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Walking Through History

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Tony Robinson embarks on spectacular walks through some of Britain's most historic landscapes in search of the richest stories from our past

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Tony Robinson embarks on spectacular walks through some of Britain's most historic landscapes in search of the richest stories from our past

  • North Norfolk

    Tony Robinson walks along the beautiful North Norfolk coast and through one of the least developed spots in the country.

    This rural, remote area may now be cherished as the homeland of Alan Partridge, but Tony is determined to get back to the Victorian age. How did North Norfolk remain so blissfully unaffected by that time of dynamic change when industry and railways transformed lives and landscapes across Great Britain?

    From the arrival of Bertie, Prince of Wales at Sandringham House, to the opening of Cromer pier, Tony's four-day walk is a journey through 40 years of Victorian Norfolk.

    Late-19th-century Norfolk was a place of entrepreneurs, trend-setters, commerce and those all-important railways. It had the money, the power and even the fashionable royal status it needed to transform itself for the modern world. But it didn't transform itself.

    Tony explores prime shooting estates, purpose-built seaside resorts, salt-marshes, disused railway lines and vast barley-growing estates. He discovers how the all-powerful landowners could control development and even shape the railways to suit their needs.

    And from the gentlemen hunters who discovered conservation to the fashionistas who briefly made Cromer the place to be seen, he discovers how social attitudes and change have helped keep North Norfolk just how we like it.

  • Northumbria

    In the seventh century, at the height of the Dark Ages, the rule of Northumbria stretched from Edinburgh to York. But this was a land where a battle was raging for the souls of the people.

    Over five days, from Melrose in the Scottish Borders to Holy Island off the coast of Northumberland, Tony Robinson is on the trail of one of Northumbria's greatest sons: Saint Cuthbert.

    Through the Tweed Valley and across the Cheviot Hills, it's a journey through a murky history laden with myth. But by investigating the communities, power bases and landscape of seventh-century Northumbria, Tony aims to understand the pagan land in which Cuthbert spread his simple brand of Celtic Christianity.

    The height of Cuthbert's career was as prior of the holy island of Lindisfarne. He achieved his greatness by healing the rifts between his own Celtic church and the dominant Roman church to the south. His legacy is still celebrated at the great cathedral of Durham.

    Two newly uncovered holy wells, caves, Saxon palaces, ancient hill forts and Viking graves transport Tony back 1300 years to a strange and mysterious time of turmoil.

    The remote island of Inner Farne provides a bittersweet ending to this heroic tale: the final proof that Cuthbert preferred solitude, reflection and nature to the power-politics of Dark Ages Britain.

  • Wigan Pier

    Tony Robinson visits Liverpool and Lancashire for a towpath exploration of grand industrial engineering along the majestic Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

    Setting off from Liverpool, Tony takes a three-day walk inland to Wigan, tracing the story of the canal's chaotic construction and its dramatic impact on the development of Lancashire.

    Today the canal cuts a peaceful, winding route, linking rural farmlands with lost epicentres of the industrial north-west.

    From the mid-1750s, the population of Liverpool multiplied 20 times in barely a century, helped in no small part by its new canal: a vital link to the coal, factories and labour supply of Lancashire and Yorkshire.

    Tony's walk takes him from modern Liverpool - where just a few traces of the canal's original terminus remain - to the edge of the city, from where the canal is very much as it has been since it opened in 1774.

    Before reaching open countryside, he visits the old Hartley's jam factory and Aintree race course with its Canal Turn.

    In Lancashire Tony investigates the politics and processes that went in to this pioneering transport link. It took almost 50 years to construct 127 miles, with arguments, major delays and heartache along the way, followed by the eventual creation of communities.

    Looming over these communities was the coal industry, which dominated the latter stages of Tony's walk until the 1970s.

    The iconic but rarely visited Wigan Pier marks the final stage of this walk: a symbol both of the canal's role in Wigan's growth and a sign of the Lancashire industry that's now vanished.

  • Cornwall

    In the late 18th century there was a sure-fire way to earn a living along the Cornish coast: smuggling. The tiny secretive harbours, beaches and secluded coves were ideal for the infamous illicit imports: brandy for the parson, tobacco for the clerk...

    It's also great walking country, as Tony discovers in his four-day trek along the stunning coastline between Plymouth and Falmouth.

    And the facts are extraordinary. Half of the brandy drunk in the country in the 1780s had been smuggled in illicitly through Cornwall. The smuggling business was so huge that it threatened the national economy.

    Tony discovers why so many people were involved in the trade, and why everyone else turned a blind eye.

    Along his route, visiting such beauty spots as Lantic Bay and Polperro, he encounters all sorts of reminders of the trade. He meets descendants of the smugglers, handles weapons used in battles with the revenue men, and inspects secret account books kept by the smugglers' banker.

    He also hears how the government gradually turned the screws on the criminals, making their lives almost impossible, and how, in a surprising twist, the Cornish themselves decided that maybe their activities were slightly immoral!

  • The Lakes

    It was 30 years after the Romans invaded Britain that they were ready to take on the challenge of conquering the Lake District. With the toughest landscape they had encountered in the country, peopled by a rebellious tribe, it was no small task.

    Two full legions - 11,000 armed men - marched north, led by two top generals. This extraordinary commitment was rewarded, and within a few years, the whole of Lakeland was under Roman control.

    Tony Robinson tackles the journey, but, as he discovers on this 50-mile walk from Penrith past Ullswater to Ambleside and on to the Irish Sea at Ravenglass, the Romans encountered beauty and danger in equal measure.

