Northumberland set to feature on Great Coastal Railway Journeys TV show

Five episodes covering ‘Tynemouth to Berwick’ will air from Monday 7 February at 6.30pm.

Presenter Michael Portillo travels on the Underground, East Coast Main Line and Tyne Valley Line to marvel at the scenery and admire the architectural and engineering heritage of the railways in the region where they were invented.

Episode 1 (Monday): Newcastle at Bardon Mill

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Michael Portillo in Alnmouth for Great Coastal Railway Journeys. Image: BBC/Nu/Fremantle

In Tynemouth, Michael discovers one of Britain’s most dangerous coastlines and hears of a 19th century tragedy at sea that inspired 140 local men to set up a coastal rescue service. The Tynemouth Volunteer Life Brigade has trained lifeguards to operate an ingenious device called a breeches buoy from shore. Michael finds out how it works and enjoys a pint and a sea shanty with long-time volunteers.

At Long Sands beach, Michael rolls up his sleeves to help volunteers caring for sick and injured seals at the Tynemouth Aquarium Seal Hospital. A young puppy named Gandalf needs to have his temperature taken.

From Newcastle Central, Michael boards The Passage to India train service, a curry express, which takes him 20 miles along the Tyne Valley line to Corbridge station, now an Indian restaurant.

Back on the Tyne Valley line, Michael’s train traces the route of Hadrian’s mighty wall. At Bardon Mill he discovered some of Britain’s richest Roman archaeological sites at Vindolanda. Michael joins volunteer diggers to hear about some of their intriguing discoveries.

Michael Portillo at Alnwick Castle. Image: BBC/Nu/Fremantle

Episode 2 (Tuesday): Newcastle to Lynemouth

Heading north from Newcastle, Michael discovers one of Newcastle’s hippest hotspots, Ouseburn, and is intrigued to hear about its role in Newcastle’s early industrial development.

En route, Michael crosses the vast Northumberland coalfield. At Cramlington he descends to visit an extraordinary work of landform art made from the spoils of a coal mine, the vast Northumberlandia, known as the Lady of the North.

Next stop is the old coal port of Blyth. At the historic wharf, Michael enjoys a hearty sea shanty and learns about an intrepid former townsman, Captain William Smith, who in 1819 discovered Antarctica.

Michael meets a group of young people who have been inspired by the Captain’s story to restore a Scottish herring dinghy, called Zulu, with the Blyth Tall Ships Charity.

In Bedlington, Michael tracks down a lost railway, whose services began in 1850 but were closed to passengers in 1964 following the Beeching Report. But the 18-mile Blyth and Tyne Coastal Railway is rising from the ashes and test trains are already on the way.

Lynemouth Power Station used to use coal to generate electricity, but has now switched to biomass. Michael boards a half-mile freight train loaded with wood pellets bound for the power station. He hears from the train driver and fuel manager at Lynemouth how the decline of coal has affected their working lives and the region they live in and learns about the role rail plays in saving carbon.

Episode 3 (Wednesday): Morpeth in Amble

Michael Portillo explores the wild and rugged coast of Northumberland by train. He starts today in Morpeth, where he finds a historic collection of Northumbrian bagpipes and discovers how difficult they are to play.

The East Coast Main Line delivers Michael to Widdrington and its long sandy bay, where a nosy blacksmith finds treasures to inspire works of steel art. Michael helps put the finishing touches on a metal seaweed design.

In Rothbury, Michael visits Britain’s first ‘smart home’ – a gadget-filled Victorian mansion built by wealthy industrialist and inventor, William Armstrong. Cragside clings to the side of a mountain and is packed with modern 19th century amenities including an old dishwasher and water roaster, central heating and hydro.

Returning to sea, Michael reaches the mouth of the River Coquet and the fishing port of Amble, which is home to one of the largest fleets of inshore fishing boats on this coast. An innovative program to promote ugly fish challenges his taste buds. Can he resist a red gurnard risotto?

Episode 4 (Thursday: Alnmouth to Bamburgh

Michael Portillo travels the stunning Northumbrian coast with its stunning beaches and grand castles.

In the village of Alnmouth, he takes to the waves in a traditional skiff built by dedicated members of the Alnmouth Coastal Rowing Club. They train to compete in the world championships in a self-built boat, based on a Fair Isle design. Michael must learn fast to stay afloat.

The Aln Valley Heritage Railway carries Michael to Alnwick, crossing a 170-year-old viaduct built by Robert Stephenson. From the historic cobblestone town with its imposing castle, Michael heads to Boulmer Beach to hear about the threats to this low-lying coastline and the efforts to protect it from sea erosion and tidal waves.

Michael’s next stop is Chathill, which serves the 19th century Seahouses Harbor where boats leave for the Farne Islands. Along this rocky coast, Michael heads to the Olde Ship Inn to discover a fascinating map, which lists the wrecks of many ships.

The mighty Bamburgh Castle, an icon of Northumberland, is Michael’s final destination today. Once the seat of the Kings of Northumbria, the construction of the castle was started by the Normans and since the end of the 19th century it has been in the hands of the Armstrong family. Michael meets the castle’s current keeper to learn about its history and admire its magnificent King’s Hall.

Episode 5 (Friday): Farne Islands to Berwick-upon-Tweed

Michael Portillo’s train journey along the beautiful Northumberland coast continues to the Farne Islands, passes by the holy island of Lindisfarne and ends in England’s most northerly town, Berwick-upon-Tweed .

On the largest of the Farne Islands, Inner Farne, Michael steps in to help the rangers clean up a poisonous plant that is invading the island. It is so prolific that it threatens native plants that seabirds rely on for nesting.

From the mainland, Michael embarks on a two-mile pilgrimage along a single-track causeway, which twice a day is covered by the North Sea. His destination is the holy island of Lindisfarne. Michael discovers that the island was chosen in the 7th century by St Aidan as the site of a monastery. Northumbria’s patron saint, St Cuthbert, later became bishop there. The island’s vicar today shows Michael a life-size reproduction of the beautifully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels, the originals of which are housed in the British Museum.

Back on the East Coast Mainline, Michael skirts the North Sea coast, crossing the River Tweed over Robert Stephenson’s Royal Border Bridge, to reach Berwick-upon-Tweed. Struck by the variety of Northeastern accents and dialects, Michael learns what distinguishes a Geordie from a Smoggie.

Just two and a half miles from Scotland, Berwick-upon-Tweed has a checkered past and an intriguing custom, dating back to the 15th century. Michael asks the town mayor for permission to join horses and riders in a ceremony to mark the boundary between Scotland and England along a line agreed in 1438.

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