The Goodwin Sands hold a fascinating appeal for many, but David Chamberlain advises caution if you are considering a walk on them...
The Romans called them Lomea and Infera Insula (Low Island), and legend has it that the Earl of Godwin inherited land there until the great sea floods of 1014 or 1099 swept everything away.
Of this legend, only the floods can be verified. They were possibly caused by a tsunami after an earthquake or a strong tidal surge after a storm in the North Sea. Either way, the Goodwin Sands have not only been a magnet to ships as a ‘shippe swallower’, but also to people who have a strange desire to visit.
The sands are located off the coast of Ramsgate, Deal and St Margaret’s Bay. The shallowest part of the 10-mile sandbank has its northernmost point five nautical miles out from Ramsgate, ending a mere three miles from shore off St Margaret’s Bay. Over the realm of time, it has probably accounted for at least 2,000 shipwrecks and countless loss of lives.
Ghost stories surround the sands, with tales of sightings of spectral vessels being seen crashing into the surf and mysteriously disappearing when their rescuers arrive.
In the past, men have tried to make use of the treacherous sandbank as a haven for shipwrecked mariners and also as a warning to vessels that stray too close.
In 1840 Admiral Bullock put a safety beacon upon them, in the form of a 40ft mast with a platform or gallery construction that would hold 30 to 40 mariners. This ‘refuge beacon’ lasted for four years until a Dutch vessel ran it down. Eventually, the lightships that surrounded the Goodwins marked the dangers, and their crews kept an eye out for impending mishaps.
On the northern area, the sand lies exposed at low water. All around the sandbank are ‘swillies’ or deep holes that remain filled with seawater. Elsewhere, gullies and mini sand dunes are formed which will start to crumble beneath your feet – when you try to paddle in the ‘fox-holes’ or deep puddles, you feel the suction of quicksand.
The sands cause little fear to the colony of 350 seals, but in the past it has given cause for much concern and grievance to humans. Even the famed Deal boatmen or ‘hovelers’ have been known to misjudge the conditions on the Goodwins.
The large galley-punt, Wanderer, with its two-man crew, visited the wreck of the sailing ship, Frederick Carl, which had run aground on the sandbank on the last day of October, 1885, with the intention of salvaging some of the cargo. With an increasing northeast wind, the Sands started to cover as the ‘young flood tide’ swept over the banks. As the sand shivered beneath their feet, the two boatmen tried in vain to make it back to their own craft. When the sea encroached up to their waists, they realised that luck was against them – and waded back to the abandoned Frederick Carl.
When the lifeboat, Mary Somerville, arrived, the crew managed to save only one of the Deal men. The other was found dead the next day, tangled in the wreck’s rigging.
Despite all the disasters, incredulously, a report was commissioned in 2003 on the possibilities of turning the sands into a 24-hour passenger and freight airport, with two runways.
A plan in the summer of 2016 by Dover Harbour Board to dredge sand and gravel from the Goodwins for the Dover Western Docks regeneration project has brought protests from conservationists. A decision is expected by early October.
The desire to do the unusual has always held a fascination for some, and to visit the Goodwin Sands as a fun day out is no exception. Thousands of people have visited over the years and the sands still attract the curious. It is also known that they hold vast amounts of treasure, both archaeological and financial. In recent years, the Rooswijk, a Dutch East India Company ship, was found by a diver, and a cargo of silver coins and bullion, believed to be worth £1 million, has been recovered.
A strange tale was told in the late 1800s that the Deal lugger, Tiger, was chartered for a week by London visitors, financed by a Mr Morgan. Their quest was to dig for buried treasure on the Goodwins. It was said that the Tiger was put ashore on the sands at low water and, with the aid of a large metal cylinder, the party dug a shaft within it. The men soon encountered a skeleton and then a wreck. Further burrowing in the hulk’s timbers found the holds ‘as dry as an empty bottle’. Nevertheless, at the end of the week, a dozen chests of treasure were loaded onto the lugger and the expedition was hailed as a success.
This is how it was told in Herbert Russell’s novel The Longshoremen, but the only truth from the story is that the Tiger was a real vessel and the largest lugger on Deal beach throughout the 1890s. Four of her crew, undertaking a bit of salvage in a smaller beach boat, lost their lives as they were attempting to recover a cargo of coal from a wreck high and dry on the sandbank. As the tide made its way in, the weight of the coal sank their boat into the sand. They abandoned her and made for higher ground as the water rose. They were last seen by a sailing barge skipper who thought the men, who were running about and waving their arms, were ‘Deal boatmen, just mucking about’.
Annual cricket matches on the Goodwin Sands are also a myth. The first recorded game was in the summer of 1813, and brought criticism from the public as a blasphemy against all those victims of the rapacious sands. It is not a regular event, although it has been played periodically since and The London Illustrated News of 1854 recorded an event of that year with a fine lithograph.
During 1985, I assisted in ferrying players and spectators from the Kent team for a fundraising match on top of the Goodwins: 13 Deal boats took out about 100 people on a calm and sunny afternoon. Since that event, cricket, among other games, have been played by a few while on organised trips.
However, in July 2006, a BBC film crew making the television programme, Coast, thought it would be a good idea to feature a cricket match being played upon the sands. As the tide started to make, the skipper of the craft who had taken them out urged them to evacuate with haste. The crew pleaded for another 10 minutes to finish the take.
That was all it took – the tide changed against a northeast wind and the surf built up and swamped the vessel and its outboard engines. Several thousand pounds of film cameras were washing about in the bilge of the disabled boat and the occupants were at risk of being stranded. It took two lifeboats from Walmer and Ramsgate, plus the rescue helicopter, to avert a tragedy.
Coastguard sector manager Andy Roberts said: “The sands can appear safe but, if landing, very careful consideration must be given to tides, the weather forecast and the prevailing conditions. The Goodwin Sands should be treated with the utmost respect by visitors.”
A previous article by David Chamberlain, Uncovering a Secret Buried in the Sands (Bygone Kent, Vol 30, No 2), looks in more detail at the fate of the Rooswijk