Wales: The Gower, Rockpools and Dylan Thomas Coast


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Wales: The Gower, Rockpools and Dylan Thomas

Exploring the coast of South Wales, where the second highest tidal range in the world has had a huge impact on people's lives.


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The Gower was designated the UK's very first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty back in 1956.

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It's not difficult to see why.

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But the Gower was popular for some while before it was given official recognition.

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People have been coming here for at least 30,000 years.

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Proof of such early visitors came in a spectacular discovery made here over a 170 years ago.

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Even today, the very name Paviland Cave brings a sparkle to the eyes

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of hardened archaeologists and anthropologists alike.

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And for our own anthropologist Alice Roberts, the trip down to the cave is long overdue.

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Now, this is actually the first time I've ever been to Paviland,

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so I'm very excited.

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It's a bit of a pilgrimage for me, because it's somewhere I've always wanted to visit. It is fantastic.

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-It's beautiful here.

-Gorgeous.

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'My guide on the rocky road to Paviland

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'is archaeologist and expert on Early Man in Britain, Paul Pettitt.'

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Where is the cave Paul?

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The cave is round the corner, just out of sight, about 20m above where you see the waves.

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-How long have we got when we go around to the cave?

-Well, low tide is in about an hour.

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We'll probably have about an hour down there, to be safe.

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Right. We'd better get on with it.

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-There's amazing shapes that the sea has carved out of this limestone.

-It's a weird landscape, isn't it?

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-It's very strange.

-But quite impressive.

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To an anthropologist, Paviland Cave is like the Holy Grail

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because here, in 1823, an ancient burial was discovered.

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In it were the red-ochre-stained bones and relics of the young person

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who was to become known as "the Red Lady of Paviland".

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It took decades to discover that not everything about HER was as it first appeared.

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-Wow, so Paul, this is Paviland Cave?

-This is Paviland Cave, yes.

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-Fantastic.

-It's beautiful, isn't it?

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It's wonderful. Where was the burial actually found?

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The burial was placed against the wall back here. I'll take you to it.

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So this is it,

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in this nice little alcove here.

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The Red Lady was tucked against the side of the cave here, the cave wall.

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-Right up against the wall?

-Laid out, right up against the wall, as far as we can tell.

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And this almost complete mammoth skull was placed here,

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most definitely in association with the burial.

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-And the whole skeleton was covered with red ochre, wasn't it?

-It was. The whole sediments were bright red.

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And there were a number of artefacts placed with the burial that had that similar staining as well.

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-What sort of artefacts?

-I can show you some examples, much of which we can see was definitely jewellery

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worn by the red lady.

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First we had about two handsful of these periwinkle shells

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coloured in red ochre and pierced to be suspended, probably as a necklace.

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-Right.

-We also had a couple of these fox canines

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pierced, again, for suspension...

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but also more enigmatic items such as these.

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-These are broken fragments of rods of mammoth tusk...

-How strange!

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..polished with red ochre. We don't understand what they were used for.

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But they were broken and placed on the body of the Red Lady.

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When the person who found the bones told the Press - surprise, surprise, there was wild speculation.

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There's a lot of Roman activity nearby, and he thought, "Well it's the burial of a young female,"

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-he thought, "coloured in red, in a cave, Romans nearby. It's got to be a prostitute."

-Really?

-Or "a witch".

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-So the SCARLET Lady of Paviland.

-Yes, red in more senses than one.

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The interpretation has changed completely. It wasn't a red lady at all, it was a male burial.

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-In fact, it's the earliest burial in Britain, isn't it?

-Yes, we've radiocarbon-dated the Red Lady

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-to about 30,000 years old.

-So, it's a skeleton of a modern human.

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You've got somebody about 5 foot 10.

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Yes, probably lived as part of a small, highly mobile band of hunter-gatherers.

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So the Red Lady HIMself was buried here at a time when the surrounding environment was very, very different.

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The "Red Lady" of Paviland was no unsophisticated "caveman".

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He was simply BURIED in a cave 30,000 years ago,

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with dignity and ceremony, by people very much like us.

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By the time we modern humans were able to return

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about 20,000 years later,

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As a kid I used to spend hours doing this, staring into rock pools at miniature parallel universes,

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whole communities assembling and dispersing with every tide.

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Down at the far end of The Gower, our team zoologist, Miranda, is taking a closer look

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at these fantastic miniature worlds.

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Between the Gower Peninsula and Worm's Head, a vast causeway is revealed twice a day,

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every day on the ebbing tide.

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Amongst the great ribs of exposed rock are some fantastic rockpools,

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many of them host to constantly-changing colonies of plants and sea creatures

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for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

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Showing me round the causeway is local expert rockpooler Russ Spencely.

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Ah, here's something really interesting.

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Oh, yes!

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'What a great start - a mermaid's purse! Actually the egg of a dogfish, a kind of small shark.'

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And we're very lucky, because this one is actually alive and kicking.

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-You can see the...!

-You normally find they're empty, already hatched.

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-Oh, look, look.

-You can see the embryo swimming around, attached to the egg yolk.

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The yolk is huge. That is like an inch across! And there's this tiny little dogfish.

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The yolk has got to keep that embryo growing for nine months.

