East Coast: Smugglers, Alum and Scarborough Bay Coast


East Coast: Smugglers, Alum and Scarborough Bay

Exploring Britain's coastline. Nicholas Crane retraces the steps of smugglers in Robin Hood's Bay.


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This is Robin Hood's Bay, a cascade of cottages and narrow lanes

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carved into a cliff.

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It's the prettiest kind of place to visit,

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but don't let its innocent facade fool you.

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For over 100 years, smuggling was the unofficial town trade.

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From the early 1700s, contraband regularly arrived here from all over Europe.

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Because of its location, Robin Hood's Bay could have been custom designed for illegal imports.

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It was one of the few safe havens on the east coast -

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a broad bay protected by massive headlands and backed by inaccessible moorland.

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And the cliffs made perfect lookouts for the smugglers.

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From here, they could signal to their accomplices out at sea

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and at the same time, watch out for the revenue men.

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Smuggling was at its peak in the 1700s,

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when the government slapped hefty import duties on luxury goods like silk, tobacco and tea

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to pay for its almost constant wars with France.

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Local knowledge gave the smugglers access to a labyrinth of secret routes.

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Under cover of darkness, they could creep up the beach with their booty

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and disappear into this tunnel.

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They ventured into drainage tunnels like these at enormous risk.

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Smuggling carried the death sentence.

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But the rewards were worth the risks.

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Bringing in just a pound of tea

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would have netted the smuggler the equivalent of a week's wages.

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At one point, 80% of all the tea drunk in Britain

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was imported illegally.

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The smugglers turned this tunnel to their advantage.

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I'm looking for holes in the ceiling above my head like this.

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They could creep up here and you can imagine them stuffing rum and tobacco

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up through here into the house above.

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It's very ingenious.

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It wasn't just the men who struggled through tunnels like this,

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that made money out of smuggling.

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Pretty much everybody in the village had their hands dirty.

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the boatmen, the storer, even the local squire,

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who lived here at Thorpe Hall.

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He financed the smuggling and would have expected a good return on his investment.

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Here in the grounds of the squire's house is an underground chamber

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where he stashed his share of the booty. Look!

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It's carefully lined in stone. You can imagine it packed with gin, tobacco, brandy and silk.

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By 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars,

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soldiers were redeployed as excise men

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putting a stop to large-scale smuggling...

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but not entirely.

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Today, Customs and Excise reckon nearly £4 billion-worth

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of revenue is lost every year to illegal imports of tobacco and alcohol.

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But there's never been a shortage of legal ways to make a living along this coast

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if you've got the ingenuity.

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While the villagers of Robin Hood's Bay were lining their pockets by smuggling,

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the people here at Ravenscar, just three miles down the coast,

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made themselves rich with a startling scientific discovery.

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These are the remains of one of the UK's very first chemical factories.

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Anthropologist, Alice Roberts, has come to see what's left.

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400 years ago, the cloth and wool trade

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formed the backbone of the British economy.

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None of it could have happened without an industry that grew up here.

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I'm meeting archaeologist, John Buglass,

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who knows the extraordinary role Ravenscar played

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in saving Britain's cloth industry.

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I have to say, John, this looks rather disturbingly like a quarry.

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I don't really understand how rock can have anything to do with cloth.

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It is a quarry, it's an alum quarry.

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The type of rock that's here is actually shale.

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-Shale is a sedimentary rock which is laid down on the seabed.

-Yeah.

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Hidden inside the shale are crystals or salts of aluminium.

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-Right.

-The aluminium salts can be used as a mordant in the dyeing industry.

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-What's a mordant?

-Basically it's a glue.

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It acts to stick the dye molecules in the cloth.

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It stops the colours fading and it maintains the brightness.

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So what is the actual substance that they're after?

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-What they're after is this material. It's called alum.

-Right.

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That's a crystal of pure, naturally occurring alum.

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Why don't they use natural alum then?

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-Natural alum doesn't occur in this country.

-Yeah.

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They're having to bring it in from other places. So they'd try to seek an alternative source

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in order to break the monopoly.

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You'd have gangs of men working up against the quarry face,

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pickaxes and shovels, digging it out, shovelling it into barrows.

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-Then they'd burn it for three months.

-Why are they burning it?

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That changes the chemical composition slightly.

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They can then extract the salts. It's very acidic, so they have to burn alkali in there.

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-They had a special ingredient they used for that.

-Really?

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That "special ingredient" comes courtesy of the production team.

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We're trying to make alum on this site for the first time in 150 years.

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We'll try to recreate the process,

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and hopefully discover why they needed to use stale human urine!

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I've teamed up with Open University chemist James Bruce.

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Right, James. This is a natural alum crystal.

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Your challenge is to make us one of those.

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-This is a solution of aluminium sulphate, isn't it?

-Yes.

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-Equivalent to the liquor they got from the shale?

-Yes.

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We have to add the magic ingredient.

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-Yes!

-Come round this side.

