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
carved into a cliff.
It's the prettiest kind of place to visit,
but don't let its innocent facade fool you.
For over 100 years, smuggling was the unofficial town trade.
From the early 1700s, contraband regularly arrived here from all over Europe.
Because of its location, Robin Hood's Bay could have been custom designed for illegal imports.
It was one of the few safe havens on the east coast -
a broad bay protected by massive headlands and backed by inaccessible moorland.
And the cliffs made perfect lookouts for the smugglers.
From here, they could signal to their accomplices out at sea
and at the same time, watch out for the revenue men.
Smuggling was at its peak in the 1700s,
when the government slapped hefty import duties on luxury goods like silk, tobacco and tea
to pay for its almost constant wars with France.
Local knowledge gave the smugglers access to a labyrinth of secret routes.
Under cover of darkness, they could creep up the beach with their booty
and disappear into this tunnel.
They ventured into drainage tunnels like these at enormous risk.
Smuggling carried the death sentence.
But the rewards were worth the risks.
Bringing in just a pound of tea
would have netted the smuggler the equivalent of a week's wages.
At one point, 80% of all the tea drunk in Britain
was imported illegally.
The smugglers turned this tunnel to their advantage.
I'm looking for holes in the ceiling above my head like this.
They could creep up here and you can imagine them stuffing rum and tobacco
up through here into the house above.
It's very ingenious.
It wasn't just the men who struggled through tunnels like this,
that made money out of smuggling.
Pretty much everybody in the village had their hands dirty.
the boatmen, the storer, even the local squire,
who lived here at Thorpe Hall.
He financed the smuggling and would have expected a good return on his investment.
Here in the grounds of the squire's house is an underground chamber
where he stashed his share of the booty. Look!
It's carefully lined in stone. You can imagine it packed with gin, tobacco, brandy and silk.
By 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars,
soldiers were redeployed as excise men
putting a stop to large-scale smuggling...
but not entirely.
Today, Customs and Excise reckon nearly £4 billion-worth
of revenue is lost every year to illegal imports of tobacco and alcohol.
But there's never been a shortage of legal ways to make a living along this coast
if you've got the ingenuity.
While the villagers of Robin Hood's Bay were lining their pockets by smuggling,
the people here at Ravenscar, just three miles down the coast,
made themselves rich with a startling scientific discovery.
These are the remains of one of the UK's very first chemical factories.
Anthropologist, Alice Roberts, has come to see what's left.
400 years ago, the cloth and wool trade
formed the backbone of the British economy.
None of it could have happened without an industry that grew up here.
I'm meeting archaeologist, John Buglass,
who knows the extraordinary role Ravenscar played
in saving Britain's cloth industry.
I have to say, John, this looks rather disturbingly like a quarry.
I don't really understand how rock can have anything to do with cloth.
It is a quarry, it's an alum quarry.
The type of rock that's here is actually shale.
-Shale is a sedimentary rock which is laid down on the seabed.
Hidden inside the shale are crystals or salts of aluminium.
-The aluminium salts can be used as a mordant in the dyeing industry.
-What's a mordant?
-Basically it's a glue.
It acts to stick the dye molecules in the cloth.
It stops the colours fading and it maintains the brightness.
So what is the actual substance that they're after?
-What they're after is this material. It's called alum.
That's a crystal of pure, naturally occurring alum.
Why don't they use natural alum then?
-Natural alum doesn't occur in this country.
They're having to bring it in from other places. So they'd try to seek an alternative source
in order to break the monopoly.
You'd have gangs of men working up against the quarry face,
pickaxes and shovels, digging it out, shovelling it into barrows.
-Then they'd burn it for three months.
-Why are they burning it?
That changes the chemical composition slightly.
They can then extract the salts. It's very acidic, so they have to burn alkali in there.
-They had a special ingredient they used for that.
That "special ingredient" comes courtesy of the production team.
We're trying to make alum on this site for the first time in 150 years.
We'll try to recreate the process,
and hopefully discover why they needed to use stale human urine!
I've teamed up with Open University chemist James Bruce.
Right, James. This is a natural alum crystal.
Your challenge is to make us one of those.
-This is a solution of aluminium sulphate, isn't it?
-Equivalent to the liquor they got from the shale?
We have to add the magic ingredient.
-Come round this side.
-To you falls the honour of taking the...
