Snowdonia to the Menai Straits Coast


Snowdonia to the Menai Straits

Series exploring Britain's coastline. Nicholas Crane canoes the treacherous Menai Straits to examine the bridges across to Anglesey.


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Although the peak of Snowdon itself is 20 miles in that direction,

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we're already in the Snowdonia National Park.

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And this is one of the best coastal views in Wales.

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Behind this watery foreground of the Mawddach Estuary,

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rises one of my favourite mountains in the United Kingdom -

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Cadair Idris, "the chair of Idris".

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Snowdonia has been a national park since 1951,

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and although it's usually thought of as a mountainous landscape,

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it actually includes 23 miles of stunning coastline.

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Take the train across the estuary, you'll be in Pwllheli in a jiffy.

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This is one journey I want to last.

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This bridge was built in 1867 to carry the railway line across the estuary,

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but walkers are allowed to cross it too...for a price!

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-Hello there.

-Hello.

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-How are you today?

-I'm good, thank you.

-Good show.

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-How much is it, please, for one pedestrian, with a lightly loaded rucksack and umbrella?

-60p, sir.

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-Thank you.

-Thank you very much.

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60, 80, £1, another one makes £2 and there's your ticket.

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Keep that if you're walking back this way. It'll act as a return.

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-I'm on a one-way journey!

-Oh, never mind. Keep it as a souvenir!

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-Bye.

-Bye-bye.

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It's only when you get across the bridge to Barmouth,

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and follow the coast to Harlech,

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that you begin to realise your 60p toll was the bargain of a lifetime.

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Here, there's room to relax, room to breath...

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and rooms for all.

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Harlech itself, like so many towns I want to visit in North Wales,

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is dominated by its castle.

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Begun in 1283, it was Edward I's little way of saying,

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"Thank you", to the Welsh for revolting.

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And it was one of 12 of his castles in Wales to be designed or fortified

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by his French master mason, Master James of St George.

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Just over the river is another extraordinary example

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of essentially foreign architecture that's taken to these hills - an entire Italianate village.

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The whole village of Portmeirion was the vision of one slightly eccentric architect -

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Sir Clough Williams-Ellis.

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And it occupied him for most of his life.

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He started building in 1925, and it still wasn't finished when he died in 1978.

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He wanted to prove that, as he put it,

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"The development of a naturally beautiful site need not lead to its defilement."

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Was he right? Well, the purist in me is absolutely outraged by the arrogance of a man

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who thought that his own imagination could enhance such a beautiful place.

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But the escapist in me is irresistibly enchanted.

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But a large number of the 240,000 or so visitors who come to Portmeirion every year,

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aren't coming solely in search of beauty.

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"I am not a number, I am a free man."

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And I suspect they're not the first person to have stood right here and said that.

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"I am not a number. I am a free man."

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Patrick McGoohan's protestations that he was a free man,

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and his unaccountable terror of a giant white bouncy ball,

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were central to the '60s cult television series, The Prisoner,

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which was filmed at Portmeirion.

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As Number Six, McGoohan's constant persecution by Number Two,

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his efforts to discover the true identity of Number One,

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and his weekly attempts to escape the village, kept viewers on the edge of their seats.

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Personally, I can't imagine why on earth

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anyone would want to escape from this little paradise.

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Could it be true to say, for once, that the set upstages the drama?

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Clough Williams-Ellis, creator of Portmeirion,

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called it, "A home for fallen buildings",

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because so much of it is constructed from bits salvaged from stately homes.

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This, for instance, is the gothic pavilion,

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cannibalised from a Welsh mansion.

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The pavilion's dedicated to a less well-known visionary from 100 years earlier,

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who also had a dramatic effect on this part of the coast -

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William Alexander Madocks.

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Barely a mile away, as the seagull flies,

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you step into an entire landscape forged by the imagination of William Madocks.

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And he had a number of things in common with his neighbour.

