"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.
"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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