Wales: Border to Border Coast


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Wales: Border to Border

Coast travels around the Welsh coast from the border with England in the south on the Severn estuary to the northern English border on the Dee estuary.


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A bridge between two countries.

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On one side is England. On the other, I'm in Wales.

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This is a coast of constant coming and going,

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a to and fro of people and ideas that haven't only changed Britain.

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Events on the Welsh shores have changed the world.

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My destination is the Dee Estuary,

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the northern border between Wales and England,

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but my journey starts at their southern border, on the Severn Estuary.

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This stretch of water has brought great wealth to South Wales.

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Thanks to the sea, great cities have grown up.

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As the people thrived, they've had good reason to be grateful for their coastal connections.

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But 400 years ago, it was a very different story.

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At the start of the 17th century,

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the sea rose up and dashed the people down,

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wiping whole villages from the face of the Earth.

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The year is 1607, it's the 30th of January.

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Unlike today,

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unseasonal sunshine bathes the estuary.

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It's a bright start to a disastrous day.

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Before long, a strong wind whips up.

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Offshore, huge and mighty hills of water are rolling in,

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set on a collision course with this coast and its people.

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In less than five hours, 200 square miles of low-lying land are lost to the sea,

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cattle are washed away, 2,000 people are drowned,

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their lungs filled with salt water.

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This woodcut depicts a tragedy of biblical proportions.

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Buildings are inundated, people are climbing trees,

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others are drowning alongside cattle, sheep and horses.

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The dead were washed from their graves.

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To many, it must have seemed like the end of days.

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It was certainly a day that left its mark in people's memories.

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Here at the church in Redwick, it's commemorated in stone.

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That dreadful event has been researched by the church organist, Mark Lewis.

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What evidence is there that the church was affected by the flood?

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We're very fortunate here at Redwick because the height of the floodwater

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was recorded on the church wall just after the event.

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We've got a copper alloy bolt set in led in this stone on the end of the chancel

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and the word "flood" carved above it. And we believe that this is the height of that 1607 event.

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-So the water would have reached my chest.

-It would have here, but we're on a slight hill,

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so anywhere in any direction one or two miles from this would have been under four, five metres of water.

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The best way to take in the scale of the devastation is from the church tower.

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The floodwater covered all the land from the estuary

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as far as the eye can see, up to the new Severn Crossing,

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and as far as the foothills at the fen edge,

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which from here is about two or three miles distance inland.

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Most of the houses in 1607 were timber-framed and wattle and daub,

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and they were swept away or washed away.

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How did people interpret the disaster?

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This was very much seen as a warning from heaven against vice.

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400 years ago, the great flood was blamed on divine judgement.

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Today, the widely accepted theory is that terrible weather whipped up the sea creating a storm-surge of water.

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But this man has a different idea.

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Professor Simon Haslett from the University of Wales believes this coast contains a warning,

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to us and to future generations.

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What do you think caused the great flood of 1607?

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A lot of people think it was caused by a storm-surge,

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but contemporary accounts that I've read indicate the weather was fine,

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the day was fairly and brightly spread,

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so if it wasn't a storm we've got to look for other explanations,

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and one of those is possibly a tsunami, which we're now considering.

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-A tsunami in Britain?

-Well, yes.

-How do you define a tsunami?

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Well, a tsunami is a long wave,

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which means that from the front of the wave

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to the back of the wave, it can be several kilometres long.

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And if you were stood in that wave at the beach when it arrived

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it would take 15-20 minutes for that single wave to pass over you.

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That's how big a tsunami is.

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Somewhere out there in the Atlantic, according to our tsunami theory,

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there was either an earthquake or an undersea landslide, or maybe both,

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cos earthquakes can trigger undersea landslides as well.

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They're one of the most energetic phenomenon we have in nature,

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and they contain far more energy than a normal storm wave would have, for example.

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According to Simon's theory,

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in 1607 the flood water didn't rise gradually.

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Instead, a single huge wave smashed into this shore with incredible intensity,

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a sudden explosion of energy unleashed by an offshore earthquake or landslide.

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A tsunami's terrifying force can toss huge boulders around with ease.

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They've been stacked up like dominoes.

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The only thing that can really move boulders lie that is a tsunami,

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and that's seen right around the world where tsunami have been encountered.

