Shipwreck Sanctuary in Britain’s Secret Seas?

Wooden frames from the 17th-century Swash Channel wreck. Photo: Wessex Archaeology, Crown copyright.

Britain’s Secret Seas is a tough sell. Jetting around the globe diving with dolphins and gawping at exotic fish off the Great Barrier Reef, Florida or the Caribbean, we neglect the wonderworld beneath our murky home waters. A hard sell maybe, but the show’s successful blend of illuminating unknown nooks and crannies, and enthusiastic and knowledgeable guidance by Paul Rose, Tooni Mahto and Frank Pope, has spun gold from seaweed.

In the final episode peering into bustling southern Britain, Paul Rose drew the short straw, humorously trying to convince us that conger eels are magnificent as well as mean and moody. After a strange dance with a metre-long slippery beast, the ex-Antarctica Base Commander bruiser declared “I’m in love” after a “perfect conger eel encounter”. Priceless. The poor’s man’s ears must have been waterlogged. Despite trawler overfishing causing bottom-living stocks to plummet by 94%, congers are an unfavoured edible alternative. Other than stubborn survivors of prehistory who gave their name to a drunken party dance and clog up the firing chambers of shipwrecked cannon, what is the purpose in the food chain of this annoying predator?

The galley cooking structure on the 17th-century Swash Channel wreck. Photo: Wessex Archaeology, Crown copyright.

Paul Rose’s laughter turned infectious as the action turned to Tooni Mahto dancing with seahorses beneath Dorset’s Studland Bay. Who could have imagined that these delicate creatures are breeding under our noses in shallow camouflaged seagrass? Tooni, a marine biologist who manages to charm and chuckle with passion and grace while locked into a full face diving mask, is a rising star of the silent seas.

As the dive team returned to their home comforts, they explained that we could be about to lose the Short Snouted Seahorse and the Spiny Seahorse, which are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Up to 300 boats drop anchor in Studland Bay in summer, in tandem with 10 metre-long swirling buoy chains ripping up the seagrass and blitzing the breeding colony. Little more than 40 seahorses (as counted in 2008) have sought sanctuary in these waters. Meanwhile, across the seas 20 million are killed annually for traditional Chinese medicine, and another two million sold for pets and souvenirs after being left to dry out in the baking sun. Surely we owe these delicate wonders a safer haven?

Elaborate stern carvings on the royal warship the Vasa, wrecked outside Stockholm harbour in 1628.

From one endangered species to another, Britain’s Secret Seas weaved the sorry fate of the Swash Channel wreck throughout the episode. The ship came to light in 2004 during a geophysical survey carried out by Wessex Archaeology in advance of dredging to deepen the approach to Poole Harbour for cross-Channel ferries. The 40 metre-long protected historic wreck site is now being recorded and managed by Dave Parham of Bournemouth University. The ship is an armed merchantman fitted with heavy guns and retaining exquisite decoration that would have been relatively standard in its day but is rare in UK waters. The pièce de resistance is the 8.4 metre-long rudder surmounted by the figure of a male human head.

The smaller finds, such as parts of wooden barrels and rigging and copper, pewter and ceramic wares, have been lifted to safety. The problem now surrounds the fate of the hull. Through an unfortunate, but hardly unexpected, attack of wood-boring shipworms making matchwood of the timbers, accelerated by the erosion of the cushioning sediments triggered by the dredging of the Swash Channel, the hull is falling apart. “This wood is rotting away before our eyes. There’s a real urgency here”, rightly warns Frank Pope, The Times Oceans Correspondent and author of the award-worthy Dragon Sea. The solution seemingly signed off by English Heritage and Bournemouth University is to recover later in 2011 a 12 metre-long section of the ship, presumably including the figurative rudder.

In an age when in situ preservation is being championed by UNESCO and publicly endorsed by Dave Parham, scientifically and financially is this decision that bucks the political zeitgeist the best approach? Is Paul Rose right to call the Swash wreck “one of the finds of the century” and should it be given special treatment?

Figurative carvings still in place on a 17th-century Dutch shipwreck in the Baltic Sea.

Originally said to be a rare high-status merchant vessel from the borders of Holland and Germany, whose timbers were felled in or post-1585, the site is now dated to the less eye-catching era of 1629. Dutch shipwrecks of this era are not uncommon. A near-intact 17th-century ship of probable Dutch construction with exquisite carvings lies 125 metres under the Baltic Sea, itself under attack from swarms of famished shipworms. If we want to study ship’s carvings and a rudder, the complete Swedish warship Vasa holds a cornucopia of data – infinitely superior to the Swash Channel site – and sunk in 1629 during her maiden voyage is of an identical date.

