Sunny Sidmouth, Regency gemLast weekend, I had the pleasure of a quick trip home to see my folks, and took the opportunity to pop down to Sidmouth promenade, where, I was assured by local friends, a bleddy great big ship had run aground. Had it? It had! There it was, not far from the shore, sitting at a jaunty angle. The containers, stacked three deep on the ship’s deck, looked precarious at best. Cor. They were supposed to be dragging it around the coast over the following few days.

Then, Sidmouth and Branscombe are all over the news. A bunch of containers had fallen off the boat and were washing ashore on Branscombe beach. The locals were busying themselves prising the things open, and dragging out the contents.

Some scored BMW motorbikes, others apparently scarpered with arms full of nappies. On Radio 4, I heard a very unfortunate woman watching scabrous types skanking off with the contents of her personal crate, her belongings (which had been bound for South Africa) robbed and distributed to various East Devon homes, and thence to eBay or goodness knows where.

Next thing I know,  Devon & Cornwall’s finest have closed off public access to Branscombe beach.  It’s rare enough for that part of the world to make the local news, let alone the national. Reporters claimed to have seen small children left untended on the wintry beach as their folks grabbed what they could. It was going to take a year to tidy up. People opening crates were playing a dangerous game of Russian Roulette and they might be about unleash a crateload of unspecified industrial waste. The negative stories came in such a flood that I couldn’t help but feel they were being planted, maybe by the Police, maybe by the Receiver of Wreck. (“Receiver of Wreck”! Who knew?) It still sounded pretty bad. Even Billy Bragg got his mention (look at the first comment on that page, by the way…)

But some local on the radio was saying something like “it’s just like beachcombing, in a carnival atmosphere!” and my heart kind of melted again. The people of East Debm like our strange carnivals. No doubt you’ve heard me banging on about the tar barrels in Ottery St Mary (if not take a look at that link and glory) but equally odd is the Honiton Hot Pennies, during which shovelfulls of scorching small-denomination coins are buzzed out of the top windows of pubs for the local youth to scrap over.

I feel a strange sense of pride that MY PEOPLE, on the surface a fairly restrained bunch, are one small opportunity from reverting to a grand tradition, or at least an ancient cultural type: scavengers, smugglers, wreckers. Cool. Uncool.