Experts probe the secrets of old wreck on Bamburgh beach

Detective work is uncovering secrets of the wreck of a wooden ship off a Northumberland beach

Archaeologists work on the Bamburgh beach wreck
Archaeologists work on the Bamburgh beach wreck

Surveys of the partially exposed wreck on Bamburgh beach has proved the vessel to be older than originally thought.

Tests have showed that the vessel is probably 18th Century, with the timber used in its construction being felled in or after 1768.

The survey also established that the timber originates from the East of England, making the vessel British.

The work was undertaken by the Maritime Archaeology Sea Trust (MAST) with local archaeologists and volunteers.

It was backed by a grant from the Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Partnership’s Sustainable Development Fund.

The site lies in the intertidal zone to the south of Bamburgh Castle and is only exposed for roughly one hour either side of low-water slack.

The site itself sits within its own scour which, along with the tidal conditions, means that it may never completely dry out.

The wreck appears to contain the exposed remains of the port side of a wooden sailing vessel lying on its starboard side with its stern inshore.

The date of 1768 means the ship potentially sailed along the east coast while Dr John Sharp, one of the trustees of the Lord Crewe Trust, was in residence at the castle.

Dr Sharp was so concerned for sailors in the treacherous waters around Bamburgh that in 1781 he set up what is recognised as the first coastguard system in the world.

He hired men to ride along the coast at night during storms, to assist anyone coming on shore from shipwrecks, and to provide food and shelter in the castle for seven days, at the expense of the trustees.

Chains to drag ships on to the beach where they could be repaired, and pumps to get the water out of them, were provided.

Dr Sharp paid for a signal gun to be fired regularly during every fog, with the trustees providing the gunpowder.

Samples taken from the wreck by MAST, shows that the ship’s construction is characterised by the use of fast grown, low quality ,often knotty oak trees suggesting the timber used was not traded from abroad. The use of different species for specific functions is indicated through the use of larch for the mast and elm for the pump structure.

The survival and position of some of the features within the wreck indicates that the buried part of the structure could be mostly intact. Should the starboard side survive under the sand it would potentially offer an unparalleled opportunity to study a wreck with this level of survival within the intertidal zone, there being very few comparable examples currently discovered above the low water line in the UK.

The exposed deck beams suggest the possible survival of decks below the sand - possibly the entire starboard side- which would also be extremely rare in the UK.

No small finds could be seen exposed on the site. However, there is a chance that some may survive within the buried structure.

Due to its position within the intertidal zone it is also likely that the ship underwent some level of salvage after being wrecked as was the norm in coastal communities of the UK.

Measuring the remains suggests a beam of approximately 9m.

A beam of this size would suggest that there could be substantial burial of material under the current sand level, up to 5m depending on survival of the starboard side structure.


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