Shortlisted for the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award and the subject of a 2008 BBC Timewatch documentary presented by the author.
A fine shipwreck has always represented sport, pleasure, and in many cases the difference between living well and just getting by. From all around Britain has uncovered the secret history of wrecking, from beach orgies so wild that few participants survived until morning to remote crofts fitted with silver candelabra via cows hung with lanterns to lure unwary ships to ruin and the Cornish reputation for drowning survivors.
‘The beauty of this finely judged book book is that, for all her detailed research and assiduous journalism, Bathurst never forgets that the whole attraction of wrecking is its mystery. Rich in the lore of the sea, but steeped in the everyday experience of the people she meets.’ Observer
‘Bathurst is a brave and talented writer. She is wry, perceptive, laconic, occasionally downright funny and uncannily skilled at recreating atmosphere … Some of her most intense passages about the movement of water are breathtakingly novelistic and poetically precise.’ Daily Telegraph
‘An enchanting study … seductive … This book offers a deep vision of humanity that is the more uplifting for its lack of sentimentality. I cannot recommend it too highly.’ Spectator
A compelling history of a forgotten aspect of our maritime history; it is also a superb piece of writing … Bella Bathurst lights up everything she touches … She conveys her delight in the world in a clear, yet strangely intimate prose that is a pleasure – no: a joy – to read.’ Times Literary Supplement
Bob Peacock is the skipper of the only local boat with an official licence to dive on the Goodwins, and in summer he makes the trip as often as he can. So far, he and his shifting group of accomplices have found 1,800 wrecks on the Sands. The finds range from small pieces of flotsam to complete and untouched hulls. It is not merely that there are the remains of so many ships here, or that those ships are of such archaeological value, but that the Goodwins protect what they also destroy. Far below here, the sea-bed is chalk. Most vessels will vanish through the sand and then settle, embalmed until the seas change shape again.
Pete, his diving companion, has been working the Goodwins for the past twenty years. ‘It’s horrible when it’s misty. Before I seen the sense of my ways, I used to do quite a bit of fishing over here. We was always out fishing for bass and all sorts. Few times, the same place I’ve gone along, I’ve actually hit the bottom of the boat and then carried on, turned round and come back out. The day before, you’d come through clear. You know it’s low because it goes on the sounder. You think, well, there’s only two, three hours after so we should have a clear run. But it moves all the time. If you put your hand down sometimes, it’s like something’s grabbed your hand – it sucks your arm down. Probably pull it off, if it could. It’s like it’s alive, like little marbles.’
While the other two dive, Pete remains on board, half-man, half-rubber. The computerised chart shows us twisting ourselves into an electronic scribble. Inside the wheelhouse the depth-finder pans round the ocean floor, reducing water and sand to a tiger-striped carpet of colour. Stones and hummocks of sand appear as black, but every so often the screen scans past a spike of red metal – a cannon, a binnacle, possibly a submarine conning-tower. The graph gives all of this information quite calmly. It does not include reality’s grainy visibility, its shifting temperatures or its difficulties with subaqueous breathing. According to the computer, everything from top to bottom exists in air-bright water, but in reality the first ten metres of sea filter out 90% of all light. People describe diving in poor visibility in the same way they describe glaucoma; the descent into dusk, the blurriness, the confusion, the gun-barrel vision, the objects looming huge out of the grey. Partly because of that darkness, diving is only possible in relatively shallow water, though the whole kit – rubber, masks and silly feet – only serve to emphasise how alien all divers are to this element. As they slide slowly through the metres, do they become curiosities themselves? What do the fish make of these subterranean fetishists, miming and poking through the blizzards of sand?
After 40 minutes, Peacock and Dave heave themselves out of the water, strip off their gimp-kit and adjust the boat’s position by a few feet. Pete splashes himself with talcum powder and falls backwards into the sea. The sun burns, and around us the sea behaves as it does when there’s 400 fathoms below the keel instead of a mere few metres. Bob sits in the wheelhouse, unravelling a warm cheese-and-ham pasty and dabbing at the electronics. He looks at his watch. We’ll be back in Ramsgate by noon, he says. A few moments later, Pete surfaces. Crap vis, he grumbles as he removes his mask and stands dripping on the deck, couldn’t see more than a foot in front of me. Bob waits resignedly until Pete has removed his tanks and then turns the boat back towards England. It’s hot and getting hotter; the water flings little glimmers of light onto the walls of the wheelhouse. Around us, there is just the same scene as there was two hours ago; the sea, the sky, the little white strip of England. The water hasn’t changed, the weather hasn’t changed and England hasn’t moved. Perhaps the Goodwins won’t appear, I think; perhaps this has been a wasted trip. I put my notebook away and lean back against the gunwhales. The boat motors northwards.
Five minutes away from the wreck site, Bob shouts something over the sound of the motor. ‘There you go!’, he yells, ‘There’s the Goodwins for you!.’ I look up. To begin with, I can’t see anything more than a slight tremor in the water on the port side. The sea is still the same colour, the water still stretches as far as I can see. But as I watch, the ripples become smaller and more agitated, as if the sea is encountering some form of subterranean resistance which had not been there five minutes before. Over to the west, it is just about possible to make out what looks like a faint rime of white surf. A little further on, the slight whiteness becomes more distinct. The computerised chart shows us moving slowly over a curve of pale blue (depth -4 to +1), with the Kellet Gut just to starboard.
And then, suddenly, there are islands rising up from the sea. In place of unimpeded water, there is a huge golden dune stretching out to the west. Round its edges, the water whitens and surges, reshaping itself around the sand’s resistance. Already its seaward sides has been colonised by a group of holiday-making seagulls and a few grey seals, lying heavy as wrecks on the edge of their new shore. Over on the other side of the boat, there is surf and tropical orange as far as the eye can see. I almost expect to see someone trundle past with a hot-dog stall and a sunlounger, looking for the optimum sunbathing spot. And these beaches aren’t small things, they are great big swathes stretching towards Kent. The speed with which they have been appropriated by the birds and seals only emphasise the sense that these beaches have always been here, that it could only have been absent-mindedness or myopia that stopped me seeing them before.
There is nothing which prepares one for the strangeness of this elemental conjuring trick. If you potter around on a beach for long enough, you get used to the landscape’s twice-daily exits and arrivals. Literature is littered with legends of lost and found lands; Atlantis was supposed to have been located somewhere in southern Cyprus, and Robert Louis Stevenson invented a Treasure Island which later turned out to be a perfect (and perfectly unconscious), copy of an island where his Uncle David once built a lighthouse. Even Britain itself rises and falls with the millennia. But to watch a fully-populated nine-mile island surface from a clear blue sea is different. ‘I’ve had picnics on the Goodwins,’ says Bob, following my thoughts, ‘and there have been people who have gone bowling on the sands. You can do that. You can get a boat to take you out here, mess around for a couple of hours and go back to Ramsgate when the tide turns. They used to land a hovercraft on them – it just depended where the wind was.’
He revs the engine and we motor off again. I turn to say something to Pete. By the time I turn back, the sands have slid away. Not just receded behind us, but gone, completely vanished. There was land, and now there is no land, no birds, no seals, no unarguable expanse of sand and surf. Nothing. Just the sea again, and the approaching cliffs of Ramsgate. It is that disappearance – the reverse of their earlier metamorphosis – which makes the Goodwins so eerie. One minute, they are there, as sure as land can ever be. The next, there is nothing. Just the bright deceiving waters of the English Channel.