Michael Portillo’s love of steam trains

by Karen Shaw

I love trains, but I especially love steam trains; the smell, the steam and the sound.

One of my earliest memories is when I was an extra in the film ‘Yanks’ filmed at Keighley railway station. There I was, an eight-year-old with ginger hair, freckles and glasses. My role was to smile and wave a flag and to this day I can distinctly remember the train, chugging into the station and when the lead actor in the film, Richard Gere, stepped onto the platform at Keighley, it was the train that held my attention. (If you believe that, you’ll believe owt!) So when I was offered the opportunity to interview Michael Portillo, the former Minister of State for Transport to talk trains, it was full steam ahead. Passionate about trains, Michael embarks on five epic rail journeys, travelling the length and breadth of the UK and Ireland. He retraces routes that were first documented in the early 1840s in the monthly railway guide, Bradshaw’s Handbook. If you’ve been watching the show on BBC then you’ll know that Michael has now taken his Bradshaw’s Guide to Europe to travel the great railways of the continent but if you want to relive his most recent railway exploits in the UK, then look no further than Series 3 on DVD which is out now.

Being a Keighley lass born and bred, I was eager to discover if he had ever visited the World famous Keighley train station…

“No, I don’t believe I have.” is his answer. My heart sinks, maybe he remembered watching the film ‘Yanks’, maybe he remembered the little ginger girl with freckles… “Unfortunately, I don’t”, he laughs. Born into the steam age, Michael’s love of railways began as a child when he would jump aboard with his mother at King’s Cross and travel to Kirkcaldy in Scotland to visit his grandparents. He would travel by steam train over the Forth Bridge, on the overnight train. One of his earliest memories is going through York Station. He remembers seeing the word ‘York’ on one of the pillars. He’d never heard of York, only New York, and presumed that’s where they were. His gaze never left the pillars, hoping to see the word ‘New’. His mother questioned what he was doing and thought him very stupid for believing that you travelled from London to Scotland via New York!

“The long journey wasn’t a comfortable one and sleep would come in fits and starts. My parents didn’t have a lot of money and they weren’t extravagant at all, that’s why we took the ‘Starlight Special.’ It was cheaper to travel through the night.”

Michael’s father Luis Gabriel Portillo was an exiled Spanish Republican who left Spain and married Cora, daughter of a prosperous Kirkcaldy linen mill owner. She met Luis while she was an undergraduate at Oxford, they settled in north London and Michael was born in 1953. After grammar school he attended Cambridge, where he gained a first-class degree in history and it was in 1976 when he joined the Conservative Party.

But I was curious to discover if as a child he’d always dreamed of being a politician, or if all he ever wanted to be was a train driver… “It was never my childhood ambition but I’ve always loved trains. Even now they still turn my head. I remember as a child being almost scared of steam trains. To me they were fire and steam-breathing monsters,” he laughs.

The mention of fire and steam-breathing monsters leads me nicely into his time working with Margaret Thatcher. In 1979 his role was to brief Thatcher before press conferences during the election. “It was an enormous responsibility.” He says. “You wanted to be sure that there was nothing she was going to be ‘blind-sided’ on. I had to bring her all the bad news so she would never miss anything. And after two weeks she said ‘You know, you’re battering me, bringing me all this bad news every day. I may be leader of the opposition but I need a bit of bucking up as well you know.’

“She taught me such a lot about the loneliness of being in a position of authority and even though you’re ‘top dog’ you do need someone to tell you that things are going to be all right.” He adds.

An informative and entertaining series hosted by a uniquely enthusiastic guide with an obvious and infectious passion for the subject matter, Great British Railway Journeys makes for essential viewing for fans of series such as ‘Coast’, ‘A Picture Of Britain’, ‘Great British Journeys’ and ‘Michael Palin’s Great Railway Journeys’. Great British Railway Journeys Series 3 is out now on DVD (£39.99). Great British Railway Journeys Series 1 and Series 2 (cert, E) are available to buy now.