Mountains in Wales.

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And, if you've got 20p in your pocket, you can pop it in here...

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Go on you!

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If you've got 20p in your pocket, you can try and make this work!

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No, it doesn't want to work. If you've got 20p in your pocket,

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you can go and buy yourself some sweeties later.

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Even without a telescope,

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anyone can see this landscape's perfect for travel on two wheels.

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You can just see how it's rolled out.

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And you get, obviously, very steep climbs and lovely,

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rounded hills on the south,

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and then an enormous expanse of flat land, and you look at that,

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and you think, oh, good cycling country!

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Yeah. Won't even have to change gear.

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The glorious view drew others here. One person in particular,

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who would play an important role

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in preserving the distinctive character of the Cotswolds.

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In the 19th century, William Morris, the designer, writer,

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and pioneering conservationist, used the tower as a country retreat.

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A special room, decorated with Morris's distinctive prints and fabrics, commemorates his stay.

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And we'll be hearing more of him later in my journey.

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There's something comfortable about cycling in this area.

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Even the gentle hills are fairly easy on the legs, and that's why

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it's a little surprising that Harold was less than impressed.

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'The scenery of the district is pleasing rather than noble,

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'soothing rather than inspiring.

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'Yet its own characteristics are striking enough.'

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And why was Harold so restrained in his praise?

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May be now, any patch of green not covered by Tarmac

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and used as a car park is deemed a rural paradise.

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But perhaps in Harold's day, there was simply

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so much unspoilt countryside you could afford to be picky.

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But there's not much unspoiled about the next section of Harold's route,

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along the Fosse Way, a Roman Road stretching more than 200 miles

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from Devon to Lincolnshire.

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In Harold's day it looked something like this.

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Now, however...

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You need to be a Ninja cyclist to brave this sort of traffic.

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So instead of doing that I'm going off route following the Warden's Way,

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which takes you through some lovely villages here in the Slaughters,

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and then on to Bourton on the Water.

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Hi, there.

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'Bourton on the Water,

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'one of the most engaging of the larger villages in the Cotswolds.

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'A stream runs down the main street, through lawns,

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'and is crossed by ornamental bridges.'

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From Bourton on the Water,

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the route takes us on smaller B roads to Great Rissington,

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then to Great Barrington, before arriving at my next stop, which was

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one of Harold's favourite places,

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and the location for a historic spat between two people which has

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actually saved thousands of old buildings and iconic landscapes.

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This is Burford.

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'Burford is one of the best-preserved old towns in England,

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'and one of the most picturesque.

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'Burford I would call a wonderful old townlet instead of a village.'

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This place is something else.

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Do you know, Burford ranked 6th in Forbes magazine

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as most idyllic places to live in Europe.

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That means it has ranked above Budapest, Rome.

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And it's not that difficult to see why,

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because there's something really authentic about this place.

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It feels old, obviously, but it feels lived in.

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These are old people's houses.

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It doesn't have that same manufactured charm to it that one could accuse Broadway off.

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It doesn't seem to have sold out completely to the tourist industry,

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although, clearly it's very popular with them as well.

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'There is a variety of architectural styles

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'about the houses and inns at Burford,

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'but all are clearly of the Cotswolds.'

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It's strange to think a landscape like this

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could be an industrial heartland, but in the Middle Ages,

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Burford stood at the centre of a lucrative business

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which provided over half of all the cloth in England courtesy of an animal known as 'The Cotswold Lion'.

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Here in the 14th century, sheep outnumbered people

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by thousands to one,

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generating vast wealth...

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much of it used to glorify God in a series of magnificent churches.

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None greater than St John the Baptist, Burford.

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'The church stands on low ground at the foot of the hill

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'and close to the Windrush.

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'It has a Norman west door and several fine chapels.'

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One of the best things about cycling,

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and doing it with a guidebook, is you get signposts,

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if you like, and obviously, you can do your own thing,

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and you can stop where you like,

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but I'm quite enjoying following the route that Harold took,

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and seeing if things have changed

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and some of them not at all, and obviously,

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with Burford church, there's not a lot that can have changed.

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I've come to meet Burford's former verger, Peter Harris.

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-Peter, hello.

-Hello, good morning.

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This is...

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-Nice to see you.

-This is magnificent.

-Yes.

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You know about big cathedrals and abbeys and,

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you know in bigger cities.

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But to come into what is essentially an extended village

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and find a church like this, it's like discovering treasure.

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It is, yes. This was built finally in the 15th century,

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the height of the wool trade.

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And it does fit in with the sort of a pattern with other wool churches.

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This sort of style of it.

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In that time since Harold would have come here in 1949...

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-Yes.

-..to now, the Church has almost become the focal point

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for the new riches of the area, which is the tourist industry.

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Well, yes.

