Coast ventures to the furthest flung reaches of the British Isles. In Newlyn, Nick Crane relives an unsung feat of British seamanship.
Browse content similar to The Hidden History of Harbours. Check below for episodes and series from the same categories and more!
Coast is home.
And we're exploring
the most endlessly fascinating shoreline in the world...
The journey to discover surprising,
secret stories from around the British Isles continues.
This is Coast.
The sea is a great global highway.
As an island people, it's in our nature to reach out and explore,
the thrill of embarking on voyages big and small
makes our harbours hum with excitement.
In an age before air travel, these were our departure lounges,
harbours have always been gateways to adventure.
With an insatiable appetite for those adventures,
we've constructed around 1,000 of these global gateways.
For centuries, people, goods and ideas
have flowed in between harbour walls.
If only these walls could talk.
Well, now they can.
We're here to reveal The Hidden History of Harbours.
Down on the south coast,
Tessa is exploring how in the harbours of the Royal Navy
a fashion began that made a permanent mark on Britain.
There's one naval tradition that remains largely hidden
from public view, beneath sailor's uniforms.
On the coast of Northern Ireland we're heading to Portrush,
where Mark Horton's disembarking to take a trip
four centuries back in time.
How did the lack of a harbour lead to the ruin of a remarkable town?
Lost under the soil, like an Irish Pompeii.
The decision to settle here at the castle,
rather than the port over there,
was a matter of life and death for the new town.
And we venture northwards in England,
in the docks at Barrow-In-Furness, Dick discovers a top secret weapon
of the First World War, airships pumped up with cow guts.
It seems incredible, but cow guts were the secret ingredients
that meant that airships could float in the sky.
I think this is practically ready to fly.
The harbour I'm heading for is Newlyn in Cornwall.
Soaring high above the Cornish coast
it's striking how perfectly
people have moulded themselves into the landscape.
Manmade walls extend natural headlands
to create safe havens,
harbours, our own perfectly formed contributions to the coast.
# In Newlyn Town
# I was bread and born... #
Last few BBQ pilchards.
At Newlyn, the locals come to plug into the wider world,
but the harbour also hides a hidden history.
150 years ago, as tin mines were closing,
fishing struggled to keep the community going.
Down in the harbour, a new call was luring the men seawards.
On the other side of the world a gold rush has begun.
# To South Australia we are born
# Heave away, haul away
# To South Australia round Cape Horn
# We're bound for South Australia... #
The fishermen of Newlyn knew that 12,000 miles of wild sea
stood between them and the promised land.
Who would risk all for riches?
150 years ago, one little fishing boat made a remarkable voyage
from here to the other side of the world.
Have a look at this picture,
it shows Melbourne harbour in Australia,
absolutely crammed with shipping in the mid-1800's,
but look at this little boat here, it's got a sail on it
and on the sale is says Penzance, it's a boat called Mystery.
The Mystery, with seven men onboard, left this quayside in 1854,
over 100 days later they reached Oz.
No fishing boat had ever made such a trip.
Their incredible achievement was a triumph of hope over experience,
they rode their luck in the roughest seas, gambling on a golden future.
# We're bound for South Australia. #
The men left behind wives, children, friends,
unsure whether they'd ever see their loved ones again.
Two of the men who made that momentous decision
were Philip Curnow Matthews and William Badcock,
no photos of their five crew-mates survive.
For years, their story has lain hidden,
now I want to discover why the men risked everything
on that incredible voyage to Australia
in the small fishing boat, Mystery.
I'm meeting the Captain's great-great-great nephew
As I understand it, back in the 1850s, you could buy for £20
a steerage class ticket all the way to Australia, one-way,
why didn't they do that and travel out there on an immigrant ship?
The whole thing was based on an adventure which took off
and came out of their control.
They certainly saved a fair bit of money by going that way,
the fact that they had a means of earning their livelihood
with The Mystery when they arrived there,
those were the two big factors.
This was a new life and a new deal
and they thought they'd have part of it.
Do you think they understood the risk?
I don't think they understood the risk,
I don't suppose any of them had been further than the North Sea
and around the Cornish south-west coast,
but they had a first class navigator in Captain Richard Nicholls,
who was experienced around the world in cargo ships,
and they recognised that and they had an absolute trust in him.
Captain Nicholls' log details a great unsung feat
of British seamanship,
beginning on November 18th 1854 leaving Newlyn.
Phillips Matthews, William Badcock and their crewmates
had barely sailed beyond the sight of land before,
now off the tip of Africa,
they braved gales as they pressed on to Melbourne.