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So about a five-metre-high wave,

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sloshing against that cliff for about 10-15 minutes

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as the crest of the tsunami passed,

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all that time bringing in boulders and laying them down in the fabric that we see them here today.

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The great flood of 1607 levelled villages and left 2,000 dead.

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Was the cause a tsunami trigged by an Atlantic earthquake?

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Certainly on the other side of the ocean,

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the Americans have sunk millions into an early warning system.

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It's designed to protect their eastern coast from tsunamis set-off by earthquakes.

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The likelihood of such an event in our lifetime is remote,

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but Simon thinks that shouldn't stop us planning for the worst.

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Tsunamis are not a regular hazard here in the Atlantic,

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but they do occur, so we need to be mindful of them,

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and for a very small investment we could put out in the Atlantic,

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as the Americans are doing now on their eastern coastline,

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we could put tsunami warning systems out there, then if we do have one of these freak events,

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we will at least have some warning time to get people out of the way.

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The sea has a terrifying power.

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And beguiling beauty.

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We've reached the majestic Gower Peninsula.

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Beyond Gower is Burry Port.

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When Amelia Earhart landed here in 1928, she became the first woman to fly over the Atlantic.

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But years earlier, could the Welsh cliffs have witnessed the world's very first powered flight?

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We're heading for a town which may deserve a special place on the aviation map.

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Saundersfoot.

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An unlikely aviator has Alice intrigued.

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At the end of the 19th century here in Saundersfoot,

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a local carpenter claimed that he'd built his own flying machine.

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And this is the man. His name was Bill Frost,

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and he said that he'd built his contraption out of canvas

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and it got him airborne and he flew for 500 yards.

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And he said that he made this flight in 1896,

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that's seven years before the Wright brothers.

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So should it be Bill Frost's name in the record books

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as the engineer of the first powered flight, or is that a lot of hot air?

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Supposedly the scene of Bill's great escape from gravity was this hillside,

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high above Saundersfoot harbour.

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Had he been here in September 1896,

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you might have caught sight of Bill Frost in his flying machine, actually flying over this field.

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It was a bizarre thing, part balloon, part glider, part helicopter.

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There were no witnesses, though, to back up Bill's story about his flight.

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He said it came to a crashing end when his craft got tangled in a tree.

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The next morning, the headlines were all about the weather.

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It says here "The Great Storm" and describes

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"a tremendous wind storm sweeping over South Wales,"

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and Bill Frost said that his flying machine trapped in those trees was torn apart.

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There's no proof for Bill Frost's claim that he made this flight seven years before the Wright Brothers,

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but could he have been telling the truth?

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We do know that two years earlier, in 1894,

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Bill registered this patent for a flying machine.

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But even if he had made this aircraft, would it have worked?

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Scientist Mike Bullivant has cast a critical eye over Bill's design.

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The aircraft comprises an upper chamber

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filled with a non-specified gas which is lighter than air.

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Suspended underneath is a gondola which takes the pilot.

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Going up from the gondola through the upper chamber

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is a propeller which is hand-cranked by the pilot,

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and then the upper chamber has wings sticking out of each side.

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It's part airship, it's part helicopter, it's part glider.

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To get his airship airborne, Bill would have needed to fill it with lighter than air gas.

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The obvious choice today would be helium,

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but in 1896 it wasn't available, so what gas might Bill have used?

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I reckon it was hydrogen. I'm going to show you how you can make hydrogen, it's really easy.

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Bill would have needed to know some chemistry.

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You can produce hydrogen gas, H2, by adding iron to sulphuric acid.

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-What's the formula of sulphuric acid?

-H2S04.

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Right, so the iron is grabbing the S04 and the H is released.

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H2 is released, yeah.

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-Oooh. Ooooh!

-So, Bill Frost could...

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Bill Frost could have used iron and sulphuric acid

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as a source of the hydrogen to fill that upper chamber.

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Even if Bill could have made hydrogen, using it is very risky.

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It's a bomb, flying bomb.

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And Bill Frost's aircraft would have been a very big flying bomb.

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To see just how big, I'm going to try and get airborne myself.

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Thankfully, stunt expert Bob Schofield is filling these balloons with another lighter than air gas,

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helium, which, unlike hydrogen, doesn't explode.

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With each balloon blown up to eight feet in diameter, how much gas is inside it?

