Beachcombing was Rare Fun

by Leo Walmsley

When I was a boy, the most exciting thing I could think of was to be "first on" along the shore of our Bay after high tide when the sea was
Leo Walmsley
Leo Walmsley
rough. For this honour one had to compete with several regular and expert beachcombers, with the fishermen, the coastguards, and, for the more distant sections of shore, with the farmers whose land ran close to the cliff edge. If there was a wreck, or quantities of deck cargo washing ashore, a boy hadn't much chance of being "first on", for there would be men along the shore or cliffs at all states of the tide, ready to pounce on anything that was stranded. Besides, there was school, and parental restrictions. The most likely times were days in winter when there was no definite wreckage coming in, and the tide began ebbing just about dinner- or tea-time, when most of the grown-up watchers would be in their homes. Then one could get down on to the shore by a boggy, treacherous cliff path, and the first section of sand innocent of feet-marks would give an exciting assurance that one had not been forestalled.

There were two types of treasure to be looked for. At actual high-water mark, at the cliff foot, would be a line of weed or other debris, and among this you'd find treasures that floated – driftwood, barrels, fishermen's buoys, lost lines and nets, bottles (that might contain messages), rare fish. Tide out in the bay Among the sand and gravel, particularly on the strip of shore nearest the village, under the tumbling clay cliff, were non-buoyant treasures – coins, lost jewellery, knives, scissors, copper nails and bolts, bits of brass, and all sorts of queer objects of metal whose purpose you could only guess. Unfortunately it was not possible to do justice to both types of hunting on the same occasion.

The flotsam could be easily seen, and if you confined your attention to this you might make a quick "first-on" survey of perhaps a couple of miles of shore. The weighty treasures had to be searched for more thoroughly. Things might be showing, particularly if the sea had been very rough, but the best method of hunting was to "scrat" among the gravel and sand with a piece of bent hoop-iron or an old saucepan handle; and again the more thoroughly you searched the longer it took, and the greater the chances of someone coming to spoil your claim.

It would be hard to say which of the two types was the more exciting. My choice usually was a matter of instinct. Sometimes I would try and combine the two by running along a fair distance of the shore, and then coming back to "scrat". It was a gamble anyway. In "scratting" you always looked for patches of sand or gravel where there were bits of old iron showing. These formed a sort of cement made of rust and sand, which, when broken up, frequently revealed coins. It might be just the edge of a piece of rounded metal you'd see in the cement first. It might be brass or bronze or silver, but you might have to go chipping at the cement for a long time before you could tell whether it was a coin or not; for in those days flat metal buttons were in common use, and a button might not be recognisable as such until its eye was visible. How many times have I nearly wept with vexation to find an expected coin turn to a valueless button!

Yet on one memorable day I found a real gold watch-chain, a five-shilling piece, a Queen Anne florin and three silver groats, all within a few yards of the slipway of Robin Hood's Bay town. Another time I found a George II sovereign (bright as though newly minted), and, if I remember rightly, my mother got nineteen and sixpence for it at the bank. What would it be worth now? George III guineas Bronze coins, mostly Georgian, were common. So were foreign coins, French, Norwegian, Spanish, South American, even Chinese. I used to imagine that these coins were washed up from foreign ships which had been wrecked on the coast, but a more likely theory is that they were brought to the Bay by local sailors, and found their way accidentally to the shore in the same way that such domestic valuables as scissors and knives and forks and spoons reached it, by way of the dustbin.

A piece of real mail from a suit of armour, a gold wedding-ring, a Crimean War medal, a silver brooch, the head of a whaler's harpoon, the lock of an ancient pistol, a real cannon-ball, were a few of the many treasures I found, "scratting", on the shore near to the town.

Floating treasure lacked the historical fascination of those things you found "scratting": yet even a piece of driftwood had its glamour, particularly if there were marks or metal fastenings on it to show that it had come from a ship. Once I found part of a cabin door, with a brass lock on it, and I spent hours at home, getting it off, and taking it to pieces, and getting it to work with one of the numerous keys I had found on the shore near the town.

A fisherman's buoy would very likely have the initials of a local fisherman marked on it, and you were in honour bound to take it to its owner. But there was nothing to identify the lines and other gear which frequently washed up, and it was great fun unravelling these from the weed, and coiling them up clean, to be used for one's own fishing.

There were coves along the shore of the Bay where, provided the wind had been blowing from the sea, there was always bound to be something left
Modern-day beachcombers
Modern-day beachcombing in
Robin Hood's Bay
after high tide. You would hurry round a little nab or bluff into one of these coves, and you might see a barrel, or a ship's spar, or some brand-new planks. You might find a Dutch sabot, or a queer-shaped, foreign-looking jar, among the weed at high-water mark. Once I found a bundle of ship's papers, and among them part of a lading list with a item referring to some cases of rifles and ammunition, which (with my mind full of buccaneers and pirates) was as exciting almost as if I had found a Spanish doubloon.

I always looked at bottles to see if they contained secret messages: and once, to my intense excitement, I found a wine bottle, carefully sealed, and containing a spill of writing-paper. I took it out with trembling fingers and was disappointed to find that it was only a message from a local sailor, whose ship, homeward bound from abroad, had passed the Bay during the night. The message was to his mother, to say that he was quite well, and that she might expect him home in a day or two; and my disappointment was slightly allayed when I took it to her, and received a jam-tart as salvage pay!

Half of the joy of being "first-on" was in the uncertainty of what you were going to find. A Madeira basket-chair, a Japanese national flag, a bundle of letters written in a foreign language (which I never succeeded in identifying), a lifebelt, a baby seal (unfortunately dead), a wonderful model of a full-rigged ship, were among the "floating" treasures I found on the shores of our Bay at various times. Officially, all wreckage is claimed by the coastguards on behalf of the Receiver of Wrecks: and there was always a certain amount of anxiety, in getting back to the town with some treasure, that you would be stopped and made to hand it over. Luckily the local Chief Officer was a friend of mine, and had a convenient "Nelson" eye. Never was this eye used so often as during the days that followed the breaking-up of a steamer which went aground on the scaur at the south of the Bay. She was laden with fruit, and all this washed ashore. The beach was strewn with baskets of apples, pears, plums, cherries, black currants, strawberries, mostly in perfect condition. The problem then was not getting past the coastguards, but resisting the temptation to eat beyond the physical Plimsoll mark, particularly with a seven-pound basket of ripe strawberries.

The fascination of being "first-on" is not what it used to be. Modern navigation is safer. Wrecks are rare. Less is washed ashore. One cannot regret this. Yet there is something grimly ironic in the fact that one of the scientific discoveries that has made the sea easier for humanity should be responsible for the wholesale and diabolically cruel slaughter of sea-bird life. You needn't be "first-on" to find evidences of this slaughter; for on any shore of the Yorkshire coast you will see, during certain states of wind and tide, hundreds of gulls, gannets, guillemots, puffins, divers, terns, with their bodies thickly caked with oil, cast up at high-water mark; most of them happily dead, but some of them still alive, dying of slow starvation. This oil comes from the tanks of oil-burning steamers, and in spite of all efforts to make it an offence against international law to pollute the surface of the sea in this way, the practice still goes on.

Yorkshire Monthly, December 1934

Leo contributed several articles, on widely differing subjects, to this short-lived journal published in the 1930s.

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