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.
In places like Ilfracombe they faced some formidable challenges, not least just getting to the beach.
High cliffs stand all around the sheltered coves.
So, in the 1820s, they looked across the Severn Sea for a solution.
They brought in the real experts to break through the cliffs,
miners from South Wales.
I'm going to follow in the footsteps of those miners to explore how the
Victorians learnt to love to be beside the sea.
My guide is outdoor swimmer Kate Rew.
Now, I'm amazed at this. This seems like an awful lot of trouble to go
to for a swim, to actually dig a tunnel through a rock!
It's amazing what people will do to get to a nice beach.
Look at that, that's where it's been cut. That's maybe where they've drilled for blasting.
All so that they could get to a beach for a swim.
Some of us are very desperate to get into the water.
Capitalising on the newfangled fashion for taking a dip, the Ilfracombe Sea Bathing Company's
Welsh miners dug four tunnels through solid rock, wide enough to take a horse and carriage.
They swam in from bathing machines, they were called, wooden huts on
wheels that would be horse drawn all the way through these tunnels.
And three foot into the water, where the ladies would elegantly step out.
Bathing machines were portable changing rooms
for preserving a lady's modesty in this novel environment.
Once in the water, the novice bathers had to learn how to behave.
The whole experience was stage managed.
At Ilfracombe, they held back the rough seas by fencing off tidal pools.
Walls were built to hold in calm water.
Early bathers still needed some encouragement, and with the prospect
of a swim here myself, I know how they felt.
Well, I've got an album here that I'd like to show you of someone who was here
at all times during Victorian times to encourage people, people like you, to go swimming.
He's not the kind of figure I expected.
This is Professor Harry Parker, who was quite a figure around here.
-He certainly was, that's quite a figure!
-With his top hat and his comedy nose,
and he is one of England's greatest natatorial artistes.
-Easy for you to say.
-Absolutely, and he would teach any good people on the beach diving and fancy swimming.
Tricks like lighting a cigar while swimming, drinking a glass of champagne.
This kind of comedy action showed how happy people could be in the water.
Was it a family affair?
Very much not, actually, even though the Victorians
were very family orientated, the beaches were strictly segregated.
So we're sitting here on, this is the men's beach, so men only.
The women would be taken through the headland to the other side and
a bugler would sit on the rocks in between and if any man dared swim out the area
-enough to actually catch sight of the women, then a horn would be blown loudly.
They would be ejected, there were newspaper reports saying that, you know, if the men were named that had
committed this crime, then they would be thrown out of civilised society. It was very strict.
Not only were they confined to separate beaches, there was a strict dress code too.
And quite a double standard for men and women.
The Victorian lady had to be very properly dressed when she
went into the water, and these are the kinds of things that they wore.
-So you needed a good pair of pantaloons, below the knee obviously, to preserve her modesty.
And a kind of dress or smock over the top, and these were apparently sometimes weighed down with lead
pellets around the hem to stop them floating up.
Lead is what you want on a swimming costume in the open sea!
-What do I get?
-You delightfully get to swim in the buff!
Oh, come on! I wanted a duffle coat, wellington boots and a hat.
She's not joking.
Away from the ladies, hidden behind the headland on their own beach,
those Victorian gents were a lot less buttoned up than you might imagine.
It wasn't uncommon for the men to swim in the nude,
even if the women on the beach next door were covered up.
Swimming in the buff? I thought Victorian gentlemen had more decorum.
Where's Queen Victoria when you need her? That's what I want to know.
The tidal pool is still used today.
The water is calmer and warmer than the sea around it.
It's still a bit chilly all the same.
-Watch out, you might get arrested.
-I can definitely hear a bugler!
The Welsh miners who crossed the sea to open up the beaches of Ilfracombe
were followed by waves of tourists on day trips between England and Wales.
In the late 19th and early 20th century,
pleasure boats criss-crossed the Severn Sea.
The motor vessel Balmoral is a relic of a time when
foreign travel was, for some, a booze cruise between the resorts of South Wales and North Devon.
By the 1960s, exotic locations overseas made the pleasure steamers look dated and the
opening of the Severn Bridge meant the sea was no longer the quickest route between England and Wales.
Travelling along this coast, though, has always been a struggle.
This is where Exmoor meets the Severn Sea.
These imposing sea cliffs posed another challenge
to Victorian engineers opening up this coast for tourists.
In 1890, Lynmouth, by the sea, was linked with Lynton, up the hill,
by a water-powered funicular railway that's still going strong.
But not everyone wants to take the shortcut.
Nick Crane is meeting some pioneers who were determined to tackle these cliffs the hard way.
It's 1953 and the world's highest mountain has been conquered
in a breathtaking 29,000 ft ascent.
The achievement prompted one mountaineer who'd missed out on the
Everest adventure to plan a conquest of his own. Not up, but along.
And it was a lot more than 29,000 ft.
In his younger days, Clement Archer had been working in India when Everest was conquered.
It's thought that he'd secretly hoped to join that expedition.
Instead, Archer pioneered a new concept here on the Exmoor coast.
