Carrickfergus to Ballintoy Coast


Carrickfergus to Ballintoy

Alice Roberts visits the Irish salt mines at Carrickfergus. In Ballintoy, she visits the unique Bendhu House perched on a cliff.


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It's still the middle of summer, but just beyond Carrickfergus

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a year-round industry

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is busy stockpiling for the winter.

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Alice Roberts is about to venture into an underground world that's never been filmed before.

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If you're driving along on an icy winter's night

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and your car's not skidding, it's probably because

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the gritter lorries have been out.

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The rock salt could have come from here - on the coast of Northern Ireland.

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'Half a million tons of rock salt are shipped from this little jetty every year.

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'This corner of Ireland sits on top of huge deposits of subterranean salt

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'that stretch all the way across Europe to Russia's infamous salt mines.

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'I don't know quite what I expected from a salt mine,

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-'but what I never imagined was being able to drive underground.'

-This was driven in 1965.

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'Our guide is Jason Hopps the mine surveyor and, yes, salt of the earth.'

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-So how deep does this go down?

-The maximum depth in the mine

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is 1,150 feet. This is us just entering the salt now.

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-This is all salt crystals?

-Yeah.

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We're coming into quite a big cavern. 'There's over 30 miles of tunnels,

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'yet only 40% of the rock salt in any area is extracted.

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'The rest is left as pillars to shore up the workings.

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'The scale of these man-made caverns is amazing.

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'Even the largest of the excavation vehicles seem dwarfed.

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'Some of the trucks are up to 40 years old,

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'but although the atmosphere is salty, it's also extremely dry,

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'so they hardly rust at all.'

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It's really strange. It's like walking onto the set of a James Bond movie, isn't it?

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It's bizarre. How is rock salt actually formed to begin with?

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Why is there this seam of salt 800 feet under the surface?

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It's basically an old landlocked sea that has evaporated and left the salt behind.

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It's happened, in total, five times in this particular area.

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We've got a full succession of five salt beds.

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At the minute, we're in the fourth deepest, so there's three above us.

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-So several sort of evaporated sea beds have been laid down, one on top of another?

-Yeah.

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Although we call it "rock salt", it is sea salt? It's just sea salt that's got trapped in rock?

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It's sea salt with certain other trace elements.

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SIREN WAILS

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'We still have to drive down another 300 feet to reach the faces that are

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'currently being worked - a full 1,150 feet below ground.

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'I've been wondering where everyone is!

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'The rock salt is attacked from two directions.

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'First, it's undermined with a gigantic cutting blade that takes a ten-foot-deep slice from underneath.

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'Then holes are drilled above, ready for explosive charges

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'to be inserted deep inside the rock.'

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-Can we go a bit closer?

-Yes, we can go down and see.

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-This is an undercut.

-Right.

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That advances in ten feet, which is the same length as your drill holes.

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So this is one of the drill holes

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-where you put the explosives in?

-Yes. We pack the explosives in there.

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That drill hole's ten-feet-deep by 50-feet-wide by 20-feet-high.

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It gives us a full face of 600 tons.

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-Really?

-Yeah.

-So when the explosives are stuck in here and they go off,

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-600 tons of rock salt falls to the ground?

-600 tons, yes.

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SIREN WAILS

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'Time to withdraw to a safe distance, I think.'

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EXPLOSION

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So this is the last stage of the process?

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That's been blasted off, hasn't it, that rock?

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-Yes. That will have been blasted last night.

-Right.

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It'll be taken up to either the crusher or an underground stockpile.

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Right.

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And where does most of the rock salt from this mine end up?

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20% of it or so will end up on Northern Irish and Irish roads.

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-Right.

-50 or 60 will go to either England or Scotland,

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-and then another maybe 20% to the east coast of the United States.

-Oh, really?

-Yeah.

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A little salt can go a long way.

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Next time you're snowed in, take a good look at that gritter up ahead.

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Chances are that's not any old salt.

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It's actually 250 million years old

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and comes from 1,000 feet under the Northern Irish coast.

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-SEABIRDS SQUAWK

-The further west you go, the wilder this coast gets.

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This is a landscape that encourages mavericks.

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But it's not an Irishman who stands out from the pack -

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it's a Cornishman. An eccentric artist who built his fantasy home out of what he found all around him.

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Well, this is what I've come to see - Bendhu House.

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Perched on the cliff-top, it looks a bit like a Second World War fort,

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but it is actually somebody's house.

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'It was in 1936 that Newton Penprase, a Cornish artist,

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'first had his dream to build a house to match his vision of this coastline.

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'For the next 40 years, he worked almost single-handedly to achieve it.

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'Michael and Lorna Ferguson live here now,

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'but their first impressions were rather like mine.'

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-It's a very strange house.

-Yes. This is the way I remember the house when I'd pass it as a child.

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I was fascinated - "What's going on here?

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"What is this man building?"

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So you'd seen this house as a child and you ended up living in it?

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Well, I didn't dream I would ever be living in it.

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Nor, at the time, had I any wish to live in it.

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Many people loathed Penprase's unconventional design, not least the planning authorities.

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But he persevered, using whatever materials came to hand, all picked from the seashore.

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In the drawings that he got approved, it says, "all in concrete".

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-Right.

-So everything was from the beach initially. He washed the sand

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from the water that came down the cliff,

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and most of the cement was carried down on his shoulder, down the harbour road.

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The bricks were made out of gravel and sand

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and he put a lot of extra windows in during the process as well.

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'In all, Penprase put in no fewer than 50 windows,

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'making the most of Bendhu's panoramic views,

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'from Scotland in the east to Donegal in the west.

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'When the artist died in 1978, the house was still unfinished,

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'but Michael and Lorna have completed his dream.'

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That really is a fantastic view, isn't it?

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Well, Alice, this is the room that we added on.

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The rest is Penprase, but this is what we interpreted

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he would have liked us to do with this part of the house.

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So if you want to come on through with us...

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Right, let's head down below.

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Alice, this is the Zodiac room and you'll see why when you look up at the ceiling.

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That's amazing.

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These are canvases that Penprase painted. He always invited ladies to lie down in the bed,

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-to look up, and he would explain all the Zodiac signs.

-Really(?) Right, I see!

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It's almost like you're living in an art installation.

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Yes, I think that it is. Hopefully, what we've added, Penprase would approve of.

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-Would you ever sell it on?

-Oh, no, it's become part of our life.

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-What do you think, Michael?

-I'd have to finish it first, but I don't think we'll ever move.

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Bendhu House is now a listed building.

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Proof that true individuals, like Newton Penprase, can still have the last laugh.

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd E-mail [email protected]

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Alice Roberts visits the Irish salt mines at Carrickfergus. In Ballintoy, she visits the unique Bendhu House perched on a cliff.


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