‘Would you like to spend the day with us on the beach at Marloes, surveying the wreck of The Albion?’ was an invitation I couldn’t refuse. A month into my new role as PR and Marketing Manager for the CHERISH project, here was a golden opportunity to see the team in action out in the field, doing what they do best.
So we set off – a team of 6 from the car park at Marloes in Pembrokeshire, dividing the equipment between us and heading for the coast. We trecked through a field of bemused sheep, onto the Coast Path and were stopped in our tracks by some of the most glorious views in Pembrokeshire. The sun made a rare appearance for the beginning of February and it felt good to be out and about.
The first stop was at the cliff top opposite Gateholm Island – Marloes beach to our left and to the right, our destination, Albion Sands, named after the wreck we were about to visit and survey. After an obvious photo opportunity, it was straight to work. In a precarious position, high above the waves, Louise Barker, senior archaeological investigator with the CHERISH project, began drilling a small hole in the rock.
“This is an important part of our project” she explained, “placing survey markers at our sites, in order to improve coastal monitoring in the future. These markers will make it easier for surveyors to return and repeat a survey enabling them to accurately monitor change within a few centimetres.”
With the small metal marker in place, it was a steep climb down to the beach, with large boulders covered with seaweed providing an extra challenge before we all finally reached the sand. The day had been chosen for its particularly low tide and the waves were already receding. Maritime archaeologists Julian Whitewright and Jack Pink, who is also a geophysicist were already pacing the beach, marking out grids for the survey.
“No-one knows how much of the wreck survives and how much debris has been scattered across the beach. This geophysics survey should reveal the extent of the wreck” Julian explained.
We could already see a part of the ship – a large iron pole just visible above the waves. The Albion was a paddle steamer, travelling between Dublin and Bristol in May 1837, carrying a cargo of 50 passengers, around 400 pigs [the number varies according to who you ask!] and a few horses. Captain Bailey had promised his passengers a fast trip and made the risky decision to sail through Jack Sound instead of the usual route around the back of Skokholm Island. Accounts vary, but the ship hit a rock and began taking on water, forcing the captain to make the decision to run the ship ashore, crashing at around 5pm on the beach at Marloes
All survived, although not all the pigs made it safely to the top of the cliff – like a scene from the film ‘Whisky Galore!’, there are reports that it was a good year for bacon in the Marloes area!
Today, the remains of the Albion include the iron frame of the paddle wheel, the plunger from the vacuum pump, a piston rod and much more, lying beneath the sand. The paddle steamer was originally around 160 feet long – about the length of 3 railway carriages, and would have revolutionised travel between Ireland and the UK mainland – reducing the time to around a 20 hour trip.
“It’s a difficult location to get to but worth the effort because this is one of the earliest paddle steamer wrecks in the UK” said Julian, “as far as we know, this is one of the first geophysical survey of a beached wreck in Wales. By mapping the site, we can understand more about the ship and what happened to it. It’s a bit like a jigsaw puzzle except you can’t see all the pieces and they’re the wrong way up!”
Dr Toby Driver was also busy on the beach, getting ready to fly a drone over the wreck site. This would provide vital information about the size of the site.
“There are roughly 6000 shipwrecks dotted around the Welsh coast – but only 6 of them are protected wrecks. This is one of the aims of the CHERISH project – to recommend more of these sites for designation as protected monuments because they’re such an important part of our coastal heritage.”
As the tide rolled out, more of the wreck was becoming visible – until it was possible to see the whole of the crankshaft and the frame which would have housed the ship’s engine. We were joined by local community councillor and Albion enthusiast Chris Jessop who has spent many hours studying the wreck and its history. Chris was an engineer by training and describes himself as a dedicated beachcomber.
“Bits of the wreck keep coming ashore – and there’s still timber from the ship on the beach. Whenever there’s a particularly low tide, I’ll come down here to take more photos. Through our research, we’ve also discovered a working replica of the ship in Sweden which even has the same engine as the Albion. There’s also a model of the Albion in the Science Museum in London, what they would have called a ‘boardroom model’ to show investors exactly how the ship would be built.”
It was also the first visit to a shipwreck site for another new member of the CHERISH team. Archaeologist Hannah Genders Boyd started at the same time as me, but working as a data analyst with CHERISH, coming to Wales from the University of Edinburgh where she worked as a research assistant.
“This is a great chance to see climate heritage in action – by surveying this site, we can raise the profile of the wreck and hopefully gain acknowledgement of its national importance. The wreck is eroding in all that salt water, so it’s a race against time to monitor the site. Today is definitely one of those ‘I love my job’ days!”
It was a race against the tide to complete all the survey work. Jack Pink from Southampton University was picking up the pace, marching across the beach ‘wearing’ a magnetometer – a frame shaped like rugby posts, the geophysics kit for capturing archaeological features under the sand.
“This is really cool. I always get nervous when there’s lots of metal at a site, but we’ve covered a good area today. We’ve had to race against one of the fastest tide races in the world, but I’m glad to say that my feet are still dry!”
With the tide turning and the waves beginning the cover up the wreck and all its secrets again, it was time to head back over the boulders and up the steep path to the top of the cliff. The sun was still out, glistening on the water. A good day of fieldwork completed, with results still to come.
Buried treasure on a Welsh beach – still revealing its history 185 years after reaching its final resting place in Pembrokeshire.