Of all the British vessels to make it to Australia, The Mystery,
the smallest and pluckiest of all, would never see home shores again.
The Mystery didn't come back to Newlyn,
but I've come along the coast to Plymouth.
Here, the spirit of Mystery lives on.
This is an exact replica of the boat in which Captain Nicholls
and his six crew set sail, bringing her back to life
was the dream of Cornishman and legendary sailor Pete Goss.
I can't believe that I'm going out to sea in this boat.
It's an amazing story.
We started with a chainsaw looking for fallen oak trees to...
to make the frames to build the boat.
Fashioning the Cornish oak into a seagoing craft
was a 10-month labour of love,
to honour the achievement of the original crew.
Really what this is about is celebrating, you know,
1854, those seven amazing men who really through hardship
and I think a bit of romance they wanted an adventure themselves,
sailed her to Australia, which is staggering, really.
For Pete there was only one way to appreciate fully
Mystery's epic voyage down under, to try it himself.
Later, I'll be discovering how they battled raging seas,
just like the original crew.
And what became of those Cornishmen who reached Australia 150 years ago.
Newlyn is just one of many harbours that have waved off bold explorers.
But these safe havens are home to two-way traffic,
for every boat that leaves, one is returning, richer for the journey.
Like down on the South Coast, at Portsmouth.
The harbour here is familiar
with the comings and goings of large ships,
but they aren't only built for pleasure.
This is the historic home of the Royal Navy,
where warships set off to make their mark on the world.
What's less well known is how the Navy's harbours
were gateways for the wider world
to make an indelible mark on the British people.
As Tessa Dunlop's here to explore.
The Royal Navy's known as the Senior Service,
proud to display its centuries old seafaring history.
But these days, there's one naval tradition
that remains largely hidden from public view,
beneath sailor's uniforms.
Today, some five million Britons
see ink on their skin as a fashion statement,
but how did the Navy sailors start this trend for tattooing?
It all began in far-flung harbours.
# As you sail across the sea
# All my love is there beside you... #
I've made a shorter journey myself to the naval dockyard at Chatham.
Serving sailors can be a secretive bunch.
So I'm here to meet veterans on a Second World War vintage destroyer,
old salts who can talk tattoos.
Radar operator Nobby Clarke was just 15
when he signed up on the notoriously tough training ship HMS Ganges.
I was a boy seaman, the lowest form of animal life
in the Royal Navy, at Ganges if you had a tattoo there,
you could get six cuts across your rear end,
which hurt, for having a tattoo.
-What the cane?
After Ganges, young Nobby Clarke was ready to cut loose.
What is that?
It's a horseshoe with a robin inside it, which he had red on him once,
and I had Mum and Dad underneath.
This was done with a bamboo cane and ink in Bombay.
So the old-fashioned slow way?
-Yes, and it hurts.
-I bet it hurt.
# As you sail across the sea... #
The men squeezed into ships like HMS Cavalier,
saw tattooing as a rite of passage and a celebration of tradition.
Engineer David Shardlow chose body art
that a sailor from Nelson's Navy would recognise,
two little birds, swallows.
These actually are a nautical theme, aren't they?
-What do they symbolise?
They symbolise you're fast with your hands.
Oh, so when you're doing your thing with all the gauges and the wheels,
you're meant to be working quickly?
Tattoos also tapped into a sailor's softer side,
as deckhand Terry Willis can testify.
Can I have a little look?
The galleon, and with...
So that's a ship there, right?
And "We're homeward bound to Pauline."
-Is that the wife?
No, it's the ex-wife.
The hidden history of naval tattoos might have stayed overseas,
but sailors coming home to the harbours of 18th century Britain
brought their body art with them.
When Captain Cook returned to England from southern seas,
his sailors showed off the skin designs
they'd first seen on Polynesians.
Tattoo historian Paul Sayce is showing me how it was done.
Now this looks pretty scary, where's this one from?
That's a Samoan handsaw, it's tacked into the skin,
and that's why the name of tattooing in Polynesia is called tattao...
..cos the Polynesian word for tapping is tattao.
So they're actually cutting and hitting the skin at the same time?
Dip it in the ink, put it on the skin
and they'd tap it with a little piece of wood like a mallet,
and it goes along like that as they're tapping.
That must really hurt, I mean it must bruise as well as cut.
The bruising's terrible,
you get about six to eight inches either side.
This is a Japanese hand tool, but it's very similar to what
we would have used, and it would have been four or five inches long,
with the needles tied on, and you really just poked it in.
