Great British Railway Journeys with Michael Portillo

By Neil Davey

Michael Portillo spoke to Neil Davey about his lifelong passion for trains, which the broadcaster, journalist and former Cabinet Minister shares with viewers in a his TV series Great British Railway Journeys
Glenfinnan viaductGlenfinnan viaduct

"Do you know what the Russian for railway station is?" asks a smiling Michael Portillo. He fakes his surprise when the answer comes back in the negative.

"It's vokzal," he explains. "In the 19th Century, we had railways and the Russians didn't and they sent a delegation over. Southern Railways didn't have a Waterloo or a Victoria at that point, and the railway stopped at Vauxhall. The Russians apparently asked 'what do you call this?' and the answer was 'we call it Vauxhall': hence the Russian for railway station is vokzal!"

It's an interesting bit of trivia but demonstrates two things: the importance – and international impact – of Victorian railway systems; and quite how knowledgeable Michael Portillo is on the subject.

"I'm not in the top ten per cent of train spotters in Britain," he adds, "and I don’t know all about class numbers and such like, but I do like trains. I used to be very excited by them as a child, I had a clockwork railway, and we had a local steam train near where I lived, and we made an annual trip to see my grandparents in Scotland, in Kirkcaldy."

It's a trip that Michael gets to recreate, among several others, in his new TV series Great British Railway Journeys. The series sees Michael following in the footsteps of legendary cartographer George Bradshaw. Not that Michael is a particular devotee of Bradshaw.

"I'd only heard of him from Sherlock Holmes," admits Michael. "When Sherlock Holmes gets a new case which involves him travelling across the country, he says to Watson, 'get the Bradshaw' - it was obviously absolutely essential to Victorians, for the timetables.

"There were many different local railway companies and originally they would just put up their timetable at the local station. Bradshaw was the first person to compile the timetables. Before that, he'd mapped the railways, and before that, he'd mapped the canals.

"What we're using is a subsequent development from all that, his handbook, a guidebook that's laid out in terms of routes. Bradshaw tells you where to go and where to stay but, unlike a modern guidebook, it's full of opinion. He celebrates engineering, he celebrates science, London, the greatest city that has EVER existed... all that sort of stuff. And also opinions on some things that he thinks are fantastic: there will suddenly be two paragraphs on a hotel he stayed at and how wonderful the proprietress is!"

Michael has recreated four of the journeys – "Liverpool to Scarborough, Swindon to Penzance, Preston to Kirkcaldy, Buxton to London" – for the programme. Each journey will be broadcast nightly over the course of a week, which gave Michael plenty of time to investigate the routes and Bradshaw's recommendations. Often with surprising results.

Passenger train, Culgaith, England"Bristol Temple Meads station today is not the same one that's in Bradshaw's guide. It was the first 'passenger shed' in the world, the first building to incorporate passengers and trains in a single building. That's now to the side of Temple Meads station. It's disused and rundown, but it's a gem of railway architecture. You go through a really uninteresting white door, through to this magnificent historic building, with a hammer beam roof, which is the same design as Westminster Hall.

"We also went looking for a 2000-year-old skeleton in Scarborough. Apparently it was a sensation when it was unveiled in Victorian Scarborough, but nobody knows it's there now. We found it - and discovered it's actually 4000 years old!"

While it's hard for Michael to pick highlights, some moments clearly meant a lot to him. "One of my journeys here takes me back to my grandparents' house. That was very exciting. And travelling by steam train from Settle to Carlisle. That means a lot to me, because I was the minister who decided 20 years ago NOT to close the line."

As Michael explains, many politicians, retired or otherwise, don't get to see how or if they made a difference. The programme has given him that opportunity.

"In that episode, I meet the people who were the protestors 20 years ago," he adds, "and they have the letter that I signed reprieving the railway, and now it's thriving." He smiles. "I feel very cheerful."

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  • Joy Hampson

    Posted: Monday 07 April 2014

    My husbands grandfather,a prominent railway contractor,Charles Braddock(1846 1921) was in a quandary when registering his mistress's first child.Ever ingenious he registered the child as Charles Harold Bradshaw,(born 1896 )no doubt because he kept a copy of Bradshaws to hand.His mistress was some 25 years younger than him.He was major contractor on Liverpool Overhead Railway and Clifden tunnel.Died bankrupt.Email me if you are interested in him.


    Posted: Tuesday 17 July 2012

    you left ou the breries that were once in Maidston

    Fremlins Style and Winch


    plus bishops Palace Mill Street



  • Dan maxwell

    Posted: Thursday 09 February 2012

    Congradulations Michael this is a truly fascinating programme

  • Vera Linge

    Posted: Sunday 05 February 2012

    So glad you enjoyed the Swanage Railway and Corfe Castle. Swanage-born John Mowlem re-built London from Purbeck stone, sending many interesting, redundant items back home e.g. the Wellington Memorial Clock Tower from the south end of London Bridge and Swanage Town Hall front was from the Mercers Hall in Cheapside.

    No wonder Swanage is sometimes known as London-by-the-Sea!

    We enjoy your trips.


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