Branscombe one year on: A village torn apart by greed


Last updated at 09:08 24 January 2008

The signs were promising. Huge waves pounded the shore, turning the water red with mud and debris churned up by the sea.

A gale howled. Rain lashed down. Thunder and lightning crashed round the cliffs and coves of Britain's south coast.

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Scanning the horizon with binoculars, a lone figure on an ancient smugglers' beach smiled and gave the thumbs up.

"Now this is what I call wrecking weather," said Martin Cox, a happy, if sodden, sentinel in the gathering gloom.

"She's already gone down, you know. All we need to do now is keep our eyes open - and wait."

The "she" he was referring to was the Ice Prince, a Greek-registered container ship that foundered in treacherous seas off Portland Bill,

Dorset last week.

Amid mountainous waves and a force eight gale, coastguards rescued all 20 crew aboard the 6,395-ton vessel on Monday night.

After slipping to the bottom of the English Channel in the early hours of Thursday, the sinking of the Ice Prince prompted a flurry of panic out at sea.

With 400 tonnes of oil aboard, environmentalists feared a natural disaster could destroy the Unesco world heritage Jurassic coast.

Salvage crews were put on standby to save what they could from the hold of the Ice Prince, as thousands of tonnes of timber broke free and started drifting along the Channel.

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NSC Napoli

They were not the only ones on alert.

A loose-knit network of modern day "wrecking crews" - equipped with mobile phones and white transit vans - were on standby to begin the latest plunder of maritime booty.

And on Sunday, their patience paid off, as a giant wave of timber landed at Worthing beach, West Sussex, leaving mountains of wood piled along the shore like giant matchsticks.

In a bid to keep the scavengers at bay, the beach was closed and a warning given that looters would be prosecuted and fined up to £2,500.

They are hoping to avoid a repeat of the mass looting that took place exactly a year ago after the MSC Napoli sank near the same spot, sparking chaotic scenes as thousands descended from all over Britain to plunder her cargo.

So what lessons can the West Sussex authorities learn from that astonishing episode, as they struggle to keep the scavengers at bay.

And what actually happened to the hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of goods, including brand new motorcycles and car engines, that were carted off by the Napoli looters, making Branscombe, Devon, the spotlight of international attention.

It all began when the Napoli was caught in heavy seas while heading from Belgium to South Africa, with its mixed cargo of containers.

The ship's 26-man crew abandoned ship after sending out a distress call when one huge wave cracked her hull, flooding the engine room and making the vessel list heavily.

After the crew was rescued from the lifeboat by RAF helicopter crews, a decision was taken to beach the 275-yard ship - one of the biggest cargo vessels to ever set sail - in Lyme Bay near Branscombe.

Aboard were new vehicles, motor parts, carpets and cosmetics, all in metal containers.

Not since the SS Politician ran aground off the Outer Hebrides in 1941 - later made famous in the film adaptation of Compton Mackenzie's Whisky Galore - had there been so much excitement over a shipwreck in the British Isles.


While the islanders of Eriskay did nothing worse than drink themselves silly after discovering 264,000 bottles of whisky aboard the Politician, the people who swarmed round these smugglers' coves 12 months ago were not so innocent and light-hearted.

In an orgy of greed shown live on television around the world, Branscombe was the setting for thuggish scenes as thousands battled over the Napoli's booty, which was washed ashore on the village beach. Even now, locals still gasp at the "viciousness" of the plunder.

As rumours spread that the Napoli was carrying new motorcycles, cars and tractors, more than 5,000 people arrived from as far away as Liverpool and Manchester.

Some even came by boat from Ireland and Belgium. Other looters hired articulated lorries.

The single lane road that leads through Branscombe was blocked by cars and vans for five miles back from the beach. Looters arrived with oxyacetylene torches and welding gear to slice open the giant containers holding the treasure.

Scuffles broke out on the beach. A container full of Bibles was set ablaze to keep the looters warm. Wheelie bins were taken from outside Branscombe's cottages to carry away the booty.

Containers full of prized personal possessions were smashed open and ransacked.

When all the goods of any worth had been removed, people started stealing from local homes.

Garden furniture and anything that was not nailed down disappeared into the back of white vans.

Many of Branscombe's residents locked themselves in, watching from windows as teams of "undesirables" crawled over the beach like ants.

"It was like something from Apocalypse Now," says John Bass, the softlyspoken leader of Branscombe parish council.

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"It was shocking. These people were like vultures. It was pure greed. What sort of message is this to send out to the world about how the people of Britain behave?"

Rosina Knowles, the village postmistress, whose shop is three miles up the road from the beach, also still shudders at the events of last year.

"The cars were all the way up past here," she said, pointing outside to the village church high on the hill.


"These were really unpleasant people - nasty sorts.

"They weren't from round here. They just wanted to get their hands on whatever they could, and they would not let anyone stand in their way.

"You could see people pushing barrels up the hill.

"The beer lorry couldn't get through, and an ambulance couldn't reach an old lady who was ill. People were swarming over everything.

"We were all terrified."

So where exactly has all the booty gone? In these parts, nobody is keen to say.