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Now, I went to Broadway Tower and saw the William Morris room,

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and there is a connection with William Morris and this church.

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Yes, it goes back to when these tiles were put down.

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And the then vicar was busying around,

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and William Morris came in and said,

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"What on earth are you doing to that lovely old stone floor,

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"putting these down?"

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And the vicar said, "It's my church, and if I want to stand on my head in it, I can do so."

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So, William Morris went home, thought about it,

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and started the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Churches.

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So anything new that we do,

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we're supposed to get authority from the diocese.

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So the bad tempered argument over these historic tiles,

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unwittingly created the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

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An unlikely key moment in the history of conservation.

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And the tops to these gravestones were tombs.

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Why are they ridged like that?

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It's all again to do with the wool trade and you'll find them in

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Cotswold churches and sometimes in the Norfolk ones.

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They're supposedly wool merchants' tombs.

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That rolled top represents the bale of wool or cloth.

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It was rolled up into the woolsack as it were in those days.

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There was something about encouraging people to keep buying wool.

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In the sort of 16th century later on when the wool trade was declining

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a bit they passed a law, parliament,

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that everyone should be buried in a woollen shroud.

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If everybody had a woollen shroud, that would keep the business going for a while.

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The final structural additions to the building

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were made in the Perpendicular era, when the spire,

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porch and lady chapel were added to complete the appearance

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of the church as we see it today.

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It's remarkable to think that William Morris's ideas

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about what we now call "conservation"

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started right here in Burford.

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Nowadays, the preservation of the church relies on tourist donations, and maybe Harold's touring guides

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played some small part in making that possible.

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The next part of the route takes us from Burford along the River Windrush past Minster Lovell,

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and the town of Witney and then on to Blenheim Palace.

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The one thing Harold doesn't mention is the weather.

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Because you know what it's like in Britain.

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It doesn't matter whether you are on foot or on a bike.

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It doesn't half change quickly.

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But not, it seems, in the magical world of Harold Briercliffe's Cycling Touring Guides.

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It's a land free of torrential downpours.

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Not even mild drizzle gets a look in.

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Across hundreds, thousands of miles, Harold saw only sunshine.

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Some chance, but at least the view's a welcome distraction.

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This magnificent setting is Blenheim Park.

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Harold would have come here, but in 1949 this was as far as he was allowed to go.

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He would have had to admire it from this

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side of the bridge, but these days it's open to the public and I can go in.

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'The Palace, which can be seen from the park, was built to commemorate

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'the services to the nation of the Duke of Marlborough

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'and is in the Italian Renaissance style.

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'The grounds but not the palace

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'are open on certain days of the week.'

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This was simply a splendid private house for the Churchill family

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when Harold visited in the late 1940s.

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But not for much longer. In the '50s, Blenheim was forced

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to open its doors to a curious and paying public, as Attlee's post-war

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Labour government brought in changes which meant the financing of lavish estates like this became untenable.

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Blenheim saved itself by becoming a tourist destination.

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This is something that Harold wouldn't have been able to do.

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In 1949 he wouldn't have been able to come through the front door.

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Not at all. Not for another year.

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When we first opened to tourism proper in 1951, the maintenance

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of the estates like this was really beyond the income of the families

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that had run them for centuries.

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They had three options.

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One was to walk out and let the place fall down

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and lots of houses are like that, in ruins.

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The classic option was to make it over to the National Trust.

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The third option, not so common because

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it depended where you were, but it was to open it as a tourist site.

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When tourists come in here,

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what do you find strikes them most about Blenheim Palace?

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Just the size, the sense of strength, the sense of importance.

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It was built to symbolise the huge victory of the

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first Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Blenheim.

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Winston was born here just about 30 yards from where we are.

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The grandson of a Duke. He was very much inspired by the original victory

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and by this building where he spent a lot of his early years.

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He felt he was born as part of an historical continuum

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going right back to the Battle of Blenheim,

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right through this house and right into the future.

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You were telling me, John, about you remembering massive cycling parties.

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Yes, we used to call them road wheeler's in those days.

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You'd find... It would possibly be too dangerous on our roads now,

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but 50 or 100 or more going at a cracking pace would cycle

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80 miles, 100 miles there and back on the same day, on a Sunday usually.

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No helmets.

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The bikes must have weighed a ton. It was a huge sport.

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It was the beginning of leisure, I think, for the ordinary man.

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It's strange how things have altered because now when you get behind a

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couple of cyclists in your car struggling along you think, get out of the way.

0:19:400:19:44

But with these hundreds you were quite happy to saunter along behind them.

0:19:440:19:48

It was a happy and participating occasion, you know.

0:19:480:19:53

With their cheese sandwiches!

