Episode 4 Hidden Histories


Episode 4

A look at the decommissioning of the Trawsfynydd nuclear power station, the lost settlements of Skomer Island and the search for the wreck of a Bristol Channel pilot cutter.


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Transcript


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The Royal Commission is a government detective agency set up in the same year as the FBI.

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Unlike the FBI, the Commission investigates the history of Wales,

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and its case files are open to everyone.

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This week, the challenges involved when a nuclear power station closes.

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Did Stone Age people live on the island of Skomer?

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We look at new evidence.

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And the mystery of a shipwreck in the Bristol Channel - is it a pilot cutter that went down in 1916?

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Like it or loathe it, Trawsfynydd nuclear power station is one of Wales'

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most iconic buildings, a huge industrial structure in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park.

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Cutting edge when it opened back in the 60s, not a spark of electricity

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has been produced here in nearly 20 years, and decommissioning is well under way.

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It's a big story in more ways than one, and the Royal Commission is one of several organisations

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involved in ensuring that the history of what has gone on here is recorded for posterity.

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When it opened in 1965, Trawsfynydd was a flagship for the burgeoning nuclear power industry.

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One of Britain's top architects, Sir Basil Spence, was responsible

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for the plans, and some of his documents are held in the Royal Commission Archive in Aberystwyth.

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This being Snowdonia, Sir Basil wanted the buildings

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to have something of the mass of a medieval castle.

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The fact that the plant was in the middle of Snowdonia National Park was highly controversial.

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Peter Wakelin of the Royal Commission explains the thinking behind Spence's approach.

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The mass of a medieval castle, that was Basil Spence's aim.

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-Did he pull it off?

-Well, I think...

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It's enormous, isn't it?

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It's bigger than any of our castles, by a long way.

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These are 180 feet high, these towers, and obviously when the ideas

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were being proposed for the site, there was a lot of concern

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that the pretty new Snowdonia National Park was going to have this plonked right in the middle of it.

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What was the point in having a national park if you'd allow something like this?

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So I think the response to that was Basil Spence coming in with ideas of making it look like

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it belonged in the landscape, and I think from a distance you do get

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this amazing sensation of it being monumental and sort of belonging, with the mountains as a backdrop.

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I've got some drawings here that I've managed to get hold of from

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our sister body in Scotland, the Scottish Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments,

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and the Scottish Commission has been given Sir Basil Spence's complete archive.

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So amongst that archive are some drawings that show

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the concepts that he had of these towers sitting in the landscape.

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Being cruel, Peter, you could say they are just brutal boxes of concrete.

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Is there more to it than that?

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Is there beauty in the detail?

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Because they wanted to fit this site into a landscape, I think

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Basil Spence and Sylvia Crowe both did things that made more of it, and there was a lot of intricate detail.

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Looking up at the reactor tower here, you can see that it's not just plain concrete panels.

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The concrete panels have got these fascinating little ribbed features on them

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which give texture, and it makes the concrete recede.

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Instead of looking like a great white mass,

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he's got these different patterns that create light and shade on the structure.

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He also made sure that they were using local aggregates

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that fitted with the colour of the surrounding mountains, just to help make it blend in.

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But overall, of course, it is essentially a brutalist structure.

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He is doing what those architects of the 60s and 70s did in creating great masses of concrete and showing

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the modern systems and power for the future.

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Peter Wakelin is working with Royal Commission photographer Iain Wright

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to create a photographic record of the site.

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Sylvia Crowe wanted to design the landscape so the site disappeared as much as possible.

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And she didn't want gardens coming up to the building.

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But there was one exception here, and this little area is what she called the rest area.

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Just a small area for people to come and have a bit of peace and quiet from work.

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I think this is a really beautifully constructed feature,

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with these stones going down into the pond with the rock in the bottom.

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So do you think you could get a photograph of that, Iain?

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And the other interesting thing to photograph,

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which is just over here, is the steps.

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A beautifully designed feature. It looks like a piece of ancient archaeology in a jungle, doesn't it?

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So if we get this in and the section behind it, probably from...

