It’s got a drab brown cover stained with greasy fingermarks, and the faded gold leaf of the title is barely legible. The tiny print inside is so small you need to squint to decipher some of the text. There’s no blurb extolling the celebrity of its author, nor any snippets from rave reviews by the literary darlings of the day. There is not even any introduction.
Yet this book of quaint observations by George Bradshaw a backstreet Salford printer, on his meandering train journeys through Britain in mid-Victorian times has taken the best-selling book charts by storm. Roll over Stieg Larsson, Jodi Picault and David Nichols whose books it has elbowed aside in its race up the charts.
As I write this, Bradshaw’s Descriptive Railway Hand-Book of Great Britain and Ireland is riding high in the national bestseller lists, and a little publishing firm called Osprey has an unprecedented hit on its hands, after publishing a facsimile of the only surviving original of the book, stains, thumbprints and all. One reviewer enthused: “Forget Michelin and Lonely Planet, this is the only informative guide to the UK you’ll ever need.”
Bradshaw, born in 1801, was one of the earliest rail travellers and made a fortune publishing the first-ever national train timetables in the days when Britain’s trains were run by more than a hundred different companies – and before even standard time existed across the land.
It took not some uber-powerful literary agent with a large chequebook and access to the world’s top publishing houses to spot the Bradshaw genius, but a tiny company that started life printing the collector cards that used to go into Brooke Bond tea packets.
One clue to the success of this eccentric book lies in Michael Portillo’s popular BBC television series Great British Railway Journeys, which was inspired by Bradshaw’s book and has just completed its third series. Another is that this beautifully bound hardback costs around a fiver when the price of even the cheapest pulp paperback is nudging £10.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Could it be that Bradshaw’s handbook has chimed so well with the popular imagination because it offers such an upbeat view of Britain at a time when we are experiencing the worst downturn for a generation?
Here is a portrait of a confident nation, proud of its heritage and bearing an unwavering belief in its institutions. Bradshaw’s journeys take us through a land where industry is flourishing, the countryside is unspoilt and the churches are packed with the faithful. Here is a long lost country where even the smallest town has its cottage industries where lace is woven, leather is tanned, hats are made, Eccles cakes are baked, oysters are farmed, black puddings are turned out by the yard and factories are devoted to the production of artefacts that are the pride and envy of the world.
Above all, the trains that got Bradshaw to his destinations in far-flung corners of the nation were reliable, the staff courteous, the fares were cheap and there was usually a porter on the platform of even the smallest station to help you with your luggage. Bradshaw wrote of his beloved trains that bore him so efficiently wherever he wanted to go: “Railways may now be considered as accelerators of pleasure as well as business bringing as they do the most favourite watering places within reach of an agreeable journey.”
Before he vanished into obscurity in the 1960s, Bradshaw’s name was synonymous with railway timetables everywhere – even if they were not published in his name. First appearing in 1840, Bradshaw’s Monthly Railway Guide, with its comprehensive timetables, became the household name for train travel of every description. Phileas Fogg carries a “Bradshaw” in Around the World in 80 Days, and in Bram Stoker’s famous novel, Count Dracula consults a Bradshaw when he plans his infamous journey from Transylvania to England.
When William Temple, one of our greatest Archbishops of Canterbury, was headmaster of Repton public school, he would punish erring boys by making them memorize journeys from Bradshaw. Noted for its complexity, Trollope remarked that Bradshaw was “beyond his mental ability” – and it was employed to construct alibis in countless crime novels from Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie.
But it is the confident and successful world evoked in his tourist guide that lives on most vividly. When this 1863 edition was produced, Queen Victoria was on the throne and Palmerston was prime minister. It was the year that the first football game was played under FA rules and London’s first underground train – from Paddington to Farringdon Street – took to the rails. Yorkshire County Cricket club was founded and London was mobbed by enthusiastic crowds attending the wedding of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales to Princess Alexandra of Denmark.
Bradshaw spares no excesses of the purplest prose in his eulogies of the marvels to be observed on rail travels throughout the land. On viewing St Paul’s cathedral, the book declares: “The extreme beauty and colossal proportions of this mighty temple are worthy of the highest admiration.” In Oxford Bradshaw describes the “high street as the finest in England, the number and elegance of its public buildings and remarkable curvature, presenting new combinations of magnificent objects to the eye.”
At Tintern Abbey Bradshaw is consumed with ecstasy as the “graceful Wye, filled up to its banks, and brimming over with the tide from the Severn Sea, glides tranquilly past the orchards”. At Windsor, “no Briton can view unmoved the stately towers of the castled keep.”
Even humbler places get the treatment. The ticket hall at Euston station is “truly gigantic” and “in size and grandeur probably unique”. The sea in Hastings has a “beautiful sea-green hue” and the waves provide “music at midnight to all who sleep in the vicinity of the shore”. Preston is “aristocratic and unrivalled for the beauty of its situation”. Matlock Bath is compared to Switzerland. Hull is “like Venice”.
