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The northwest coast of France
and the fortified city that repelled the British for centuries.
But the city walls represent a mere bad-tempered blip
in a cosy, cross-Channel relationship that spanned millennia.
After all, settlers from the British Isles gave this land its name...
In French, Great Britain is Grande-Bretagne,
but they call this place just Bretagne.
You could say that, to the French, this is Little Britain.
We've crossed the Channel to Brittany,
like so many Britons before us...
..a continual migration that shaped both landscape and language.
This is a coast of wild winds,
a home to free-spirited, seafaring folk.
Look closely at this shoreline
and the name Brittany really begins to make sense.
The Celts of Cornwall and Wales felt at home on these rugged rocks.
It's even got its own version of Land's End.
We followed age-old connections across the Channel.
We're heading for southern Brittany
and the salt marshes of Guerande.
But we begin our Breton adventure 400 miles up the coast, at St Malo.
Even this grand fortress, once a thorn in Britain's side,
has Celtic origins.
This city's named after
a Welsh saint, Malo, or Maclou, who washed up here
some time in the sixth century in search of a fresh start.
He was escaping the chaos in Britain after the Romans left.
But Malo wasn't alone in seeking safe haven in Brittany.
Migrants had been making the short hop across the Channel for centuries.
And the stories of those Britons are written along this coast.
Just offshore, the island of Aval.
Local legend says it's the site of Avalon,
where Excalibur was forged, the last resting place of King Arthur.
On this coast of Celtic myth,
ancient tales submerged by the sea are revealed at low tide.
A memorial to another saint, this time from Ireland -
It's said he was guided to this spot by the hand of God.
As Cornwall is to England, so Brittany is to France.
The people have their own coastal culture -
a fiercely independent lot.
And this stretch of shore does suddenly become awfully fearsome.
The very tip of Brittany - like a defiant finger, pointing out at the Atlantic -
this is the district of Finistere.
With a smattering of schoolboy French, you understand the meaning of the name.
"Finis" is the French word for "the end"
and "terre" is earth.
So, Finistere -
the end of the earth.
The full fury of the Bay of Biscay unleashes itself here,
whipped up by the Atlantic airstream.
These aren't freak storms.
Often, in the winter months, these waters boil.
Here, the mouth of the English Channel has swallowed many ships.
1967, the Torrey Canyon, wrecked off the coast of Cornwall,
the world's first oil tanker disaster.
11 years later, the Amoco Cadiz lost control during a violent storm,
ran aground and was ripped in two,
all within sight of the Brittany coast.
And the whole world watched the aftermath on television.
'Guillaume Le Roux lived 12 miles away.
'But it wasn't the TV that alerted him to the disaster.'
At the time, it was the worst oil spill in history.
220,000 tonnes of crude, spread over 200 miles of coast,
covering beaches in a thick emulsion.
Its impact on the local environment lasted years.
There's nothing much but ocean between here and North America.
But, beneath the waves, the Atlantic yields an abundant crop
and it's a harvest that helped heal the world.
Alice Roberts is with the seaweed farmers of Lanildut,
in search of a medical wonder, plucked from the ocean floor.
'They've been pulling kelp out of the sea here
'since the 17th century,
'first by hand and now by hook.'
The farmers only harvest one type of seaweed,
and it's this - laminaria.
And they do it with this bizarre crane,
called a Scooby-Doo, which plucks up seaweed from the sea bed,
then twirls it round, getting rid of excess water,
but also flicking off unwanted varieties.
'Lanildut is Europe's largest seaweed port.
'But there's a tradition of harvesting it in Britain too.
'Like the French, we've used it for fertiliser, fuel,
'and it's even played a part in glass-making.
'The current crop finds its way into goods as diverse as cosmetics and toothpaste.
'But, as a doctor, I'm drawn here by one particular seaweed product.'
It has saved countless lives around the world
and was first discovered in seaweed on this coast.
