I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s been fascinated by the discovery of the Mortar Wreck in Studland Bay. It’s been dated to the 13th century, which makes it the oldest remaining shipwreck, in English waters, with part of the hull surviving.
The story of the wreck is gradually unfolding, thanks to work being carried out by a team from Bournemouth University. It earned its name from its cargo of Purbeck stone ‘mortar’ bowls, used for grinding material such as corn. Recent investigations carried out by the Bournemouth archaeologists have also revealed a number of carved Purbeck marble gravestones. The ship was dated using a technique called dendrochronology – looking at the pattern of the tree rings – and is believed to be constructed from Irish oak, cut down in about 1250AD. Whether the vessel was Irish is uncertain as Irish oak was exported for shipbuilding all over Europe at the time.
Local dive skipper Trevor Small discovered the vessel, when he was out on his boat Rocket. Trevor works closely with Bournemouth University and Rocket is often logged by our watchkeepers at Peveril Point as he takes divers out to the wrecks on the Purbeck coast. The discovery of the Mortar Wreck is of immense historical importance and because of this the site has been designated as a protected wreck under The Protection of Wrecks Act 1973.
By its very nature, a shipwreck is a unique time capsule, and the protected sites hold fascinating and valuable information about ships, mercantile trade, the lives of sailors and passengers, and society as a whole. The 1973 Act was designed to give protection to these sites by creating a restricted area around a wreck to prevent uncontrolled interference and damage from activities such as unauthorised salvage, fishing and dredging. With the designation of the Mortar Wreck and two others close to the Isle of Wight there are now 57 protected wrecks around the English coast.
Our location, midway along the south coast, means the area is rich in maritime history and in addition to the Mortar Wreck there are four other protected wrecks near to our lookouts at Peveril Point and St Alban’s Head. They are the A3 submarine (1912); HMT Arfon (1917), the Swash channel wreck (mid-17th century); and the Studland Bay wreck (c1520). We also have a collection of sunken Second World War tanks in Poole Bay. As these are technically not wrecks, they fell outside the Protection of Wrecks Act but have been designated as Scheduled Ancient Monuments and have the same protection as sites such as Stonehenge and Corfe Castle.
Contrary to common belief, it is not illegal to dive a protected wreck, but access is controlled by having designated licensees who control the access. To dive a wreck, you have to be a licensee in your own right or be under the direct supervision of a licensee.
In our role as ‘eyes along the coast’ and with our brief to ‘spot, plot, record and respond’, our NCI lookouts play an important part in helping monitor activities on protected wrecks. We are familiar with all the local dive vessels, and indeed two of our watchkeepers are licensees in their own right, and if we see an unusual vessel over a site we can pass on the information to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency or Historic England. Our station at St Alban’s Head directly overlooks the HMT Arfon and A3 sites and has an information board about the sinking of the Arfon. It was also a fitting site for the commemoration event, held on the 100th anniversary of the sinking – have a look at the NCI article for November last year for the full story! During the first lockdowns of the pandemic, watchkeepers at the Peveril Point Lookout were able to raise concerns about the proximity of the moored cruise ships to the sunken Valentine tanks.
As a diver I have been privileged to dive on a number of the protected wrecks around our coast and they are fascinating. Swimming around the sites you get a real sense of being immersed in part of our maritime history. Seeing the wrecks laid out on the seabed you can often visualise what was going on onboard the ship while she was sailing and just before the ship sank. Sadly, not everyone can dive and, to broaden access to the sites, Historic England has created a number of virtual dive trails where you can explore the wrecks, without even getting wet! They can be found on Historic England’s website https://historicengland.org.uk/get-involved/visit/protected-wrecks/virtual-dive-trails/. Currently the only one of the local wrecks which has a trail is the HMT Arfon. However, Poole Museum has some fascinating displays about the Swash Channel and Studland Bay wrecks, and will have information about the Mortar Wreck when the new Maritime Gallery opens in 2024.
This is NCI St Alban’s and NCI Swanage helping protect our maritime heritage and listening on Channel 65, NCI out.NICK REED