Nowadays we might call it coasteering, a 14-mile climb along
sea cliffs sandwiched perilously between pounding sea and sky.
The purists know this route as the Exmoor Traverse.
It runs from Foreland Point to Combe Martin,
nearly three times longer than the ascent of Everest.
And this route wasn't completed until 25 years after Everest.
In 1978, Terry Cheek and a team of three young police cadets finally conquered the Exmoor Traverse.
It took them four days and nights.
Their achievement has not been matched since.
30 years later, Terry and two of his team are back at the Exmoor Traverse.
Ah, now what is going on there?
You've got no rope shift, you're creeping around under an overhang above the water,
wearing what look like soggy jeans.
Yeah, and of course it was flares back 30 years ago.
You did this in flared jeans?
Do you remember this part of it, Trevor?
Yeah, and talking about the clothing, the boots were made of
pressed cardboard with a rubber sole.
They were very cheap and not very flexible to begin with.
Course, they get saturated with water and it's almost like
wearing papier-mache while rock climbing. So it's a real challenge.
If you don't get it right, you're cut off.
And that may, without getting dramatic about it, mean drowning.
What they call risk assessment, I don't remember us
talking about those words back then.
I'm not sure there was a risk assessment.
Absolutely not, otherwise we wouldn't have done it!
Terry was already an experienced climber in 1978.
He's in his sixties now and still loves these cliffs.
He's challenged me to take on a section of this daunting traverse.
The Exmoor Everest.
-The Exmoor Everest.
-Shall we go down?
Doesn't sound like a walk in the park.
I just kicked a rock down which is not good when you've got somebody below.
Terry, the nature of this route in rock-climbing terms is pretty bizarre really, it seems to me.
Because I associate climbing with going up mountains, not going horizontally along, sideways.
The climbing is much the same. I mean, you really set your own rules.
We set a rule of not entering the water and not climbing out onto the grass line above the rock.
It's probably one of the harder spots
because we're only about three feet above the high water mark now.
So, I mean, only a couple of hours ago the waves were bashing at the bottom of this, weren't they?
Just below my feet, yes.
This is a bit of a tricky move, isn't it?
It's quite difficult.
That's it, cling your hands underneath that spike.
I'm clinging on to everything I can!
Look down at your feet, you'll be OK there.
-Under here it's all wet and slimy.
It's covered in sea water.
Jam the hands up in that crack. I know it's wet and it's painful.
Very tricky. Now what?
Some of the finger holes are really pretty minute, aren't they?
It's not quite as easy as...
sitting at a desk
working on my laptop, it has to be said.
If you get caught by a rising tide or a storm surge in the Bristol Channel, what do you do?
Once you've been driven above the high water mark, then you are in unknown territory.
You could be in absolute hell about 70 feet up on probably rock and vegetation.
We had to resort to climbing at night, waiting on
the cliffs for the tide to
recede to get past a difficult section, and it was freezing.
We also discovered what barnacles could do to your hands.
You know, it's like very rough, coarse sandpaper. Very painful.
I've only done a section of this climb, and as
we haul ourselves up the cliff I'm feeling pretty exhilarated.
I've got nothing but admiration for the achievement of Terry and his team three decades ago.
I'm left, too, with a new respect for the awesome cliffs and the fierce tides of the Severn Sea.
Eventually, the imposing cliffs of north Devon give up their grip on the coast.
At Bridgwater Bay at low tide, the shallow water becomes a vast expanse of mud.
On the edge of the bay, in Stolford, there's a fishing family who
for generations have earned their living from the mud.
To come home with a decent catch,
they rely on centuries-old skills, and ancient tools, unique to the men of the mudflats.
My name is Brendan Sellick and I've been a mudhorse fisherman
all my working life ever since I was a nipper.
I used the mudhorse right up till well in me 70s.
My son Adrian is now doing it.
He's pushing the mudhorse because it's a very physical job.
You've got to be fit out there in the soft mud.
If you tried to go and do that without a mudhorse, some days you'd just disappear.
It gets in your bones and when I first started there was
quite a number of families in this estuary doing it.
Not only around here but all around the Bridgwater bay.
It's just now got that there's just us left.
We come out in all weathers, even if it's snowing, sleet, hailstones.
We do get worn down like any other job, I suppose,
but this job you've got to come out otherwise your catch gets spoilt.
On a day like today, I know it's a bit drizzly, but it's quite pleasant.
You feel the breeze and then you know the tide's turned.
Should be turning now in a minute.
You work with the tide, not the tide works with you.
You don't really know what you're going to catch with it, but that's what I like about it.
Brown shrimp, that's what we're mainly after.
When I've got a few little Dover sole, slip soles.
One or two prawns.
We've caught all sorts out here. I've had a little lobster, a seahorse.
And what I do is give them a sieve,
let all the baby shrimps go
and pick the rubbish out I don't want.
That's my favourite, the little slip soles.
Rolled in flour, fried in butter.
There's a nice skate.
Two hours ago, that was swimming.
How fresher do you want than that?
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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.