In a world before antibiotics,
iodine played a vital part in fighting infection in cuts and wounds.
Among the mud and dirt of the First World War trenches,
it was standard issue to the troops.
And it's still used in modern surgery.
But this life-saving stuff was discovered by accident.
What scientists were actually looking for was a better way to kill.
At the start of the 19th century, France was desperate for gunpowder
for Napoleon's campaigns in Europe.
In particular, they needed a compound called saltpetre.
In 1811, chemist and saltpetre manufacturer, Bernard Courtois,
was given a job by Napoleon of finding a new source
for this vital component used in the manufacture of gunpowder.
'Courtois knew that seaweed contained many of the chemicals he needed.
'It was while he was experimenting on kelp from the Brittany coast
'that he accidentally produced iodine.
'Biochemist Philippe Potin is going to show me how he did it
'by extracting iodine from this lump of dried, burned seaweed.'
I was expecting it to be soft ashes,
but it's actually grinding up bits of rock.
Now I will mix that with some very hot water.
It was exactly the process which was used,
'Back in 1811, it seemed Courtois
'got a bit carried away with his chemicals.'
He was probably too generous during his experiments.
-He had too much acid.
-It's changing colour!
-Change the colour.
'His happy accident produced a curious purple vapour.'
Oh, you can see it!
This is definitely purple iodine vapour coming off that solution.
'He didn't know it at the time,
'but Courtois had discovered a new element,
'a basic building block of chemistry and something vital to our wellbeing.
'Around the turn of the 20th century,
'doctors realised that we all need trace amounts of iodine in our diets.
'Too little and it can lead to serious problems
'with the production of hormones by the thyroid gland in the neck.
'It swells up, producing what's known as a goitre.'
And this is where living by the coast can come in really handy,
because this stuff is naturally rich in iodine.
It's sea salt.
In fact, this particular sea salt has seaweed mixed with it.
So, even more iodine.
'Seaweed is full of surprises,
'each piece like a tiny chemical factory,
'containing an element we all need to stay healthy.
'But the surprises don't stop there.
'It influences our body's metabolism, but could it also influence...
'Chemist Gordon McFiggans has been working with scientists in Brittany
'and they've come up with a remarkable idea.
'They think that iodine released by seaweed forms particles
'that could make the coast more cloudy.
'To understand this, Gordon's first going to show me how a cloud forms
'by getting the water vapour in this jar to condense
'on some floating smoke particles.'
So, what we'll do now, we'll open this valve...
which will create an expansion in there, a drop in temperature,
-and, hopefully, will form a cloud on those smoke particles.
'Yes, it's a cloud.'
So, that's the sort of thing that will hopefully happen,
but at a much lower degree, from the particles coming off the seaweed.
So, now we've got air in the jar which has come from the seaweed and should contain
-those all-important particles with the iodine.
-That's right. OK.
AIR HISSES Yes! Yep. It misted.
'But if you missed it, here it is again.
AIR HISSES Yes!
'So, maybe, making the coast cloudy
'is another of seaweed's many surprising by-products.'
I've got some seaweed delicacies here.
-There's these rather odd-looking haricots verts marines.
-I don't like that.
-I don't think I'd order it.
And I've also got some seaweed beer.
Doesn't look too bad. At least it's not green!
That's not so bad.
That's pretty good beer!
For some, the wild winds that blow in from the Bay of Biscay
are a reason to hunker down, to wait out the storm.
For others, winds bring freedom.
The world's most difficult single-handed yacht race,
the Vendee Globe, launches from these waters.
And one Brit loves the challenge so much, she's made her home here.
'My name's Sam Davies.
'My job is my passion.
'And the fitness training's really important.
'To be here is the perfect place.
'I race offshore all the time, mostly single-handed.
'I came fourth in the last Vendee Globe round-the-world race.
'Here in Port-la-Foret, it's a base of all the top racers'
in the world, basically, most of them being French.