A stern carving over 3 metres long from the wreck of HMS Colossus, lost off the Scilly Isles in 1798. Photo: Cornwall & Isles of Scilly Maritime Archaeology Society.

Numerous hulls of this period litter the world’s seas. The Avondster, a British ship captured by the Dutch and used by the United Dutch East India Company trading with Asia, sank off Galle Harbour, Sri Lanka, in 1659. The site is better preserved than the Swash Channel wreck with the galley cooking area intact and the ship similarly sheathed with sacrificial planking. Other Dutch ships, including merchantmen found at Scheurrak and Inschot in the Waddenzee, lie closer to home. Meanwhile, other sculptures from a ship’s forecastle in the North Sea have been decapitated from their wrecked hull by fishing trawlers and thrown overboard by disgruntled skippers as cultural by-catch.

Do we really need more shipwrecked wood on dry land? In an ideal world, all endangered wrecks would be raised and stored in a giant archaeological deep freezer. This is a painfully expensive pipedream. The initial preservation of the 25 tons of timbers from the 15th-century Newport ship found along the River Usk in 2002 cost an estimated £3.5 million, which is a snip compared to the £20 million muted final bill. Since 2008 the Mary Rose Museum Project has raised £35 million to complete the conservation of the 19,000 artifacts found in its hull and to present this wonder to the public in a custom-designed museum in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

The 13 metre-long County Hall Roman shipwreck found in London in 1910.

History shows that in the long term lifted hulls not associated with a grand narrative, such as the splendour of King Henry VIII, or that are not one-offs like the Late Bronze Age Dover Boat, do not fare well. The 3rd-century AD County Hall Roman wreck sunk opposite Westminster and recovered in 1910 and the 1st century AD Blackfriars vessel lifted in 1962 are unparalleled in the UK, yet little of their timbers survive today. These discoveries have had a disappointingly low impact on the general public.

More recently, to great fanfare a well-preserved 3rd-century AD Romano-Celtic hull surfaced from the entrance to St. Peter’s Port in Guernsey, where cross-Channel ferries scoured and exposed not just the ‘Asterix’ ship, but since 1985 another five medieval hulls. Lost in the 13th-15th centuries, these ships are of international importance. In the absence of major historical touchstones or dazzling finds of Mary Rose quality, finding funds and homes for these noble hulls has proven a tough nut to crack. The 1,000 year-old planking discovered in 1991 by Stuart Bacon under Buss Creek, Suffolk, is equally exceptional. Despite the frames being carefully passed on to shipbuilding specialists, the story of this remarkable ship lost just around the corner from the royal Anglo-Saxon cemetery of Sutton Hoo is untold, the whereabouts of the missing frames a mystery.

A ferry crossing the Roman and medieval wreck site complex at the entrance to St. Peter’s Port, Guernsey.

A medieval hull recovered from the entrance to St. Peter’s Port, Guernsey.

Ship’s hulls need superstar status like the Mary Rose to warrant million-pound recovery projects or to be so unique that science demands their return to society from a watery grave. Does the 17th-century Swash Channel fit this magical bill? Will droves of tourists race to learn about this vessel’s secrets, bringing £500,000 into the coffers annually as at the Mary Rose Museum? The rudder should be lifted undeniably and its sculpture put on public display, as planned for the stern carving from HMS Colossus lost off the Scilly Isles in 1798.

Stuart Bacon examines 1,000 year-old timbers from the Buss Creek wreck, Suffolk. Photo: Suffolk Underwater Studies.

If funds can be sourced to bankroll ambitious ship recoveries like the Swash Channel wreck, this is wonderful news. If the funds come from the public pockets of English Heritage or the Heritage Lottery Fund, might these timbers be better respected long-term reburied elsewhere in Poole Harbour, away from scoured ferries lanes, so that the resources could be freed up for other needy projects? Saving the artifacts on the Stirling Castle, lost in the Goodwin Sands during the great storm of 1703 and the best preserved wreck off the United Kingdom, is no less a matter of urgency. Only time will tell.

Meanwhile, there is no doubt that rather than graceful seahorses shipwrecked hulls like the Swash Channel wreck are the conger eels of marine archaeology: we know they are down there, to some they may be beautiful, but nobody wants to catch one and put it in a public aquarium. Get too close and you might bite off more than you can chew.

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