Copper Coast


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Copper

A look around the coast of the British Isles. Mark Horton explores how Swansea's monopoly of the copper trade helped Nelson towards his victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.


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I'm here to discover an alchemist's ancient secret

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that once made Swansea the copper capital of the world.

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Open it at the bottom, close it at the top.

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Eddie Daughton is an experimental archaeologist.

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This is rather fun, isn't it?

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Erm, to start with!

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We're using 4,000-year-old methods

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to rediscover the magic of turning rock into metal.

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The Welsh knew the secret and Eddie thinks he's cracked it.

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First, we have to get the fire hot enough,

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and it's not as easy as it looks.

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So if you want to stop bellowing.

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Phew! That was exhausting!

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So, what's the recipe to make copper?

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For this furnace, it's about 10 kilograms of charcoal...

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..half a kilogram of copper ore...

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..a little tiny bit of iron stone,

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..and we should end up making a quarter of a kilogram of copper.

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Maybe not quite that much.

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So what you're saying is you need 10 times as much fuel - carbon -

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-to make the copper than the copper ore itself.

-Yeah!

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-So that explains why Swansea's here...

-Coal!

-..masses of coal!

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Masses of carbon.

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Put together copper ore with coal to make the metal,

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and the sea to transport it and you get a winning formula!

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-Do you think this is going to work?

-With luck.

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I'm deeply sceptical.

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It's so simple! Believe!

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As Swansea's metal workers mastered the art of copper extraction,

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a city grew from primitive beginnings

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into a scene of Satanic industry.

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By the late-18th century, the whole of the Tawe Valley was filled smelters.

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The works operated day and night, producing sulphurous fumes,

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so horrendous that downwind, the land is still toxic to this day.

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These docks were built to expand the trade still further.

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200 years ago, Swansea's copper was in demand.

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Who was after it? The Royal Navy.

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Hello, David.

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Hello, Mark! I saw you on the telly.

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David Jenkins knows the story of the city's copper-bottomed deal with Nelson's Navy.

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This is an ingot of pure copper, as would have been produced in Swansea.

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This is pure copper?

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That is pure, pure copper, the essential product.

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What did they need it for in the 19th century?

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Well, the main use of copper was this.

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This is what gave Nelson's Navy massive tactical advantages.

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-That's fantastic.

-It's a sheet of copper ore

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from the hull of HMS Victory.

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You can see here "Vivian and Sons, Swansea."

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I can see a number, 2802.

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That's right, copper ore and obviously copper itself was very, very valuable,

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but its value was not so much monetary as tactical.

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Indeed, the manoeuvring that took place before the Battle of Trafalgar

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owed a great deal of its success

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to the fact that Nelson's ships had this on their bottoms.

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And it means that no weeds grow on the hull of your ship,

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the water slips much more quickly over the hull,

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and therefore it gives the ship excellent manoeuvrability.

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Swansea's dominance of the world copper trade

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meant the Royal Navy had copper-bottomed boats, but the French didn't...

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..a tactical advantage that can be traced back 4,000 years

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to those prehistoric Welsh experiments in metallurgy.

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Now, have we managed to rediscover the secrets of their success?

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Do I have to carry on pumping?

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-Carry on pumping!

-God, you must be stiff by now.

-Just a bit.

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-Do you think you've got copper?

-I think so.

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I hope so, but I'm not giving any guarantees.

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All right, I'm gonna stop pumping.

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-Keep pumping.

-Right.

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OK, stop pumping. Get round the other side with a stick.

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-Wow!

-Wow!

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Isn't that fantastic?

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That's it!

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It's probably frozen by now.

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I can probably pick that up with the tongs. That is copper.

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-A small ingot of copper.

-A small lump of copper.

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It's absolutely incredible when you think of that energy and that effort

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that's gone into winning a metal.

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Copper poured out of Swansea, but it became a victim of its own success.

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The industry exhausted the domestic copper supply.

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To feed the voracious smelters,

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the precious ore had to be shipped in

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from further and further overseas.

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Swansea's mariners became known as Cape Horners,

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so-called because they repeatedly braved the treacherous seas south of Cape Horn.

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Many never came back.

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The Falkland Islands were the nearest shelter,

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and Swansea's abandoned copper ships are still rotting there.

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Eventually, the copper communities of Swansea disintegrated.

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As workers emigrated to the ore-producing countries,

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their home town's metal monopoly was finished for good.

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Swansea Bay is sheltered from the prevailing wind by the rocks of the Mumbles.

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They mark a turning point.