-Thank you very much(!)
How did they know urine would work?
Because urine was used for other processes.
They'd used it in the textile industry...on leathers.
It wasn't that unusual to be using urine in these sorts of processes.
It was a bottle on the shelf. They would have said, "Let's try this."
URINE TRICKLES Yuck. You chemists are a weird lot!
'We simmered the disgusting solution for half an hour,
-'until something interesting happened.'
-That is the alum coming out now.
-That cloudy stuff...?
-That white stuff is the alum.
Boil off the remaining liquid and what remains is alum.
-These are some of the crystals we're left with.
They're not as big as the one you showed me before,
but size doesn't matter! That would have been grown over a long period.
'Before we dye these pieces of cloth, one's treated with our alum solution,
'so, hopefully, it will hold the dye better. The other is untreated.'
It looks about done. Let's see what the result is.
This one is much brighter.
There's much more dye in this cloth...
than in this cloth.
'It becomes obvious why alum was so important to the cloth industry.
'Bright fast colours sold for much higher prices.'
We've made alum on a tiny scale
but the original alum works was massive, producing 600 tons of the stuff every year
in this cliff-top chemical factory.
But the invention of synthetic dyes rang the death knell for alum factories.
After 250 years,
this ingenious industry, created by people making the most of scant resources around them, ended.
Ravenscar finally closed in 1862.
Historian Neil Oliver has been making the acquaintance of what the guidebooks call,
"The queen of the Yorkshire coast."
I remember coming on holiday to Scarborough with my mum and dad.
Innovations in holiday-making you're after? This is the place!
Victorian engineers transformed a remote fishing port
into one of Europe's premier resorts.
Scarborough has always prided itself on being able to stay on top of the tourism game.
It had this, the world's first cliff tramway, opened in 1874, Europe's biggest hotel, The Grand,
and, in the 19th century, the largest aquarium in the world.
And it had this, the focal point of every visit to Scarborough,
the spa, opened in 1858, and its elegant Sun Court.
Though that's not to say the sun always shines!
During its Victorian heyday, the spa's reputation grew as a place of entertainment and relaxation,
and was the most popular music venue outside of London.
Simon Kenworthy is the leader of the Spa Orchestra and something of an expert on the town's history.
When was Scarborough's heyday?
Well, the trains arrived in Scarborough in 1845.
From then on, people started to come to Scarborough in their masses.
People say that the bay here looks like the Bay of Naples.
A lot of the architecture is to do with the lie of the land in Scarborough.
It's quite hilly,
so we've got these wonderful opportunities for terraces, bridges, we've got the castle on the hill.
Was there a lot of snobbery during the heyday? "We are the best"?
There is now. It carries on, this snobbery.
A lot of people who come to us come specifically to Scarborough
because it has this air of quiet gentility about it.
It does make them feel really good about themselves because they're in this fantastic atmosphere.
-I'm going to see out my twilight years here as well!
Despite its snobbery, Scarborough's success as a seaside resort
was actually based on an accidental discovery.
The whole fortune of this town is based on this little bit of water coming out here.
People came to Scarborough after the water was discovered in 1620,
by a local lady.
-She discovered it had miraculous properties. This is what's left.
-It's just a little brown smeary mess.
-It's the magic water of Scarborough.
It's not really safe to drink these days but you can have a go.
Do you think not?!
People were taking the waters into the 1950s for its medicinal properties.
Instant dysentery, I'd have thought.
I wouldn't fancy it myself. It looks fairly horrible.
Where there's muck, there's brass!
The water simply contained magnesium sulphate, as effective as Alka-Seltzer is today.
-Did they make much use of the beach itself?
People just came for the waters.
But Dr Wittie - in about 1660 - wrote a treatise which went around the whole of the country.
In this treatise, he extolled the virtues of sea bathing.
He said that a naked plunge into the salty waters followed by a sweat in a warm bed
was a good cure for gout.
People thought, "We can take the waters and also plunge into the sea and we'll be cured."
'With a few aches and pains myself, I think I'll go for a paddle.'
It might look like the Bay of Naples but it doesn't feel like it!
It may be a bit old-fashioned and trying a little too hard to impress,
but I like Scarborough.
What really comes across is the pride people have in their town
and that's got to be a good thing.
Subtitles by BBC Broadcast 2005
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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.