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Poole’s incredible hulks

Graham Hobbs looks at the astonishing number of wrecked vessels abandoned in Holes Bay

The strikingly modern Twin Sails bridge is in stark contrast to the maritime detritus in the foreground

Holes Bay is the site of Poole’s prestigious new Twin Sails bridge, designed to reflect the nautical history of the town and of its famous natural harbour. The entrance to Holes Bay is straddled by the multi-million pound world-renowned luxury motor-yacht maker Sunseeker. A little further along its eastern shore, next to the Twin Sails bridge, lies the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) training college; a little further inland along the western shore is the busy Cobbs Quay Marina.
All in all, Holes Bay has impressive credentials as a hub of the ocean-going community, whether travelling in sumptuous luxury, sailing more modest craft or indeed needing to be rescued at sea. Yet on arriving in Hamworthy on the western shore of Holes Bay, it is none of these that is likely to catch the eye; it is more likely to be the sheer number of wrecks rotting slowly into the mud of the bay.
Some might regard these wrecks as clutter – navigational hazards or unsightly litter that spoils a beautiful wild place. However, they are something else altogether: they are a connection with the past, with the countless generations of people who have lived and worked around the shores of the bay in days when it was not common to understand the thinking behind environmental protection. To these people, for whom the landscape was a resource, Holes Bay didn’t need to be ‘protected’ because they would never exploit it, just live on it and off it.

The RNLI headquarters acts as an ironic backdrop to the clearly distressed abandoned boat in the foreground

There is something compelling about the appearance of wrecks; they are a visible and palpable connection with past generations and the marks they left which still scar or adorn the landscape – depending on one’s point of view. Pristine wilderness is lovely, assuming such a thing is still to be found on this planet, but this scatter of socio-industrial artefacts has its own impact on the imagination; one is seduced by the thought that one might be seeing a scene that would be instantly recognisable to the first human being ever to have laid eyes on it. It is the opening scene of the drama that was our ancestors’ lives – the stories one imagines on seeing something from the past. Not necessarily the true stories of what actually happened and when (although researching their history can be fascinating and rewarding), but that comes later, if one is interested and motivated enough to do the lengthy research work required. No, these are the first stories that spring to mind on looking reflectively upon a scene; they are the ones that engage one’s interest and forge a personal connection to a place where there was not one before.

This group of wrecked boats has more of the look of an installation artwork, than of a collection of working boats

The stories one creates can be as imaginative or prosaic as one’s temperament demands, but when it comes to wrecks, the imagined stories are usually sad ones. They are stories about dreams that have quite literally run aground, or been holed below the waterline, they are about the once-bright hopes and the excitement of possibility, lying forgotten due to accident or injury. They represent the struggle to hold on in hope against the commercial pressures of a changing world – or, in more human terms, simply the inevitable decay wrought by the passing of years.
All sorts of rib-like remains of past craft can be seen emerging from the mud of Holes Bay at low tide, representing many older generations of boats that have been abandoned or wrecked over hundreds, or thousands, of years. It makes one wonder what ancient wreckage might lie now entirely below the mud. The 2000-year-old Poole Logboat, which is on display at Poole Museum, demonstrates that Poole harbour has been navigated by boat for a very long time, and we also know that the Romans set up a base on Hamworthy, which would have been a landing and embarkation place. It seems logical also to suppose that early settlers would want to cross the narrow entrance to Holes Bay by sea rather than walk all the way around its perimeter.

The most accessible of the Holes Bay wrecks is right by an open recreation area. It is hard to see how this boat came to be here, though.

Lying right on the edge of Holes Bay, next to an open recreational space, there is an old rusting iron boat which is probably the most accessible of the Holes Bay wrecks, although it is difficult to see now how it came to arrive at its present position. It might have passed up the channel on a Spring tide, but why was it abandoned? It is now well-and-truly holed below the waterline, but the hole must surely have come since it reached its final resting place as an iron boat with a hole in the prow would sink like a stone.
Of all the boats that are no longer seaworthy around Holes Bay, perhaps the most surprising feature is just how many of them have simply been abandoned at their moorings – some are still chained or tied to mooring posts. Many of these are quite old, and so must have been abandoned some time ago, reflecting the changing pattern of employment in the community as few old working craft are still used. Nonetheless, the process of abandonment continues, with more modern dinghies also lying forlorn and forgotten, tied to their posts like a faithful hound, too dutiful to leave the spot where its owner left it.

More memory than boat, this rusting hulk has an abstract serene beauty all of its own

The well-maintained yachts and motor-launches kept at Cobbs Quay stand in notable contrast to the rotting and rusting working boats they have now largely replaced on the waters of Poole Harbour, but even though the working boats have been abandoned by their owners, they have not been abandoned by all: wrecks showing above the waterline are popular perches for gulls, egrets and cormorants and, ironically, serve as mooring points for newer boats.

A swan surveys the wrecked boats and the pristine pleasure yachts in the marina beyond

Holes Bay is at its narrowest and deepest at its entrance where it forms a single permanent channel. Unsurprisingly this is where there is the most boating traffic both now and in years gone by. The neck of the bay is heavily developed on both sides, with the eastern shore of the bay further built up, but the western shore – fenced off by the old power station, has been little used for many years. These factors combine to make it rich in old wrecks now clearly visible from the Twin Sails bridge. It is perhaps amusing that these boats in distress are also so clearly visible from the RNLI training college, but the wrecks have been there a lot longer.
Most of the now-visible wrecks and abandoned boats are on the Hamworthy side of the bay, but while this is by no means an exhaustive survey, it would not be complete without what is probably the most often seen of the wrecks lying, as it does within view of the A350 Holes Bay Road at Sterte. A large iron vessel, now rusting gently into the bay at the northern end of Cobbs Quay, could only have floated to its current position on a high tide and tells of a time when the bay was used for more than light leisure pursuits and occasional seasonal fishing for prawns or flounder. There are some more recent real wrecks, though maybe not quite so dramatic or picturesque as some of the old ones, like the fibreglass dinghy which sits out on the salt-marshes and which must have been washed up on a very high tide, maybe with the help of a strong wind.

Within view of the A350 Holes Bay Road at Sterte, this is probably the most visible of the wrecks

Wrecks, like derelict buildings, are graveyards that connect us with our history and remind us of our own mortality, they are places where the words sic transit gloria mundi (thus passes earthly glory) resonate with their own melancholy truth. However, like graveyards, they also help us reflect on what really matters, and resolve again not to waste our lives on the things that do not. Clearing Holes Bay of its wrecks would be a form of cultural vandalism, of saying that the past maritime culture of Poole and its generations
of sailors, fishermen and port workers simply did not matter.

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