It’s hard to overestimate just how big a role the waters around Britain played in shaping its history. As an island, Britain relied heavily on the ocean for trade (and still does), although the seas also saw their fair share of battles.
Now, the country’s coastlines are littered with shipwrecks, all telling their own story – some big, some small, but all important in revealing something about the UK’s maritime culture through the ages.
Best of all, you can still visit many of these shipwrecks in person, and lots of the remains are found in picturesque settings, meaning you can experience them as part of a scenic coastal walk.
Here are 10 UK shipwrecks worth visiting.
This hefty vessel is known locally as the Sugar Boat, due to the East African sugar it was carrying (bound for a Tate & Lyle factory in Greenock) when it sunk in 1974. A heavy storm and severe winds caused the boat to drift towards an incoming oil tanker, ripping a hole in the hull of MV Captayannis.
The ship headed for nearby sandbanks and then began to tip to one side, allowing the crew to jump onto a rescue boat. The Captayannis eventually toppled over and has laid on its side ever since, creating a prime photo opportunity and a home for all manner of birds and marine life.
The wooden remains on this handsome beach are thought to belong to the Sally, a mid-18th-century ship that ran aground in the area in 1769 while carrying port wine to Bristol from Oporto in Portugal.
Records of the remains (made from English oak) appear as far back as the 1850s, when it still was described as a “very old wreck”. You’ll need to do your research (or be lucky) to see the remnants, as they only appear intermittently and at low tide.
Tragedy struck the Welsh town of Port Talbot in 1908 soon after the SS Amazon left the town’s docks, carrying coal bound for the Chilean city of Iquique. A powerful storm forced the ship to anchor nearby, but intense winds eventually snapped the cables and dragged the ship to Margam Sands.
There were reports of crewmen strapping themselves to the four masts to avoid being blown overboard, but as the storm worsened the masts snapped, sending sailors into the sea. In total, 20 of the 28-man crew were killed. Parts of the wreckage can still be seen protruding from the sand.
Resources like steel were in short supply during World War One, so alternatives had to be used, even in boat building. This is how MV Creteblock came to be built from concrete at Shoreham, West Sussex, in 1919, when the effects from scarce supplies were still being felt. The boat was bought by Smith’s Dock Company, a shipbuilder on the River Tees in North Yorkshire, and used as a harbour tug to help manoeuvre larger vessels.
After being taken to Whitby for scrap in 1935, Creteblock was eventually towed out to be scuttled (deliberately sunk) in 1947, but caught a rocky outcrop on the way and sank in shallow water. Dynamite was used to try and blow up the vessel, but Creteblock proved resilient and large sections of it remain intact and scattered along Saltwick Bay.
The most well-preserved of several wrecks in the area, Ionic Star ran ashore in 1939 on the banks of an area known as Mad Wharf, while on its way to Liverpool from Brazil. No one was hurt and the cargo of cotton, fruit and meat was salvaged, as were parts of the ship.
The remainder sat lodged firmly in the sand and was later used for target practice by the Royal Air Force. Ionic Star’s remnants are easily viewable and provide a dramatic counterpoint to the swathes of open water and sprawling beaches.
The Norwegian-built Helvetia was scheduled to sail from New Brunswick, Canada, to Swansea Harbour in October 1887, loaded with 500 tonnes of timber. Just 5 miles from the harbour, strong winds forced the ship to remain at sea for the night, in the hope that conditions would improve the following day. The next morning the Helvetia was blown through the water, damaging the boat and ending up in Rhossili Bay.
The anchor was dropped, but this wasn’t enough to safeguard the ship, and the reluctant captain and his crew were forced to abandon the Helvetia, which they did safely. By the next day, the Helvetia was stranded and its timber cargo strewn across the beach. This precious debris was collected and sold by local timber merchants, while the Helvetia slowly sank deeper into the sands over the next century. Parts of it still protrude up onto the beach.
Not all shipwrecks are found on a beach or in the water, as you’ll discover at the Mary Rose Museum in southern England, which holds the remnants of one of the most famous shipwrecks of all time. Henry VIII had the Mary Rose built as a warship in 1510, battling French and Scottish navy forces over the next 34 years. It was sunk in 1545 in the Battle of the Solent, when the French Armada attempted to invade England. Almost all of the crew – around 500 people – were killed, and the exact reasons for the sudden sinking are still debated.
In 1982, the hull and other parts were raised from the sea, after years of searching for the ship and small-scale excavations when it was found. These remains and some of the many recovered artefacts (including tankards, musical instruments, swords and socks) are displayed in the museum for all to see.
Winter storms will occasionally reveal the metal bulk of a German ship that became stranded on a Cornish beach during World War One. But SV Carl wasn’t in combat and was simply being towed to London for scrap by the Royal Navy, after being impounded in Cardiff at the start of the war, as a suspected enemy minelayer.
Despite repeated attempts to tow it, Carl became wedged in the sands at Booby’s Bay, near the coastal town of Padstow, and was then abandoned after being salvaged. Well-preserved parts, including one of the masts, now make fleeting appearances across the beach during some winters, before the sands engulf the wreckage again.
The remnants of another tragic tale can be seen sprawled between rocks on Saltwick Bay, near popular seaside town Whitby. The fishing trawler Admiral Von Tromp set sail from Scarborough in October 1976 towards a fishing area named Barnacle Bank, but never completed the journey. The story goes that the captain put the boat in the hands of an experienced crewman before going to sleep, only to awake as the ship was being run aground, with the crewman looking stunned and unable to explain anything. The captain tried to save the ship, but it began rolling over and the crew became trapped inside as it filled with water.
By this time a lifeboat from Whitby had arrived, but adverse weather made rescue almost impossible. Eventually, most of the crew escaped through a window and reached the shore or the lifeboat, but two men were killed during the upheaval. The reasons why the Admiral Von Trump hit rocky ground are still shrouded in mystery (a nautical surveyor at the time claimed that it seemed deliberate), but its skeletal, eerie remains can be seen clearly from around the bay.
Originally built as a fishing vessel in 1907, the ST Sheraton’s career took a dramatic turn in 1914 when the Royal Navy began using it (and hundreds of other trawlers) to patrol British waters for enemy submarines during World War One. The Sheraton was called up again in World War Two as an armed patrol vessel, after being fitted with a gun.
In what was to be its final phase of duty, the ship was used for target practice by the Royal Air Force in 1945, before being anchored in 1947, later drifting to Old Hunstanton Beach after strong winds broke the ship’s mooring. A jagged stretch of its hull still sits amongst the sands and stones of the beach, marking its final resting place.