    Today the Lakes may be better known for Wordsworth, Beatrix Potter and, of course, walking holidays, but for centuries they were a hive of industry: a rich source of lead, silver and iron.

    The Romans carved roads through the region and built impressive forts, bath houses and a major port, enabling them to keep control and export the minerals they wanted.

    But the traffic was not all one-way. As Tony discovers, many of the native Britons enthusiastically adopted Roman customs.

    Most of the millions of us who visit the area will see nothing of our Roman predecessors, but they did leave a wealth of reminders of their 300-year occupation, if you know where to walk and look.

  • Stonehenge

    Tony heads off for a 45-mile walk across Wiltshire to tell the story of life and death in the last centuries of the Stone Age. His route over chalk downlands and Salisbury plain takes him through the greatest concentration of prehistoric sites in Europe.

    From Avebury to Stonehenge and from spirituality to engineering, this is a journey through our ancestors' remarkable development in the latter days of the Neolithic Age.

    Windmill Hill near Avebury is the start of his route; with earthworks dating to 4500BC, it's one of the most ancient sites in Wiltshire. From here, Tony moves on through 2000 years of the 'New Stone Age', encountering increasingly complex burial sites and processional routes that have helped make this area both captivating and intriguing.

    As he heads south Tony can't escape the eccentric characters and weird phenomena that have accompanied Wiltshire's ancient history. Mysterious crop circles and unexplained underground energy sources enliven his visit, but his mind is firmly fixed on the extraordinary array of monuments in his path.

    That means listening to the fanciful notions of 18th-century antiquarians, which have a grain of truth at their heart, and grasping the cutting edge of scientific archaeology around Stonehenge, which is finally offering up some astounding answers.

  • Battle in the Glens

    Tony takes on a tough four-day trek through the Kintail region of the west Scottish Highlands to discover the story of the Jacobite uprisings of the early 1700s.

    On three occasions, Highland armies, assisted by the French and the Spanish, attempted to overthrow the King and put a Stuart back on the throne.

    What made the Highlands such a breeding ground for revolution and how did the unique character of this landscape shape the character of the Highlanders?

    Tony's journey of discovery starts in Shiel Bridge, at the mouth of Glen Shiel, where he heads to the site of the earliest known dwellings here, the 'skyscrapers' of the Iron Age.

    On to the village of Glenelg with its fantastic views over the Sound of Sleat to Skye... and the hulking remains of a British barracks built 200 years ago by George I to pacify and terrify the locals.

    Via the town of Kyle of Lochalsh, Tony reaches the stunning Eilean Donan Castle. It has now been rebuilt, but it was destroyed after the invading Spanish troops landed here and were attacked by British warships.

    Finally, Tony heads up the awe-inspiring Glen Shiel to the site of the climactic battle where royalist troops faced off against the rebels.

  • The Tudor Way

    Tony sets off on a 45-mile hike through the beautiful countryside of the Weald in Kent and the Downs of East Sussex to discover the area's rich and surprising Tudor heritage.

    At the impressively preserved Penshurst Place, author Philippa Gregory helps Tony relish the fate of the Grand Duke of Buckingham at the hands of the young Henry VIII.

    From there, he travels up what used to be secret paths to Hever Castle. Henry's saucy courting of the Boleyn girls at Hever comes as perhaps no surprise, but Tony travels on to find out how the monarch's reign brought not just fame and disaster to the women who caught his eye, but also wrought huge social, political, and industrial change to the country - and especially this area.

    Before finishing in the town of Lewes, where he relives one of the more brutal monastic dissolutions, Tony will have uncovered treason in Henry's court, discovered how the Weald's iron ore deposits made it the industrial heart of Tudor England and he'll have seen the ruthless extent of the ambition of one man - Thomas Cromwell.

  • Frontline Dorset

    Tony's walk in this episode takes him back to 1940 when Dorset became the unlikely front line in the war against Hitler.

    His five-day, 60-mile walk along the Jurassic coast reveals the county's hidden World War II story.

    Starting by the defences on Chesil Beach (still standing 70 years on), Tony's journey encompasses stunning scenery and scenes of amazing acts of ingenuity and bravery as he heads east towards Swanage and Studland Bay.

    He uncovers the strange part a world-famous swannery played in developing a secret weapon.

    He hears of the bravery of the man who won the Victoria Cross serving in Portland Harbour when it became one of the first places in Britain to be bombed by the Germans.

    Revealing the role Dorset had to play in protecting Britain from invasion leads to an emotional climax in which he meets one of the veterans who survived after landing at Omaha Beach on D Day.

  • The Birth of Industry

    Tony takes a 40-mile walk through the glorious Peak District, along the Derwent Valley, where the world's industrial revolution was born.

    This is a journey that reveals how Britain transformed itself from a nation of farmers into the industrial powerhouse of the world.

    En route Tony visits sleepy Peaks village Cromford, where Richard Arkwright established the world's first ever factory, and examines the grip that Arkwright had on Cromford, including enforcing his own currency.

    Nearby is the building that would lay the foundations for today's skyscrapers. Tony also encounters a 900-year-old stately home that has been used to film three different Jane Eyres.

    Brian Blessed introduces Tony to the joys - and the huge significance - of the Cromford canal.

    Later Tony climbs to the heights of the Peaks, drawn by the chance to operate a huge steam winding engine that's been working in the same place since 1829.

    He ends his incredible journey through economic time in Derby; the railway town's secret crown jewel is the world's first engine roundhouse, built in 1839 and now restored to its former glory.

Walking Through History synopsis

Tony Robinson embarks on spectacular walks through some of Britain's most historic landscapes in search of the richest stories from our past

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