Great British Railway Journeys is one of those gentle little gems. A trip along various railway lines is the opportunity to explore the scenery, towns (often the less well known ones with the kind of quirky items I like) plus the history of Victorian times, particularly how the coming of the railway changed the face of Britain.
Each series is based around using Bradshaw's Guide*: a guide to Britain's delights aimed at the Victorian who wanted to explore by rail. It's different to most guidebooks as the order isn't alphabetical or by county, but by region and railway line.
Such is the series' popularity, the 1866 edition has been republished and NAH bought me one for Christmas. The entry for Chippenham (once I'd found it) reads:
Distance from station, 3/4 mile.
A telegraph station (most important - this was the internet of its day).
HOTELS - Angel, George
MARKET DAY - Thursday (I wonder when it changed to Friday and Saturday?).
FAIRS - May 17th, June 22nd, Oct 29th and Dec 11th (I wonder what happened to those?).
This is a parliamentary borough, on the Great Western Railway, in North Wiltshire on the river Avon, but not otherwise remarkable, except as being a great seat of the cheese trade. Population 7, 075 who send two members to parliament (over 30,000 today with just one MP). A little cloth and silk are made. It has two tanneries, a foundry, four banks, a new Town Hall and Market House, built for £12,000, at the cost of J. Neeld Esq., MP of Grittleton, and a long bridge on 23 arches. The old church large and handsome. In the time of Alfred it was a city of strength, and was taken by the Danes in 880. It is delightfully situated in a valley on the south bank of the river Avon, by which it is almost surrounded.
This is a snapshot of Chippenham around 25 years after the railway came and it would seem before the town was transformed by it. There's no mention of the great railway engineering works, nor of Nestlé or Wiltshire Ham. The bridge has been replaced and the Market House renamed the Neeld Hall and whilst it's still a place for meetings and events, the cheese market there is no more. It would appear the coming of the railway brought about the demise of Wiltshire cheese as there was more profit to be made in selling the milk to the London trade.
It shows how in a mere 150 years a town can change dramatically more than once. I wonder what George Bradshaw would make of Chippenham today?
* = apparently it should be called Bradshaw's Tourist Handbook and the original one you see Michael Portillo using is very rare indeed.