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We'll come from further up on the slope.

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Incredible as it may seem, no-one thought of the problems of decommissioning

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when Trawsfynydd was being built just 50 years ago, and the process has thrown up major challenges.

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Over 500 people are employed at the site and decommissioning is costing £1 million per week.

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Back then, they took no consideration at all into how they were going to

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take it apart, even though they knew it had a finite lifetime.

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There were plans put in place as to how to put the waste in safe places, but there were no plans or even

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any requirements that the waste would have to be retrieved and sorted and stored safely in the long term.

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That was perhaps left for future generations.

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We are the future generation, and even with my age now we have got the next generation coming along.

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But we do have plans to safely recover and retrieve those wastes.

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If the plant dominates its surroundings, the interior is even more amazing.

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Wow!

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This is colossal.

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I am inside one of the two reactor buildings, the twin towers at the heart of Trawsfynydd.

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They are both being substantially reduced in size -

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the result of a public inquiry to find out how local people wanted the site to appear in future.

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They voted overwhelmingly to do away with the impressive castle approach

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and opted instead for smaller buildings to house the nuclear reactors until they are safe.

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That is in about 75 to 80 years' time.

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The reactors took nearly six years to build and will need to remain in situ until 2085.

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The roof is now being lowered.

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I feel minute, and yet we are still only, what?

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The ground is 100 feet down there?

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Yes, about 100 feet.

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-And the very top of this, that's 175 feet above ground level.

-Wow.

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So at the moment we are actually positioned on top of this red slab.

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This is the capping roof above the charge face.

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There's the large crane overhead, and if we look down underneath us where the charge face is,

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we have a number of stand pipes, and these connect the reactor pressure vessel, the blue item.

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-And this is sat within concrete bioshield. This is several metres thick.

-I love that crane.

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It's a wonderful crane, yes.

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-That is a crane.

-Yeah, that is a crane and a half.

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And the reason why it's such a substantial crane, it goes back to this point about

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the fuelling machinery was really very heavy, very substantial, over 100 tonnes,

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different items.

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But that's going?

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That's right. So in the final phase when we come to do the height reduction -

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as I said, that's taking this top third down, the crane, etc, the roof, everything -

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that's all part of that particular phase of works.

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-Bit of scrap.

-Yeah.

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What generally happens these days with scrap copper, steelwork,

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generally there's a market for it and more often than not it will actually pay for the decommissioning work.

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-Hey.

-So there should be an income from this as well.

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-You're making money here?

-That's good. That's good for the customer.

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Size clearly matters at Trawsfynydd, and Iain Wright is only just

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beginning to take in the photographic challenges.

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It's big, I suppose, but like a lot of industrial buildings they're on a sort of scale.

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Here you're looking at one floor, it's not the whole building.

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You haven't got the whole height.

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And unfortunately when you come to record them,

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it always has to be from the corners to get as much as you can, really.

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But you are trying to record what was here because of the enormous history to this sort of place.

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And actually it's all within our lifetime, which is extraordinary.

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The whole thing's been built and it's all coming down again.

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Removal of waste is one of the key problems.

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Although 99.9% of the most toxic material has now been removed,

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there are six ongoing recovery schemes.

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This is my video game for real.

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What we are looking at here is an old cooling pond for spent radioactive fuel rods.

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And what I'm looking for here is a machine called...

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There it is, the scabbling machine.

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And this goes along and removes 20 millimetres of contaminated concrete.

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In all, there's 300 tons of contaminated concrete, and this machine

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takes it off, reduces it to dust and then it's all safely removed.

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I suppose it's like a jackhammer and a vacuum cleaner all rolled into one.

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It's exactly that. There's no leading-edge technology here.

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You will see some of these tools on typical excavators

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out on a demolition site.

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The beauty we have is being able to switch between the tools remotely.

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We can break out the rubble, we can then crush it

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using these pulveriser pads that the team actually designed on site.

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We then extract it up using the vacuum head, and it is like putting a Dyson on the end of the machine,

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but distinctly more powerful because you are sucking up aggregate and concrete dust.