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About seven cubic metres.

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That will lift about eight kilograms.

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Well, I'm 64 kilos.

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I'd need eight fully inflated balloons to get me off the ground, just to lift me off the ground.

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And I haven't even got an aircraft around me, it's just me.

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Yeah, yeah, that's...

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Bill Frost would have also had all the actual aircraft, the wood, the canvas.

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The drawing on that patent starts to look a little bit sketchy, doesn't it?

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Surely Bill's airship couldn't have contained enough gas to lift off the ground.

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I've got four big balloons attached, but I'll need four more to get airborne...

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..and the weather's against me.

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I'm slightly concerned because,

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just as Bill Frost had his experiment scuppered by a storm,

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-the wind is whipping up in Saundersfoot.

-From the south west, yeah.

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Within minutes, things go from tricky to treacherous.

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-Bill Frost would have had a laugh about this.

-Yeah.

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Just lean into that now. You ain't going anywhere.

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-Ooh, it's not comfortable, don't want to really end up with broken ribs.

-No.

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And it's not just me that's feeling the strain.

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That one is gone, it's leaking, you can see straight through where the wind's got it.

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-Really... I'm losing gas.

-You're losing gas.

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As the wind gets stronger, I get seriously worried.

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Right, go back into that.

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Right, I think it's time to call it a day, unfortunately.

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It's your call. I'm safe on the ground, you're the one that's...

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I can't believe a storm has once again put paid to an experiment with flight at Saundersfoot.

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-The curse of Bill Frost.

-That is the curse of Bill Frost!

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Bill's claim to have flown before the Wright Brothers does seem like a tall tale.

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Explosive gas...and lots of it.

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A machine at the mercy of the wind.

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It may all have been a flight of fancy, but we'll never know for sure.

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We're here in search of curious comings and goings.

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Aberystwyth University is home to a group of scientists,

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making ready for an epic voyage.

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It's not just far beyond this shore, it's far beyond this world.

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Those researchers are preparing for an extra-terrestrial mission here at Clarach Bay.

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Fancy a trip to Mars, but you're put off by the millions of miles and months of travel?

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Then come here to sample the delights of the red planet.

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That's what the scientists do.

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I'm here to meet Lester Waugh and David Barnes,

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and of course Bridget, the midget Rover.

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She's the prototype of a robot that'll look for life on Mars.

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Which means Bridget needs to be tested on a makeshift Martian landscape.

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So what are we doing on a beach in Wales?

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We don't have all the diversity of rock features you have on Mars,

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but we have some key ones.

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First of all, we've got a nice sort of pebbly beach.

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Moving further over, we have a nice sort of sandy mixed region,

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and finally, as we go sort of over here,

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we actually have some rather nice sort of sedimentary regions.

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And again one can imagine

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we're actually up against the face of a crater on Mars,

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and we can get our Rover up here, we can take some images.

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This is the surface of Clarach Bay, and this is the surface of Mars.

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Mars, Wales... Wales, Mars, I can see the similarity.

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If you're looking for a stand-in for the red planet,

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this bay just outside Aberystwyth is one of the best places in Britain.

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It's an unlikely one-stop shop for a variety of Martian-like landscapes.

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Is Bridget up to the task of manoeuvring around this tricky terrain?

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-And she's off, she's moving.

-Indeed.

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OK, now is this full speed or cruising speed?

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This is reasonably representative of what a Mars Rover will do.

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I know it sounds like a silly question, but where's the engine?

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-Right, well, this Rover has six motors for drive.

-Right.

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And you're seeing in here, these are the hubs,

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-and there's a motor in each of these hubs.

-They're inside here?

-Inside there, yes...

-Is a motor?

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They're very small and they have a gear box which reduces the gear ratio.

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-There's an engine and a gearbox in each hub?

-That's right.

-How amazing.

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It pivots here to keep the body stable,

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that's called body posture averaging.

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-And she's really going to handle this lot?

-Yes.

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We designed the system so that it would cope with rocks up to 37 metres high.

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Bridget must be agile and tough.

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If she got stuck on Mars, there'd be no-one to give her a push. She'd have to haul herself out of trouble.

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So how powerful is Bridget? How many Martian horses can she pull?

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-I'm pretty sure she could pull you along the beach.

-Really?

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It might be an idea if we stop her here, Nick,

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and you could have a tug of war with Bridget.