0:19:530:19:55

Social changes in post-war Britain

0:19:580:20:00

not only opened the doors of Blenheim,

0:20:000:20:02

they opened up the countryside

0:20:020:20:03

to people keen to explore what they'd fought to defend.

0:20:030:20:06

Many did it on two wheels.

0:20:060:20:10

During the late '40s a third of all the vehicle miles travelled

0:20:100:20:14

in Britain were completed by bike and membership of cycling touring clubs was at an all-time high.

0:20:140:20:20

Amongst them was Harold Briercliffe's cycling club,

0:20:200:20:24

the Hitchin Nomads.

0:20:240:20:25

Rene Stacey, now 92 years old, is the last surviving founder member.

0:20:250:20:30

On a club run in those days you would ride in groups of 6 or 8.

0:20:300:20:37

Two abreast and you'd have a car space of several yards.

0:20:370:20:44

The Captain would always be at the back with a policeman's whistle in his pocket.

0:20:440:20:50

When anybody had to get off to walk up hill,

0:20:500:20:55

that was 2 blasts on the whistle and you stopped.

0:20:550:20:59

You did as you were told.

0:20:590:21:01

If it was something more desperate and everybody had to stop

0:21:010:21:07

immediately, that was one blast, that was urgent.

0:21:070:21:10

It all worked, it was wonderful.

0:21:100:21:13

Today there are almost 30 million cars on Britain's roads,

0:21:230:21:26

but back in 1950, there were less than 2 million -

0:21:260:21:30

many of them made by this man, another William Morris.

0:21:300:21:34

His factory at Cowley near Oxford produced many of the great British

0:21:340:21:38

marques of the day, including the Morris Minor and Morris Oxford.

0:21:380:21:42

But he started out building a very different form of transport,

0:21:420:21:46

one celebrated by the Veteran Cycling Club.

0:21:460:21:49

I'm particularly interested in a cycle owned by club member Percy Balson.

0:21:490:21:56

It's a 1909 William Morris who later became Lord Nuffield, of the cars.

0:21:560:22:00

He was almost the Henry Ford of Britain.

0:22:000:22:04

But bicycles were his first love?

0:22:040:22:06

-He was a cycling champion.

-Was he?

0:22:060:22:10

-Yes.

-Did you restore this bike?

0:22:100:22:11

Yes, it was completely rusty when I had it. There was no back mudguard.

0:22:110:22:15

This was worn away, the pedals had had it.

0:22:150:22:19

I found a period lamp to go on the front.

0:22:190:22:21

I found a period bell.

0:22:210:22:23

It rides beautifully.

0:22:230:22:25

It's as light as anything.

0:22:250:22:27

It's on a fixed wheel.

0:22:270:22:30

Theoretically I can pedal backwards.

0:22:300:22:32

I wouldn't recommend it.

0:22:320:22:34

How much would you say it's worth now?

0:22:340:22:37

A very difficult question. There are only three in the world.

0:22:370:22:41

I don't know what to put on it.

0:22:410:22:43

It's priceless. It's literally priceless.

0:22:430:22:46

You would never get another one.

0:22:460:22:47

The only way anyone is going to get this is if I'm 6 ft under!

0:22:470:22:51

Very graceful.

0:22:570:22:58

When Harold Briercliffe came to Oxford, the Nuffield Motor Works

0:23:090:23:13

was a cornerstone of the British car manufacturing industry.

0:23:130:23:17

Harold's cycle route took him past the main gates.

0:23:170:23:20

'To the south east is the location of the huge Cowley works

0:23:200:23:24

'of the Nuffield Group' of vehicle makers.'

0:23:240:23:27

But soon crisis and decline would overtake Morris cars,

0:23:270:23:31

like so much of Britain's post-war industry.

0:23:310:23:34

Rebranded as British Leyland,

0:23:340:23:37

the business died but was re-born under BMW ownership in 2001.

0:23:370:23:43

The site now makes minis.

0:23:430:23:46

And the last surviving part of Morris's factory

0:23:460:23:48

can be found in a museum.

0:23:480:23:50

Still at work inside, veterans of the old assembly line,

0:23:500:23:54

keeping alive the vehicles and memories of the man.

0:23:540:23:58

Good afternoon. Hello.

0:23:580:24:00

This building you see was part of the old factory.

0:24:000:24:05

I worked there for a good number of years.

0:24:050:24:08

When they sold it off to BMW I asked if we could have a building.

0:24:080:24:13

They thought I was a bit doolally asking for a building.

0:24:130:24:17

But when they realised we were serious, we got this building.

0:24:190:24:23

Lord Nuffield as you probably know started off the car industry in Oxford.

0:24:270:24:33

As you see, he didn't only build motor cars.

0:24:330:24:36

During the war he built aircraft.

0:24:360:24:38

Where others couldn't he did.

0:24:380:24:42

He brought so much prosperity

0:24:420:24:45

to Oxford and the surrounding district.

