Despite singing sea shanties with gusto at the Last Night of the Proms, the English ceased to be a maritime nation when our docks closed in the face of competition from continental container ports and holidaymakers turned their backs on chilly English seasides to fly to the cheap hotels and reliable weather of Spain.
Recently, however, we have begun to rediscover our maritime heritage. Milestones include the highly popular, and endlessly repeated, BBC Coast series, the passing of the Marine and Coastal Access Act of 2009, intended to give us right of access to the entire coastline, the revival of English seaside towns as diverse and Southwold, Whitstable, Brighton and Blackpool as a result of middle-class ‘staycationing’, and the massive rise in the popularity of surfing among the young (and would-be young).
In the heritage world, this newfound enthusiasm is mirrored in the award of the Best Discovery prize at the British Archaeological Awards in 2008 to the finding of 75 Palaeolithic hand axes from the North Sea and the popularity of Vince Gaffney, Simon Fitch and David Smith’s best-selling study of the Mesolithic land mass dubbed ‘Doggerland’, now drowned by the North Sea.
All these and more are the subject of a new book on the archaeology and history of the English coast from Peter Murphy, Coastal Strategy Officer for English Heritage’s Maritime Archaeology Team. Murphy’s book ranges far beyond the obvious topics of how we used the sea as a source of salt, fish and wildfowl, or how we got around in boats. He also considers the archaeological evidence for piracy and warfare, pilgrimage, slavery and migration, sewage disposal, health and recreation.
A typical Murphy ‘topic’ is rarely more than three pages long, but he packs in a mass of information, such as his account of the history of holiday camps, ‘an anarchic assemblage of single-storied structures made of cheap and recycled materials’ that resulted from early 20th-century agricultural depression and the sale of low-value coastal land. It was the growth of these shanty towns, spreading to cover the coasts of East and West Sussex and the East Coast from Sheppey to Lincolnshire, that led directly to the Town and Country Act of 1947, the basis of our still-controversial and much-contested planning laws.
Equally illuminating are his accounts of coastal fortifications, from prehistory to the Cold War, or the sea as the source of luxury goods shipped from afar – sugar, ivory, tobacco, wines and spices – and the ports, docks, warehouses, quays and shipyards that supported this mercantile trade, now more likely to house a museum or residential ‘loft’ development.
Murphy is a confident writer on top of his subject, good at linking past to present. neither is he averse to looking at the future though his response to what he sees is somewhat Utopian. Pointing to power stations, wind farms, aggregates extraction, cable laying, industrial fishing and climate change as major threats to the heritage, he advocates devoting more resources to conserving and recording our maritime past. By drawing attention so eloquently to what we stand to lose, this book helps to make such an outcome that bit more likely.
Reprinted with permission by www.archaeology.co.uk
Charing Cross Rd Bookshop - 22/02/2011