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Preserving the history of brilliant Branscombe

PUBLISHED: 12:57 20 February 2018 | UPDATED: 12:57 20 February 2018

A small fishing boat on Branscombe beach, Devon.

A small fishing boat on Branscombe beach, Devon.

©National Trust Images/Eric McDonald

Branscombe residents have seen it all over the years: smugglers, ghosts and one of the most extraordinary shipwrecks the world has ever seen. Chrissy Harris meets a woman helping to preserve the history of this fascinating village…

Barbara Farquharson remembers exactly what she was doing the day the storm damaged MSC Napoli was run aground on Branscombe beach.

“We were coming back from London when we got this phone call telling us what had happened,” she says, recalling the moment in January 2007 when she heard a stricken cargo ship loaded with 2,300 containers and 3,800 tonnes of fuel was forced to come ashore near her home village on Devon’s world famous Jurassic Coast.

“We thought someone was having us on. We just couldn’t believe it. But really, that was just the start of it all,” says Barbara.

the aftermath of the Napoli disaster: Please credit Leon Neal the aftermath of the Napoli disaster: Please credit Leon Neal

What happened over the next few weeks and months was incredible: hundreds of people from all over the UK descended on Branscombe to scavenge what they could from the stricken ship’s cargo that had washed up on the shore.

Images of these modern day ‘wreckers’ hauling boxes of shampoo, wine barrels and even BMW motorbikes still in their packing crates along the beach were beamed all over the world. Branscombe’s narrow roads and lanes quickly became completely gridlocked as booty-hunters, media teams and sightseers crammed in to get a look at the sinking ship.

In the background was the constant threat of a pollution catastrophe as maritime experts worked tirelessly to prevent a major oil spill from the wreckage.

the aftermath of the Napoli disaster: Please credit Leon Neal the aftermath of the Napoli disaster: Please credit Leon Neal

“It was an extraordinary time,” says Barbara, who is chair of the Branscombe Project, a local history organisation she helped to set up more than 20 years ago to record and document every aspect of village life.

“I was really interested in getting everyone’s opinions and I wanted to see how people’s feelings changed as it all unfolded,” she adds, explaining how she has spent hours recording accounts of those remarkable events here 11 years ago.

“There were really two views here at the time: those who thought it was good because it brought a bit of life to the village and others who thought it was the worst thing ever.”

the aftermath of the Napoli disaster: Please credit Leon Neal the aftermath of the Napoli disaster: Please credit Leon Neal

Despite this divide, the MSC Napoli shipwreck had brought Branscombe to the attention of the world and is now a vital part of village history.

Barbara and others from the Branscombe Project have put together a DVD, slideshows and image galleries of the wreck and even organised an exhibition last year, which included two of the ‘salvaged’ BMW motorbikes.

To Barbara and her team of volunteers Napoli is just another part of Branscombe’s heritage to be documented thoroughly.

The Old Bakery seen from the orchard at Branscombe, Devon. The Old Bakery seen from the orchard at Branscombe, Devon.

As well as the notorious shipwreck, the Branscombe Project has delved into the village’s ghostly goings on and explored everything from lace-making, disappeared houses, smugglers and family legends.

Through talks, exhibitions and a comprehensive website, local people have been lucky enough to see their past brought to life. There aren’t many history groups as hard working as this one.

“I enjoy doing it,” says Barbara, a retired archaeologist and anthropologist.

Barbara Farquharson, chair of the Branscombe Project: Barbara Farquharson, chair of the Branscombe Project:

“I just think Branscombe is the most beautiful place in the world. I love the sense of history here – it has such an incredible past. Every square inch of the place has some depth to it.”

As if to prove it, Barbara helped to set up a wonderful ‘interactive map’, where villagers have been able to mark their favourite places and explain their significance.

Clifftops where couples got engaged, top blackberry picking spots, childhood homes and commemorative benches all get a mention in the map, which involved 223 villagers, past and present.

The overshot water wheel at Manor Mill, Branscombe, Devon. The overshot water wheel at Manor Mill, Branscombe, Devon.

“It’s been so popular,” says Barbara. “As an anthropologist, it’s been a beautiful and fascinating thing to do.”

Barbara says the map, along with all the other work the project does helps villagers connect with where they live.

“It’s been lovely doing it because you get to know people and I’m always learning something new,” she says.

A old postcard showing the Mason’s Arms pub in Branscombe: A old postcard showing the Mason’s Arms pub in Branscombe:

Researching the history of the village pubs is next on the agenda, as well as a possible tree survey and other environmental studies.

With any luck, there won’t be any more globally significant shipwrecks to disturb the peace and quiet of this picturesque village, but you never know.

“You just can’t tell what’s going to be coming next,” says Barbara. “It helps to keep us all lively!”

See branscombeproject.org.uk

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