Modern opponents of the new HS2 high speed line to the north will boggle at Bradshaw’s description of the approaches to Euston where he remarks on the “elegant villas and rows of houses, the inhabitants of which must be great admirers of the locomotive with its shrieking whistle.”
But this was a very different country from today’s Britain, in which there was pride and confidence in industry and business was booming unapologetically. In Merthyr in south Wales where “blast furnaces, forges and rolling mills are scattered on all sides for paddling, balling and refining” Bradshaw urged tourists to “see the furnaces at night, when the red glare of the flames produces an uncommonly striking effect”. Unlike today, there seemed to be plenty of jobs to go round. At the works of Messrs Crawshay in the town “3,000 to 5,000 hands are employed.”
Inspecting the cotton industry around Manchester, Bradshaw finds “1,000 factories, with 300,000 hands and a power of 90,000 horses, moving 1,000,000 power looms and 20,000,000 spindles. The book marvels at Britain’s international competitiveness: “Cotton may be brought from India, across the sea, made up and shipped again to India and there sold cheaper than the native dealer in his own market.”
Around Stoke-on-Trent, where today the pottery industry has all but collapsed, Bradshaw finds an “industrious region” where an “enormous population is continuously employed.” In Coventry people are busy weaving ribbon and making watches while in Bedford they turning our pillow lace, in Oldham corduroy, and in Wellingborough shoes.
The churches in Bradshaw’s world are plentiful (in central Manchester he counts 50) and it is possible to cash a cheque at the local bank in even the humblest of places. Rather than faceless outposts of global corporations, these are mostly independent and family owned with delightful-sounding names, such as Butlins and Sons of Rugby, Greenaway and Greaves of Warwick and Henry Michael and George Tubb of Bicester.
It is poignant now to read Bradshaw’s evocation of the spirit of places that have changed beyond recognition. Blackpool is a “pretty bathing place”, the area around Gatwick airport contains “nothing of note”, while the “beautiful River Trent in Nottingham” is “well known to the angler”. Sellafield is “a beautiful spot” while gritty inner-city Kilburn in north London marked “the beginning of open country”.
Though the religiously puritan Bradshaw cut a rather sober figure, with his starched shirt and black suit, he was clearly not averse to enjoying hospitality wherever he could find it. He was especially partial to the refreshment room on Swindon station which is “admirably conducted and abundantly supplied with every article of fare to tempt the best as well as the most delicate appetites”.
One wonders what blandishments might have been on offer at the Midland Hotel, Derby to justify Bradshaw’s comment that “there is no lack of the spirit necessary to provide to the fullest extent every thing that can recommend it to its patrons. It is conducted in the most admirable manner by Mrs Chatfield and can claim to rank among the finest hotels in England.”
Meanwhile, Oxford-based Osprey, whose subsidiary Old House Books, reproduced Bradshaw’s handbook from the only surviving original edition, are still reeling from selling 60,000 copies since December, defying the gravity of the book trade where e-books are sending hardback sales plummeting by 10 per cent annually. “It’s incredible,” says their spokesman, Abraham Davies. We started with an initial print run of 10,000, which we thought was quite bullish, but we had no idea of the scale.”
There’s a lesson here, says Trevor Dolby, a columnist with Bookbrunch, the daily news service for the publishing industry, and a senior executive with Random House, the world’s biggest book publishers,
“As London-based publishers we sometimes forget that there is a stratum of Middle England we don’t cater for. It’s the world identified by John Major of warm beer, green suburbs, dog lovers and old maids cycling to Holy Communion. The people of Middle England may not buy a lot of books, but we ignore them at our peril.
“There’s something that will often catch their fancy, and a book like this can really take off. Perhaps there’s an element of nostalgia, and a nicely produced book is often a counter all that technology that comes into people’s homes. Best of all Bradshaw wrote in a way you can still engage with. He opens a window into the past that brings the present alive.”
It’s a view reflected in scores of plaudits from ordinary readers of Bradshaw’s book to be found on Amazon. “It’s amazing,” runs one typical view, “ that a cartographer from Manchester, whose only aim was to help the Victorian traveller get from A to B more efficiently awakened the true sense of us as a rail travelling nation.” Another writes: “It harks back to a time when we had pride in our country.”
Verbose, eccentric, middlebrow Victorian railway “anorak” he might have been, but Bradshaw sends a powerful message to the modern age that we should perhaps sneer less and celebrate a bit more the virtues of today’s Britain.
G.K. Chesterton got it right when one of the characters in his novels says: “Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man. Give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories!”
‘Bradshaw’s Descriptive Railway Hand-Book of Great Britain and Ireland’ is published by Old House Books, price £7.50. Michael Williams’s latest book ‘On the Slow Train Again’ has just been published by Arrow Books