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We can fill one of our waste containers, which is

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over three-quarters of a tonne, in a couple of hours.

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For Iain, the control room offers a fascinating close-up of decommissioning in action.

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I see you're taking some pictures of pretty modern activity here, Iain.

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It's modern now.

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You've got to remember, in the future, people will say,

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"How did they decommission?" And you say, "Well, you sort of

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"scrape the concrete off and you drag it away and put it somewhere safe."

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It's one thing saying that, but people want to see images, it's not just reading about it.

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I mean, I remember, as a child, with comics and things,

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I just used to look at the pictures. I never read the words.

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That's why I'm doing this!

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Monitoring is the name of the game at every stage, especially when entering and leaving.

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Everyone leaving has to go through one of these. It's a contamination monitor.

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It's all so safe here that, touch wood, coming out leaves you as clean as going in.

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'Turn and assume backward monitoring position.'

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'Monitoring complete.'

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There was one exception.

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When the Chernobyl reactor blew up in 1986,

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radioactivity was carried on the wind to the UK and fell in rainfall on Snowdonia.

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Workers coming here the next day showed noticeably higher levels of radiation.

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Magnox North, the decommissioning company,

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is working closely with locals to create a legacy which will benefit the community.

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A priority is to develop tourism.

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The lake is already used by anglers and has the potential to become

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a centre of excellence for water sports and leisure.

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The Royal Commission is interested in the total history of the site

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and keen to conserve memories, wherever they originate.

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We've learned a lot today, coming here with Iain.

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We've been looking at the activities that are going on here now

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as well as the history of the site, which was one of the things that we were aware of.

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I think we've realised that the decommissioning process itself is something we need to be recording.

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And our record of that as an organisation that does photography

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and survey will sit alongside, hopefully, oral history with the local community and material

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from the past going into archives and libraries and museums to make sure that this story

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of this incredibly important site is available to the people of Wales in the future.

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I feel like I'm travelling back in time, heading over to

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one of the most fascinating islands in the UK in terms of prehistory.

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Situated at the southern tip of St Bride's Bay in Pembrokeshire,

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Skomer is an archaeologist's paradise.

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Its remoteness and lack of development mean that large tracks of the islands

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have been undisturbed since prehistoric times.

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Until now, it's been thought that the remains date from the Iron Age,

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but new evidence suggests that we may be looking at Stone Age settlements.

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Louise Barker and Toby Driver from the Royal Commission are beginning a new survey

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which holds the tantalising prospect that the story of human settlement on the island

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dates back 5,000 years.

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Well, the last surveys of Skomer were carried out in the 1950s and 1980s.

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They were both excellent for their time.

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But Skomer is of European archaeological significance.

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Looking at it again, Louise and I have started seeing

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an immense amount of new information that's not noted down anywhere.

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It's quite staggering, actually. That's why we're taking an interest today.

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We've got lots of new technology.

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Specifically, I should mention LIDAR,

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which is the aerial laser scanning.

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So that really is starting to yield more information.

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But it's also older technologies.

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Every year, Toby's flying and gathering more aerial photographs,

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and each time under different conditions.

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Looking from the air at winter time when the vegetation's very low, the light scuds across the landscape.

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It picks out every lump and bump. Every THING people have done on Skomer,

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over the last few thousand years, ago stands out.

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Comparing what we see on the photographs, the field systems,

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the field boundaries, the huts, with what had been mapped in the previous surveys,

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we can see new information and that's telling us a new story now about how the island developed in prehistory.

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In terms of human settlement, boundaries are being pushed back.

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The standard story for Skomer is that it was occupied in the Iron Age, before the Romans came to Wales.

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Maybe more than a century of occupation. That's the story.

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They arrived and - the old Easter Island scenario - they ran out of wood, water and they left the island.

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Looking at what we've got on the island, that's far too simplified.

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What would you suggest is more likely then?

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I think when you start looking at the island, we can take the history of the island much further back,

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much earlier in to the Stone Age possibly.

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One of the structures that particularly excites Louise is this roundhouse.

