KEVIN GORDON - Low tide reveals historic mysteries at Tide Mills

Dr Ed Jarzembowski examines the wreck.
Dr Ed Jarzembowski examines the wreck.

I think it may have been due to last Friday’s eclipse, because last Monday morning Sussex saw some of the lowest tides for many years. Dr Ed Jarzembowski (the curatorial advisor for Seaford Museum) had advised me that it would be a rare opportunity to visit the shoreline of Seaford Bay as it maybe possible that shipwrecks would be visible.

I met Ed and his wife Biddy near the Tide Mills shorty after daybreak when the tide was at its lowest and, as we walked across the fine sand, we immediately spotted a dark area of wreckage just under the water. I was pleased I had worn my wellies as we waded into the sea to investigate. At first Ed suspected that this was the wreck of a tug, known to have been scuppered during the Second World War, however, after some prodding with a makeshift shipwreck detector (a long pole) it was clear that the wreck was much older. It was of a heavy dark wood and the place where a mast once stood was clearly visible. Nearby Biddy found the ship’s anchor, the spade section poking up through the sand.

The ship's anchor

The ship's anchor

These splendid finds were only visible because of the extra low tides and before too long the encroaching tide returned them to anonymity. It wasn’t only the incoming tide that one needed to be wary of. There were several areas where sand was bubbling up with fresh water. The long ‘shipwreck pole’ disappeared into these areas of quicksand. Ed reminded me that where we were standing was once the course of the River Ouse before it changed its course in the sixteenth century.

Seaford Bay was a useful overnight stop for ships sailing along the English Channel. The bay was relatively calm and although not as safe as nearby Newhaven Harbour it was cheaper to stay in the bay. Over the centuries however, hundreds of ships have been wrecked within the bay or under the soaring and dangerous cliffs of Seaford Head. Ed has managed to identify a lot of marine wreckage that to you or me would just be another piece of driftwood. But what wreck had we found? It needed a bit of maritime detective work.

On 29th October 1911, a barge called the Speranza was beached at Tide Mills during a storm and one member of the crew was drowned. Our wreck however had a mast so this was not likely to have been a barge. In December 1894 a Brighton fishing lugger, only identified as ‘Boat 169’ was completely wrecked in the area but luckily all crew were saved.

In 1860, a brig called the Woodside was wrecked at Tide Mills during a storm. The crew had climbed into the rigging of the ship to avoid the boiling seas but sadly the ships master Captain Dench was drowned. The 12-year-old cabin-boy fell into the sea but was rescued by Gunner Leece, who was stationed at the nearby Blatchington Battery, assisted by Richard Mallet the local coastguardsman. Mallet and other coastguards had rowed out to the stricken vessel and at one point he had jumped into the sea attached to a rope so his colleagues could haul him back onto the rescue boat. I have previously written about Richard Mallet who was certainly a brave man, he was awarded a gold-medal for lifesaving and Mallet Close, off The Causeway, was named after him.

As Mallet and his colleagues were trying to rescue the crew of the Woodside, another vessel was wrecked close by. A collier called the Annie was dashed ashore although all the crew including its master, Captain Merrix were rescued. The ship had probably been travelling from Newcastle full of coal but when it came ashore its hold was just full of ballast.

Many other vessels have ended their working lives dashed against the shores of our bay so it is virtually impossible today to ascertain which wreck we found.

We didn’t only discover a shipwreck, there was plenty more to see too including evidence of the two causeways used by the seaplanes of the First World War airport which was located at Tide Mills. The finds weren’t all historical; Biddy pointed out a large hairy stone on the beach. This was a sea-potato (Echinocardium cordatum) a type of sea-urchin, not really worth making into chips but a tasty snack for the seagulls.

Now the weather is getting better what better way to spend a sunny day than a walk along the beach. Who knows what you may find!