What and the ink then pours down into the holes, does it?
Yeah, well, you dip it in the ink and then you poke it in.
Painful certainly, but while tattoos were rare outside the Navy,
in the mid 19th century they also became a sought-after status symbol.
Surprisingly, tattooing even got the royal seal of approval.
During his madcap youth Edward Prince of Wales,
later King Edward VII, visited the Holy Land,
where he had a Jerusalem cross tattooed on his arm.
Tattoo parlours started to spring up outside our harbours,
as high society followed the future monarch's lead.
In 1879 the New York Times observed,
"In England it is regarded as customary and proper
"to tattoo the youthful feminine leg."
By the early 20th century,
mechanisation was making inky skin a mass-market commodity.
And this is one of the first mechanised tattooing machines, is it?
Yeah, it is, it's one of the first machines
and it's still the same as we know it today.
Inside there, there's two coils and a hammer and it goes up and down,
when the power goes on and off, the needles go through here,
you dip it in the ink and you go around the skin like that.
And of course when the more commoner sort of people in inverted commas
started to get it done, your higher society stopped getting it done,
cos as is anything else, if anything gets popular the...
the rich don't want it.
Body art swings in and out of fashion,
but is always at home in the Navy's harbours.
# Stop your roving... #
There used to be an old song which said you're not a sailor
till the sailor's tattooed,
and of course silly boys like me had a tattoo.
Wouldn't do it again but err...
It's interesting, none of you would do it again.
We've grown wiser as we get older.
I like your tattoos, in fact who does have the biggest tattoo?
Don't know, Nobby I think on his chest.
Oh, it's enormous!
It's a sailing ship.
-With a cloud, I see it now and birds, yes?
And where was that from, India?
Yeah, I think a postcard home would have probably been a better investment.
It isn't just tattoos that the Navy keeps covered up.
Once it strikes out from harbour,
the Senior Service fights its battles in secret.
They show-off their ships in exercises,
but the grim business of war takes place in far-flung foreign waters,
that is of course, unless you go to Scarborough.
Those in the know go beyond the sea walls of the quayside
to a hidden little harbour that sees explosive action
in the holiday months.
Every summer, we wage war here in Scarborough.
In the crazy days of summer, the crowds wait for war to break out.
Meanwhile, the corner of the council boating pond is transformed
into an impromptu naval base.
In top secret, warships are made ready for battle.
It looks like miniature boats.
The lid comes off and a council employee...
..climbs inside and the lid is put back on,
and there you have your dreadnaught.
-There you go, good luck.
For 80 years, Scarborough has staged the summer war
from a little harbour in Peasholm Park,
a grand tradition familiar to Friend of the Park, Christine Mark.
The naval battle started in the 1920s
and they started to celebrate World War I sea battles and that was fine
but then World War II came along
and after that they decided that it would be a really good idea
to celebrate the first battle, the first major sea battle
of World War II which was The Battle of the River Plate.
At the Battle of the River Plate off the coast of South America,
the German heavy cruiser Graf Spee suffered a humiliating defeat
to the Royal Navy.
A propaganda victory that Scarborough has re-fought for years.
It was pretty jingoistic and that was fine for the time.
Nowadays, the conflict is more politically correct.
Don't mention the war, or the Germans.
So now we have the Allies and the Enemy.
I'm the enemy.
I've been doing this now about 14 years, on and off,
never won a battle yet, do 30-a-year and lose every one.
Scarborough Council's naval commanders
baton down the hatches.
Welcome to Scarborough's unique holiday attraction,
the naval warfare, our sea battle in miniature.
I'm just waiting to see if the submarines appear.
Lurking in the lake, an enemy sub launches a sneak attack,
aimed at HMS British Pride.
The magazine could go any...
Oh, it has. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear,
but she's spotted an attack by bombers from the Arc Royal.
The dive bombers are a hit with the crowd,
when they work.
Oh, we've got one!
Inside the Jervis Bay, her skipper presses home the attack.
Don't forget, she's not really a fighting ship,
but isn't she doing wonderfully well there?
That's a direct hit on the coning tower.
With the submarine neutralised,
the Allies can finally attack the enemy harbour.
So that was it then, half an hour and the Allies won again...
-Yes, as usual.
Here on the Yorkshire coast, they re-live battles from distant seas
that forged the fighting spirit of naval seamen.
But our shores also shape the character of sailors closer to home,
like here in Cornwall.
This craggy coastline is sculpted by a sea
that crashes against granite,
and builds boatmen of steely resolve.