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There are several on the island.

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As a medievalist who studied in Ireland,

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where there are early medieval roundhouses by the score, I'm intrigued.

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We're just stood in the main home that's often termed as a roundhouse.

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The structure that we're looking at now is slightly more oval.

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They're all very similar.

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You can see where the wall has been exposed along this side here.

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Vertical, upright stones, low wall timber, a timber upper half here.

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So it fits in with the whole island in the prehistory of the island.

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So what do these roundhouses tell us of our settlements on the island?

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When you look at a plan which maps the archaeology on the island,

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we've got at least 30, 30 plus roundhouses that we've got recorded here.

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They appear in small clusters, perhaps two, three, four houses at a time.

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You're looking at a hamlet settlement. You'd have the roundhouse

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and surrounding it you'd have the enclosures, fields and paddocks.

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It would almost be like a village or a hamlet.

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I think this is a land of opportunity out here.

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This is why it doesn't quite fit with the abandonment of the island,

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and the desolation of the island, having to go back to the mainland.

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If you're cultivating crops, you're harvesting the natural resources, you've got the coppice woodland

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to provide you with building material and fuel. Why do you need to leave?

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It's a good place to live.

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It was a good place to die as well, with evidence of burial sites scattered throughout the landscape.

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What's most interesting, came back here today particularly, these odd boulders on the ridges behind us.

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20 years ago, people would've thought they were old stones lying around on the top of the hill,

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but now we're understanding a bit more about what neolithic people,

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new stone-age people were doing 5,000 years ago with burial and ritual.

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Sometimes they used boulders to put the bones of their dead.

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They used to prop them up on stones as well.

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Maybe we're seeing evidence of earlier ritual structures here overlooking the later farms.

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The exciting thing about this valley particularly,

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is it's like we're standing in a street, a village or a hamlet.

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You can imagine the people, imagine the farmers, children here, a long time ago.

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This would have been a very busy place once upon a time.

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Skomer is famous as a bird sanctuary, offering a spectacular summer home

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to thousands of breeding seabirds, such as puffins.

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When night falls, another visitor arrives, Manx Shearwater,

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which live in burrows often colonised from rabbits.

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Some of the burrows run underneath the archaeological sites.

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Is there a conflict between wildlife and archaeology?

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I wouldn't say no, there's burrows absolutely everywhere on the island.

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We've 120,000 breeding pairs of shearwaters

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and they all breed in burrows under the ground.

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The archaeology is very close to that and there's nothing we can do

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about the shearwaters affecting the archaeology. I don't think they do to a great extent.

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The primary aim of this reserve is the wildlife and the archaeology as well.

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It's a very interesting balance.

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Back at headquarters, Toby showed me how technology is posing new questions.

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Here we've some LIDAR data, some airborne laser scanning data.

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This isn't an aerial photograph, this is captured from an aeroplane.

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The aeroplane is flying over Skomer and a laser is scanning the ground below it.

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It gives us an amazing popped-up 3D view of the landscape.

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We can begin to get a sense of where people were living.

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Here is that farm again on the coast overlooking the cliffs on the northern side of Skomer.

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We can have a bit of fun. We can turn the sun around in the computer and have the sun rising

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from the northeast or northwest, from places that would be impossible in real life.

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This allows us to cast shadows on that very faint archaeology, to reveal it more clearly.

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If you were standing on Skomer now, would you see these for yourself?

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There's no guarantee we'd see things as clearly on the ground as we do on the laser data.

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There's long grass, scrub, bushes and so on.

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With this view we can see things very clearly and it gives us an idea

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of where to go with our survey gear when we get out there next year.

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It's such a bonus to have this cutting edge data to show us where the archaeology is.

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It really saves us time in the field.

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With its sandbanks, rocks and massive tides, the Bristol Channel

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remains the most dangerous shipping channels in the world.

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Back in the days of sail, to be a pilot required great skill and long experience.

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They were great characters and so were the little boats

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that ferried them back and forth between the cargo ships and the docks.

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The waters around Sully Island have been the graveyard of many a ship,

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including this ribbed skeleton of a wreck on the foreshore.

