KEVIN GORDON – Keeping a weather eye on Sussex coast

Roger Barnett and David Graham with Seaford Bay in the background.
Roger Barnett and David Graham with Seaford Bay in the background.

Seaford Bay must be a graveyard for ships, so many have floundered while they attempted to seek shelter from storms.

It is likely that local citizens have always taken turns to look out to sea, not only for ships in distress but also because of the constant threat of invasion.

In 1584 the parish records at Seaford show that “Robert Best will not watch the sea-side according to the laudable custom”. To me this indicates that local people had a duty to watch the coast for danger.

Coastguards have kept watch on the bay for centuries although during the 18th and 19th centuries their duties were as much to prevent smuggling than to help mariners in distress.

In the late 1700s Richard Stevens was employed as a ‘Tide Waiter’ and had to keep a look out for smugglers when the tides were right for illicit landings.

Ships have been wrecked in the Seaford Bay since man first took to the sea but details of early shipwrecks are sparse and it is only when parish records began in the 16th century that we get some clues.

In 1621 two German sailors, Hans Plagoe and Jacob Elberte of Hamborough (Hamburg), were buried at St Leonards, Seaford. Robert Barker was buried in the same church in 1651. He was described as a Newcastle mariner and was probably one one of the colliers bringing coal to the south coast.

In 1633 John Baker, a local shepherd, was tried for looting a shipwreck. He stole a cloak and a glove. The darkest day in the history of the bay was 7th December 1809 when no less than seven ships were wrecked in the bay within a few hours.

It was with this background of information in mind that I visited the National Coastwatch station perched on Castle Hill, Newhaven, a few days ago.

Roger Barnett and his colleague David Graham were on duty keeping an eye out for any trouble over the 400 square miles of English Channel visible from their lofty position, 175 feet above sea-level.

The National Coastwatch Institution (NCI) is a charity founded in 1994 after many coastguard stations were closed down (the nearest are now at Southampton and Dover). The building at Newhaven was built for coastguards about 65 years ago and is perfectly placed.

Vessels can be seen entering or leaving Newhaven Harbour and the shipping lanes are visible on the horizon about 17 miles away.

The volunteers listen to a number of radio channels and have sophisticated radar equipment to assist them. However, no amount of technology will see a flare from a stricken vessel, an upturned dingy or a walker in distress.

The NCI report any problems to the coastguard and emergency services and monitor and assist throughout the incident.

Ironically however, the last incident they dealt with was land-based; a few days earlier a walker had got into difficulties on the nearby cliffs.

Volunteer Watchkeepers come from all walks of life and are of all ages. They receive training and it is a worthwhile and rewarding occupation. If you are interested in helping, call the station on 01273 516464. No previous maritime knowledge is required.

But what about smugglers and illegal immigrants?

Roger told me that, as all shipping movements were logged they would notice if a dingy left with two occupants and returned with ten!

There are 40 NCI stations around the coast and Newhaven, the nearest are Shoreham to the west and Folkestone to the east.

We may not have as many shipwrecks than in the past but the men and women of the Newhaven National Coastwatch still provide a valuable service.