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Artefacts relating to the wreck of The Torrey Canyon

I’d wanted to see the wreck, if not the wreck then the space the wreck was in - at least the space it had been once. In retrospect perhaps I distrusted the traces available to me and thought against any logic, that instead of evidence - the archives and footage and remnant's, that looking at the sea itself would be somehow enough. I’m not sure what I expected but the growing realisation that I was thinking about places and matter rather than abstraction made travel inevitable.
 

I imagined a compass. With the lack of an actual boat and diving suit it was really a question of getting close. I planned to go to Land’s End and look across the channel to the Scilly Isles, to go to the Scilly’s and look back. And to travel as well as I could near the wreck site to see at least something of the reef.

What are these structures? Theres a curious human scale to them. Almost everyone is secretly disappointed with stonehenge, coming up to it, it doesn’t tower like a monument is supposed to. These tunnel tombs, here for maybe four thousand years, are like a magic trick. At once entirely human scaled - you duck to enter like a wendy house something almost impossibly old. Theres a feeling of connection almost intimacy - not walking through the grand halls of the dead but sheltering as I did from the rain at Las Verdes in Guernsey. But we look at them from the wrong end of the telescope - from the atom bomb back not from the red bead forward. They aren’t, except by some instinct to pile stones ever higher, some practice effort for a ziggurat, but the ossification of something from before - a tent or wooden longhouse. The kind of structure our highly mobile mesolithic foremothers strode across the still walkable ridge of Lyonesse with. Some instinct to defy death or rising water, to make a place to return to, to own or tend and mark out, made them do something new in the world - make an immortal thing. Maybe as the land shrunk and waters rose and the generous walkable plain were cut through with marsh and water a similar urge struck us, to divide up into our own islands, to pile high away from the tide. To be immortal.

It was early September when I travelled to Cornwall with a friend who I’d tempted along with a promise of viewing some of the neolithic structures in the region. I had been interested in the landscape, but it sounds obvious to the point of banal really, but the structures we saw seemed to me to radiate from the point of my focus. I was staring towards lost ground, on which a ship had wrecked, but the markers around me seemed another kind of wreck, washed up on the cliffs and ridges.

It was early September when I travelled to Cornwall with a friend who I’d tempted along with a promise of viewing some of the neolithic structures in the region. I had been interested in the landscape, but it sounds obvious to the point of banal really, but the structures we saw seemed to me to radiate from the point of my focus. I was staring towards lost ground, on which a ship had wrecked, but the markers around me seemed another kind of wreck, washed up on the cliffs and ridges.

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We don’t see the sea, not really for what it is, we see it’s surface.  Have you ever had that impossible sense of fall-less vertigo in water? The sudden realisation of the depth beneath. Once snorkelling near an island in Crete I followed a shoal of horse mackerel along the line of the seabed perhaps four or five meters deep when suddenly the shoal dashed through some weeds and following them I swam over the ledge of the plateau and the sea bed fell away as if it, not I, was in motion, to a deep blue black hole and I felt as if I could fall into. Like that moment high in the theatre circle when it seems entirely possible you can just step forward and be tumbling down onto the stage. I doubt the sea was more than twenty meters beneath me, and perhaps it was the sudden change in light and heat that the deeper sea brought, but I was deeply afraid of how strange it was.

Dear Anno Mitchell,

 

Your enquiry has been copied to me because I am have been working on the TC spill and its consequences ever since it happened.

 

I am now 92 and I can still remember the sight and the SMELL of the oil.

 

I apologize for being slow to respond while thinking about your questions.

 

The Marine Biological Association of the U.K. has a large collection of records, reports.  publications, and photographs, mainly in the library and Archives (NMBL).

Access may be difficult  at the moment because the building is undergoing internal reconstruction and many staff are working from home.

 

I have been working from my home since the start of the covid  pandemic because of my age, but I am still an Honorary Research Fellow, and able to use the MBA e-mail to keep in touch.

 

I have a few questions: 

 

Do you know the coasts of Devon and Cornwall fairly well ?