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The Royal Commission's Maritime Office, Deanna Groom, has studied

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records of sinkings in these treacherous waters and believes it may be that of the Baratanach -

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a pilot cutter like this which went down in a storm in 1916.

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The location fits, but so far it's only guesswork and today, Deanna's in search of evidence.

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Part of the research we're doing for the National Monuments Record is a programme of shipwreck research.

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This wreck is visible in our aerial photograph collections.

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Some of the references I saw suggest it was the Baratanach.

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The information we have about the Baratanach, it was built in 1879,

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it was built for a pilot called Thomas Rosser, a Cardiff pilot.

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It was wrecked twice before it ended up here at Sully Island.

0:20:580:21:02

He rehearsed all this then.

0:21:020:21:04

What we know about the Baratanach,

0:21:040:21:06

it was 41'5" long, the old imperial measure.

0:21:060:21:11

Looking at this, this looks a good bit longer.

0:21:110:21:14

Too long, we can go home now.

0:21:140:21:17

We're looking at a really nice, kind of... Bit visual here.

0:21:170:21:21

..a really lovely...wine-glass shape for the hull.

0:21:210:21:26

This looks very flat.

0:21:260:21:27

A flat barge, more cargo carrier.

0:21:270:21:32

The channel is littered with wrecks.

0:21:320:21:35

We've 66 records for pilot cutters.

0:21:350:21:39

Primarily the cause of loss is collision.

0:21:390:21:42

Over half of them were lost in a very difficult manoeuvre.

0:21:420:21:47

That's reassuring because these guys were meant to be the ones that know

0:21:470:21:50

everything there is to know about the Bristol Channel.

0:21:500:21:53

Yet 66 of them went down.

0:21:530:21:55

If it's collisions, it shows how dangerous their job was.

0:21:550:21:59

It was a dangerous manoeuvre.

0:21:590:22:01

Statistics say that was the primary cause of loss and it's connected to what they were doing.

0:22:010:22:06

It's a tiny little wooden sailing boat, coming in close proximity

0:22:060:22:10

to a large steam ship or large sailing vessel. That's dangerous.

0:22:100:22:14

This mystery boat, could this be it?

0:22:140:22:17

It's in the right place. One of the reported places was the north side of Sully Island.

0:22:170:22:21

That's where we are - in the rain today, unfortunately.

0:22:210:22:25

-There's a doubt here isn't there?

-There's a doubt because I think what we're looking at today

0:22:250:22:29

is probably just that bit too long and too big.

0:22:290:22:33

What we're going to do, if you'll be my assistant.

0:22:330:22:36

We're going to get a tape measure out and run it along from the stern to the bow

0:22:360:22:42

and get an idea of how long it is.

0:22:420:22:43

That will tell us about the kind of vessel we're looking at.

0:22:430:22:48

Pilot cutters raced each other to meet big boats coming up the Bristol Channel,

0:22:480:22:53

intent on getting their pilots on board to steer the ship safety into port.

0:22:530:22:57

It was dangerous and taxing work, calling for detailed knowledge of tides and hidden reefs.

0:22:570:23:03

If you want to know what the Baratanach looked like,

0:23:030:23:05

you can get a pretty good idea from the Olga, a cutter built in 1909 -

0:23:050:23:10

seven years before the Baratanach went down.

0:23:100:23:13

The Olga is owned by Swansea Museum and I was intrigued to find out

0:23:130:23:17

how the pilots transferred from the cutter to the incoming boat.

0:23:170:23:21

They had a punt, which is basically a small little rowing dinghy

0:23:210:23:26

between eight and ten feet long, which usually lived on the deck here.

0:23:260:23:30

We have a life raft now instead and the punt was literally lowered

0:23:300:23:34

over the side by using a boom, like a crane.

0:23:340:23:37

The pilot would jump in, row across.

0:23:370:23:40

You can imagine rowing across in some of the weather they were out in. It must have been dreadful.

0:23:400:23:45

Then he'd step aboard the bigger ship and pilot the big ship in.

