Real story behind the mystery wreck of Hunstanton sands
- Credit: citizenside.com
Historian CHRIS WESTON tells the story behind the shipwreck at the foot of Hunstanton's famous cliffs
Norfolk's coastal position suggests there should be numerous wrecks scattered over a wide area of the North Sea. And if you go down to the beach today in West Norfolk, you're sure to find one of them.
For lying on the beach at St Edmund's Point in Old Hunstanton - just below the former lighthouse and chapel ruins - is a shipwreck, now resembling little more than a large and rusty rib-cage. Partly filled with brick remains and concrete, this was once the S T Sheraton.
Built in 1907 by Cook, Welton and Gemmell Ltd of Beverley, near Hull, the steam trawler Sheraton began life making regular fishing trips from Grimsby, her home port. The Sheraton was following an already well-established succession of steam trawlers, the first of the type having been built in 1878. Measuring approximately 130ft long by 23 ft wide, the Sheraton had a 12ft draught and was constructed of steel. She was a tough and sturdy ship, designed to cope with the often hostile conditions of the North Sea, with a single screw propulsion and accompanying machinery supplied by Messrs Amos and Smith, of Hull.
The Sheraton was built at a time of growing national unease at the burgeoning military power of Germany. And nothing made that sense of unease stronger than the thought that the Royal Navy itself - the mightiest in the world - might be challenged.
In the same year that she was built, Rear-Admiral Lord Charles Beresford strongly recommended that steam trawlers should be used as minesweepers in the event of war, 'to free up regular warships for other and more appropriate duties.'
So when war began in 1914, some 800 trawlers from Hull and Grimsby were quickly requisitioned for minesweeping and anti-submarine duties, one of which was the Sheraton. She then became a boom patrol vessel and continued that work for some considerable time, occasionally undertaking trawling work as well.
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By the outbreak of the Second World War, the Sheraton was still based in Grimsby and during January 1942 she was requisitioned by the Royal Navy to serve in the Nore Command. This was a major Royal Naval unit established during the 17th century in Kent. Apart from the Medway, Chatham and Sheerness dockland areas, their operational area included some 222,000 square miles of the North Sea. The Nore Command continued until long after the war ended, only finally being disbanded on March 31 1961 during the Cold War.
At its height, the Command was overseen by an admiral, and such was the demand for its services, that a number of smaller subordinate commands were later set up around the country, one of which was at Great Yarmouth. Apart from a base ship, Yarmouth had a fleet of minesweeping trawlers, motor launches and examination service vessels. Also in 1916, the Norfolk port had a Royal Naval Flying Boat base on the South Denes, the site of which has recently disappeared during construction of the new Outer Harbour.
When requisitioned by the Navy, Sheraton was fitted with a six-pounder gun towards her bows, before being registered as an armed patrol vessel and serving off the East coast. It seems she not only resembled a torpedo boat in appearance, but her bows were also adjustable to avoid detection at night.
Soon after the Second World War ended, the Sheraton was stripped of all valuable components and painted a bright and distinguishable yellow 'daffodil' colour. This was intentional, because the next - and what was obviously meant to be the final - phase of her life unfolded as a Royal Air Force target ship.
Still in Lincolnshire, the now-unmanned Sheraton was anchored in the Wash off Brest Sand, where she remained until the night of April 23-24 1947 when severe gales caused her to break away from her moorings. She then drifted across the Wash, settling on the beach at Old Hunstanton, where she has been ever since.
The EDP of the time reported how efforts were being made to re-float her. 'Anchors were being laid last night [April 24] in preparation for an attempt to refloat the 130-ft RAF target vessel Sheraton which went aground below Hunstanton cliffs in the early hours of yesterday. Provided that the wind drops, this attempt will be made on today's 24ft tide. Should this prove impracticable, the attempt will have to be delayed until the next big tides between May 2nd and 5th.'
These refloating attempts clearly failed, as a firm of King's Lynn scrap merchants reputedly bought the beached ship and began stripping her down. Time and tide, however, soon took over, so what you see today as a large section of hull is all that remains of the Sheraton.
The shipyard which built the Sheraton no longer exists, having called in the receivers and been wrecked on the twin rocks of the 1973 Oil Crisis and the collapse of the once-proud Hull-based fishing industry.
So although the yard which built her vanished a generation ago, the once-proud S T Sheraton, a ship which gave valuable service to her country in two world wars (and helped to feed her in times of peace) is still hanging on.
But every year the elements take their toll. And where she once had a human crew, the last time I visited her in her sandy grave she had 'crew members' of another kind... a large number of barnacles.