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Look what the storm brought in

Winter is a great time to scour the shoreline for booty as fierce winds stir up hidden treasures. Jon Winter on where the best flotsam and jetsam washes up
LIFELESS, BUT perfectly intact, the dead gull was the best find of an otherwise unproductive morning that had yielded just the usual bits and bobs - crab shells, driftwood, fishermen's discarded gloves and the odd lost shoe. It wasn't the first dead seabird I'd found. But so life- like was its posture and so bright its eyes that this one must have only just died, frozen to death where it had settled on the frosty shingle.

I had been combing this particular stretch of the Kent coast on and off for weeks, enjoying the peaceful solitude of walking the shoreline on cold winter days and making photographs from some of the bizarre and beautiful objects I came across. The gull, sitting on a nest of fishermen's gloves, made probably the most interesting image of a series that included simple clusters of pebbles, unidentified plastic abstracts and the extraordinary skeletal remains of a hedgehog.

This might sound like a peculiar recreation, but I am not alone in my love of rummaging along the strand line of Britain's coast. Most of us of have dabbled in a spot of beachcombing at one time or another. We often do it without thinking, casually kicking at the flotsam and jetsam as we walk along the shore and occasionally pocketing something that catches the eye. How many of us have gone home after a day at the beach clutching an unusual pebble, shell or piece of driftwood and put it on a mantelpiece for no other reason than it is an interesting object that reminds us of the sea?

For some serious beachcombing, however, you need to head for the beach after there's been a big on-shore wind. The resultant swell often churns up what lies hidden on the seabed, and the winds can carry oceanic offal in from all over the world. Even in the UK you can stumble across vegetation as exotic as the seabean (huge polished seeds that wash down rivers from tropical forests into the sea and can still be germinated after years spent afloat). Or what about some of the lost cargo that is left bobbing about? The five million pieces of Lego, for example, that were lost overboard when the Tokio Express was hit by a rogue wave off Land's End last year. More intriguing still, some of Britain's beaches regularly produce beautiful nuggets of ancient amber.

Of course much of what you will come across will be everyday litter and marine junk. But every now and then something extraordinary washes in. On a recent trip to the Outer Hebrides, in Scotland, I came across one such find in the village of Bragar on the remote west coast of Lewis. Locals talk of a calm autumn evening in 1921 when a few local boys spotted what they thought was the shining hull of an upturned ship far out at sea. The sighting was ignored at first, but by the morning a crowd had gathered along the shore to find that "the ship" was an 85-foot blue whale with the fatal harpoon still stuck in its back.

After some wrangling over how best to deal with the carcass, the whale's blubber was melted into oil and the rest disposed of. Only the enormous jaw bone and the harpoon were kept, erected as a gate in the garden of the local postmaster's house in remembrance of this magnificent specimen.

Stories of fascinating finds washed in by the Gulf Stream and the persistent westerlies can be heard all along the beautiful shores of the Outer Hebrides. Local crofter John MacFarlane told me of the St Kilda mailbox he had once found while combing the north-west coast of Lewis. Shaped like a crude toy boat, the two-foot long piece of wood had what looked like an old first aid box fixed to it on which were written the words "Open Me". Inside were four stamped letters and 2s 6d in old money as payment for whoever found and posted them. It was a device used for centuries by Britain's most isolated community which, until 1930, lived out on the St Kilda archipelago 60 miles west of Lewis - a distance covered in less than a week by a mailbox.

But the most famous find, and the one that confirms the Western Isles as the UK's beachcombing capital, can be found in the bar of The Politician on the tiny island of Eriskay. Displayed with other related memorabilia are two of the original bottles of whisky that washed ashore in 1941 after the SS Politician sank along with its cargo of bicycle parts and 243,000 bottles of whisky en route to Jamaica. The story inspired Compton Mackenzie's book Whisky Galore, which in turn has inspired a string of headlines as ocean-going paraphernalia turned up over the years. The last being the inevitable "Planks galore" when thousands of ready-to-use timber lengths floated in earlier this year prompting a flurry of fence-building by the local crofters.

At the other end of the country, in Cornwall, there are people making more than just fences out of what the sea spits out. Professional beachcombers Rob and Nicky Parkyn run a business selling furniture and domestic accessories made from what they find. Visitors to the Fearless Flotsam shop in Port Isaac can buy lamps, fruit bowls, clocks, mobiles and fridge magnets, all fashioned from marine debris.

They find all their materials along a 10- mile stretch of local coastline. "The sea sorts it all out for you," explained Nicky. "We know where to go if we want plastic, driftwood, shoes, polystyrene, whatever."

Less experienced beachcombers may have to search a little harder. You could be lucky wherever you look, of course. But ocean currents, weather patterns and tidal flow make certain areas more productive than others. Some of these hotspots are listed by the Marine Conservation Society which publishes an annual Beachwatch report detailing the quantity and type of debris found at 210 locations around the UK coast. The results are extraordinary. Over the four-day survey, around 260,000 items were recorded with one particular mile of coast yielding as many as 17,000.

So when the weather turns rough this winter, wrap up warm and head beady- eyed for the beach. You probably won't find a blue whale, but even if you did strike lucky, it still wouldn't fit on your mantelpiece.