North Devon and Somerset Coasts Coast


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North Devon and Somerset Coasts

Documentary series. Neil Oliver is introduced to the joys of Victorian-style sea bathing in Ilfracombe, and Nick Crane climbs Exmoor's sea cliffs.


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200 years ago, the seaside holiday we take for granted was still being invented.

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In places like Ilfracombe they faced some formidable challenges, not least just getting to the beach.

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High cliffs stand all around the sheltered coves.

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So, in the 1820s, they looked across the Severn Sea for a solution.

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They brought in the real experts to break through the cliffs,

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miners from South Wales.

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I'm going to follow in the footsteps of those miners to explore how the

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Victorians learnt to love to be beside the sea.

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My guide is outdoor swimmer Kate Rew.

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Now, I'm amazed at this. This seems like an awful lot of trouble to go

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to for a swim, to actually dig a tunnel through a rock!

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It's amazing what people will do to get to a nice beach.

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Look at that, that's where it's been cut. That's maybe where they've drilled for blasting.

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All so that they could get to a beach for a swim.

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Some of us are very desperate to get into the water.

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Capitalising on the newfangled fashion for taking a dip, the Ilfracombe Sea Bathing Company's

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Welsh miners dug four tunnels through solid rock, wide enough to take a horse and carriage.

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They swam in from bathing machines, they were called, wooden huts on

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wheels that would be horse drawn all the way through these tunnels.

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And three foot into the water, where the ladies would elegantly step out.

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Bathing machines were portable changing rooms

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for preserving a lady's modesty in this novel environment.

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Once in the water, the novice bathers had to learn how to behave.

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The whole experience was stage managed.

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At Ilfracombe, they held back the rough seas by fencing off tidal pools.

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Walls were built to hold in calm water.

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Early bathers still needed some encouragement, and with the prospect

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of a swim here myself, I know how they felt.

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Well, I've got an album here that I'd like to show you of someone who was here

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at all times during Victorian times to encourage people, people like you, to go swimming.

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He's not the kind of figure I expected.

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This is Professor Harry Parker, who was quite a figure around here.

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-He certainly was, that's quite a figure!

-With his top hat and his comedy nose,

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and he is one of England's greatest natatorial artistes.

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-Easy for you to say.

-Absolutely, and he would teach any good people on the beach diving and fancy swimming.

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Tricks like lighting a cigar while swimming, drinking a glass of champagne.

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This kind of comedy action showed how happy people could be in the water.

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Was it a family affair?

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Very much not, actually, even though the Victorians

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were very family orientated, the beaches were strictly segregated.

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So we're sitting here on, this is the men's beach, so men only.

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The women would be taken through the headland to the other side and

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a bugler would sit on the rocks in between and if any man dared swim out the area

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-enough to actually catch sight of the women, then a horn would be blown loudly.

-Wow!

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They would be ejected, there were newspaper reports saying that, you know, if the men were named that had

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committed this crime, then they would be thrown out of civilised society. It was very strict.

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Not only were they confined to separate beaches, there was a strict dress code too.

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And quite a double standard for men and women.

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The Victorian lady had to be very properly dressed when she

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went into the water, and these are the kinds of things that they wore.

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-Very nice.

-So you needed a good pair of pantaloons, below the knee obviously, to preserve her modesty.

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And a kind of dress or smock over the top, and these were apparently sometimes weighed down with lead

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pellets around the hem to stop them floating up.

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Lead is what you want on a swimming costume in the open sea!

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-What do I get?

-You delightfully get to swim in the buff!

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Oh, come on! I wanted a duffle coat, wellington boots and a hat.

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She's not joking.

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Away from the ladies, hidden behind the headland on their own beach,

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those Victorian gents were a lot less buttoned up than you might imagine.

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It wasn't uncommon for the men to swim in the nude,

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even if the women on the beach next door were covered up.

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Swimming in the buff? I thought Victorian gentlemen had more decorum.

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Where's Queen Victoria when you need her? That's what I want to know.

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The tidal pool is still used today.

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The water is calmer and warmer than the sea around it.

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It's still a bit chilly all the same.

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-Watch out, you might get arrested.

-I can definitely hear a bugler!

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The Welsh miners who crossed the sea to open up the beaches of Ilfracombe

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were followed by waves of tourists on day trips between England and Wales.

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In the late 19th and early 20th century,

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pleasure boats criss-crossed the Severn Sea.

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The motor vessel Balmoral is a relic of a time when

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foreign travel was, for some, a booze cruise between the resorts of South Wales and North Devon.

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By the 1960s, exotic locations overseas made the pleasure steamers look dated and the

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opening of the Severn Bridge meant the sea was no longer the quickest route between England and Wales.

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Travelling along this coast, though, has always been a struggle.

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This is where Exmoor meets the Severn Sea.

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These imposing sea cliffs posed another challenge

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to Victorian engineers opening up this coast for tourists.

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In 1890, Lynmouth, by the sea, was linked with Lynton, up the hill,

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by a water-powered funicular railway that's still going strong.

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But not everyone wants to take the shortcut.

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Nick Crane is meeting some pioneers who were determined to tackle these cliffs the hard way.

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It's 1953 and the world's highest mountain has been conquered

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in a breathtaking 29,000 ft ascent.

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The achievement prompted one mountaineer who'd missed out on the

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Everest adventure to plan a conquest of his own. Not up, but along.

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And it was a lot more than 29,000 ft.

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In his younger days, Clement Archer had been working in India when Everest was conquered.

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It's thought that he'd secretly hoped to join that expedition.

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Instead, Archer pioneered a new concept here on the Exmoor coast.

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Nowadays we might call it coasteering, a 14-mile climb along

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sea cliffs sandwiched perilously between pounding sea and sky.