0:24:450:24:47

He gave 25 million away which in today's money would be well....

0:24:470:24:55

He had no family so he gave it all away.

0:24:550:24:57

It's a shame in a way now that this is the greatest monument to him.

0:24:570:25:02

This is all there is of him. The company is no more.

0:25:020:25:06

No, it's all gone.

0:25:060:25:08

Except this here.

0:25:080:25:11

We saved a little bit.

0:25:110:25:12

From the bus museum it's just a few miles road to reach my final destination, Oxford.

0:25:140:25:21

'The distant view of the city

0:25:210:25:22

'from any of the surrounding hills is a most pleasing one,

0:25:220:25:26

'largely because of the grouping of its towers and spires.'

0:25:260:25:31

More people cycle here than in any other place in Britain.

0:25:310:25:35

About 20,000 cycle commuters pedal into the city centre each day.

0:25:350:25:40

You know what's incredible,

0:25:430:25:45

this is Oxford and I've been coming here since I was 12.

0:25:450:25:49

I grew up 45 mins away.

0:25:490:25:51

But I've never seen it like this because I always came by car,

0:25:510:25:54

but if you come on a bike, you can get everywhere.

0:25:540:25:58

You don't have to worry about parking, you can stop when you like.

0:25:580:26:01

it's just perfect.

0:26:010:26:02

For any visitor Oxford's the distinction of Oxford is

0:26:050:26:08

its colleges and Harold was no exception.

0:26:080:26:12

Glimpsing their beauty through college gates from the road as he passed.

0:26:120:26:18

'The residential colleges are world-famous for their rich halls

0:26:180:26:22

'and chapels and for their green lawns.

0:26:220:26:25

'The most outstanding of the colleges are New,

0:26:250:26:29

'Merton, Christchurch, Magdalen and Oriel,

0:26:290:26:33

'mostly grouped close to the curving High Street

0:26:330:26:36

'which carries the main London Road from the River Cherwell

0:26:360:26:39

'at Magdalen Bridge to Carfax, the ancient centre of the city.'

0:26:390:26:44

Our national obsession for heritage tourism owes much to the work of both William Morrises,

0:26:440:26:50

the first for preserving historic buildings like these and the second

0:26:500:26:54

for enabling the family Sunday afternoon drive to enjoy them.

0:26:540:26:58

Yet the survival of Oxford's incredible architecture

0:26:580:27:02

even from the of the Blitz has a much more unlikely hero.

0:27:020:27:05

Oxford didn't have to do a big clean up operation after the second world war. It wasn't bombed.

0:27:050:27:10

It's said that's because Hitler wanted to make Oxford his seat

0:27:100:27:15

of power after he'd conquered the country.

0:27:150:27:18

And that what's been so apparent on this journey -

0:27:180:27:22

that there are very different reasons why and how

0:27:220:27:25

the fabric of our past has been preserved or forgotten.

0:27:250:27:28

From tourist-dependent villages like Broadway where preservation clearly comes at a price,

0:27:280:27:33

to the wonderful medieval church at Burford, which helped inspire the conservation movement.

0:27:330:27:39

And in contrast the great palace at Blenheim,

0:27:390:27:42

whose open doors now symbolize the revolutionary changes

0:27:420:27:46

in society after the second world war.

0:27:460:27:48

And finally Oxford.

0:27:480:27:50

Busy, but still beautifully preserved

0:27:500:27:52

thanks to an unexpected saviour.

0:27:520:27:55

We've covered a lot of ground in every sense.

0:27:550:27:58

The other thing that's been strange about this journey is that

0:28:000:28:03

one name, two different people, but one name has stood out,

0:28:030:28:06

William Morris.

0:28:060:28:07

The pre-Raphaelite William Morris who made sure that these buildings

0:28:070:28:11

were preserved as they should be and the 20th Century William Morris

0:28:110:28:15

who developed the bicycle and then the motorbike and then the car and allowed us the freedom to travel.

0:28:150:28:21

And my final thought is I'm going to sleep very well tonight.

0:28:210:28:25

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:500:28:53

Clare Balding tests the limits of pedal power again with a cycle trip through an area considered one of the prettiest in Britain, the Cotswolds.

Following the wheel tracks of cycling author Harold Briercliffe, whose guide books of the late 1940s paint an evocative portrait of Britain on B-Roads, she encounters not only beautiful countryside but one or two surprises.

Briercliffe had controversial views about this handsomely-preserved landscape. Carrying a set of Harold's Cycling Touring Guides for company and riding his very own bicycle, Clare goes in search of the world he described.

Along the way, she explores why the countryside looks the way it does, examines how post-war social change opened the doors of great private houses like Blenheim to a paying public and reveals how two men - both called William Morris - helped change the face of heritage tourism.