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We're leaving the populated shores of the industrial east behind,

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to head to the wilder west.

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Few places have sites as celebrated as the Gower Peninsula,

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the first place in Britain to be designated

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an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

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It's a land of unexpected riches!

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A feast for the eye and the taste buds!

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This is Langland Bay.

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At low tide, a select few are drawn to its beaches

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for a somewhat dubious gastronomic delight!

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I'm told there's a rather special seafood you can find down here,

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if you know what you are looking for, that is.

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Betty Phillips is one of the few people who can still recognise a peculiar Welsh delicacy.

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-Hello, are you all right?

-What is you're looking for? Not just any old weed, I take it?

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No, it's special. Laver weed.

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It's like polythene in a way, it's like plastic.

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-Are you sure that's not what it is?

-Black plastic bags.

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I can't say it looks terrible appetising.

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-You don't fancy it, do you?

-I'm not convinced.

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-Are you going to eat it when I cook it for you?

-I'll give it a lash.

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-Will you? You've got to.

-Let's give it a try.

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-Give it a try. OK, shall we pick a little bit more?

-OK.

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I can see you'll take a bit of convincing.

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It doesn't sell itself very well.

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Looks like green slime.

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Oh no, it's not slimy. It's not a bit slimy.

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It's all very well if you know you can eat it.

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-It's not like this when it's cooked.

-How would you know that?

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What sort of person finds this stuff on a rock and says,

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"That would look good on a sandwich."

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-Do you know what I mean?

-Yes, I know.

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The proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

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-OK.

-I want to see this done.

-Right, OK, follow me.

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Laver weed is the same seaweed the Japanese use to wrap sushi.

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The Japanese dry theirs, the Welsh cook it for hours.

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It doesn't look like the sort of thing you should put in your mouth!

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-OK, you promise this isn't a practical joke.

-No, no, no, no...

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-You really do eat this?

-Yes.

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That's fantastic.

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Well done. Well done.

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It is.

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That's brilliant. What is that?

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Mmm... It tastes of many things. It's got the sea in it.

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It's got a pickled flavour to it. And there's kind of a...

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It's got the texture of spinach.

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-Mmm.

-That's brilliant.

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I'll remember Langland Bay

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as the place I joined the select seaweed appreciation society!

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The distinctive Gower Peninsula juts out into the Bristol Channel.

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The Gower's landscape was sculpted by ice.

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50,000 years ago, massive glaciers bulldozed its fertile soils.

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Now, the peninsula's conjunction of land and sea produces food of distinction.

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Below Weobley Castle lies Llanrhidian Marsh.

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It's a harsh land that takes skill and know-how to farm.

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Rowland Pritchard rears 1,200 sheep on some 4,000 acres of salt marsh.

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Rowland is one of a tiny band of sheep farmers whose pasture is regularly under water.

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How extreme are the tides?

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The tides are very, very high.

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All this we're standing on now, this time next week, will be under water.

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-This'll be sea bed in a few days' time?

-Yes.

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And it comes in very, very quickly,

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at a good walking pace.

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Because the land is so flat,

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you find once it starts rising above a certain level,

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it just shoots over the top, so it is very dangerous for the sheep.

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Do they learn to avoid the tide, or what?

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Oh no, they'll stand there when the tide comes in.

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We've actually got to go out and fetch them in

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before the tide comes in.

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It's strange because sheep are good swimmers, but they won't swim.

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They just stand there.

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The salt marsh might keep Rowland and his sheep on their toes,

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but the ebb and flow of the tide

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creates a richly varied coastal pasture.

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Does the grazing here affect the meat, do you think?

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Oh, yes, significantly.

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There's sort of no ryegrasses that you get on conventional fields.

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More the herbs they're eating. That really affects the flavour of the meat.

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What sort of herbs are out here?

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Well we've got the marsh pinks

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and the samphire you'll see in the gutters now.

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I would call that wild asparagus.

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Yeah, a lot of people call it a poor man's asparagus.

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I prefer to call it a rich man's asparagus.

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You can taste the salt in it, can't you?

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Originally, sheep were put here out of necessity -

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poor communities making the most of the land they had.

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Now, the salt lamb has become a great delicacy.

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Mark Horton explores how Swansea's monopoly of the world copper trade helped Nelson towards his victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Neil Oliver travels to Langland Bay to meet Betty Philips and makes lavabread out of lavaweed, a Welsh delicacy. Neil also meets Rowland Pritchard, the owner of Gower Salt Marsh Lamb co-operative.