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-It's like a baby in a womb - but you can see in.

-That's exactly what it is.

-How beautiful!

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-I'll put it back in there. Hopefully, that'll hatch.

-Oh, brilliant, that was really good.

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What are the best tips for getting close to the critters you don't often see?

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You're totally reliant on the tide. You've got to get down on a low tide to find the most interesting things.

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-A dead crab?

-This time of year, the odds are it's a moulted crab.

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As they grow, they cast off their old shell.

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-You can tell. Open it up and there's nothing in it but the gills.

-Gosh.

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The more you look, the more you feel a real sense of privilege,

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being able to peer into these perfect little worlds stranded for a moment between the waves and the sea-shore.

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This is brilliant. This is really rockpooling high-tech style.

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-It looks idyllic from up here, but life in a rock pool is pretty tough.

-One of the harshest environments.

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All these creatures have evolved to live in salt water.

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For about four hours a day, they're exposed to the elements when it may be hot or cold, raining, snowing...

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These creatures face all sorts of extreme challenges.

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On a hot day, evaporation can increase salinity,

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and without waves to aerate the pool, you'd think a lack of oxygen could also be a threat to life. But no,

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seaweed kicks in, providing oxygen through photosynthesis.

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The biggest problem for a rockpool's lodgers can be a sudden cold wave

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causing the temperature to drop by as much as 15 degrees Celsius.

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For a tiny creature,

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that's like jumping from a hot Jacuzzi into an ice-cold bath.

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I'm always amazed at how many species survive and thrive in our rockpools.

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Well, there's various reasons for this.

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The British Isles is where the northern species and the southern, warm-water species meet.

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We get some of each. We've a huge tidal range here, so there's a vast area for them to live in.

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That's why we have all these wonderful creatures.

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In some of the deepest pools, exposed at very low water,

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you might even get to see a lobster waiting eagerly to see what's going to drop in on the next tide.

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-The tide is moving quite rapidly.

-Oh, heck! OK.

-Another 20 minutes or so, we'll be underwater again.

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-This will revert back to the seabed.

-OK, shall we get out of here?

-I think it's time to gather the kit.

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Rockpooling is such a great way to while away a few hours,

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and there's a wealth of fabulous animals to discover on our shores.

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We're blessed here in the UK with a huge, extensive coastline,

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so you'll be spoilt for choice with where to go.

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Just across the Tywi Estuary from Pembrey,

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a literary landmark - the pretty, sleepy seaside town of Laugharne.

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This was the last boozing place, and the last resting place,

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of one of the 20th century's best known poets, Dylan Thomas.

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Indeed, many claim that Laugharne and its people were the inspiration

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for Thomas' lyrical radio play, Under Milk Wood.

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"It is Spring, moonless night in the small town,

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"starless and bible-black,

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"the cobblestreets silent

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"and the hunched, courters'-and-rabbits' wood limping invisible

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"down to the sloeblack, slow, black,

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"crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea."

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Having visited Laugharne for myself, it doesn't worry me in the least if the characters in the play

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were based on real-life villagers. But from now on, every time I hear Richard Burton's treacle tones

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or read for myself the verbal wizardry of Under Milk Wood,

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it's images of this place that will come to mind.

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"Listen. It is night moving in the streets,

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"the processional salt slow musical wind

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"in Coronation Street and Cockle Row,

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"it is the grass growing on Llareggub Hill, dew fall, star fall,

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"the sleep of birds in Milk Wood."

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-MALE CHOIR SING:

-# We are not wholly bad or good

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# Who live our lives under Milk Wood

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# And Thou, I know, wilt be the first

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# To see our best side, not our worst. #

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CURLEW CALLS

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After the vast half-moon of Carmarthen Bay, the coast begins to twist and turn

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and, as we reach the holiday haven of Tenby,

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majestic cliffs and glorious sandy coves begin to dominate the coastline.

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This is Pembrokeshire, home to the UK's only coastal National Park.

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It's also where you'll find the Pembrokeshire Coast Path.

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And if you're going to stay the course, you're in for a bracing 186-mile walk,

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clambering over more than 400 stiles

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and negotiating 11,000m of ascent and descent.

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And if all that sounds a bit too much like climbing Everest before breakfast,

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you can always hop on the bus. It's no ordinary bus.

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'It's one of a chain of buses called the Puffin Buses, and they all run on environmentally friendly fuel.'

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Hi. How much is it to Stackpole, please?

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'It's walker-friendly, too,

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'picking you up and dropping you off at various points along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path.

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'They'll even accommodate your dog, your pushchair and your surfboard.'

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Bye-bye!

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Time for me to get some exercise again.

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There's something truly magical about the coast between Stackpole and St Govan's Head.

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Although it's in all the guidebooks, it's a very private moment when you stumble across St Govan's church

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nestling in a deep gully.

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Tradition has it that this was the last resting place of Sir Gawain,

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one of the knights of the round table.

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Whatever the truth, there's an atmosphere here that rivals that of any great cathedral.

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The team explores the coast of South Wales, where the second highest tidal range in the world has had a huge impact on people's lives for thousands of years. Zoologist Miranda Krestovnikoff reveals some rockpool secrets.