At low tide this week a ship wrecked more than 200 years ago is expected to reappear, the stumps of its decaying timbers poking through the sand of a north Devon beach – most likely the remains of the Sally, which left a Bristol wine merchant devastated when it ran aground with its cargo of port in September 1769.
The ship has been given official protection by the government on the advice of maritime archaeology experts at Historic England, along with two other historic wrecks, one nearby and, on the south coast, the remains of a much older boat near the mouth of the river Axe.
The Sally was wrecked on Northam Burrows, long before the stretch of beach was renamed Westward Ho! by a Victorian developer, a promotional stunt to attract tourists after the bestselling novel by Charles Kingsley.
The crew was rescued as the ship became stranded in shallow water. Most of the cargo, barrels of wine being shipped from Portugal, is believed to have been salvaged, becoming the property of the local landowner – though Mark Dunkley, a maritime archaeologist with Historic England, believes some of it may still lie in the lowest part of the wreck.
The timbers have fascinated walkers and beach combers as they reappeared on the lowest tides of the year, and in the 1940s it was romantically suggested that the wreck was “a Viking galleon”. However, Dunkley is confident that the Sally is the most likely candidate.
“The timbers are exceptionally well preserved, giving the whole outline of the ship, and they match the unusual circumstances of the loss of the Sally, which was driven stern first on to the beach. The sailors would have done everything possible to lighten the ship and sail her off, but clearly couldn’t act fast enough.”
Although the north Devon coast was infamous for wreckers, who set out lights to fool pilots into thinking they were approaching a safe harbour, Dunkley believes the Sally was just caught by a strong wind from an unusual direction, possibly on a very high tide which meant that the next tide was too low to float her off again. “We think bad luck rather than any villainy was involved,” he said.
The other wreck nearby was a later, much more modest boat, a small 18th-century merchant ship known as a Severn trow.
“This was the workhorse of the local region, carrying everything from building materials to provisions. There are other examples, but they tend to have been laid up deliberately because they were already in very poor condition, sometimes literally used to shore up river banks: these timbers are in very good condition, making this an important find,” said Dunkley.
The Axe boat, exposed by shifting tidal patterns after a new bridge was built, dates from the late 15th or early 16th century, with timbers well enough preserved to reveal details of the medieval shipwright’s techniques. Some of its contents, including a wooden bowl, survived inside the wreck.
The biggest threat to the ships comes from the climate, as the timbers are increasingly exposed and the sodden timber dries out and begins to decay. More work is planned at all the sites, which have been listed as part of a survey of thousands of wrecks around the British coast.