Historically, each little harbour was connected to its neighbour
by the sea, not the land.
The boats that used to chase the mackerel,
rarely strayed far from the coast.
Except for one remarkable mackerel boat, The Mystery.
Her seven crew sailed in 1854 from Newlyn.
It was a voyage that took them out through the Bay of Biscay,
down the coast of West Africa, past Cape Town and on to Melbourne.
A 12,000 mile gamble on riches in gold rush Australia.
When those Cornishmen set sail in 1854,
some of them had never been out of sight of land before.
I'm on an exact replica of their ship, Spirit of Mystery,
to relive a great unsung feat of British seamanship.
To appreciate their astonishing achievement,
Cornish sailor Pete Goss
faced again every crashing wave from the original crew's trip.
Pete built his boat from the plans of an 1850s lugger,
correct in every detail.
I can't help noticing, Pete, that you haven't got any winches
or mechanical aids to help you get these huge sparks up the mast.
No, no, this was as they would have sailed, so it's a handful of blocks,
a bucket and rope, needle and thread, go anywhere in the world.
Battling the wind, I get a feeling of just how tough it was
for the crew aboard The Mystery in 1854.
-There must be a knack to this.
-You're right, it'll come.
You'll be running around by the end of the day.
That's it. Ready. That'll do. Yep.
Sails hoisted, the Cornishmen faced over 100 days in open seas,
with the same fearsome horizons.
Up here on the bow, Pete, looking back,
I'm actually a little bit shocked at how small this boat is.
-It is a tiny, tiny boat to sail to Australia in.
-It is, yeah.
The further away you get from land, the smaller it becomes,
and you do, you know down in the southern ocean,
there is a sense of vulnerability, you're just out there
and you hope for the best and deal with what comes along.
Pete's crew did have a few home comforts
their intrepid counterparts couldn't have dreamt of.
Pete, this is incredibly cosy down here,
but in the original Mystery this was a fish hold, right?
Yes, it was. This area here, our sort of cabin top,
would have been a fish hold, but we know that they decked that over
and we know that they put bunks and accommodation down below.
Are these working oil lamps, is this how you lit the cabin down here?
Yeah, we had oil lamps, we used a sextant to navigate,
the objective was to shine a spotlight on their voyage,
and get to Melbourne with a real sense of their achievement.
Phillip Curnow Matthews was one of those who made it to Australia,
and now, one of his precious possessions
has come home to Cornwall
This is his little personal compass.
Do you think that was sort of like a lucky charm
that he had with him on the voyage? It's very beautiful, isn't it?
I like to think it was, I kind of see that tucked in his waistcoat.
Matthews and his five crewmates put their life
in the hands of the skipper, Richard Nicholls,
who survives in the writings of his log.
And I love this bit, "our gallant little vessel riding beautifully
"and not shipping any water whatever",
and your life is contained on this little Cornish walnut.
Captain Richard Nicholls was a man of few words,
but they sum up the extraordinary nature of the voyage.
"December 6th, 1854.
"Several flying fish came onboard during the night,
"crew overhauling, rigging and cleaning mast,
"airing nets and restoring hold."
Captain Nicholls refers to his crew simply as "the people",
when the boat was becalmed, he'd exercise them
with the fisherman's walk, six paces up and down the deck, endlessly.
After 50 days at sea, The Mystery stopped-over
at the tip of South Africa.
Nicholls noted the excitement,
"There were a great many visitors onboard.
"The Mystery being the smallest vessel ever from England."
But departing Africa, excitement soon turned to terror
in turbulent southern seas.
The southern ocean is the big focus, that's the big one, you...
you step into that and we had probably
every five days, on average, we'd have a big gale come through.
Walls of water pounded their tiny boat.
Pete's crew were fighting for their lives just like the original men
of the Mystery, 150 years before, as the Captain's log records,
"5th March 1855, a complete hurricane, mountains of sea."
Pete only captured the start of this storm on his little camera.
Hailstones rattled down, then their world turned upside-down.
Just saw this great big sheer wall of water and shouted,
and then it's like a car crash, you only remember bits,
and I remember it went all dark,
getting knocked around in the hatchway
and then it felt like standing in a storm drain
with water pouring in and pushing up against it.
Andy was in the starboard bunk, he woke up and grabbed the boat
and swung over and realised he was sat on the ceiling,
so we got knocked upside-down.
Miraculously, the boat righted itself,
but deckhand Mark suffered a badly broken leg.
