So many lovable wrecks: At last we are going to be able to explore what lies in the sands of time, writes Nicholas Roe

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A GROUP of archaeologists and local authority countryside managers will put on their gumboots today and go tramping off to the beach near Hastings, East Sussex, to visit the wreck of a ship that sank more than 100 years ago. In doing so, they will spotlight a strange sea truth: that in some parts of the country it is possible to stroll at low tide around sunken wrecks and other remains, and stare at pieces of water-logged history dating back centuries. Yet few people know where to find these treasures; and even fewer are able to make use of this vast educational resource.

The reason is that until now there has been no co-ordinated attempt to map, research and open up these sunken but accessible remains in a way that the general public can understand. But this is changing. The trudge through the Sussex mud marks the first real attempt to expose the hidden seashore for the benefit of people on the beach.

For this we have to thank the Heritage Coast Forum, a conservation body that oversees the care of some of our most attractive coastlines. Gathering together a flotilla of experts, including archaeologists, academics, divers, and - most crucially - countryside rangers, it hopes to stimulate not just action on preserving what lies in the sand, but a whole new atmosphere of public excitement for the subject itself.

'The inter-tidal area is the last great wilderness left in Britain and a magical environment,' says Paul Millmore, who is organising the event. 'The archaeology that's out there makes up a part of our heritage that shouldn't be ignored, yet historically it has been.'

He is right. Incredible as it may sound for a nation that has preserved the Mary Rose, the Cutty Sark and more pirate tales than you can shake a wet plank at, Britain's archaeological establishment has a reputation for ignoring submerged archaeology in favour of more comfortable work inland - a reputation that is currently being shaken off rather hastily.

Valerie Fenwick, founder of the Nautical Archaeology Society, says: 'We are probably in the last phase of a very long struggle, started 25 years ago by a few archaeologists who tried to make underwater archaeology respectable in this country. Anything covered by water was not really considered by the archaeological establishment.' The Protection of Wrecks Act in 1973 was a step forward, but did little more than slow down the destruction of a handful of sunken ships, most of them in deep water.

Since then there have been individual research projects, but the huge bulk of marine archaeology lying tantalisingly close to shore has remained unrecorded, buried under a weight of silt and ignorance. These treasures include more than wrecks. Our tides cover secret landscapes, remains of ancient buildings such as the series of Iron Age huts found since 1990 in the Severn Estuary, petrified plantlife, fishtraps and even (off Sussex) dinosaur footprints. But mostly we don't know where to look, so much of this has been left to rot.

In the past three years, however, the official tide has begun to turn. Responsibility for marine heritage has been transferred from (unbelievably) the Department of Transport to Environment and finally to National Heritage. Most crucially, in 1992 the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, the central record of archaeological remains, extended its boundaries to include territorial waters. Ms Fenwick says: 'Suddenly, it is like a door opening. Everything is happening very quickly.'

Public funds have been channelled into two new research projects - in the North- east and in Kent - aimed at discovering exactly what lies offshore: not just by sifting through dry papers but by paddling out to sea. Exciting stuff. The Nautical Archaeology Society is about to test a new reporting questionnaire that will allow amateur enthusiasts to pinpoint sea finds. There is even talk of a national coast-watch service to keep a permanent eye on our beaches.

There are time pressures, of course: organic material rots quickly when it rears out of the silt. But the fact is that seashore secrets are at last being unlocked in a systematic way by academics whose job it is to milk new finds of their massive historical value.

Back at Sussex, however, the focus is less on the academic and more on romance, which in the end may be an important aspect. No matter how much official money you pour into the sea, Britain's coast is simply too big for official projects to master. Some kind of volunteer enthusiasm will be essential if we are to prevent the long march offshore from being bogged down in sheer numbers. There are at least 40,000 wrecks off the coast.

How can we generate that kind of goodwill? By actually enjoying the stuff, that's how. The Department of National Heritage is working on a system of signposting some beach wrecks, which will provide part of the answer. The Sussex workshop, which will include a brainstorming session, is likely to provide the rest.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the day at Hastings will be the walk to see the coastal wreck, which went down carrying an odd cargo of tiles and gin. This will pose the most important question of all: is there anything more exciting, more moody, more romantic than this?

East Sussex County Council, for whom Paul Millmore works as group manager of recreation and countryside management services, has its own answer, and has taken steps that other coastal authorities may want to copy. The council has counted up the number of interesting wrecks off the local coast that can be walked to at low tide, and reckons there are at least half a dozen. It is now working to signpost these for walkers. A marine ranger in the Rye Bay area is developing a detailed, descriptive map, which pinpoints major sites - including the sunken gin ship, petrified forest, dinosaur footprint and so on. Further west, guided walks have been arranged taking parties of 20 at a time out to the wrecks.

There is also a reason why today's workshop will be held at the Shipwreck Heritage Centre in Hastings. The prime exhibit in this museum is the Primrose, a 19th-century barge, which was rescued along the coast at Rye by Ms Fenwick. Relieving the sunken carcass of more than 40 tons of mud in 1992, she unleashed a wave of local enthusiasm and affection for the craft, which persists to this day.

Paul Millmore is keen to encourage conservation of marine remains. 'If you don't make people care about these things,' he says, 'they will never protect them.' How many of us have stared wistfully at twisted remains uncovered by a receding tideline and wondered what story they could tell? And, not knowing one bit of rotten wood from another, how many of us have kicked the whole tangle back into the sludge and walked away? We ought to know more about the sands of time. Maybe we soon will.

(Photographs omitted)