0:23:450:23:49

-How far out to sea would they go?

-This particular pilot would have worked

0:23:490:23:52

as far as the Scillies perhaps to try and pick up some of the traffic.

0:23:520:23:56

Sometimes there were up to ten boats racing for the business. It depends how busy they were.

0:23:560:24:00

You can imagine the ports into the South Wales area. There are hundreds of ships coming up on a high tide.

0:24:000:24:06

Every boat had to have a pilot so there would be up to 20 pilots

0:24:060:24:09

working out of Swansea, 30 pilots out of Cardiff, and 20 out of Newport.

0:24:090:24:14

Immense spirit of competition. Did they cut any corners?

0:24:140:24:17

I'm sure they did. I think a lot of money was made elsewhere as well.

0:24:170:24:20

Contraband etc. I know smuggling was a pastime for some of the pilot boat captains for sure.

0:24:200:24:27

Extra cash. You can imagine before the days of GPS etc, everything was done by paper charts.

0:24:270:24:34

There was always ambiguities about the paper charts they were using.

0:24:340:24:39

You can imagine it out there being a free-for-all, going as fast as you can, terrible weather in the winter.

0:24:390:24:44

Probably one of the most dangerous places on earth to sail with the extreme tides that we have.

0:24:440:24:49

These guys really knew their stuff, they were the best.

0:24:490:24:52

I can see that, as Deanna gets the measure of the wreck, doubts are beginning to creep in.

0:25:150:25:20

18.50m. If I turn it over, we've got the old imperial measures.

0:25:250:25:30

We got 61 feet. It's definitely too long isn't it? It's too big.

0:25:300:25:36

-Size does matter.

-Yes, it does!

0:25:360:25:39

-When you're a pilot cutter.

-Or not!

-This is just too big.

0:25:390:25:45

With one theory sunk, what are we left with?

0:25:450:25:49

We have a mystery here.

0:25:490:25:50

One closes, another one opens up.

0:25:500:25:54

We've still got two pilot cutters here somewhere that we're still to find.

0:25:540:25:58

We have another mystery vessel but in the meantime, we'll have to close the door on this being the Baratanach.

0:25:580:26:04

'At Commission headquarters, the scale of what's involved, trying to identify wrecks becomes apparent.'

0:26:050:26:12

Around Sully Island itself, we've got about 16 references to shipwrecks.

0:26:120:26:17

These are the two pilot cutters here, the Lotte and Baratanach.

0:26:170:26:20

This is our wreck on the foreshore here. The Swanbridge wreck.

0:26:200:26:23

The white is actually land so what you're looking at, this white patch here,

0:26:230:26:28

this is Sully Island and these green areas are intertidal and are dry when the tide goes out.

0:26:280:26:35

If you get caught out and the winds are wrong, they would get blown

0:26:350:26:39

to shore here on this side of the island to be wrecked or stranded.

0:26:390:26:43

If we zoom out a bit on the map and look at the bigger picture for the whole of Wales,

0:26:430:26:50

you can get an idea of what the data set is at present time.

0:26:500:26:53

There's about 5,500 ship wrecks around the coast of Wales.

0:26:530:26:57

Half of those we don't actually know what the vessels are.

0:26:570:27:00

Cardiff, as expected, with the coal port and trading in and out of there,

0:27:000:27:05

the map actually starts to go bright red.

0:27:050:27:07

There's almost no space between the dots at this scale and resolution.

0:27:070:27:11

That's the scale of the problem, to try and put names to those wrecks.

0:27:110:27:16

So now, where there was one mystery,

0:27:180:27:20

there are two, the name of the wreck on Sully Foreshore

0:27:200:27:23

and the location of a pilot cutter, from the glorious days of sail, called Baratanach.

0:27:230:27:29

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:27:470:27:50

E-mail [email protected]

0:27:500:27:53

A look at the decommissioning of the Trawsfynydd nuclear power station, the lost settlements of Skomer Island and the search for the wreck of a Bristol Channel pilot cutter.

Presented by Eddie Butler and Heledd Fychan.


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