I'm sure I heard it, it was like a rifle crack.
I mean, my foot was tucked underneath the bench
and my foot caught on the post and that's what caused it to break.
In Melbourne harbour,
a hero's welcome greeted The Spirit of Mystery.
THE CROWD CHEER
When the original Mystery reached Melbourne in 1855,
she was the smallest craft ever to complete the journey,
but her seven-man crew sold Mystery to start new lives.
Phillip Curnow Matthew married and became a land surveyor,
he is buried in Melbourne.
Captain Nicholls eventually returned to Cornwall,
only to be killed by a horse-drawn carriage in 1868.
Who says worse things happen at sea?
After a spell in Australia, William Badcock and three shipmates
also came home to Newlyn harbour.
Perhaps the lure of Cornwall was just too strong,
but maybe what had really driven them on
wasn't the desire for a new life in Australia
but the spirit of adventure.
Sailors love striking out towards new harbours.
Many head for the stunning inland sea at Strangford Lough
on the shore of Northern Ireland.
The Irish coast is studded with safe havens for shipping,
around which great cities have sprung up.
Creating a new settlement by a harbour seems an obvious choice,
but then you had towards Portrush.
In the Middle Ages, this was a violent coastline.
Castle strongholds brooded on inaccessible cliffs
because harbours were open to attack from the sea.
So 400 years ago, when a Scottish lord came to settle the land here,
he turned his back on the natural harbour at Portrush.
A decision that would prove disastrous,
as Mark is about to discover.
In 1608, this harbour was completely undeveloped.
But the Scottish clan, who claimed this land
chose to build their settlement not here at Portrush,
but here at Dunluce Castle.
The castle is just three miles up the coast from Portrush.
Back in 1608, with its walls intact, it seemed to offer security.
But times were changing.
The decision to settle here at the castle
rather than at the port, over there,
was a matter of life and death for the new town.
Those green fields are a clue as to what eventually happened.
Just beneath the grass, archaeologists have unearthed
the foundations of homes lost for over 350 years,
an Irish Pompeii.
I'm meeting Colin Breen from the University of Ulster.
His team are excavating a village built for Scots,
brought here from over the sea.
This is a plantation,
this is an attempt to bring foreigners to settle Ulster.
Yeah, it's a very complex period in Ulster's history.
What we're essentially doing is coming out of a period
of nine years of war and conflict,
where the rebellious Irish rose up against the English administration,
and at the end of that period the English crown decides that
the only way to pacify the Ulster landscape, is to bring settlers in
from England and from Scotland to civilise Ireland,
to civilise Ulster.
The wild Irish.
The wild Irish as they're often referred to.
And this particular town is established by Randal McDonnell
from 1608 through to about 1611.
Founded by Randal MacDonnell,
the new town was taken over by his son in 1636,
but by then things were going disastrously wrong
for their new settlement, sited next to Dunluce Castle.
Now, only mysterious mounds remain.
Why was the town lost to history
when the Scottish clan MacDonnell built it to last?
It's an amazing thing, the town itself is really quite elaborate.
What we're looking at is a central space within that town,
this paving surface here extends up as far as that farm building,
which was a 1623 courthouse,
it would have run right down to the castle itself,
and then there would have been rows of houses
lining either side of this central place, within the town.
So this isn't just a small town, this is a MAJOR investment?
Very much so.
With no proper harbour, the new town relied on trading vessels,
barely changed since Viking times.
The ship's shallow bottoms meant they could be pulled up
easily onto the beach.
You could drag them up here on west strand
and east strand, just outside Portrush,
but by the time they hit the 17th century
they literally weren't equipped to deal with the new globalised economy,
which was developing at this time.
What you see is a fundamental shift from local trading,
local production into the trading in bulk commodities,
with much larger vessels.
These new larger cargo ships needed something
that Randal MacDonnell's Ulster new town didn't have,
By the time he realised he needed one, Randal MacDonnell
had given away the only natural harbour on this coast.
Those living by the castle watched the big ships sail past.
By-passed by traders, the new town, just 30-years-old, was already dying.
The dig reveals how the money ran out.
Few coins are found from the 1630s onwards.
Around that time, this merchant's house was sub-divided,
a small room created on the left to house pigs,
alongside a once prosperous family.
In the new era of commercial sea trade, they just couldn't compete.
When Randal MacDonnell builds this town in the early 17th century,
he makes a fundamental mistake,
he builds it on the edge of a very steep cliff,
in excess of 80 metres high, looking out over the north Atlantic,
and there's simply no room to be able to build a harbour
in this particular location.
