The Needles: Isle of Wight Coast


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The Needles: Isle of Wight

Nicholas Crane crosses the Solent to find out what's happened to England's largest island - the Isle of Wight.


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On this restless coastline, everything's on the move, even the land.

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The Isle of Wight seems so permanent and immoveable, and yet it's on a monumental journey.

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Nick Crane's crossing the Solent, in search of where the island's been,

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and what's happened to it

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along the way.

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Sailing around the Isle of Wight you get some sense of its size.

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At 23 miles across, it's England's largest island.

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It seems like a lost world.

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In fact, it's a time capsule containing

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clues to a journey the whole of the British Isles has been on.

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On a lost world you'd hope to find dinosaurs, and you wouldn't be disappointed.

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This is a dinosaur footprint,

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the beach is absolutely littered with them,

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they've fallen out of the cliff above me as the sea has eroded.

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It belongs to a four- or five-tonne Iguanodon.

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Look, you can see one articulated toe here, here's another one,

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the third toe has been snapped off, and here is the heel.

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These massive beasts tramped along this beach 130 million years ago,

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except that back then this land wasn't even here.

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And that's because the Isle of Wight has been on the move for ages, geological ages.

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And the evidence of its epic voyage is everywhere.

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This chalk is created from the remains of plankton which died

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78 million years ago in a very warm, very clear tropical sea.

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There certainly aren't tropical seas here now, so where was the Isle of Wight when the chalk was laid down?

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Well, a lot further south, and at the time it wasn't

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even an island.

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10,000 years ago it was part of the landmass of Britain.

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Step back 10,000 more and Britain was attached to the European mainland,

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but rewind a colossal 135 million years to the time of the dinosaurs

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when the continents were a lot closer together, Europe was 1,000 miles further south than now.

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The Isle of Wight has seen a lot of action on its journey north,

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and not surprisingly has picked up a few knocks along the way.

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You can see the bruises from those knocks in the landscape.

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Overlooking the multi-coloured cliffs at Alum Bay,

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geologist Alasdair Bruce is helping me get my eye in.

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What we're looking at it the huge fold in the Earth's crust.

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So if I elaborate by showing you this, that is essentially what we're looking at end-on.

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So this bit of the book is that peninsula sticking out in the sea?

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Yeah, those horizontal beds in the distance,

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and as you come further into the bay and into the Alum Sands themselves, they've now been tilted vertically.

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-And that's the vertical part.

-That's the centre.

-This bit here?

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-Indeed.

-OK. So what caused the fault?

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Well, millions of years ago when Africa thundered into Europe to create the Alps.

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These are the plates covering the planet that shift around.

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Constantly moving. And as a result of that collision

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we all had to make way, geologically speaking, and our contribution

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in Britain was this large fold, and this essentially forms the backbone of the Isle of Wight.

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Switzerland got the Alps, the Isle of Wight got the fold.

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The chalk ridge running the length of the Isle of Wight, is in fact the last ripple of a colossal shockwave,

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the result of a continental car crash between Africa and Europe 65 million years ago.

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But even that didn't dislodge the Isle of Wight from the mainland of Britain,

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and you can still see the evidence of where it was connected, at The Needles.

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Alasdair, can you describe exactly what we'd have seen 10,000 years ago

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if we'd looked from here towards what is now Dorset?

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We'd have seen a line of white chalk cliffs, and behind that you'd have had cliff tops

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covered in primitive grasses, and as you walked away from that sort of coastal environment,

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you'd have walked into ancient woodlands and slowly down to shores of the estuary of the River Solent.

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-Sounds like a paradise.

-Indeed.

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So how did that woodland paradise become an island?

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20,000 years ago, Northern Europe and most of Britain

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was covered with a layer of glacial ice over a mile thick.

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It started to warm up, the ice melted and water levels rose,

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but that wasn't the only thing that helped create the Isle of Wight.

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The other process is best illustrated by two men with an inflatable bed.

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OK, this is a primitive United Kingdom, we're going to have Scotland at one end,

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-and the Isle of Wight on the other end.

-This is the North?

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It is, and it's very malleable as you can see.

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-So you're saying that the surface of the planet is this bendy in places?

-Yes, geologically speaking.

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20,000 years ago, Scotland was covered with two kilometres thick of ice,

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-an enormous amount of weight, and I want you to be that weight, so in you go.

-I'm Scotland, covered in ice.

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If I bring in the Isle of Wight, put that in place,

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then we wind the clock forward to about 12,000 years ago,

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the glaciers are melting away from Scotland really rapidly, so off you get.

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This drops, sinks down a bit, that is called "isostatic rebound".

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But what's happened to the Isle of Wight is, not only have we got sea levels attacking it,

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sea levels rise from all the glacial water going into the sea,

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but you've got the isostatic rebound happening, so the sea is now going to come churning around this particular

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lump of rock and turn it into the Isle of Wight that we see today.

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So it's being hit by a double-whammy.

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It was this combination of rising sea levels and the sinking landscape

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that would eventually separate the Isle of Wight from the mainland.

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The sea was rising, biting away at this chalk cliff,

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and at the same time the River Solent doing its thing at the back,

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so there would come a point where it would become a very narrow knife-edge blade

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going out across the sea, and then finally one stormy night it was breached, and the sea

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basically flooded into this area, and got rid of what was the River Solent.

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It took a few thousand years before the Isle of Wight was totally cut off as we see it today,

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but that's a blink of the eye compared to its multi-million-year trek,

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and this restless traveller is still moving, still evolving,

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part of the epic journey that the whole of the British Isles is on.

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'I'm also off out to The Needles.

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'It's not great conditions for studying rocks, but it is good for MY passion.

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'This is after all the sort of weather lighthouses were made for,

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'and I enjoy a good lighthouse, me!'

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So I couldn't resist a visit to this one, on The Needles,

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especially when I found out they're about to clean the lens.

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Everything about a lighthouse reminds us that we are connected to other shores.

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'Even the specialist lens used in lighthouses is an invention from across the Channel from France.'

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-How often does the lens get cleaned, then?

-Just once a year.

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It's going to take about that long.

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I'd hate to be responsible for a smear.

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This really does feel like the edge of Britain,

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but of course the light from here continues on, travelling far beyond our shores and actually

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crossing the beam of the Gatteville lighthouse on the French coast.

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Even the light wants to bridge the gap.

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It kind of makes you want to reach out yourself and meet the neighbours.

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

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Nicholas Crane crosses the Solent to find out what's happened to England's largest island - the Isle of Wight. Once joined to the mainland, this fossil-rich area is a time capsule containing clues to the journey that the whole British Isles has been on and is still making. And so today what we see is the powerful result of a combination of rising sea levels and a sinking landscape.