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No contest, me against a shopping trolley, I know who's going to win.

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Maybe.

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Right, Bridget, now we're going to find out what you've made of.

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I think we're going to find out what Nick Crane is made of!

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Oh, really?! We'll see.

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Well, I hope you don't strangle yourself.

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-I'm digging in.

-OK, let's see what happens.

-OK. Off we go.

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Come on Nick! Come on!

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For a shopping...gosh. She's got a bit of power, hasn't she?

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Look at those feet, slipping all over the place!

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What's the matter? You've got no traction!

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I think Bridget wins, I think!

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Can you turn it off, Brian, or I'll end up in the sea.

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Clarach Bay is an odd starting point for a voyage that will end far away from the Earth.

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But then this coast is full of surprises.

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As we cross the Dyfi Estuary, it's all a million miles away from the worries of the wider world.

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Or so it seems.

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Then you reach Tonfanau.

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Here, an old military camp marked the end of a journey for thousands of desperate people.

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They were driven here by political turmoil, half a world away.

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Historian Tessa Dunlop is uncovering the story.

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In October 1972, this remote site almost overnight

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became home to some 3,000 refugees. They'd travelled here from Uganda.

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They hadn't planned to come to the Welsh coast, but they had no choice.

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They'd been forced to leave their homes in Africa, homes to which they'd never return.

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I'm meeting two of those refugees.

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Chandrika and Madhu are sisters.

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Some 40 years ago, they were teenagers when they first found themselves on this Welsh beach.

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It must have been quite something arriving here and seeing the coast.

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I didn't really know that Wales existed.

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My first impression was it was very calming,

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very inviting.

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It was in the middle of autumn so I felt it was really cold, gloomy.

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When I first came here, and, you know, saw all the seaweed

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by the coast I was just like, "Oh, what's this?!"

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The sisters had arrived in Tonfanau

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after a gruelling 4,000-mile journey from their homeland.

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Uganda, a country once part of the British Empire.

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By 1972, it was beset by economic and civil strife.

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The army officers and the custom department have removed my wristwatch and ring,

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and so I got my goods back from Entebbe airport and I could not go.

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President Idi Amin had given the Asian minority just 90 days to leave the country,

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accusing them of profiting at the expense of black Ugandans.

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The Asians had lived in Uganda for generations,

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originally encouraged to settle by the British during the days of Empire.

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And that is why I said that the responsibility of Asians

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in Uganda, it is the responsibility of Great Britain.

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Amin's ultimatum to leave Uganda caused panic.

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British passport offices were besieged by applicants.

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I'm still waiting for the British High Commission to decide what...

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what about the security and safety of the lives and the goods.

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Amid increasing desperation, some 30,000 Ugandan Asians fled to Britain.

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The refugees were housed in resettlement centres,

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3,000 of them in the former military camp at Tonfanau.

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Chandrika, Madhu and their family arrived at Tonfanau's sleepy seaside station,

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an unlikely contrast to the terror of their expulsion from Africa.

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What do you actually remember of leaving Uganda?

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The worst thing was the airport.

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We were the last family to... to board,

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and I was the last passenger.

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And I happened to...

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Can't do it.

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They were raping women and things like that,

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my mother was really terrified. I remember my mother's face was really terrified.

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Didn't know what to do and they keep pushing my mum away, to say, leave her with us and you just go.

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I got a lot of abuse, a lot of aggression,

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and that is my last memory, and I don't...

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-Last memory, and it's not nice.

-Yeah.

0:25:080:25:11

Tonfanau station serviced the military camp that was sighted nearby on the coast.

0:25:160:25:22

It used to be a live firing range.

0:25:220:25:26

The row of gunning placements pointing out to sea still runs along the shore.

0:25:260:25:31

When the Ugandan Asians arrived in 1972, the military were long gone.

0:25:340:25:39

But camp life soon developed new routines in the buildings they'd left behind.

0:25:420:25:47

It was like a dormitory with lots of single beds with these army type of rough blankets

0:25:490:25:55

and little electric heater, which I hogged.

0:25:550:25:58

-Which she hogged.

-Only one, right, I was freezing.

0:25:580:26:02

There were worries about how the new arrivals would cope in the Welsh winter.

0:26:020:26:09

'What do you think it's going to be like for these people in the winter?'