Randal himself was not prepared to let go of his ancestral castle,
his ancestral home,
and he wasn't in that mind to move away from the medieval period
into the new globalised world.
They just got left behind?
Very much so.
The town's Scottish settlers turned their back on the sea
because the castle seemed more secure,
but they were wrong.
Longstanding resentment towards settlers from Scotland and England
reached a head when the native Irish rose up against the incomers.
The attack wasn't from the sea, but from within.
In 1641 during the Irish rebellion the town was attacked
and it was essentially burned to the ground overnight, and abandoned.
So we've just got these cobbles, we're standing where they stood.
Yeah, if we removed all of the grass from beneath this whole landscape,
the perfectly intact foundations of a 17th century town survive.
What a tantalising though of what might lie
under all these fields.
After the uprising, this site was left to go to seed.
Castles were the past,
the future depended on gateways to the sea.
Harbours were the beating heart of a modern Britain,
built on global trade.
The sea is still our lifeblood.
It carries 95% by volume of everything we import,
and around one third of our food arrives by ship.
But while sea trade sustains our bodies,
it can also change our minds.
The fortunes of a coastal town ebb and flow
with the traffic through its harbour,
but it's not just goods that come and go,
sometimes the export isn't a commodity, it's an idea.
An idea that changed the world took life here in Birkenhead harbour.
Birkenhead sits in the shade of its bigger neighbour Liverpool,
across the Mersey.
Around 200 years ago, Liverpool docks were booming,
so hard-headed businessmen with plans for a new harbour,
looked to Birkenhead, little did they know
they were laying the foundations for a revolution
in the world of leisure.
Ruth Goodman is digging deeper.
In the 1800s, Birkenhead was taking shape,
as merchants in these parts showed off their wealth in stone.
The grand homes of 19th century Birkenhead
rivalled their counterparts in London,
thanks to the wealth that was pouring to this Merseyside port.
Birkenhead was booming because it was on the coast.
It's fair to say that the harbour's seen better days,
but Glynn Parry knows its hidden history.
There's not much here now,
but it would have been extremely busy, wouldn't it?
It would have been with ships coming in, going out all the time.
And it was a huge number of people.
Oh, tremendous number of people.
In the period of about 20 years, the population had gone
from somewhere in the region of 120 to about 12,000,
they were coming in from all over the north west.
People were still looking for work
but they were coming in off the farms
because the rates of pay were greater.
The new harbour pulled in an army of new workers,
fresh from green fields.
Now though, they were cramped together in regimented rows.
You're talking about back-to-back houses,
where there was no sanitation, no ventilation.
If you're living in that condition,
home is hardly sweet home that you want to come home to.
It's not somewhere to go to for peace and quiet.
The bosses were living in style,
but the merchants had good reasons to worry
about the living conditions of their employees and their children.
Within living memory, the workers of Manchester
had demonstrated for social reform.
18 died in the Peterloo massacre,
when cavalry charged them with drawn sabres.
Could similar social unrest be brewing
in the drinking dens of Birkenhead?
Was there a genuine possibility of everything exploding in revolution?
People would resent those who seemed to be better off,
those who were in control, there could have been a major revolution.
They'd had one in France, why not one in Britain?
To prise workers out of the alehouses,
the great and good of Birkenhead Council came up with a novel idea.
Use public money to create a grand green space.
Parklife was born.
In 1847, the first public-funded municipal park
opened its imposing gates.
Just imagine 160 years ago
if you were some young kid in from the fields or the cowsheds,
trying to make a living in the new industrial north,
this must have been quite intimidating, I think,
also just that little bit exciting.
There was nowhere like this on earth,
it was laid out by designer Joseph Paxton,
who'd go on to create the Crystal Palace in London.
This space was social networking 19th century style.
That's what's so special about this park, it's a time machine that
takes us back to the birth of modern urban Britain,
if only we can learn to see it with old eyes.
Back then everything ran to a plan.
The park taught people to play nicely together,
and conform to polite society.
I've got a copy of the bylaws here,
for the park, it's a rather formidable document,
they're quite interesting.
No carpet beating, no fires, no pitching tents,
no leaving piles of building materials all over the place,
But visitors did spread the word,
public parks popped up all over Britain and beyond.
Where Birkenhead led, the world followed.
The designer of New York's Central Park, Frederick Olmstead,
was inspired by his own visit to Merseyside in 1850.
And Birkenhead's haven of tranquillity
remains Britain's only Grade-I listed municipal park.
