Once upon a time, when the world was young, o best-beloved, it held winter Saturday mornings, bright, breezy, clear, crisp and — best of all — out of school.
Adrian, Evan and Malcolm (aggregated age of barely three decades) would bicycle down the Beach Road to Wells beach, then along the hard sand towards Holkham Bay.
The high-tide mark was rich in possibilities. Cans from far-away places in alien tongues and alphabets. Buoys from fishing nets. Broken fish boxes with traders’ names from the whole length of the East Coast. Exotic possibilities for furlong after furlong. Out of that active learning came added dimensions of enjoyment of Robinson Crusoe and Whisky Galore.
[Malcolm delights that his grandsons have already taken to Robin Hood and King Arthur. In short order they are progressing to Treasure Island. Whisky Galore, in dead-tree form, should not be far behind. These are joys that all should relish, especially for the first time.]
Inevitably, a souvenir of useless nature was wrestled home on the crossbar.
Curiously, even at that age, some concept of legality entered the Young Idea. Beachcombing was an open-entry sport. In general (and despite what appears later in this post), finders keepers. Unless, of course, it was the rotting whale carcass which, mysteriously and noxiously flitted overnight between the jurisdiction of the three local councils.
As Malcolm understands it:
- Flotsam is stuff swept off the deck of ships. That is (or was) free-for-all.
- Jetsam is material deliberately thrown overboard. That, largely, remains the property of the original owner.
Determining which is which hardly crosses the true beachcombers’s conscience.
PC Plod is PC
Last Monday, the Russian cargo-ship Sinegorsk unloaded 1,500 “tonnes” of timber into the English Channel, somewhere off Newhaven. All accounts suggest that it went overboard when the vessel listed in bad weather: by Malcolm’s reckoning that makes it flotsam. It is now washing up between Pegwell Bay and Margate.
After 72 hours in the sea, impregnated with salt water, the timber is — by general agreement — useless for commercial constructional purposes. It has no realisable monetary value. It would, however, mend holes in garden fences; and build sheds on allotments. Thus it would provide useful leisure activity for many. In any sane society, the authorities would be closing eyes to any technical legal infractions: what was that Malcolm read in his Latin texts about “the law is not concerned with straws”?
So, in this later, degenerated age, we have this:
Kent Police have warned people not to remove any timber from the shoreline but coastguards said there had been reports of people trying to collect the wood.
Alison Kentuck, Receiver of Wreck, said: “The timber is not suitable for building material, it is saturated with salt water.
“The simple message is, it is not a case of finders keepers. The timber does have an owner and that is not likely to be the person picking it up off the beach.
“They must by law report all of their recoveries to the receiver and it is a criminal offence if they fail to do so.”
Ch Supt John Molloy said: “We are working with the coastguard and our partner agencies to make the beaches safe.
“I would like to remind people that the shoreline can be a dangerous place, particularly with the current poor weather and people could be putting themselves at unnecessary risk by venturing into the sea to salvage the timber.
“This cargo remains the property of the original owner and to steal it is not only foolhardy, but also a criminal offence.”
Malcolm finds a couple of difficulties relating to that:
- Alison Kentuck would be better occupied receiving wrecks than pontificating on legal ownerships. She could, for example, be having a quiet word with Blasted Boris over his mad notion of building an airport on top of the odd megaton or two of high explosive.
- In any case, scavenging is not illegal:
Salvaging from the beach is perfectly legal as long as people inform the “Receiver of Wreck,” [according to] a government official.
- Chief Superintendent Molloy is nannyishly over-anxious to warn us that the English Channel in late January is a cold and windy place. He is also cavalier in his use of the word “steal”.
Malcolm assures all-and-sundry that timber recovered from the sea, the more broken and decayed the better, burns with a variety of coloured flames, full of eerie blues and greens. It is enough to inspire a young creative mind, and to linger over five decades later in an older, wiser and less adventurous one.