0:26:090:26:13

Well, taking into account they've never experienced cold weather,

0:26:130:26:17

I think we would get quite a lot of illness.

0:26:170:26:19

But the cold wasn't the only concern for the refugees.

0:26:210:26:25

Elsewhere in the UK, their arrival was provoking bitter hostility.

0:26:250:26:29

We are now telling the politicians of this country today that we cannot,

0:26:300:26:34

and will not absorb any more Asians...

0:26:340:26:40

The welcome on the Welsh coast for the Ugandan Asians was warmer.

0:26:410:26:46

Many of the locals rallied around to help.

0:26:460:26:49

-They were really hospitable, weren't they, with clothes and things like that.

-The locals?

0:26:520:26:57

Even the camp, the WRVS had set out nice, warm clothing for us,

0:26:570:27:01

so then we started getting coats and little bits of things like that.

0:27:010:27:07

But it was very well organised as well, you know,

0:27:070:27:10

overnight, and the place was actually buzzing.

0:27:100:27:13

This is a map of Wales, and we have put the arrow

0:27:130:27:16

because we have been talking about Tonfanau before.

0:27:160:27:22

In 1972, Ann James was one of the teachers drafted in to work at the camp school.

0:27:220:27:28

There weren't many foreign people around in these parts at all.

0:27:310:27:36

And it didn't seem to matter about them being of a different culture.

0:27:360:27:41

In the 38 years since the camp closed,

0:27:410:27:45

Ann hasn't met any of the Ugandan Asians she helped... until today.

0:27:450:27:51

Yes, I remember you! Oh, Madhu!

0:27:510:27:54

Hello... Wonderful.

0:27:540:27:58

-Really lovely seeing you. I remember you.

-After all those years, it's lovely.

0:27:580:28:01

I brought a photograph. Shall I show you?

0:28:010:28:05

Goodness me! I remember. That's you?

0:28:050:28:08

That's me in my little short dress.

0:28:080:28:10

Well, that's wonderful.

0:28:120:28:14

What was it like to teach these girls? Where they good students?

0:28:140:28:17

Oh, they were great, very diligent, wanted to learn, they were really good.

0:28:170:28:21

You must have been sad when the camp closed down, really.

0:28:210:28:25

Yes, I was very sad, we all were very sad, because... and it closed very quickly.

0:28:250:28:32

In the six months it was open, this abandoned military base,

0:28:350:28:39

staffed by an army of local volunteers,

0:28:390:28:42

managed to keep 3,000 refugees warm and well-fed during a Welsh seaside winter.

0:28:420:28:48

By the time spring arrived in 1973, the last temporary residents

0:28:520:28:57

were leaving to be resettled around Britain.

0:28:570:29:00

So what happened to the sisters?

0:29:020:29:05

I became a radiographer in Cardiff, and then I did my masters in Manchester,

0:29:070:29:11

and I'm a CT superintendent now.

0:29:110:29:13

Wow, impressive stuff. What about you, Chandrika?

0:29:130:29:18

I became a dentist, and I'm a specialist in special care dentistry,

0:29:180:29:22

and I work around Cardiff and I love it.

0:29:220:29:27

Skirting North Wales, we're on the final leg of our tour

0:29:370:29:41

to discover the curious comings and goings on this coast.

0:29:410:29:45

For thousands of years, copper from the Great Orme

0:29:450:29:50

was sent around Britain and beyond.

0:29:500:29:53

Later, human cargo came in at Llandudno pier.

0:29:550:29:58

Tourist boats bringing visitors on "kiss me quick" adventures.

0:30:010:30:06

All along this porous shore, there's been a constant to-ing and fro-ing.

0:30:060:30:11

But at our final stop on the Dee Estuary, it's another story.

0:30:130:30:19

You find something that's not going anywhere.

0:30:190:30:22

Many people making their way along this shore must have wondered

0:30:270:30:31

what on Earth is going on with this ship?

0:30:310:30:34

But very few get this close.

0:30:380:30:41

She's sat on this site since 1979.

0:30:450:30:50

Remember the '70s?

0:30:530:30:54

Life was somewhat slower paced.

0:30:570:30:59

Especially on Sunday.

0:31:020:31:04

# Every day is like Sunday. #

0:31:090:31:13

Shopping on the Sabbath was seen as something of a sin.