It's funny to think that when these docks were built,
it was all about importing wealth into the local area,
but the public parks movement, born here in Birkenhead,
because of the new docks, was exported to the rest of the world.
As you leave the twin harbours of Merseyside, heading north,
green and yellow open spaces provide natural delights.
During the day and the night.
Blackpool lights up the coast every September.
It's a bright idea that keeps the summer season burning longer,
but then this is an ingenious stretch of shore.
As they know at Barrow in Furness.
This harbour is the site where our nuclear subs take shape.
But there's another secret here, almost everyone's forgotten.
When boffins of Barrow were building a remarkable ship,
An uplifting tale Dick can't resist.
In 1911 His Majesty's Airship No.1
was beginning to take shape in Cavendish Docks.
Here have a look at this,
this is the story of the airship sticking out of a massive shed
that was constructed to protect this weapon of war.
I want to know what became of Britain's airships,
and why this top secret project was started on this part of the coast.
This was the man that Barrow was taking on,
the undisputed king of the air, Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin.
His first Zeppelin rose to the skies in 1900,
three years before the Wright Brothers managed powered flight.
And the new threat posed by Zeppelins was alarming,
Britain's skies were wide open,
suddenly we were in an aerial arms race with Germany.
In 1909, the Admiralty set shipbuilders at Barrow
the challenge of designing Britain's own Zeppelin style airship.
To see how our airship took shape in this harbour,
I've come to Cavendish Dock with local historian Graham Cubbin
to hunt for evidence for the top-secret project.
Graham, have a look at this, it looks huge, where was it?
This is the airship shed built on Cavendish Dock
and behind us here you can see the remnants of the airship shed
you can see the remains of the foundations.
Those posts go for a very long way,
what length are we talking about, the shed and the airship?
The shed itself was over 600ft long and over 50ft wide.
The airship was 512ft long and when it was launched in 1911,
it was the biggest airship in the world,
far bigger than any of the Zeppelins that had been built.
Britain's first rigid airship floated on water
to make it easier to manoeuvre, an idea copied from the Germans.
But our engineers made a critical mistake constructing the shed
to house their creation
Zeppelin's airship shed was a floating shed,
and that enabled them to rotate the whole shed into the wind,
but Vickers built theirs over rigid foundations,
it couldn't turn so any airship coming out of this shed
would be subject to strong winds.
Unfortunately, it was a blustery day on the 24th of September 1911
as His Majesty's Airship No.1 was made ready for manoeuvres.
We're here at one side of the docks, the shed would have been over there,
and the airship would have just been pulled out, towed out.
Yeah, it was very carefully planned.
It was towed out using small boats and horses,
so it was actually floating very lightly on the water
and could be manoeuvred to a mooring post in the centre of the dock.
No sooner than she was free of the shed than disaster struck.
Seldom does a picture sum-up a nation's humiliation so completely.
OK, Graham, what went wrong?
There was a gust of wind, the airship rolled slightly,
and as it was described at the time, there was a sound like
thousands of stones being tossed through acres of glass houses.
The stern-most part of the airship started to rise to the air,
luckily the crew managed to jump into the dock,
no injuries were sustained
but the airship was irreparably damaged.
It was a catastrophic failure.
This crunching set-back convinced the traditionally-minded top brass
of the Navy that Barrow's secret project
was just an ill-conceived aerial adventure.
Admiral Sturdee, the head of the inquiry
into Britain's airship disaster is reported to have said,
"The project was the work of an idiot."
Such was the humiliation
that the airship project in this harbour was halted.
What a mess!
But the Zeppelin soared on.
With the First World War looming,
like it or not, we were in a critical air race.
So the Admiralty had to swallow their pride
and set their sights on the skies again.
To succeed we had to understand every detail of the Zeppelin's design.
To get an airship off the ground
you have to fill it with a gas that is lighter than the air.
They used hydrogen and they used lots of it.
But surprisingly, an airship's outer skin isn't gas tight at all.
The rigid frame and its canvas coating were there to protect
the fragile gas-type bags held inside.
Here the massive gas bags of the Zeppelin hang limp inside the frame,
waiting to be inflated, but what where they made of?
Now of course, its child's play to produce a bag
that can hold a gas for ages, but a hundred years ago
they didn't have materials like this, so what did they do?
Well, to get a futuristic airship to float,
they had to revert to techniques that were ancient.
Amazingly, the gas bags inside the most advanced Zeppelins
started their life inside a cow.
Open up the beast and there's a part of its intestines
known as the caecum, that's what held the hydrogen inside the Zeppelins.