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Neither Clough Williams-Ellis nor William Madocks

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had any real formal training as architects. But both had yearnings to return from England

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to the land of their fathers with huge architectural schemes.

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And Madocks' scheme was particularly ambitious.

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His grand plan,

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and with Madocks anything was grand,

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was prompted by the 1801 Act of Union between the parliaments of Ireland and England,

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to create the United Kingdom.

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With increased travel between the two capitals, what was needed was a fast route

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between Dublin and London,

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and if you draw a straight line between the two cities,

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it crosses the coast right here.

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The trouble was that, in Madocks' day, "here" was nowhere.

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The vast, mile wide estuary of the River Glaslyn

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presented a major obstacle to his ambitions to build his road.

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If he could bridge the estuary, the race for Dublin was in the bag.

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Madocks' solution was simple and brilliant.

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He poured years of effort and boatloads of money into building an embankment,

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which, by 1812, provided him with his missing link.

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Stage two, he secured the right

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to make the natural harbour of Porthdinllaen on the Llyn Peninsula,

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the main port of departure for Dublin.

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Madocks was within a whisker of winning, but in the great dash for Dublin,

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he was pipped at the post by another brilliant engineer,

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and another seemingly impossible route.

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It was a photo finish and we'll meet the winner further around the coast.

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But there's a twist to the story of William Madocks.

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When he built the Cob, as the embankment became known,

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he certainly managed to keep the sea out.

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And inland, he reclaimed a huge area of good agricultural land.

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Problem - he'd also effectively dammed the River Glaslyn,

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and stopped all that lovely Snowdonia rainfall from flowing out to sea.

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The river changed its course and followed the embankment.

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Solution - fairly obvious really.

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Madocks built tidal sluice gates that kept the sea out at high tide

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and allowed the river to flow out at low tide.

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Result - the power of the river pouring through the sluice gates

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gouged out a perfect harbour.

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What was once a "nowhere", was now to become a very vital "somewhere".

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Sadly, Madocks didn't live to see the day

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when millions of tonnes of slate poured into that little harbour from the quarries of Snowdonia.

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Slate that went out to roof the world, from Buenos Aires to Western Australia.

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Around the harbour grew the prosperous town of Porthmadog,

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named after William Alexander Madocks.

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Heading back inland, we follow the northern route of the pilgrims,

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towards the splendid castle town of Caernarfon.

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The locals are quite proud of Caernarfon these days,

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but 800 years ago it was a different story.

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Caernarfon Castle was yet another in the great choke chain of castles

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that Edward I built around the coast of North Wales to bring the Welsh to heel.

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In fact, it had the opposite effect,

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and castles like this stoked the fires of Welsh resistance.

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Hero or demon, what Edward I had recognised was that

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if you command the Menai Straits between mainland Wales and Anglesey,

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you dominate this coast strategically.

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But, what if?

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If only you could do what seemed impossible in Edward's era and build a bridge across the straits,

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a vital link could be made, economically and politically,

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between London and Dublin via Holyhead.

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And the great dash for Dublin race, that started back in Porthmadog,

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would be won.

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Hey presto, there they are.

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Two of our most remarkable bridges,

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the world's first major suspension bridge

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and the world's first ever box girder bridge.

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But, like putting a man on the moon, or the first ever heart transplant,

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we take them too easily for granted,

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because the Menai Straits are classed as

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one of the most treacherous stretches of sea in the world.

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Not my words - his.

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Nelson's. Now, what did he know?!

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More the fool, me.

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I've decided to find out for myself.

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Alan Williams runs Plas Menai, the National Watersports Centre,

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and he's agreed to help me brush up my kayaking skills.

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I soon get a taste of the power of this tidal race.

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It's very deceptive, isn't it, Alan,

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-because the surface of the water looks flat calm?

-Yeah.

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-There's something dramatic happening underneath.

-The tides turn now and it's ebbing quite strongly.

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This is such a strange pattern on the surface of the water, isn't it?

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-As if there's upwellings from deep down.