0:31:130:31:17

For retailers, every seventh day was an opportunity going begging.

0:31:170:31:21

But did it have to be?

0:31:210:31:23

I just happen to have here a copy of the Shops Act 1950.

0:31:250:31:29

The provisions of this Act used to forbid most shops from trading on a Sunday.

0:31:290:31:34

But maybe there was a loophole.

0:31:340:31:36

It says here in part 4, Section 56, sub-section 6,

0:31:360:31:40

"the foregoing provisions of this part of this Act

0:31:400:31:43

"shall not apply to any sea-going ship."

0:31:430:31:46

So perhaps if you got yourself a ship and set it up as a shop, you could open on a Sunday.

0:31:460:31:52

So the Duke of Lancaster found herself being towed into place in August 1979,

0:31:560:32:03

to become a visitor attraction and a shopping centre.

0:32:030:32:07

Alan D'arcy didn't just work on board, the ship was his home.

0:32:100:32:16

-Follow me, Nick.

-It's quite eerie, isn't it?

-It is, yes.

0:32:180:32:21

It feels like a ghost ship. What used to happen in here?

0:32:230:32:27

This was a market deck area.

0:32:270:32:29

All the traders rent so much space to sell their wares,

0:32:310:32:35

and this is where they'd be.

0:32:350:32:39

The traders moved on years ago, but the ship is stuck in the past.

0:32:390:32:44

Following a series of planning disputes,

0:32:470:32:49

this shop on the sea ceased trading.

0:32:490:32:52

But those who love this old girl can't let go.

0:33:020:33:06

-This is the Dolphin restaurant, Nick.

-It's gorgeous, isn't it?

0:33:080:33:12

Yeah. It takes you back, doesn't it?

0:33:120:33:15

-I actually had my wedding reception in here.

-In here?

0:33:150:33:20

-In here, yeah, in 1982.

-What did it look like?

0:33:200:33:23

Like the Titanic, for want of a better word.

0:33:230:33:26

You've got to see her with all the tablecloths on

0:33:260:33:31

and waitresses and food and people jollying,

0:33:310:33:35

beer and champagne, it was just like that.

0:33:350:33:39

-It's just crying out for happy people.

-Help...crying out for help.

0:33:390:33:43

-It is crying out for help.

-It is sad she's sat here empty.

0:33:430:33:49

I'd've liked to have seen her still open and working,

0:33:530:33:58

instead of just sitting here waiting for something to happen to her.

0:33:580:34:03

It's become part of your life, hasn't it?

0:34:030:34:05

It has, yeah. I do get a little bit emotional, but,

0:34:050:34:09

we just have to wait and see what happens to her.

0:34:090:34:12

But that's because it's tied up in your life, you see,

0:34:140:34:17

-ships aren't just lumps of metal, they have lives tied in with them.

-And names, lives and names.

0:34:170:34:22

This is one of the most bizarre sights I've seen anywhere on the British coast.

0:34:440:34:49

A great, white, beached whale.

0:34:490:34:53

The Welsh coast does everything on a grand scale, its scenery,

0:35:110:35:15

its wildlife, its spirit of enterprise and adventure,

0:35:150:35:19

the ideas of ebb and flow with every age.

0:35:190:35:23

These shores have always been a window on a wider world on far horizons.

0:35:230:35:27

Oh, and there's one other thing. They're very welcoming, too.

0:35:270:35:30

I'll be back.

0:35:300:35:32

Coast travels right around the wonderful Welsh coast from the border with England in the south on the Severn estuary, to the northern English border on the Dee estuary.

Nick Crane investigates the evidence that a devastating tsunami crashed on to the coast of Wales and England some 400 years ago. Villages were wiped off the map and thousands died, leaving the survivors to believe they had suffered the judgement of God - but was it a tidal wave that was to blame?

Nick also discovers why scientists planning an expedition to the Red Planet find the Welsh coast a surprisingly good stand-in for the surface of Mars. And at the end of his journey Nick gains unique access to a remarkable passenger ship left stranded on the Welsh shore and virtually untouched since the 1980s.

Miranda Krestovnikoff lands where few people ever tread - on Grassholm. It is an extraordinary island normally kept exclusively for the birds, and Miranda joins a scientific expedition trying to discover where the gannets of Grassholm disappear to in the winter.