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Travel: Michael Portillo relives historic rail journey for BBC series

Most Scottish commuters today enjoy a bittersweet relationship with rail companies but a new BBC series is set to remind us of the time we fell in love with all things "train".

When Lancashire-born George Bradshaw published his first Railway Companion in 1840, few Britons had experienced overcrowding or the wrong kind of snow on a line. With Bradshaw's combined timetables in hand, the British Isles became an open gateway, bringing "inaccessible" parts, like Scot-land, within reach of the intrepid traveller.

In the five-part series Michael Portillo, former Tory minister for Transport, travels in the train tracks of Bradshaw from Preston to Kirkcaldy, discovering what remains of the cartographer's version of Britain, 170 years on. Scottish viewers will find some intriguing insights, not least in the Caledonian bloodline of its narrator.

Bradshaw's timetables were universally applauded for their usefulness. They were also the precursor to today's Rough Guides. Timetables from more than 150 rail providers were compiled in one volume, making sense of the confusing maze of routes which criss-crossed the country like Celtic knot-work. Not only did Bradshaw recommend journeys, he advised on where to stay and what to do. His opinions on architecture, science and industrialism made his compendiums a compelling documentary of Britain in Victorian times.

Exploring Gretna Green's famous marriage industry on his journey from Carlisle to Glasgow, Portillo discovers Bradshaw got it wrong about matters of the heart in southern Scotland, however. The Englishman, whose timetables found their way into the literature of Bram Stoker and Arthur Conan Doyle, predicted an end to matrimony as a business in Gretna. Blacksmith Alistaire Houston, who has married hundreds of couples, explains why the trade of love still thrives in Dumfriesshire, giving Bradshaw's forecast a hollow ring. He was not so wayward in his observations about the Calton district of Glasgow.

Back in 1840, the author alluded to the widespread social deprivation. Stopping off in the area famous for the Barras and Barrowland Ballroom, Portillo speaks to comedienne Janey Godley, who wrote about her life as a publican in Calton in her autobiography, Handstands In The Dark.

Today, Calton has the lowest male life expectancy of anywhere in Scotland. Not enough, it seems, has changed.

The programme does not reserve all its revelations for rail-related matters, though. The sections where Portillo crosses the Forth Bridge, bound for Kirkcaldy, are particularly interesting in terms of his connections to this enduring feat of Scottish engineering.

Portillo's grandfather John Blyth made his fortune in the Kirkcaldy linen trade and the young politician-in-the-making used to travel by train to Fife to visit. "My first memories of train travel were the Forth Bridge over the Firth of Forth in the east of Scotland," he says, as he scales the steel structure linking South and North Queensferry. "I've known it since I was a child when my mother would take my brothers and me to see her parents in Kirkcaldy. When my grandfather was a child in the 1880s, he would go out in a rowboat to watch the bridge being built."

In Kirkcaldy itself, Portillo visits the local art gallery to view paintings gifted to the town by his grandfather.

For those presently campaigning for the re-opening of a local station or bemoaning delays in the Borders line, Portillo acknowledges Britain has been reticent in harnessing its rail potential. "Apart from the Channel Tunnel rail link, we haven't invested in any new lines. I think we, the British, are very nervous about committing billions of pounds to big projects, whereas the French, the Spanish, the Japanese, do it in their sleep."

The narrator's words will ring true for many seeking better alternatives to the car. Some regions still bemoan the 400 miles of cuts made under the Beeching Report. Perhaps what the railways need is a modern day Bradshaw?

Great British Rail Journeys, BBC2, 11-15 January, 6:30pm.

&#149 This article first appeared in the Scotsman on Saturday 2 January, 2010

 
 
 

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