-That's because of the tidal rapid,

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there's lots of rocks in there, it just disturbs the water.

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And as you can see now, we're just about to hit another swirly section.

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-It's like miniature whirlpools.

-They are, yes.

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-It'll just grab you, but don't worry about it...

-Whoa, good heavens!

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-Just stay comfortable... Cool.

-OK.

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Wow, that got the adrenaline going.

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The tide's not really built up to its full strength yet,

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-so it gives you an idea of the effects.

-It certainly does. Wow.

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Whoo, got the heart beating now!

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Today, the Menai equals bliss in boats for thousands of visitors,

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but traditionally, it was anything but fun.

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It was a vital artery to military and commercial shipping.

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God help the man who sailed these waters

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not knowing their countless whirlpools, eddies, hidden rocks and fearsome tides.

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Having experienced for myself the way they just grab at your boat as though it were a piece of paper,

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I have huge respect for those who sail the straits.

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But I've unbounded admiration for the ingenuity and sheer courage

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of the man who first succeeded in building a bridge across them.

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The year was 1826.

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The man was Thomas Telford.

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It was he who won the race for a route from London to Dublin,

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crossing the inhospitable mountains of Snowdonia,

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before coming to a sudden, juddering halt at the Menai Straits.

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Telford decided to make his crossing at the narrowest place on the strait.

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It was where drovers had always taken their sheep and cattle across.

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Trouble is, it was also the most dangerous,

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where the current was fastest and where there were the greatest number of whirlpools.

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To cap it all, the admiralty insisted that the bridge be 100 foot high,

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so that warships could pass underneath.

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This was Telford's solution.

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Telford's suspension bridge was the marvel of its age.

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And today, it even appears on this new one pound coin.

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And looking at it from this very famous viewpoint,

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you can see that it's a work of extraordinary beauty.

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But it's also a creation of engineering brilliance.

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What Telford did was to float huge chains out into the Menai,

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haul them over two central towers,

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and anchor them deep underground on both sides of the straits.

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A road suspended underneath the chains was capable of supporting enormous weight,

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and so, the suspension bridge was born.

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Simple? Yes. Brilliant? Absolutely.

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The irony is, that no sooner had the bridge been built,

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than it was outmoded.

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To find out why, I've met up with civil engineer, William Day,

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who's responsible for the maintenance of the Menai's great bridges.

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Why was this amazing new bridge suddenly not good enough for the job?

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Basically, we've just entered into the railway age,

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so a bridge ideal for stagecoaches

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was definitely not the right thing for railway coaches,

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they were just too heavy.

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So what was required was a radical new solution.

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And what was required to provide that solution was a radical engineer

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-like Robert Stephenson.

-Son of George Stephenson?

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Indeed. Famous for the Rocket and the Stockton to Darlington Railway,

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the first commercial railway in the UK.

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But, it was actually almost a bridge too far,

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even for Robert Stephenson.

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Robert Stephenson didn't just inherit his dad's train set.

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In fact, he surpassed him in his skill as a locomotive designer and structural engineer.

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But building a bridge with a huge span,

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capable of carrying massive loads over a hundred feet in the air,

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was almost unimaginably difficult.

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This was Stephenson's solution to the problem of crossing the straits.

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Telford had taken the best position, Stephenson was left with the second best position.

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But what we're looking at isn't the bridge that Stephenson built, is it?

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No, that unfortunately was lost in 1970 to the fire.

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Burning your bridges has always been bad news,

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and with the rail link to Holyhead severed,

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Anglesey was threatened economically, so the bridge was given a massive face-lift.

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Fortunately, though, some of the structure of Stephenson's original Britannia Bridge still remains.

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-What have we got up here, William?

-Well, we've got...

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one of the best kept secrets of the bridge,

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-the four lions, one on each corner.

-They are magnificent.

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The irony is that those lions can't be seen by train travellers anymore,

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-or by people travelling on the road above.

-Indeed...

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They were visible many, many years ago, but not as the bridge is now.

