Archaeology: ‘Ship swallower’ off British coast has claimed ‘50,000 lives’

HMS Mary: Divers discover 18th century cannon in shipwreck

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British waters are filled with thousands of shipwrecks, each with its own unique history. Just a few of the discoveries off the UK coastline include the Mary Rose, the HMS London that sank in the River Thames after exploding, and the SS Richard Montgomery — an abandoned wreck filled with around 1,400 tonnes of TNT explosives. Just six miles (10 km) off the coast of Deal in Kent lies the biggest hazard of the lot. The Goodwin Sands is a 10-mile (16km) long sandbank.

Seals bask there at low tide, annual cricket matches were once held there, and brave runners have even raced on the Goodwins.

Yet, it is the notorious reputation of the Goodwins as one of the most treacherous spots in the English Channel that it is best known for.

Marine archaeologist Dan Pascoe told Express.co.uk: “It’s a ship swallower. That’s what I like to call it.

“What happens is, you’ve got these sands that are sandbanks which can be 20 metres deep with sand, and that’s moving.

“So when a ship hits it, it normally hits the top of the sand, but the weight of the shipwreck sinks into the sand until it hits the chalk bedrock 20 metres below.”

Mr Pascoe added: “Now, for hundreds of years that shipwreck had been covered.

“But the Goodwin Sands is a mobile sandbank, it’s constantly moving. So when the sand moves away, you have this shipwreck that’s lying on the chalk bedrock. 

“And in some cases it can be really complete — like the Stirling Castle back in 1979 when that came out.”

Lying in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, the Goodwins have posed a serious threat to shipping since seafaring began.

The lack of navigational aids in earlier days contributed enormously to the ships that would meet their fate at the Goodwins.

The glutinous nature of the Goodwins ensures ships that hit the sand soon sink into a watery grave. 

The ship’s back often breaks first, before it disappears beneath the sand.

Some 2,000 shipwrecks have been recorded, although the true number is believed to be nearer to 3,500.

As many as 50,000 people are believed to have drowned there, including hundreds of World War 2 airmen.

The Great Storm of 1703 proved to be one of the deadliest nights. The destructive, extratropical cyclone struck central and southern England on November 26, 1703.

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Ships were blown hundreds of miles off-course, with one ship even found 15 miles (24 km) inland.

At least 13 men-of-war and 40 merchant vessels were lost at the Goodwins that night, with the loss of 2,168 lives.

Among those wrecked included the HMS Northumberland, HMS Restoration and the HMS Stirling Castle.

All three of these are among the multiple protected wrecks at the site, identified for special protection by Historic England under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973.

The Stirling Castle was a particularly significant wreck, given how well it was preserved when it was discovered by local divers in 1979.

Fiona Punter, trustee at the Goodwin Sands Conservation Trust, told Express.co.uk: “The Stirling Castle was found at the same time as the Mary Rose in Portsmouth.”

She said it was in “better repair” than the iconic ship.

Ms Punter continued: “You could walk down the steps into it. It was a perfect ship on the seafloor.”

Mr Pascoe added: “It was a complete wooden warship with 70 guns, lying on its keel, upright, guns still pointing out of the gun ports, and that sank in 1703.”

By 1981, fresh sediment was beginning to cover the wreck again. Part of the wreck has since collapsed and destabilised.

Some of the World War 2 wrecks are particularly well preserved too. Mr Pascoe said: “ A recent one that was recovered was the Dornier Do 17 [a light bomber used by the German Luftwaffe], and you’ve got others out there too.

“There’s another one — a Junkers 88 that’s lying upside down.

“You can see the wings, you can see the propellers, the engines. You can see that the doors are open.

“There’s submarines, World War 2 submarines, German ones just sitting there complete.”

Ms Punter said the Goodwins has the highest level of shipwrecks and lost maritime archaeology in the whole of Europe, possibly even the world.

Yet, so much of what is there remains unknown as technology is not advanced enough yet.

Some of this history could simply be destroyed in an instant if planned dredging goes ahead. Millions of tonnes of sand and gravel face being dredged from the site, as part of plans to extend the port of Dover.

Teams would not go near the protected wrecks, as they have a protection zone around them, but hundreds more remain at risk.

Ms Punter said: “We had a diver out three summers ago and he came back with video footage of a World War 2 bomber that no one knew was there. 

“And that was actually on the line of the dredge zone. It was in the original dredge zone but they modified it. If they hadn’t modified it, that bomber would go. They’d dredge it up.”

The “brutal” dredging process, as Mr Pascoe referred to it, sucks up the sand, only stopping if something is jammed.

Wooden structures, he said, would simply be destroyed.

Ms Punter and her fellow trustees at the Goodwin Sands Conservation Trust are fighting to stop any further dredging at the site, and ensure that the Goodwins are conserved for future generations.

She said: “There’s great differences between conservation and preservation. It will be the conservation that we’re after, so that it’s there for future generations when the technology is there to find out what is hidden there without damaging it.”

She finished: “That’s really the long term aim ‒ to make sure that they’re not hurt, and to make sure that everyone, everyone in east Kent, knows about the Goodwins as much as they do about the White Cliffs of Dover.

“The White Cliffs are national icons, we’d like the Goodwins to be that too.”

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