I’m slightly in love with the A27 in between Brighton and Eastbourne. There, I’ve said it. But there is good reason for this odd obsession, and that is that I often seem to find myself driving east along it at sunrise, and with very little traffic about, and the South Downs looming around you out of the grey pinks of dawn, it is absolutely stunning.
But why I am telling you this? Well, so it was that on a fresh, bright October morning recently, I found myself heading along the A27 towards Hastings to see the wreck of The Amsterdam at Bulverhythe Beach. A huge globe of sun was edging its way tentatively up over the horizon and layers of mist draped the South Downs to my left, creeping towards the coast on my right side. It was well worth the eye-watering early start on a Saturday to see the ship’s remains.
The early start was necessary because the remains of The Amsterdam are only visible at certain times of the year when low tides and full moons align (or something like that). For those that don’t know, The Amsterdam was an East Indiaman merchant ship owned by the Dutch East India Company that ran aground on Bulverhythe Beach in 1749 on her maiden voyage. She was 44 metres long and carried over 300 people including soldiers, sailors and a few passengers. This is an astonishing fact to keep in mind as you stand at the side of the remains and realise what unbelievably cramped conditions they must have endured.
Her sorry maiden voyage
The Amsterdam set off from Holland in November 1748 destined for Java with a cargo that included wine, fine cloth and silver but westerly winds and bad weather meant the ship wasn’t actually able to leave the Dutch coast until early January. This was the first of three very serious misfortunes and little did the captain of The Amsterdam realise that one of his crew was not well when they set off. The cramped conditions meant that disease spread quickly and by the time they reached the English Channel, 50 were dead already with about 40 more seriously ill. The final disaster for The Amsterdam struck when caught in a storm, the ship’s rudder was ripped off meaning she was now almost impossible to steer. The crew started to mutiny (breaking into the ship’s cargo of wine) and although the captain had turned down an offer of help from a boat at Hastings and hoped to reach Portsmouth, he was forced to run The Amsterdam aground at Bulverhythe Beach.
Her final resting point was both fortuitous and not. To the left and right were rocks that would have probably quickly broken the ship up but as it happens the soft, silty clay and sand channel into which the ship was driven quickly swallowed her and her contents up. What you can see at low tide is the top outline of the ship, with the base buried some 8 metres below. Passengers and crew were saved as well as all but one chest of silver which seems to have disappeared into the back streets of Hastings and beyond. Various attempts have been made to salvage the wreck since and what is known is that much of its load including clothing, guns, wine, books and medical equipment remain swallowed up in the sand below.
A visit to the wreck
I’ve been wanting to view this shipwreck for some time because it is undeniably magical to stand in the exact spot of something so vivid, violent and illustrative of a certain moment in time. But there’s also something quite spellbinding about knowing you’re walking in the footsteps of dinosaurs, farmers, looters, sailers, travellers and tourists who have visited this spot from the ice age right through to the modern-day.
The Shipwreck Museum in Hastings runs tours when the wreck is visible. Expecting to be the only person on such a visit, I was surprised when I arrived as the sun finally broke and burnt off the last of the mist, that there were some 60 of us. Our tour guides were volunteers from the museum and their colourful description of the events of January 1749 really brought that fateful day alive as we gathered around the wreckage. You can clearly see the bow, one of the beams of the upper gundeck and what are called the deck knees on the other side. A plan shows where the mast fell but we couldn’t see that.
Protected and preserved
The remains of The Amsterdam are owned by the Dutch government and are protected under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973. It is the most complete ship of its kind in the world. Although research has been done into the possibility of raising both the wreck and its contents and returning them to Holland, the cost has so far been prohibitive. Perhaps the ship’s best protection however is provided by the sea, because as only a little of the frame is exposed and infrequently so, that which we cannot see remains well preserved. It gives us a tease and a taste of what lies below, but for now, that has to be enough.
Bulverhythe Beach in itself is a deceptively interesting area and our guide explained the changing shape and erosion of the coastline as well as how it was once densely occupied by dinosaurs. Fossilised dinosaur bones are a common find here and there are a number of notable pieces back at the museum in Hastings. The beach was also the site of a prehistoric forest and the guide shows you where to look for the nuts, trunks and roots of the beautifully preserved Bronze age forest remains close to the shipwreck.
I’ve never really explored this stretch of coastline before and there’s a surprising number of things to see, especially on a glorious autumn day such as I had. My top tip would be to bring a bike and then: either cycle east (there’s the Bulverhythe Coastal Link which is a cycle path) to St Leonards to have breakfast at the Goat Ledge cafe. It’s about 3 km out and back. Alternatively, travel west to Bexhill on Sea where you could enjoy a seafront breakfast at the cafes in front of the De La Warr Pavillion. This by my reckoning was nearer 4 km from the wreck.
The tour of The Amsterdam starts at the viewing platform which you’ll find at the base of the pedestrian bridge over the railway at the end of Bridge Way off the A259 just east of Bexhill. There’s a little car park a short distance west from Bridge Way.