#1Jan 23rd, 2007
The scavengers of Branscombe beach
by PAUL HARRIS
23rd January 2007
They swarmed down the valleys and over the clifftops – an army of treasurehunters heading jauntily off to the beach.
Some came in pick-up trucks or on tractors with trailers. Others sported bags and rucksacks big enough to carry anything from a washed-up oil painting to a half hundred weight bag of dog food.
By the time they had finished, about £1million-worth of cars, motorbikes, spare parts, bric-a-brac and countless items of treasure trove must have been liberated, salvaged, scavenged or rescued – not to mention stolen – from a once peaceful little seaside idyll.
This was how the great Branscombe Beach booty bonanza unfolded as hundreds descended on a stretch of pebble shoreline that would normally be deserted at this time of year.
Finders keepers: These youths get a free £12,000 BMW motorcycle from the opened container in the background thanks to Britain's democratic laws about wrecks washed ashore in these islands. In this country it is likely that they will become the owners of the motorcycle
It had been turned overnight into a golden mile of treasure trove when a stricken cargo ship spilled 103 large containers into the waters close to shore.
The first tides plonked several of them and a bizarre array of goods ashore. And the scavengers were not far behind.
Word spread like wildfire after reports that some of the garagesized containers had BMW cars and motorbikes inside – ‘Beemers Galore’, as one local put it.
It sounded too good to be true. But shortly after dawn, small groups of wreckers, common in the 18th Century, were almost coming to blows as they argued over who laid the first claim to a brand new £12,000 motorcycle, unmarked and untouched by the salt water.
Behind them, opportunists were clambering over an inverted BMW car being gently lapped by the waves. Too late to save the car, but still time to liberate a few spares.
There were many more bargains to be had, and plenty of trinkets for those who just don’t like to see this sort of stuff go to waste.
Take Arnie Callaghan. He wasn’t hard to spot as he tramped back from the Devon beach with four giant packs of disposable nappies (diapers) in one hand and eight more swinging from a pole over his shoulder.
"Got a big family?" I asked as we passed. "Not really," he replied. "But I might have to start one now ..."
All over the beach, locals and visitors scavenged bits and pieces from the wrecked containers. Now here’s a challenge: How do you get a BMW gearbox off the beach when it’s almost too heavy to lift? "Any way you can," said the man in the camouflage jacket and jeans.
"They’re probably worth about two grand each. There’s 21 of them here and I ain’t leavin’ ’em – no way."
As he speaks, gearbox number one disappears slowly along the beach on a wooden pallet, dragged by some mates for more than a mile. If they ever get their £2,000, they probably deserve it just for that.
Elsewhere, scores are scooping up more portable items. One woman carries a single designer shoe, size five, as she scours the high tide line in search of its sibling.
Two young men roll a beautifully crafted oak wine barrel along the shore, destined, no doubt, to become a souvenir flower tub.
A silver-haired couple emerge with a large bag of dog food for their Jack Russell, Rosie. The bag is about three times the size of the dog and will probably keep her going for months.
These were not your stereotypical scavengers and tea-leaves, far from it. They had been delivering parish magazines for St Winifred’s church and couldn’t resist a peek at this once-in-a-lifetime spectacle.
The woman confides that she has also rescued a BMW car first aid kit, and asks me if I think anyone will mind. Bearing in mind that the £2,000 gearbox team is just about to start its second run, and that someone seems already to have liberated 50 brand new BMW motorbikes, I suspect not.
All over Branscombe police struggled to marshal who went on and what came off the beach. Everything washed up remains the property of the original owners, under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.
Because the beach is a public place, it is NOT a crime to move the goods – but it is illegal to ‘conceal them’ or refuse to return them when asked.
Strictly speaking, all those who ‘salvaged’ goods are obliged to report their finds to the maritime authorities (but the chances are that they will keep whatever they have picked up).
Uniformed police officers helpfully handed out forms for them to do so.
But when so many have taken the odd bottle of perfume, or three rear windscreens for a BMW X5, or a foreign language Bible, it seems unlikely they will be heard of again.
Perhaps the saddest loss was for the unlucky few whose personal possessions were being transported in one of those containers.
Now the contents of their home were being spread out over the Devon coast, or taken away by looters. A Persian-style carpet disappeared on one man’s shoulder, a family portrait on another.
A packet of photographic negatives pictured a youngish couple and some shots of a house. Whoever they were, they were a long way from home now.
By dusk, all but the most resolute had disappeared back home; not just to local villages – some had crossed two counties to get here.
In the fading light, you could see the ghostly outline of the stricken vessel MSC Napoli out at sea, its bow sticking awkwardly out of the waves. A few more wine barrels bobbed gently ashore. A few dozen packets of nappies were squirrelled away.
The only thing no one wants to find on the beach now is oil.
This is proper democracy. Best keep that constitutional monarchy.
Last edited by Blackleaf; Jan 23rd, 2007 at 04:12 PM..