Historic wreck's rescue scuppered by bureaucrats

David Keys finds a wrangle over coastal waters threatening an 18th-century prize
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One of Britain's best preserved historic wrecks is in danger of breaking up because the Treasury Solicitor's office says that technically the site where it lies is not in England.

The office has, therefore, advised English Heritage that it should not to help to conserve the vessel.

The Amsterdam, a 44-metre- long 18th-century Dutch East Indiaman, has remained substantially intact for 250 years, buried in 8 metres of mud on a south coast beach between Hastings and Bexhill.

It was beached by its drunken crew during a violent storm in 1749 while on its maiden voyage.

Now changes in tidal erosion patterns are threatening to damage the wreck. About 70 per cent of the vessel - and most of its cargo - has survived intact under a section of beach that is covered by water for much of the year. It is the best preserved ship of its type in the world.

Technically the wreck belongs to the Dutch government but it maintains that it is powerless to protect the ship because The Amsterdam lies on a British beach and is, therefore, on British territory.

On the other hand, the British government agency with special responsibility for archaeology and historic monuments in England - English Heritage - says it cannot take care of the wreck because it is 50 metres south of mean low water and, therefore, not in England.

Archaeologists have just completed a report cataloguing the wreck's deterioration and have asked English Heritage to at least attend a meeting to discuss how the site could be protected. However, English Heritage has been forced to refuse after being told by the Treasury Solicitor that it cannot even advise.

"The Amsterdam is of international, archaeological and historical importance and it is absolutely scandalous that, because of a bizarre bureaucratic rule, its future is being put at risk," Dr Peter Marsden, a marine archaeologist and director of Hastings' Shipwreck Heritage Centre, said.

Archaeologists are now faced with a difficult choice to save The Amsterdam - rescue it or cover exposed upper timbers with an artificial mountain of sand.

A full-scale rescue would involve a massive archaeological excavation and a technically difficult lifting operation to move it to dry land, costing at least pounds 25m.

In the Netherlands, a foundation was set up 20 years ago to plan such a rescue - but raising the funds has until now proved impossible.

Since 1749 there have been nine attempts to penetrate the ship. Two limited archaeological excavations have taken place - one British in 1970 and one Dutch in 1984 - and the site has been under British government protection since 1974.

Even excavating the wreck could pose a problem. Archaeologists believe that inside the cargo hold are thousands of bottles of undrinkable 250- year old wine. Because the site is not technically in England, any alcoholic drink removed, no matter how useless, would have to go through Customs and be liable to import duty.

Local community leaders and politicians have become involved in the vessel's future, offering to take at least some responsibility for The Amsterdam - if the Dutch government gives up ownership and donates it to a British charitable trust that would be set up for the purpose.

However, the Dutch, the British governments and local community leaders are all unlikely to have pounds 25m to spare to excavate and rescue the ship.

Meanwhile, tidal erosion continues and local archaeologists want the site given more effective protection.

The Dutch government has written to Hastings Borough Council stating that it believes "the British authorities are responsible for the protection of this monument situated on British territory".