 

Do you live near enough to Plymouth to visit the library easily and frequently?

 

Have you discovered the MBA’s book published in 1968?  You maybe able to  find it in your local public Library or second hand on Amazon?

 

Smith J E (1968) Torrey Canyon Pollution and Marine Life. Cambridge University Press.

 

 

I will try to send some more information soon,

Hopefully,

Eve Southward

 

 

Dr Eve C. Southward,

Lankester Honorary Research Fellow

 

Dear Anno Mitchell,Thanks for your reply, . I have attached a file with a lot of news photos in it, I hope you will be able to open and read it.I am interested to know that you live in Brighton, It is quite a long drive from Plymouth , I have viewed your website and see you work in a variety of styles.I think that at the images that remain in Cornish memories are likely to be seabirds dripping with oil, and teams of people frantically scrubbing the seashore in preparation for the imminent tourist season.We did have samples of oil for analysis and experiment, but I do not know if any remain.Do read the Torrey Canyon book, there are plenty of illustrations. It will guide your search when you visit the library.best wishes,Eve SouthwardYour message is ready to be sent with the following file or link attachments:Torrey Canyon_ 50 years since the day the sea turned black. _ Climate Change

I never thought of oil until the first gulf war then suddenly it was all we talked of. We saw Kuwait City with journalists on the roofs narrating rocket strikes and the fire coming off the oil fields. Late at night in a student flat we gathered in the one flatmates who had a small portable television to watch the first TV war unfold. Late at night and massively stoned I watched over and over again the footage of a missile strike going through the vent of a factory.
 

We get the tourist bus to Land’s End to film and to inspect the various archeological fragments on the cliff edges and walk to Sennen Cove. There must be a word for the kind of tourist attraction it is, things that have grown attractions around a fingerpost or a view. We pull up into a coach park on the bare headland and walk through the gateways into something not really a theme park but more a collection of concessions gathered around a central open courtyard. People have been coming here as tourists since the 17th Century, the First and Last Inn built in the 18th century is the base for the Land’s End hotel at the end of the entertainment complex, an unlovely lump of faulty towers hospitality at the end of the grim collection of cafes, amusement arcades and souvenir stalls. But then what else can you do with something that’s just the end of something. Back outside by the coach stop the strangest thing; a small brand new stone circle with cement models of cottages lining it like some Beconscott Averbury.

I’d flown into Guernsey the day before my appointment with the environmental health team at the quarry site. What little I knew about Guernsey was it’s status as an offshore centre and as a holiday destination. It’s not a place I’d thought about much and it seemed that my obsessive inspection of maps of the island to get a sense of the quarry’s position on the island hadn’t given me a sense of the island itself. We flew in low over the channel and ahead of me I saw the island almost like a mesa or table mountain in the sea - steep sided and field topped with black granite rocks scattered around the coast.

I wanted to get a good sense of the area before meeting on site. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this place; even before starting the project I’d remembered reading about the quarry and seeing the extraordinary photos of the black oil filled quarry. I’m not sure which of the things had really come first in my imagination, the wreck or the final resting place of it’s pollution, but the sensation of being finally at the site made me hurry towards it.

Guernsey’s small and the headland that contained the quarry had the strange illusion of a model world, the golf course and sea defences, archaeological sites and shooting club all butted up against each other. I’d encounter this feeling of being in a model over and over again; in the Land’s End entertainment complex carpark, later in on the office park near by Hotel in St Peter Port I’d come across a model grouping of menhirs. And then there was the all too human scale of the neolithic monuments. I’d even find that the flat high ground over looking the side of the quarry was itself a model airplane flying club. I was getting this disorientating feeling of scale being out of whack - dealing with both impossibly deep timeframes but also an increasingly odd sense of scale in relation to my own body.

I found the quarry gates and looked in. In the break in the rain the sun had warmed the granite walls and oiled surface of the water and I could smell the crude oil. For the first time I wanted to own some of it. Not as an idle thought, I was overwhelmed with it like a hunger, to touch and ultimately have and keep some of this black shining dirt in the quarry.

