Frequent visitors to Westward Ho! will be familiar with the seasonal changes to the physical appearance of the beach. The storms, wild seas and subsequent removal of sand during this winter, have once again uncovered the fascinating history of the area.
At low tide, the features exposed on the beach provide a record of sea level and climate change, as well as human activity. Channels cut into the clay beds by the powerful action of the sea, conveniently reveal the layers of time. A brown expanse of peat on the surface contains wood fragments, roots and even trunks. These are the preserved remains of a submerged forest, carbon dated to 5000 – 6500 BP, that grew on this coastal plain during the glacial period. Areas of broken shells are also apparent, perhaps part of the kitchen midden, left by the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who camped in the forest. As the climate became warmer, the ice sheets to the north melted and the forest was flooded by an initially rapid rise in sea levels. Underneath the peat, and therefore further back in time, a layer of blue clay is visible with pebbles embedded on end, possibly as a result of expansion and upward movement of the soil after repeated freezing and thawing. Examples of the area’s more recent history, are two boat skeletons that lie partially submerged in the sand. By correlating dendro dates and written records, the larger of the two, situated near the low tide mark could possibly be the remains of the Sally, a cargo vessel which sank in 1789. The smaller wreck, nearer the pebble ridge is believed to be a polacca brig, which probably sank around 1800. It is interesting to note that the two vessels may have crashed on to or beached near the pebble ridge, which illustrates just how far this natural sea defence has moved inland since these events occurred. Research is still continuing. The sand gradually returns to the beach for the summer, covering up Westward Ho!’s geological and archaeological secrets for another season. The severity of next winter’s storms will determine how much will be revealed at low tide, and indeed how much of the evidence will survive the erosion by the sea. Sarah Gallifent
Acknowledgments to Alison Mills at the Museum of North Devon in Barnstaple. There is an interesting display in the museum showing the layers of Westward Ho! beach relating to the Mesolithic people, including a whalebone harpoon.
Acknowledgments also to Barry Hughes and Pat Wiggit at the North Devon Maritime Museum in Appledore, which has paintings and models of polacca brigs and vessels similar to the Sally.