INFLATION-busting fare hikes. Overcrowded carriages. Leaves on the line. The first thoughts that spring to mind these days when considering Britain’s rail network are seldom especially reverential.
So it’s perhaps just as well that Full Steam Ahead has pulled into the station. This fun BBC2 series rewinds to the early days of the railways, chugging around the country to examine just how much they changed British lives in the middle part of the 19th century.
Historian Ruth Goodman – one-third of the programme’s immensely likeable presenting team – says the spread of the railway had a deeper impact than the internet. Is she sure about that?
“Absolutely,” she insists. “Just like the internet has changed the way we shop. so did the railway. Just like the internet has changed the way we communicate, so did the railway.
“However, there are also a huge amount of things that the railway changed in a very short amount of time that the internet hasn’t got to yet. Physical geography for one.
“We have seaside towns because the railways took people there. The size of our cities are possible only because we could move people in and out. The very geography is different because of the railways.
“The internet hasn’t got there yet because all that promised home working hasn’t happened.”
Goodman isn’t sure she quite qualifies as a train buff, but admits she’s always had a soft spot for them, even working for British Rail for a few years in the late 1980s.
In making the programme she found herself being amazed by the changes the growing reach of the railways’ tentacles had wrought. Not least the tiny horsehair factory in Gloucestershire which owed its very existence to them.
“It’s not a museum, it’s still going as a commercial business run entirely on an 1874 weaving machine,” she says, laughing at the glorious anachronism of it all. “We didn’t find a single process there more modern than that.”
Forthcoming episodes take a look at how Yorkshire changed, too. Whitby, for instance, was a declining whaling port when the railway arrived to turn things around.
The line built into the North York Moors opened up the countryside and created access to and from the town. It suddenly meant there was a way to get produce quickly across the country – in Whitby’s case it was herring, much of which was destined for London’s famous Billingsgate Market.
By the 1880s, the herring industry in the town employed some 5,000 and the fish dubbed ‘The Poor Man’s Friend’ had become a cheap, staple diet of working class families.
“Whitby had been really cut off,” says Goodman, who travelled to the East Coast and spent a day with Barry Brown of Fortunes, who have been producing kippers in the town for the past 143 years.
“It’s hard to think of that now but the roads over the moors were really difficult to navigate and get anything heavy up. Yes, it had connections by sea but it was pretty small scale. Then in comes that line and the whole place takes off.”
As well as following in the footsteps of Britain’s ‘herring girls’, she also paid a visit to Yorkshire’s Rhubarb Triangle, finding out how production of the plant flourished due to the railway, which allowed small firms to grow into national firms rather than just being little local concerns and led to the rise of branded goods.
It came in the nick of time. The 1840s were known as the ‘Hungry 40s’ with the potato blight and poor wheat harvests leading to food shortages in growing urban areas where people had flocked to find work.
“We tend to take the railway a bit for granted,” says Goodman. “I know there have been lots of programmes in the past about engines and travelling on trains but perhaps this is something people haven’t thought about – this huge impact, the way it underpins our modern life and made Britain into what Britain is.
“I think many people will be surprised by just how influential it is, when you’re sitting down to your tea, if you look around the table, how much of what you’re eating and how much of the recipes that you’re cooking owe their origin to this.
“Even the roof over your head owes its origin to the railway. In a world that used to have very vernacular architecture, us ing only local materials, suddenly you’ve got a mass market of materials and a whole new set of people doing mass designs. We get one style of Victorian house ramping across the countryside. The idea that streets should be straight and in grid patterns, that had only been for the wealthy before.
“The railway changed what we eat, it changed what we grow, the way we cook, even the pots and pans we use. It had this huge physical impact on our lives as well as the speeding up of communications, making the postal system possible, and allowing people to move for jobs or for pleasure.
“The internet has only done some of that. And if you look at where those changes are you have to say the railway did it very fast. The speed at which things were happening in the 1830s and 40s takes your breath away. For all we think modern life is fast-moving it makes it look a bit plodding.”
Goodman’s passion for her subject, along with that of co-presenters and fellow historians Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn, comes across loud and clear. “I think it’s because we are genuinely having a good time,” she says. “We’re not heavily scripted, in fact we’re not scripted at all. It’s our own words and our own experience. And we mean it. We find this stuff fascinating and exciting and we just want to share it with people.”
One of her personal highlights in the series was travelling from London to Edinburgh on the Flying Scotsman, the iconic locomotive which has been wowing the crowds across the country since the completion of its decade-long, £4.2m restoration.
“When we got to York we changed over from a diesel engine to actually being the Flying Scotsman engine. And from then on to Edinburgh, every single bridge, every railway crossing, everywhere that a road went near the railway – and even fields in the middle of nowhere – there were people lining the route.
“You would see a few and think, ‘Oh, how lovely, everyone’s turned out’ but it just went on and on. It was all ages, both sexes, and the journey hadn’t been advertised, it had gone word of mouth. Usuually when you see big gatherings of people it’s all organised and commercialised and sponsored but this was spontaneous, it was remarkable.
“I always knew people liked trains. I knew there were plenty of enthusiasts out there. But to see such genuine affection for such an important part of our heritage, I got quite a lump in my throat to be honest.”
Full Steam Ahead is on BBC2 on Thursday nights at 8pm.
When bulls became stars of the show
As well as allowing fast-growing industrial towns and cities to flourish, the railway also had a transformative effect on the rural economy.
Full Steam Ahead examines how producers were now able to transport their livestock around the country, rather than having to walk it to the local market.
It also enabled them to compare their animals for the first time with those of rival producers both from within the county and far beyond, as well as judge whether a celebrated breed was worthy of its star billing.
Agricultural shows sprung up, animals were cross-bred with others from elsewhere to create new breeds and bulls became celebrities, with people travelling from far and wide to see them.