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-To you falls the honour of taking the...

-Thank you very much(!)

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Right...

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How did they know urine would work?

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Because urine was used for other processes.

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They'd used it in the textile industry...on leathers.

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It wasn't that unusual to be using urine in these sorts of processes.

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It was a bottle on the shelf. They would have said, "Let's try this."

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URINE TRICKLES Yuck. You chemists are a weird lot!

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'We simmered the disgusting solution for half an hour,

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-'until something interesting happened.'

-It's working!

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-That is the alum coming out now.

-That cloudy stuff...?

-That white stuff is the alum.

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Boil off the remaining liquid and what remains is alum.

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-These are some of the crystals we're left with.

-Like snow.

-Yes.

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They're not as big as the one you showed me before,

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but size doesn't matter! That would have been grown over a long period.

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'Before we dye these pieces of cloth, one's treated with our alum solution,

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'so, hopefully, it will hold the dye better. The other is untreated.'

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It looks about done. Let's see what the result is.

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This one is much brighter.

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There's much more dye in this cloth...

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than in this cloth.

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'It becomes obvious why alum was so important to the cloth industry.

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'Bright fast colours sold for much higher prices.'

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We've made alum on a tiny scale

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but the original alum works was massive, producing 600 tons of the stuff every year

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in this cliff-top chemical factory.

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But the invention of synthetic dyes rang the death knell for alum factories.

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After 250 years,

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this ingenious industry, created by people making the most of scant resources around them, ended.

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Ravenscar finally closed in 1862.

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Historian Neil Oliver has been making the acquaintance of what the guidebooks call,

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"The queen of the Yorkshire coast."

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I remember coming on holiday to Scarborough with my mum and dad.

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Innovations in holiday-making you're after? This is the place!

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Victorian engineers transformed a remote fishing port

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into one of Europe's premier resorts.

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Scarborough has always prided itself on being able to stay on top of the tourism game.

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It had this, the world's first cliff tramway, opened in 1874, Europe's biggest hotel, The Grand,

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and, in the 19th century, the largest aquarium in the world.

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BAND PLAYS

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And it had this, the focal point of every visit to Scarborough,

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the spa, opened in 1858, and its elegant Sun Court.

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Though that's not to say the sun always shines!

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During its Victorian heyday, the spa's reputation grew as a place of entertainment and relaxation,

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and was the most popular music venue outside of London.

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Simon Kenworthy is the leader of the Spa Orchestra and something of an expert on the town's history.

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When was Scarborough's heyday?

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Well, the trains arrived in Scarborough in 1845.

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From then on, people started to come to Scarborough in their masses.

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People say that the bay here looks like the Bay of Naples.

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A lot of the architecture is to do with the lie of the land in Scarborough.

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It's quite hilly,

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so we've got these wonderful opportunities for terraces, bridges, we've got the castle on the hill.

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Was there a lot of snobbery during the heyday? "We are the best"?

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There is now. It carries on, this snobbery.

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A lot of people who come to us come specifically to Scarborough

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because it has this air of quiet gentility about it.

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It does make them feel really good about themselves because they're in this fantastic atmosphere.

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-I'm sold.

-Great.

-I'm going to see out my twilight years here as well!

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Despite its snobbery, Scarborough's success as a seaside resort

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was actually based on an accidental discovery.

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The whole fortune of this town is based on this little bit of water coming out here.

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People came to Scarborough after the water was discovered in 1620,

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by a local lady.

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-She discovered it had miraculous properties. This is what's left.

-That's it?!

-That's it.

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What's that?!

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-It's just a little brown smeary mess.

-It's the magic water of Scarborough.

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It's not really safe to drink these days but you can have a go.

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Do you think not?!

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People were taking the waters into the 1950s for its medicinal properties.

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Instant dysentery, I'd have thought.

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I wouldn't fancy it myself. It looks fairly horrible.

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Where there's muck, there's brass!

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The water simply contained magnesium sulphate, as effective as Alka-Seltzer is today.

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-Did they make much use of the beach itself?

-Initially, no.

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People just came for the waters.

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But Dr Wittie - in about 1660 - wrote a treatise which went around the whole of the country.

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In this treatise, he extolled the virtues of sea bathing.

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He said that a naked plunge into the salty waters followed by a sweat in a warm bed

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was a good cure for gout.

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People thought, "We can take the waters and also plunge into the sea and we'll be cured."

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'With a few aches and pains myself, I think I'll go for a paddle.'

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Oh!

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OH!

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It might look like the Bay of Naples but it doesn't feel like it!

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It may be a bit old-fashioned and trying a little too hard to impress,

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but I like Scarborough.

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What really comes across is the pride people have in their town

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and that's got to be a good thing.

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Subtitles by BBC Broadcast 2005

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E-mail [email protected]

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Nicholas Crane retraces the steps of smugglers in Robin Hood's Bay, Mark Horton sets sail in a recreated bronze age boat and Alice Roberts recreates alum crystals.


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