Allied to a natural distrust of outsiders, the fishermen and farmers of Devon and Cornwall are traditionally taciturn when it comes to matters that could involve the law.

"You're in the wrong place," said one drinker in the Masons Arms, the village pub.

"It was all down to outsiders. The locals didn't take anything - maybe a few souvenirs. It was northerners who took everything."

That is not entirely true.

Before the television cameras arrived and people rushed from all over Britain to Branscombe beach, word had already swept the local pubs and building sites that the Napoli was laden with riches when she went down.

In the hours before the arrival of the "outsiders," the people of Devon grabbed the richest pickings - just as their smuggler ancestors had centuries ago after luring ships onto these storm-tossed coasts.

As two baffled local policemen stood guard at the entrance to the beach, locals used secret paths down cliffs and through hedgerows to get at the loot on the sands.

The biggest prize was a BMW motorbike - one of 17 worth £5,000 each and destined for South Africa. They were stored in a giant container, washed ashore intact.

Jack Pyne, 23, was one of the first on the scene. He saw torch lights surrounding one container along the beach. He and his fellow locals worked as a team.

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They helped each other wheel the bikes onto the beach.

Gearboxes and spark plugs were connected. Petrol was brought down. Keys were in the container.

"It was like a production line," Jack said.

"We just helped each other get a bike ready - and then we were on our way."

All but four of the 17 motorcycles were returned to the official salvage company.

Pushing old cardboard boxes out of the way in a private garage in nearby Sidmouth last week, Jack Pyne emerged last week with his prize: a gleaming 650cc BMW motorbike.

It is still in pristine condition, without a mile on the clock. The new owner plans to sell it.

Despite threats from BMW and warnings that the vehicle may have been contaminated by chemicals and salt water, Jack Pyne is adamant "his" bike will not be returned.

With the first anniversary this weekend, he is hoping to be told that finders really are keepers.

"I would understand people complaining if I had gone into a showroom and stolen the bike,' says Pyne, a farm worker.

"But it was a ship wreck and the bikes were washed up. I didn't steal it - I salvaged it. That's the law."

Colin Pyne, his father and a local hotelier, agrees.

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"It was bounty from Heaven," he said.

"Who owns the sea or what's in it? The history of the people of Devon and Cornwall is to take what's washed ashore.

"It is human nature. The sinking of the Napoli was a good thing for everyone."

Certainly, locals have made the most of the Napoli's misfortune. Cupboards are still well-stocked with chocolate biscuits after thousands of boxes were washed ashore.

Elderly men and women compare notes on anti-ageing creams taken from the cargo and distributed free to almost every home.

With others collecting thousands of nappies from the sea, canny villagers have also tried to capitalise on the fact that the previously unheard of Branscombe is now on the map.

One enterprising fisherman charged tourists for boat trips towards what remains of the wreck, which still can be seen from miles around. Others have compiled a DVD of the drama, which sells for £12.50 at Branscombe Post Office.

Yet many disagree with the notion this was somehow all harmless fun.

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worthing beach

While the vessel disintegrated at sea, lives and reputations were also being wrecked ashore.

Stuart Hughes, the local Conservative councillor and a member of the police authority, tried to prevent looting by warning those on the beach they faced fines of £2,500.

He handed out coastguard forms for looters to report what they had taken from the beach.

He also later called for the area to be closed off, as has now happened at Worthing beach, saying the plunderers were "taking their lives in their hands" by scouring the wreckage.

To the delight of local looters, he was subsequently questioned by the police over allegations that he had also succumbed to temptation and stolen one of the BMW motorbikes.

Although later exonerated, locals still guffaw at the mention of his name in village pubs.

The police have also been heavily criticised.

"There was violence and physical intimidation on the beach - it was mad," says Peter Pritchard, of Lyme Regis coastguard.

"The police allowed these people to ransack the cargo. The hordes of locusts descended."

The events proved a chastening experience for Steve Speariett, the local Branscombe constable, who arrived at the scene at 5am on Sunday morning, January 19.

A slim, gentle man, it was PC Speariett's day off. Unsure of the law, he spent it watching people carrying away the Napoli's cargo.

After one downmarket tabloid printed directions and a map to claim your "Branscombe Booty," he was overwhelmed as gang masters, accompanied by hired labourers, arrived to carry away the cargo.

"It's been pretty grim," he said.

Amid the mayhem, there were also acts of conscience. Tom Coombs, 42, found a painting called Still Life on the beach as others carted off gear boxes and empty wine barrels.

He located the artist in Russia, and returned it.

After one Swedish woman sobbed during a live television appeal for the return of "priceless" personal effects she had witnessed being taken from a container that had been shipping her life's possessions to her new home in South Africa, unnamed looters handed the goods in to local police.

Such kindness was a rarity: countless other personal items were stolen.

"Birds and animals scavenge to survive - this was about greed, pure and simple," said Linda Hughes, a Branscombe local.

It was human behaviour at its worst.

"Some people rolled massive barrels for miles and then those very same thieves had their stuff stolen by other thieves when they stopped to rest. It was absolute carnage horrible."

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