I realised the only way to beat them was to come here and learn their secrets.
Sidney's our co-skipper.
We're actually out just looking at some sail trim.
Attends! Je choque le bastaque.
I think I have become quite well known in France because of the Vendee Globe.
Even people who've never been on a boat in their lives follow this race, all over France.
Deux, deux couches de salade.
She's very famous.
No, she is. I could see, through videos, that she was really enjoying what she was doing.
I think that's what came off, big time, to the public.
These boats are designed to race offshore, in all conditions, and cross oceans.
We're kind of on the doorstep of the famous Bay of Biscay.
For the sailors, it's one of the most feared places,
almost as much as Cape Horn. Not necessarily the biggest waves in the world,
but the most boat-breaking.
There's some quite big waves!
I love the life in Brittany.
The French say, "You're nearly French now!" and I say, "No, I'm British!"
I'm really proud, cos Artemis has a British flag on the back.
Sidney doesn't like that, cos there's no French flag!
The local guys say I'm an adopted Breton now.
That's a real honour, when the Bretons tell you they'll adopt you.
The wild west coast of Brittany has captured the imagination
of more than just sailors.
Writer and visionary, Jules Verne, grew up here.
In 1869, Verne wrote 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.
He described a submarine, long before they were in practical use.
The author also realised its destructive potential.
70 years ago, in Lorient, his vision took on a terrifying reality.
Verne wrote that whatever one man is capable of conceiving,
other men were able to achieve.
I wonder if he ever had anything like this in mind?
'This giant is the Keroman U-boat base.'
During the Second World War, it was at the centre of operations
for Hitler's deadly attacks on supply convoys crossing the Atlantic.
The monolithic U-boat pens were an obvious target for Allied bombers
and the Germans knew it,
so they were built to withstand just about anything.
This was done by creating a huge air pocket,
a gap, between the outer and the inner skin, to absorb the blast.
This buckling in the ceiling above my head
is all the damage that was inflicted by a direct hit.
'Unable to destroy the pens, the Allies decided to isolate them, by bombing the surrounding city.'
In the days before the attacks, leaflets were dropped,
warning the people of Lorient to leave.
Then, 60,000 incendiary bombs flattened the city.
'But the U-boats were here until the bitter end,
'finally surrendering in May 1945.'
They remain as a symbol of Hitler's tyranny
and how close he came to cutting Britain's lifeline across the Atlantic.
We use concrete for our monumental building projects
and the early people who colonised this coast
used the most resilient resource they could find.
These enigmatic lines of stones
were positioned around 2,000 years before Stonehenge was assembled.
They point to a link between Brittany and Britain.
At Carnac, Mark Horton is following an ancient thread.
They have an almost magnetic pull.
Standing stones that mark the presence of a mysterious people.
We may not understand why the monuments are here,
but they keep drawing us back for another look.
It's amazing to think that these stones
were being erected some 2,500 years before the great pyramids of Egypt.
That makes this site around 7,000 years old.
Curious, regimented lines that attract visitors from around the world.
Today, it's like a megalithic theme park.
And at its heart, the big attraction, a man-made hill - the tumulus.
'Howard Crowhurst has spent 20 years building up a picture of Carnac.
'He believes the landscape here was once completely covered with stone monuments.
'And this used to be the vantage point on the site.'
So, here we are.
What a view!
Was it like this, 7,000 years ago?
No, it was very different. The sea was much lower, seven metres lower.
The trees were much further inland.
So, in fact, you had a perfect view here of the landscape
and all the stones going right along it.
How many stones are there, in total?
In the Carnac alignments, there are over 3,000. 3,100 stones.
Megalith means very big stone.
And what we can see today
represent around a tenth of what was originally erected.
But why here, pointing out at the coast?
I don't think it's a coincidence that these monuments are right by the sea.
To build these monuments would've needed a lot of people,
and travelling was much easier along the coastline
than through the land.