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The purists know this route as the Exmoor Traverse.

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It runs from Foreland Point to Combe Martin,

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nearly three times longer than the ascent of Everest.

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And this route wasn't completed until 25 years after Everest.

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In 1978, Terry Cheek and a team of three young police cadets finally conquered the Exmoor Traverse.

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It took them four days and nights.

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Their achievement has not been matched since.

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30 years later, Terry and two of his team are back at the Exmoor Traverse.

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Ah, now what is going on there?

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You've got no rope shift, you're creeping around under an overhang above the water,

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wearing what look like soggy jeans.

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Yeah, and of course it was flares back 30 years ago.

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You did this in flared jeans?

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Do you remember this part of it, Trevor?

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Yeah, and talking about the clothing, the boots were made of

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pressed cardboard with a rubber sole.

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They were very cheap and not very flexible to begin with.

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Course, they get saturated with water and it's almost like

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wearing papier-mache while rock climbing. So it's a real challenge.

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If you don't get it right, you're cut off.

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And that may, without getting dramatic about it, mean drowning.

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What they call risk assessment, I don't remember us

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talking about those words back then.

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I'm not sure there was a risk assessment.

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Absolutely not, otherwise we wouldn't have done it!

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Terry was already an experienced climber in 1978.

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He's in his sixties now and still loves these cliffs.

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He's challenged me to take on a section of this daunting traverse.

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The Exmoor Everest.

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-The Exmoor Everest.

-Shall we go down?

-Yes, certainly.

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Doesn't sound like a walk in the park.

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Below, below.

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I just kicked a rock down which is not good when you've got somebody below.

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Terry, the nature of this route in rock-climbing terms is pretty bizarre really, it seems to me.

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Because I associate climbing with going up mountains, not going horizontally along, sideways.

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The climbing is much the same. I mean, you really set your own rules.

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We set a rule of not entering the water and not climbing out onto the grass line above the rock.

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It's probably one of the harder spots

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because we're only about three feet above the high water mark now.

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So, I mean, only a couple of hours ago the waves were bashing at the bottom of this, weren't they?

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Just below my feet, yes.

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This is a bit of a tricky move, isn't it?

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It's quite difficult.

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That's it, cling your hands underneath that spike.

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I'm clinging on to everything I can!

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Look down at your feet, you'll be OK there.

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-Under here it's all wet and slimy.

-Yes.

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It's covered in sea water.

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Jam the hands up in that crack. I know it's wet and it's painful.

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Very tricky. Now what?

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Some of the finger holes are really pretty minute, aren't they?

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It's not quite as easy as...

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sitting at a desk

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working on my laptop, it has to be said.

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If you get caught by a rising tide or a storm surge in the Bristol Channel, what do you do?

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Once you've been driven above the high water mark, then you are in unknown territory.

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You could be in absolute hell about 70 feet up on probably rock and vegetation.

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We had to resort to climbing at night, waiting on

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the cliffs for the tide to

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recede to get past a difficult section, and it was freezing.

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We also discovered what barnacles could do to your hands.

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You know, it's like very rough, coarse sandpaper. Very painful.

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I've only done a section of this climb, and as

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we haul ourselves up the cliff I'm feeling pretty exhilarated.

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I've got nothing but admiration for the achievement of Terry and his team three decades ago.

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I'm left, too, with a new respect for the awesome cliffs and the fierce tides of the Severn Sea.

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Eventually, the imposing cliffs of north Devon give up their grip on the coast.

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At Bridgwater Bay at low tide, the shallow water becomes a vast expanse of mud.

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On the edge of the bay, in Stolford, there's a fishing family who

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for generations have earned their living from the mud.

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To come home with a decent catch,

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they rely on centuries-old skills, and ancient tools, unique to the men of the mudflats.

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My name is Brendan Sellick and I've been a mudhorse fisherman

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all my working life ever since I was a nipper.

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I used the mudhorse right up till well in me 70s.

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My son Adrian is now doing it.

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He's pushing the mudhorse because it's a very physical job.

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You've got to be fit out there in the soft mud.

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If you tried to go and do that without a mudhorse, some days you'd just disappear.

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It gets in your bones and when I first started there was

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quite a number of families in this estuary doing it.

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Not only around here but all around the Bridgwater bay.

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It's just now got that there's just us left.

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We come out in all weathers, even if it's snowing, sleet, hailstones.

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We do get worn down like any other job, I suppose,

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but this job you've got to come out otherwise your catch gets spoilt.

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On a day like today, I know it's a bit drizzly, but it's quite pleasant.

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You feel the breeze and then you know the tide's turned.

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Should be turning now in a minute.

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You work with the tide, not the tide works with you.

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You don't really know what you're going to catch with it, but that's what I like about it.

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Brown shrimp, that's what we're mainly after.

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When I've got a few little Dover sole, slip soles.

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One or two prawns.

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We've caught all sorts out here. I've had a little lobster, a seahorse.

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And what I do is give them a sieve,

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let all the baby shrimps go

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and pick the rubbish out I don't want.

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That's my favourite, the little slip soles.

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Rolled in flour, fried in butter.

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Beautiful.

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There's a nice skate.

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Two hours ago, that was swimming.

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How fresher do you want than that?

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

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Documentary series. Thanks to the toil of Welsh miners, who dug tunnels through solid rock to open up the beaches of Ilfracombe, wild swimmer Kate Rew is able to introduce a reluctant Neil Oliver to some of the more surprising joys of sea bathing Victorian style.

On Exmoor's treacherous sea cliffs, Nick Crane is challenged to a sideways climb that was inspired by the conquest of Everest. He meets the men who set a record for this uniquely British endurance test, and finds out why, decades on, that feat has yet to be equalled. And we see how a mud horse fisherman collects his catch.