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But the pedestal on which the lions lie sadly unseen

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outdoes anything in Trafalgar Square.

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It's a massive structure, isn't it? I feel completely dwarfed.

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Very precisely made. Look how tight the joints are.

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To see something really spectacular, you need to come in here.

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-It's very dark, isn't it?

-It is, rather. We do have some lights.

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Good heavens, it's like a cathedral!

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You come in from the outside thinking it's a solid structure,

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but it's completely hollow.

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I still can't get my head around what we're looking at.

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A beautiful arrangement of arches.

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Three arches run this way, arches running the other,

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which spread the load from the railway, down into the masonry.

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It's a bridge of secrets. It's beautiful, with these great tapering columns rising up into the void.

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When I first looked at it, I was absolutely amazed.

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Isn't it the most unbelievable and beautiful piece of engineering?

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All to make this structure light,

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and to get the railway up to that height.

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Just how Stephenson achieved this wasn't just radical,

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it was revolutionary.

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Now, this was Stephenson's bridge before the fire.

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But what was so special about it?

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What he wanted to create was something that was light and strong,

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and he achieved this by something akin to a bird's wing.

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The bones in a bird's wing, tubular and cellular.

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-And this is it.

-Oh, wow.

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The only part that now remains of the original Britannia Bridge.

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Great monument to the man.

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-What's it made from?

-Wrought iron.

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To actually build a large structure, you've got to join pieces together.

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So you ended up with two million rivets and you can see some of them here.

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But this metal is so thin. How did it become rigid?

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Basically, if you join plates together in this cellular form,

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it's very, very strong and very stiff.

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So that you've got a very, very rigid box.

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Unlike a suspension bridge,

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this box would stay stiff even as the train went over.

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Stephenson's tunnel in the sky was an audacious idea.

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But four interconnected box girders, as they're called,

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each 144 metres in length, now had to be lifted 30 metres into the air.

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Today, it would be difficult.

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In 1850, it was a logistical nightmare.

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Each of the tubes weighed 1,500 tonnes,

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which even today would be considered a fairly hefty load.

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And what he did, was to float the bridge sections out

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and dock them into the bottom of the towers, you can see the slots.

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And how do you go about lifting 1,500 tonnes from down here,

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100 foot in the air?

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Basically, you jack it up. Stephenson was the first to do it.

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And they used probably the most powerful jacks available at that time.

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They would then put masonry underneath,

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re-position the jack and move again.

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So, it was quite a slow process that would have taken quite a few days.

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So, out of the chaos of this construction site down below,

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arose an incredibly simple engineering structure.

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Very simple, very elegant and, at that time, unique.

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We still build box girders and we still jack big bridges into place.

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So that, the process Stephenson started 150 years ago,

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would still be regarded as a modern technique.

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For decades, Robert Stephenson's rail crossing stole the thunder from Telford's suspension bridge.

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Railways ruled the world and the Menai Straits.

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Then someone invented the motorcar.

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And the usefulness, and the honour, of the suspension bridge was restored.

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Today, the beautiful old bridge wouldn't be able to cope on its own

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with the volume of traffic that needs to cross to and fro

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from mainland Wales to Anglesey.

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If it wasn't for the fire that destroyed the Britannia Bridge in 1970,

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the planners could have faced a real headache.

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Their pragmatic creation of a dual-purpose road and rail bridge,

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from the ashes of Stephenson's original creation,

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perpetuated a rail link from London to Dublin,

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and avoided gridlock on Anglesey's roads.

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But it is a real tragedy that we can no longer marvel at Robert Stephenson's original design,

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one of the wonders of the engineering world,

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the first box girder bridge.

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E-mail [email protected]

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Series exploring Britain's coastline and the relationship between citizens and the sea.

The team travel the Welsh coast from Snowdonia to the Menai Straits. Nicholas Crane canoes the treacherous Menai Straits to examine the bridges across to Anglesey, and visits Portmeiron, the setting for classic TV series The Prisoner.


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