A First-Class Return to the Days When Britain WAS Great; How a Victorian Railway Guide by a Backstreet Salford Printer Has Become the Book World's Most Surprising Hit

Daily Mail (London), May 4, 2012 | Go to article overview

A First-Class Return to the Days When Britain WAS Great; How a Victorian Railway Guide by a Backstreet Salford Printer Has Become the Book World's Most Surprising Hit


Byline: by Michael Williams

THE drab brown cover is stained with greasy fingermarks, and the faded gold leaf of the title is barely legible. Inside, the tiny print is so small you have 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.

Move over Stieg Larsson, Jodi Picault and David Nichols, whose books it elbowed aside. Bradshaw's Descriptive Railway Hand-Book of Great Britain and Ireland has been a huge, unprecedented hit for the little publishing firm Osprey, which took a gamble in publishing a facsimile of the only surviving original of the book, stains, thumbprints and all.

One reviewer enthuses: '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 100 different companies.

It took not some uber-powerful literary agent with a large chequebook 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 BBC2 series Great British Railway Journeys, which was inspired by Bradshaw's book and completed its third series earlier this year. Another is that this beautifully bound hardback costs just [pounds sterling]7.50, when the price of even the cheapest pulp paperback is nudging [pounds sterling]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. Industry is flourishing, the countryside is unspoilt and the churches are packed with the faithful.

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 producing artefacts that are the pride of Britain and envy of the world.

Above all, the trains that get Bradshaw to farflung corners of the nation are reliable, the staff are courteous, the fares are cheap and there is usually a porter on the platform of even the smallest station to help 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 his book vanished into obscurity in the 1960s, his name was synonymous with railway timetables everywhere -- even if they were not published in his name.

Bradshaw's Monthly Railway Guide, which first appeared in 1840, became the household name for train travel of every description. Phileas Fogg carried a 'Bradshaw' in Around the World in 80 Days, and in Bram Stoker's novel, Count Dracula consulted a Bradshaw when he planned his infamous journey from Transylvania to England.

When William Temple, one of our greatest Archbishops of Canterbury, was headmaster of Repton public school in the Edwardian years, he punished erring boys by making them memorise journeys from Bradshaw.

The guide was so complex -- combining timetables with descriptions of the sights to be seen -- that Trollope remarked Bradshaw was 'beyond his mental ability'. …

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