This set of four DVDs is from the first series of Michael Portillo's train rides across England. (A second series has been shown on the BBC recently, but these DVDs are of the earlier adventure). Each programme is 30 minutes long and follows Portillo as he retraces four journeys which were first documented in Bradshaw's railway guide of the Victorian era, back in the 1840s.
It's a surprisingly charming series which succeeds in capturing a snapshot of modern Britain (mainly England; there's not a lot from the rest of the UK). Each programme reviews how the areas visited by the railway have changed in the past 170 years.
So although you might at first think that this DVD is just for train buffs, that's a long way from the truth. Great British Railway Journeys opens a window onto English industrial and social development, and gives us plenty of glimpses of how the past has morphed into the present. The railway is a useful device and Bradshaw's guide provides plenty of Victorian description to compare with the modern situation. So this series isn't just for railway buffs, although there is plenty of footage of current trains in service, plus many wonderful moments in interesting stations.
Portillo takes four different journeys over the course of the 20 episodes, from Liverpool to Scarborough; Preston to Kirkcaldy; Swindon to Penzance and Buxton to London. Along the way he calls at thriving cities, hidden villages, sites of natural beauty, post-industrial deserts and meets all manner of interesting locals who explain about the area's cultural and industrial heritage. This is all linked to the impact of the rise and decline of the railways.
For instance, the railway connection to Hull meant that the fishing fleet could switch from catching an occasional whale, to full scale cod trawling. One segment demonstrated how the facility to transport the product from the harbour to the customers, hundreds of miles away, created a massive industry (so much so that cod stocks were under threat in the 1900s). Then we learned about the Icelandic cod wars, and finally how warming waters are driving the cod further north and how sea bass may be a more common catch in the same waters in future. Following that theme, Portillo donned waders and waddled into the North Sea to examine sustainable beach fishing for bass - all that, in less than eight minutes!
So each programme offers sneaky education across a broad range of topics, linked only by their relationship with the railway. There's not too much about trains, engines or civil engineering, but plenty about stations architecture, the delights of the Railway Hotels, and the lives of ordinary people in different locations. Because this is such an extensive series it's hard to mention many of the topics, but high points include the secret ammunition factory at Gretna, Portillo trying to speak Scouse, how the Jewish refugees of WW2 passed through Liverpool en route to America, exploring underground canals, Brunel's great steamship, and the scenic ride along the south coast Riviera - a railway adventure which will one day be consumed by the sea.
There is some railway trivia, too, including the first locomotive race, the first railway fatality, a visit to the railway village in Swindon, and the revival of the glorious St Pancras hotel. Nice too to hear again the explanation of `railway time' which finishes the series at Big Ben in London.
I also adore the archive footage which is shown with each episode. These are delightful snippets of the past, perfectly preserved and very often completely recognisable.
Initially I wasn't sure whether Portillo would be a comfortable guide through the social and economic history of Britain. But - some unfortunate sartorial decision aside - he proves to be a sympathetic and intelligent presenter. His enthusiasm for the heydays of the railway is obvious, and the background research for each segment is detailed and intriguing. Portillo skilfully allows the locals to explain their specialist subjects, steering the conversation without stampeding over their stories. Occasionally he interjects with wit and vigour - especially if he thinks they may be straying from the truth somewhat! I was surprised by how well he demonstrated a wistful longing for what-has-gone without compromising a fairly blunt assessment of the practical demands of the modern world.
Thoroughly good television, then. Very enjoyable to watch more than once, hence recommended for all with an interest in English history in general and our railways in particular. You can't possibly watch any of the episodes without learning something new, which always endears a programme to me...