It seems incredible, but cow guts were the secret ingredients
that meant that airships could float in the sky.
Giles, good to see you. How you doing? We're ready for this, are we?
I think so, yes, we'll have a go.
Airships expert Giles Camplin knows the history
but he's never handled the real guts of a Zeppelin before.
We've got some straight from the abattoir.
Is that what you expected?
This is the raw material.
That's not very pleasant.
It's horrible, it's disgusting.
But that you can see there is the membrane, sort of membranes
we're looking for, and that is gas holding, that holds hydrogen.
When they dry it and process it, it ends up like this.
You see, this is dry,
in the airships they kept it moist and flexible.
It's a natural membrane that's gas tight.
So can we make our own mini airship
by filling this membrane with helium?
I've done some very odd things in my time.
This is disgusting, but the membrane is very impressive.
It is showing that it's gas tight.
All this fat's got to be scraped off.
Yeah, all that's got to be scraped off,
and then the actual membrane bit, the very thin bit here,
would have been cut to make a flat square sheet
and then you could laminate the different sheets together.
And stick them together?
And stick them together, and then you put multiple layers in,
up to seven layers thick, you needed up to 350,000,
some of the big ships had a million of these to make one airship.
What an investment in effort and time and cows.
I think this is practically ready to fly.
To get the Zeppelins out of their sheds,
millions of German cows gave up their guts.
Across Germany, farmers were mobilised,
they had to surrender the inside of their animals for the war effort.
But in Britain, airship production was still playing catch-up,
we struggled to get the vast amount of cow guts required.
Well, we had a problem, especially in the First World War
and we were getting them from America,
they'd be coming into ports like Liverpool,
but they came in barrels, salted, they salted them to preserve them
because that was the best way of doing it,
and then they were soaked in solutions of glycerine and water
and then teams of women were processing them,
scraping the fat off,
getting them ready and layering them up to make these gas cells.
I mean, the smell must have been appalling,
must have been absolutely horrendous conditions,
but we had to catch-up with the Germans
cos the Zeppelins were coming over and bombing,
so that's what they had to do to make these amazing flying machines.
By the First World War,
we were still struggling to produce effective airships.
Meanwhile, the east coast, the midlands and London
suffered the terror of Zeppelin attacks.
Bombing raids killed more than 500 people across Britain.
Only after the war, when the R80 came into service,
did we finally have a craft to match Germany's finest.
So much effort, and all in vain.
Planes would eventually blow military airships from the skies.
The airborne adventure we started in this harbour
never really did take off, but there's something about airships
that still seems futuristic, an alternative future,
the stuff of science fiction, kept in the air by cow guts.
A wealth of hidden history lies in store for those
who explore our harbours.
Tales of enterprise, triumph and trade tell how Britain was born.
For me, the coast is most alive when you can see it at work,
and harbours are where you can see that happening,
where land and sea and people all come together
and where adventures are born.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
Before air travel, Britain's harbours were gateways to global adventure. There are more than a thousand ports, big and small, around the UK coastline, all with fascinating secret stories, many of them revealed for the first time in this episode. At the Cornish fishing harbour of Newlyn, Nick Crane relives an astonishing, unsung feat of heroic British seamanship. In 1854, a tiny fishing boat, The Mystery, set sail from Newlyn to make the 12,000 mile voyage to Melbourne. She was the smallest boat ever to attempt the journey, but the seven Cornishmen on board were prepared to risk their lives in the world's wildest seas to join the Australian gold rush.
In the ship-building town of Barrow-in-Furness, Dick Strawbridge explores a forgotten top secret project involving building airships that might rival the German Zeppelins. In the face of entrenched opposition, the venture would be dubbed 'the work of an idiot' by one royal navy admiral. Meanwhile, the Zeppelins soared to new heights, the unlikely secret of their success being the cow guts used to make the gas bags which kept them aloft.
Elsewhere, Tessa Dunlop heads to Portsmouth to discover the hidden history of the tattoo, Mark Horton joins an archaeological dig at the Irish Pompeii in Northern Ireland and Ruth Goodman investigates how the building of a new harbour and docks at Birkenhead would lead to the opening of the world's first municipal park there in 1847.
There is also a celebration of a classic piece of British eccentricity at Peasholm Park in Scarborough, where, in a tradition going back more than 80 years, staff from Scarborough Council take to the boating pond concealed inside man-sized model warships, and boldly facing the torpedoes, shellfire and dive bombers of a hostile fleet.