And, of course, the sea is a sort of massive larder,
where people could eat. It's full of food.
So it's a perfect spot for grouping large amounts of people, really.
'In fact, the coast seems to have been
'crucial to the location of these monuments.
'Similar sites of Stone Age structures
are dotted all the way up Europe's Atlantic shores...
..from Portugal to France...
..Ireland to Wales, up to northern Scotland.
But hundreds of years and as many miles
separate the monuments of Carnac from the sites of the British Isles,
such as this one, on Orkney.
'So were the builders communicating ideas along the Atlantic coast?
I'm hoping French archaeologist, Guillaume Robin,
can show me clues carved into stone.
'On the island of Gavrinis, there's an ancient tomb
'with artistic connections to north Wales.'
And in we go.
There's circles, spirals
and then these semicircular arcs coming up.
-Yes. That's mostly nested arcs.
-It's a technique
-to make the carving. It's called the pecking.
It was probably done with
a quartz chisel, with a hammer. Tak-tak-tak, like this.
-All the way down?
What I've brought are some illustrations
of megalithic art from Wales.
They're both on Anglesey.
-Look, we've got the chevrons.
-We've seen chevrons.
And here we've got the sort of serpent-y things.
Yes, that's amazing, because here in Gavrinis,
you have a lot of symbols that also exist in Wales or in Ireland.
'What's even more amazing is that Gavrinis was built hundreds of years
'before the Welsh monuments,
'and yet the art they contain
'could've been chipped away by the very same hand.'
Unfortunately, we don't have a clear picture of what the stones were for.
'As to how they were moved here,
'well, French archaeologists have turned it into a fun puzzle
'for all the family to work out.
'Using the tools of the time and a bit of public grunt...'
Un, deux, trois!
'They've taken a very Breton approach to history
'and getting their hands dirty.
'After all, there must've been a great gathering here,
'some 7,000 years ago, to create these remarkable monuments.'
It is a stupid way of moving a stone, you know!
Since the stones of Carnac were aligned,
empires have come and gone
and the fabric of the coast has been refashioned.
Here, they channel sea water into shallow pools,
so that evaporation by sun and wind leaves the smallest of commodities,
once so precious it was used as currency.
As we near the end of our Breton adventure, at Guerande,
they marshal the forces of nature to farm salt.
Sophie and fellow salt farmer Emmanuel
represent a new generation, but the techniques they use are age-old.
This is quite a bizarre landscape to my eye.
Is this natural in any way?
Or is this all...tampered with?
It's not natural landscape. All those pans were made by hand,
So, the water comes in from the sea and human beings trap it?
Yeah, that's right.
'But don't be deceived. The elements are definitely in charge here.'
-There's the harvest!
-You see, at last, the salt.
-So, this is the stuff?
-Yeah. This one is produced in those pans.
-The ones out in the middle?
-On the bottom. It touches clay.
-That's why it is a bit grey.
-Will we be able to collect some now?
No, not today. Unfortunately, it has rained, three days ago,
and we have to wait, that the water evaporates again,
that the salt concentrates again, to crystallise.
It's quite frustrating we have to wait, but it's part of the job.
'Just as it was for the monks who first created these salt pans in the tenth century,
'it's a waiting game.'
I'm all muddy. Nobody else is muddy!
'But patience brings its rewards. Before the day is out,
'the sun breaks through, evaporating enough water
'to produce the cream of the crop.'
So, it's that simple? You just scoop it off the top?
-It's like snow.
-It's so white, compared to the grey salt.
That one is fleur de sel.
-It is an incredibly strong flavour.
'1,000 years of change,
'and yet a way of working that has remained the same.'
This coast, on the edge of Europe, feels timeless.
It's steeped in the spirits of the ancestors that we in Britain share with the Bretons.
Myth and reality merge,
until it's difficult to tell Brittany from Britain.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd