Rivers and Seas Collide 1 Coast


Rivers and Seas Collide 1

A journey around the great estuaries of Britain - the Firth of Forth, Thames and Severn.


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Transcript


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This is Coast.

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In the British Isles, we're familiar with wet weather

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blown in from the wild seas.

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One benefit of a temperate climate

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is our wonderful labyrinth of rivers.

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Giant waterways powered by rain,

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that all run to the coast.

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As rivers and seas collide great estuaries emerge.

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Making our mark on these colossal watery spaces

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has taken centuries of struggle.

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That's left a wealth of extraordinary stories

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waiting to be discovered along our estuaries.

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We're braving three of our greatest,

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the Firth of Forth, the Thames and the mighty Severn.

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We're here to explore what becomes of the coast

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when rivers and seas collide.

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I'm starting my estuary odyssey

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a pebble's throw from Edinburgh, on the Firth of Forth.

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The scale of this seaway is staggering,

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it's impossible to take the whole thing in.

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What I could really do with is something tall to climb up

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so I can get a bird's-eye view.

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Only the engineering marvel of the Forth rail bridge

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does justice to the sheer spectacle of the estuary.

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As we're coming up here

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you can see the rivets on this bridge that hold it together.

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6.5 million rivets, and every one of them has been painted by hand.

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This is it. This is it, Nick. Here we are on top of the Forth Bridge.

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FOGHORN SOUNDS

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Up here, right in the middle of the Firth of Forth

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you can get a real sense

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of the huge scale of this estuary.

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I can see the Pentland Hills right over there,

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there's the dark volcanic bump of Arthur's Seat

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rising above the white buildings of Edinburgh.

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Looking west, I can see all the way out to the open sea - the North Sea.

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And looking inland, in this direction, there's even more.

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Here's the Forth Road Bridge

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arcing over the water in front of me,

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behind it Rosyth naval base.

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In the far distance

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I can just make out Grangemouth power station

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oozing smoke into the sky.

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This estuary is so huge that even from this incredible vantage point,

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inland it just fades into invisibility.

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The only way of actually getting a true sense of its size

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is by looking at a map.

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This is the mouth of the estuary

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marked by this little island, the Isle of May, here.

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In the other direction, 60 miles inland,

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the water gets less and less salty, gets fresher and fresher,

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until you reach Stirling here,

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where this estuary is born.

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Starting at its birthplace,

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I'm flying the length of the waterway.

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Will the change in wildlife

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help pinpoint the elusive spot where river becomes sea?

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My guide is marine ecologist Stuart Clough.

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And as we pass over Stirling,

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the river's very beautiful seen from above,

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it's like a huge coiled rope.

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You're in classic lower river territory here, erm,

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lower freshwater river.

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The place where the tide just starts to have its effect.

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And even now the mud banks are starting to appear on the side.

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And in those, you've got all kinds of worms and shellfish

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that live within those sediments, and they become food for birds.

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It's a fantastic environment.

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Is it possible to identify the point at which this river, the Forth,

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ceases to be a river and begins to be sea?

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From a biologist's perspective, it's a continuum -

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it changes all the time.

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On the one hand it's a no-man's-land

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and, on the other hand, it's a diverse and rich place

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with masses of life.

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Life is rich where rivers and seas meet.

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And where we flock, so does the wildlife.

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As we move into saltwater,

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the big hitters start to surface -

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dolphins, seals,

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and even whales have all been spotted here.

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We're now over the sunlit seaside, aren't we, Stuart?

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It's completely changed.

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Absolutely, yeah. We're right out in the outer estuary now.

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The freshwater influence is a long way behind us,

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the beaches are sandy.

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If we were down at sea level now

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what kind of birds and so on would we be looking at?

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Auks - like razorbills and guillemots and puffins.

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You've got fulmar, you'll have kittiwakes, you'll have gannets -

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real marine species that you'd never find

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in the freshwater parts of the estuary.

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At the edge of the estuary,

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we get a box-office view of the gannets of Bass Rock.

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This swirling mass makes the most of food from the sea

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and shelter from the land.

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Where are we now?

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We're just adjacent to the Isle of May -

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very much the outer limit of the estuary.

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We've flown the whole way from the freshwater of a river

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to the saltwater of the open sea.

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Over an extraordinary diversity of habitats

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both human and natural - estuaries are worlds of their own.

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20 million of us,

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one third of the UK's population, live on an estuary.

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Their flat shorelines are perfect for building,

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so each of these coastal highways comes with its own gatekeeper.

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Great cities surge up

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where mighty rivers plunge into the sea.

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It's fitting that the country's capital

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crowns the most hard-working waterway of all -

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the titanic Thames.

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For centuries, Londoners have swallowed up the benefits

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the estuary brings in.

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The sea brought riches from abroad,

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and the river supplies two thirds of the city's drinking water.

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But the Victorians found a new job for old Father Thames -

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doing their dirty work.

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Tessa's getting to grips with a grubby tale of triumph and tragedy.

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The power of the tide gave an eminent Victorian engineer

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an extraordinary idea -

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turn the Thames into a giant self-flushing loo.

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The tidal range of the river is huge - around eight metres.

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This powerful ebb and flow gave rise to an ingenious sewer plan -

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release excrement as the tide turns,

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and let the outgoing flow

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flush London's waste way out to sea.

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The city's relationship with the sea

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spawned a sewer system that was the envy of the world.

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Opened in 1865 by the Prince of Wales

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this subterranean labyrinth

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elevated its mastermind, Joseph Bazalgette,

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to become a hero of the Victorian age.

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Bazalgette's master plan demanded a warren of waste pipes,

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a network over 1,000 miles long

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to carry the capital's raw sewage out to the Thames.

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It took six years to build,

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constructed so well it still forms the backbone

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of London's sewer complex.

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Over 300 million bricks placed so precisely

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they form watertight tunnels.

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You know how to treat a girl, don't you, Rob?

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I do, I take them only to the best spots.

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Impressive as this labyrinth is,

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it's only the means to a watery end.

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The city's sewage still needed sweeping out to sea,

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so it was piped towards the coast

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to pass the problem onto the tide.

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The muck flowed downstream

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to arrive at the final triumph of the entire system,

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the pumping station at Crossness.

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This is staggering!

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It's like some sort of ballroom.

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It's a real indication of the level of pride

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they took in their work, the beauty is just breathtaking.

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And these huge pumps

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are even named after members of the royal family.

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The pumping stations were the final stage of Bazalgette's grand plan -

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they pushed the sewage up into huge reservoirs,

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to be stored until the tide began to turn.

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When the tide started to ebb,

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they released the sewage into the Thames just there.

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They relied on the surge of seawater

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to whisk Londoners' muck out of sight and out of mind.

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This was Joseph Bazalgette's big tidal flush -

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his plan to turn the Thames into one gigantic toilet bowl was complete.

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Bazalgette was heralded as the city's saviour.

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But is there a skeleton lurking in London's water closet?

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Life may have been rosy for those in central London,

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but it didn't smell so sweet for those living downstream.

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Like a real-life toilet, the Thames is full of U-bends.

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The waste wasn't clearing as fast as Bazalgette had imagined,

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and the consequences turned out to be devastating.

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It's the 3rd of September 1878,

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the pleasure steamer The Princess Alice

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is on its way back to London crammed with passengers.

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The day-trippers had been enjoying fresh air

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at the mouth of the estuary

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but, returning to the city, near the sewage outlet,

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the pleasure steamer was struck by disaster.

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It collides with another boat.

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Hundreds are flung into the river, many will be drowned.

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But it's even worse than that.

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Revealing the gruesome fate of those floundering in the estuary

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is local historian Joz Joslin.

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So the vessel's upended, and hundreds of people are in the water.

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Yes. And lots of them are women and children,

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and they're screaming,

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and unfortunately it's not water that they're in,

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they're actually in sewage, so there was no oxygen.

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A lot of them died because there was no air to breathe.

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So they're either being suffocated or drowning.

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Or poisoned.

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How revolting. And the majority died?

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Yes, the majority died.

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They said that every street in the east end of London

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had lost somebody,

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because it was their Sunday school outings

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that were on board the vessel.

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The pleasure boat sank close to the sewage works,

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and the timing could not have been worse.

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The Beckton sewage outlet pipe carrying all of North London's waste

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had just discharged its stinking load into the river.

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Over 600 people choked to death in a toxic soup of human filth.

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After the tragedy,

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Bazalgette's sewage system came under the spotlight.

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Members of the local historical society

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read the words of their forefathers.

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"There had been an accumulation of black, greasy,

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"filth along the shore.

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"The filth settles on the steps as the tide goes down."

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"The river in hot weather is very bad.

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"In some places it smells so bad you cannot stand it."

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A commission of inquiry delivered a damning indictment,

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concluding "it is neither necessary or justifiable

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"to discharge sewage in its crude state

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"into any parts of the Thames".

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The Pall Mall Gazette took Bazalgette to task,

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stating "the natural man in him,

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"puts off the evil day of having to admit failure."

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Luckily for Bazalgette, the muck didn't stick,

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but London did pull the plug on his big tidal flush.

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In 1887, a new system started.

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Now the solid human waste was pumped into vessels like this.

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The excrement was shipped out to the open sea and dumped.

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They were known locally as Bovril boats, amongst other things.

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We used to call them... Well, never mind what we used to call them!

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What did you call them? No, I'm not saying.

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They used to come and moor - they had moorings for them -

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and they would take the residue of it.

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Cos all the fluids were taken off,

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so it was almost solid the stuff

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that they took out - human detritus -

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so that it wasn't into the river.

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Sewage carrying ships didn't just do the dirty work of London -

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they were once a common sight on our estuaries,

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cleaning up Glasgow, Belfast and other coastal cities.

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London's Bovril boats were finally pensioned off in 1998.

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Bazalgette's tunnels still bring raw sewage here

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to the Crossness Works,

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but now the solid matter's burnt off to make electricity.

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The liquid sewage is treated -

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it goes from this...

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to this.

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And the cleaned-up fluid?

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It still gets the big tidal heave-ho,

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and is discharged into the Thames, where the river and the sea collide.

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The Severn estuary used to pose a fearsome challenge

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on any journey between England and Wales.

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The two countries were divided by this massive tear in our coastline.

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Avoiding it meant a diversion deep inland.

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Even so, only hardy travellers would brave the deadly waters.

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Today, a concrete solution spans this vast channel.

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But conquering the Severn was a bold venture fraught with peril,

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as Mark is about to discover.

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Dashing over the estuary from Wales to England,

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commuters take the elegant crossings their lives depend on for granted.

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But imagine a world before this bridge was possible.

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A world without steel cables,

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without reinforced concrete,

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when the sea reigned supreme.

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That was a challenge faced by the Victorians

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to cross the River Severn.

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The formidable collision of river and sea facing the early engineers

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can still be experienced.

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It's one of the most dangerous seaways in the world,

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and I'm just a little bit excited.

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The Severn Area Rescue Association

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is going to pit me against the ebb tide.

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Cast off!

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The power of the tide here is just extraordinary!

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As the tide goes out it's like a maelstrom.

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The waters were an immense challenge

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but, by the 1840s, crossing the river by boat was old hat.

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An irresistible new force was spreading across Britain -

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the railways.

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Come hell or high water,

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estuaries weren't going to stand in the way of progress.

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The great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel

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is a hero of mine -

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he'd already managed to cross the Avon gorge

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with a mighty suspension bridge.

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When his railway came to Bristol, he wanted to cross into South Wales,

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and planned an even bigger suspension bridge.

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Here are the preliminary sketches.

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The biggest problem

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was the sheer scale of the span that Brunel required -

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over 1,000 feet.

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He left a little note in his notebook,

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which says "is 1,100ft practicable?"

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Brunel's bridge was never built,

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but if taking trains over the water defeated the best brain of the age,

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how about going underneath?

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A tunnel - was that the answer?

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Digging deep to create a railway under the water -

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this was very bold, big thinking.

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This is one of the original drawings of the tunnel from around 1887,

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and you can see how the track comes down

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underneath the deepest part of the Bristol channel here, in The Shoots,

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and gradually up to the Welsh side.

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So what we've got here is around seven miles of railway track.

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That passage under the estuary is now a vital link

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between England and Wales.

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Carrying over 250 trains a day.

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Passengers are oblivious to a catastrophe

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that nearly sank the tunnel before the first train ran,

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and is a problem that still lurks below.

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So, here we go.

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I've been granted access to a shadowy water world

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few get to see.

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It's great - we're just coming into the cutting,

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the portal's ahead, and we're about to go under the sea.

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Ah! Wahey!

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Isn't that fantastic?!

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We're heading for the deepest point in the tunnel.

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Just 50ft above us

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millions of gallons of water are swirling around -

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the River Severn and the sea are in full flow.

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Keeping the water out here is hard enough,

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but can you imagine if there was a flood down here?

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With an estuary hanging over their heads,

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engineers knew there'd be seepage of seawater,

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but it was freshwater that nearly drowned the project.

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Nobody expected this -

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a raging torrent!

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They'd broken through to an underground spring.

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In October 1879, water began to pour into the tunnel.

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The workers fled for their lives.

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The disaster struck when a shaft dug on the Welsh coast

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cut into an underground river deep below the surface.

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For four years, the engineers made desperate attempts

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to block the freshwater spring,

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but every effort proved futile.

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And it's been flooding in at this alarming rate ever since.

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If they couldn't stop the spring water, they'd have to live with it.

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The only solution were pumps,

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massive ones like this that pump the water out as fast as it comes in,

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right up to the surface.

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Leighton Jenkins helps keep the tracks dry today.

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So what would happen if the pumps actually failed?

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Every second counts,

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as soon as the pumps stop we'd have to inform the control

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within 10 minutes to shut the tunnel itself,

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and within 20 minutes we've got water coming up through the tracks,

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so every second absolutely counts.

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But have they ever failed?

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No, not as far as I know, no. Not while I'm on a shift anyway.

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The railways had proved irresistible.

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With rival Victorian companies vying for routes,

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by the time it was finished the tunnel already had a competitor.

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In 1879, trains had started to roll over the estuary,

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but the bridge's sturdy uprights -

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always an obstacle to shipping -

0:24:040:24:07

would ultimately prove its downfall.

0:24:070:24:09

Do you see, that's a tower

0:24:120:24:14

where the railway bridge once crossed the Severn Estuary.

0:24:140:24:20

I've got a photograph

0:24:200:24:22

that shows the stanchions marching across the river -

0:24:220:24:26

now totally destroyed.

0:24:260:24:28

The raging waters where river and sea smash together

0:24:310:24:35

would deliver a fatal blow to the rail bridge.

0:24:350:24:39

In October 1960, the Arkendale, carrying oil,

0:24:430:24:48

and the Wastdale, laden with petrol,

0:24:480:24:51

were heading for combustible collision.

0:24:510:24:55

The Arkendale was carried in by the surging tide.

0:24:550:25:00

That powerful current would drive it into the Wastdale

0:25:000:25:05

on a foggy night at Sharpness Docks.

0:25:050:25:09

As Alan Hayward knows.

0:25:090:25:11

They were coming upriver intending to come into the docks here,

0:25:130:25:16

but they were accidentally swept past.

0:25:160:25:19

And then they collided and became, in effect, stuck together.

0:25:190:25:23

Disabled ships in thick fog,

0:25:240:25:27

carrying 600 tonnes of inflammable cargo

0:25:270:25:31

at the mercy of a swirling sea,

0:25:310:25:33

propelled them to disaster.

0:25:330:25:36

They were desperate to separate from each other,

0:25:380:25:41

fighting by steering in different directions,

0:25:410:25:43

but it just didn't work.

0:25:430:25:45

And they only had about four minutes

0:25:450:25:47

before they would reach the railway bridge.

0:25:470:25:49

The rail bridge across the Severn loomed out of the fog,

0:25:510:25:55

a collision with the ships carrying oil and petrol was now inevitable.

0:25:550:26:00

A lot of sparks would have been created

0:26:070:26:08

which ignited the petrol in one of the vessels.

0:26:080:26:11

The fuel, of course, spilt out over the river,

0:26:140:26:16

so the whole river became a mass of flame.

0:26:160:26:18

First mate Percy Simmonds was aboard one of the tankers.

0:26:220:26:26

His son Chris was 13 at the time.

0:26:260:26:29

I try to imagine that night and what he was going through,

0:26:290:26:32

and it must have been just terrible with the flames and everything.

0:26:320:26:35

I'm just sure he was determined to make it across this river somehow

0:26:350:26:39

and make it back to us.

0:26:390:26:43

Daylight and a low tide revealed wrecks of the fuel tankers

0:26:430:26:47

smouldering on a sandbank.

0:26:470:26:51

Soon the first body was found.

0:26:510:26:54

They identified the body there,

0:26:540:26:56

and they, you know, let Mum know that, yeah, it was definitely Perce.

0:26:560:27:02

Chris's father Percy died along with four others

0:27:020:27:06

on that terrible evening.

0:27:060:27:08

The damaged bridge was too expensive to repair, it was demolished.

0:27:080:27:14

But each day, when the tide recedes,

0:27:140:27:17

scars of tragedy are revealed.

0:27:170:27:20

Out there, of course, are two hulks,

0:27:200:27:22

buried now in the sands that have been washed over by countless tides.

0:27:220:27:27

But they're still there. They're there as monuments.

0:27:270:27:30

They're here as a reminder to all of us.

0:27:300:27:32

It's immensely humbling

0:27:350:27:37

to be next to such a vast body of brooding water.

0:27:370:27:43

Even on a calm day like this

0:27:430:27:47

one can feel the power

0:27:470:27:49

where rivers and sea collide.

0:27:490:27:52

Surging waters urge us on to fresh endeavours.

0:28:020:28:06

And we're not alone in finding creature comforts

0:28:080:28:11

around the fringes of our great seaways.

0:28:110:28:14

The tide brings in the bounty

0:28:160:28:18

that makes our estuaries brim with vitality.

0:28:180:28:21

Safe havens that offer boundless prospects.

0:28:300:28:35

Where rivers collide with the sea our coast comes alive

0:28:350:28:40

and opportunity awaits.

0:28:400:28:42

If it ever came to pass that Mr Corbyn were the Prime Minister,

0:29:110:29:15

this country would be a basket case.

0:29:150:29:18

Well, I think we're a basket case now. Have you seen Southern Rail?

0:29:180:29:21

Have you seen the National Health Service?

0:29:210:29:23

And we'll be more of a basket case once she triggers Article 50.

0:29:230:29:27