Hunting for treasure

IT'S not every day BMW motorbikes, casks of wine, and packets of nappies wash up on shore - as they did when a stricken container ship shed its load off the coast of Devon.

By Richard Cornwell

IT'S not every day BMW motorbikes, casks of wine, and packets of nappies wash up on shore - as they did when a stricken container ship shed its load off the coast of Devon. Beachcombers are usually likely to find far less glamorous items, though there can be treats in store. We challenged Felixstowe editor RICHARD CORNWELL to scour the resort's beach.

BEING buffeted by an icy north easterly, which is whipping a stinging rain into your face as you stumble along a shingle shore is not much fun.

As waves crash on to the beach just yards away, it's at this moment an image of sitting at home next to a warm fire clutching a mug of tea, with biscuits to dunk, swims into my mind.

Beachcombing is not for the fainthearted. In fact, this is the best time for it - these winter months of heavy seas which can throw up all kinds of interesting bits and pieces. I have to admit to being a fair-weather beach person, which is probably why I and my family find very little of note.

With Felixstowe's five miles of coast being predominantly pebbles of various shades of brown, nuggets of treasure are not easy to see.

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The high tide line is strewn as usual with tangled black seaweed, washed in and out by the waves, and among this unsavoury mess - it doesn't look as good to eat as some might have you believe - are some larger scraps of debris.

Plastic bottles, fizzy drink cans with their logos lost through scouring by the waves, bits of rope, numerous sharp fragments of plastic cups and occasional bits of glass, coloured twine, what looks like part of an old radio speaker with some wire sticking out, and some soggy cardboard packaging - all between two crumbling concrete groynes. It's all rubbish.

It's much the same between the next two breakwaters - where the highlight is a stump of broken wood, worn smooth by the sea. It's impossible to tell if it was once part of a warship wrecked in some fierce long-forgotten battle, or the remnant of a kitchen table.

This is not one of my better beachcombing days. There are no Roman coins in sight, no nice-looking coloured stones, not even any current currency - certainly no BMW motorbikes or casks of wine.

And there's no sign of my two favourite items to be found on Suffolk's shores - fossilised sharks teeth, and amber - a fossilised pine sap capturing the prehistoric past. The highly-polished sharks' teeth, in perfect condition, perhaps 30 or 40 million years' old, are a greatly prized find on the beach.

One Felixstowe man is said to have hundreds in his collection - putting my solitary tooth find from the past, slightly in the shade. Others have had them made into necklaces or put in fancy display cases.

Amber, too, is quite common. Fossil resin from trees which once grew on the land when Britain was joined to Europe before the North Sea broke through now washes up as little orange and gold jewels.

Both Felixstowe and Aldeburgh have amber shops, such is the popularity of jewellery and figures made from the material.

Another frequent find along the east coast, or dredged up in fishermen's nets, are fossilised bones - some quite large - of animals which used to live on the landmass.

I am not alone in my treasure hunting. Further up the beach are a group of youngsters from the Level Two youth centre, taking part in beachcombing as part of an event called Wild at Art, part of the half-term week activities. The enthusiastic group collected a wide range of items during a 45-minute sweep of the beach - their haul includes coat hangers, plastic bottles, wood, cardboard, a comb and a hair band, pieces of plastic, and some discarded Scrabble letters.

After a well-earned lunch of hot vegetable soup, the group used the items to create some imaginative sculptures to be displayed at the centre in Cobbold Road.

Have you found anything interesting on Felixstowe beach? Write to Your Letters, Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN, or e-mail EveningStarLetters@eveningstar.co.uk

MOST of the flotsam and jetsam on Suffolk's beaches is generated by humans - and much of it is dangerous to wildlife.

The Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB unit, which runs an Adopt-a-beach scheme where groups look after a stretch of shore and organises the county's part in the annual nationwide Beachwatch event, says without doubt most of the material found on the shore is from visitors enjoying a day on the beach, and anglers.

Of the top ten items found, they are almost all plastic - including crisp and sweet wrappers, cups and bottle tops, drink bottles, pieces of cups, polystyrene, and plastic rope.

Evidence of anglers - both those fishing from the shore and in boats - includes small fragments of nets and rope.

“The worst mess though is from visitors to the beaches leaving fast food wrappers, cans and bottles,” said Lynn Allen, of the unit. “Some of this could be coming from shipping, and where we have foreign wrappers or bottles that would seem so.

“Our big concern though is the birds and wildlife which live on our coasts because this litter can have serious dangers for them - birds and mammals can die from getting caught in plastic litter or swallowing it.”

One of the latest concerns is the release of balloons on the coast. Often these fundraising ventures where the senders hope their balloons will go hundreds of miles can end in disaster closer to home as a bird or mammal eats a bit of burst balloon.

Last year Beachwatch volunteers found 1,684 balloon pieces around the country's coast. Four surveys on a 200m stretch of shore at Bawdsey found 85 pieces.

Beachwatch provides an annual snapshot of coastal litter problems and enables the Marine Conservation Society to tackle the government on sources of pollution and to persuade them to change legislation.

Kate Humble, BBC Seawatch TV wildlife presenter, said: “Each year over 100,000 of marine mammals, turtles and other animals are killed from entanglement by swallowing marine litter. To a turtle, a plastic bag or deflated balloon can look like a jellyfish and once swallowed, can block the animal's digestive system, which can ultimately lead to death.”

WEBLINKS: www.mcsuk.org

www.suffolkcoastandheaths.org

Those treasure hunters finding casks of wine, motorbikes, face cream, nappies, car parts, and even people's household possessions and personal items on Branscombe beach after the MSC Napoli was stranded, thought they could tuck the goodies under their arm and walk away. But:

People can take items from the beach or the sea - such as divers looking for treasure in shipwrecks - in order to protect them.

However, if they try to hide or keep the booty they are breaking the law - and could face a fine of up to £2,500.

The wreck goods still belong to their owners - and should be returned to them.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency's Receiver of Wrecks says the principles governing ownership and recovery go back at least to the 1300s.

Finders must fill in a “report of wreck and salvage” form, with their contact details, what they found, where and when - including for portholes, bells, plates, compasses, fixtures and fittings, bundles of wood, hatch covers, historical and archaeological material such as medieval pots, gold coins, and cannon.

The Receiver of Wrecks has the job of reuniting owner and property. A reward to the finder could be offered, depending on the value of the goods, the condition they are in after rescue, and the effort involved in recovering them from the beach.

Source: Maritime and Coastguard Agency

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