 

It’s been raining for days and on the news leaders are flying into Cairo to talk about the rising seas and rising temperature. Outside my studio the ground is sodden wet, the street drains flood, fetid water is washed down sewers into the sea. The roof leaks, nothing dries. It’s easy to imagine a drowning world.

The Seven Stones reef lies a few miles off the Scilly Isles in the channel between Land’s End and the islands. At low tide it’s the last above sea fragment of a line of granite bodies that run the spine of Cornwall down through to the Scilly isles, the channel now sunk perhaps 16,000 perhaps 10,000 years ago as the sea, flooded with ice water, rises. The Scilly were once one island, before that the end of the peninsular.
 

FAST AND SLOW HAPPENING

Time has categorical varieties: each gravitational field in the

cosmos has a different time varying according to mass. On earth at the same instant of celestial time, no two spots really have the same relation to the sun despite our useful convention of time- zones regulating the regional concordance of clocks. When we define duration by span, the lives of men and the lives of other creatures obey different durations, and the durations of artifacts differ from those of coral reefs or chalk cliffs, by occupying different systems of intervals and periods. The conventions of language nevertheless give us only the solar year and its multiples or divisions to describe all these kinds of duration.

George Kubler: The Shape of History

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Sutton Hoo, not a boat but the trace of a boat, down to its nails and the grain of its wood. Not a shipwreck but a burial - but perhaps the difference doesn’t hold - the same thing, a fossil, resting just below the surface of the earth for 1300 years. A boat with treasure, such beautiful things, but one resting on older sites of bronze age and neolithic peoples, each marking the land in their own intentional and unintentional ways. There can be no such thing as a pristine resting place for a wreck - not the bottom of the sea, not the reef, not the land. The wreck brings a new combination of people and things into a loose alliance and then breaks it apart. One of those things carried by the boat builders of Sutton Hoo into their wreck grave is bitumen all the way from the tar fountain of Cheshmeh Qir Dehloran in modern day Iran.
 

Above my desk I've had pinned, for the whole of the length of this project, a diagramme of the geological ages of earth. An image of a spiral where those things familiar to us; the dinosaurs then birds, the mammals then our forebears, are there on the late spiral arm. The imaginable world, one of creatures and plants, one see in films and picture books. The noise and heat, the sense of brush of the undergrowth and creature noises are conceivable, we can place ourselves into this, even if it’s a bizarre mix of Hollywood shlock and nature documentary. Then there we are, right at the end of the spiral, swinging into the present like the deus ex machina at the end of the play. Almost all of the spiral, spinning away from us here right at the end of it all, like water into a plug, contains pretty much nothing, silent seas with small floating shapes. This really is the challenge of deep time, not the dinosaur but the endless eons of plankton.
 

In all this the wreck feels very distant. I’m now familiar with every angle of the moment of disaster, I wonder if the period of wrecking itself is noteworthy for the civilian use of overhead helicopter photography. In fact so many things about the wrecking feel clumsily transplanted from military action. Hardly surprising really - how old must the men in charge be in 1967? Forties? Fifties? Most would have served in the second world war in so frame, it’s hard enough now for people to not lurch into the language of conflict, invasion, despoilment. But they I wonder how more ambivalent the experience of watching an oil disaster would be then. It’s novel obviously - it’s not as though people were unaware of the dangers, but as the ships went further and became bigger the risk grew. The Torrey Canyon was a huge ship - a supertanker, a suezmax, some of the largest single mobile structures humans have made. 

On my shelf I have the lady bird book of oil, published in 1968 - it must have been being commissioned, written and illustrated with this disaster on the news. It’s an unalloyed celebration of the vast change that oil has brought and the great future it brings. The worlds food shortage will be solved: “If experiments are successful, only forty million tons of petroleum every year could cure the protein shortages of millions of people” we will eat oil, spread it on our fields, feed it to our animals, create ever new materials, green the deserts, The supply is endless and the possibilities inexhaustible. And all dependent on the movement of these vast ships and their sealed lakes of ancient oil moving safely around the globe.t. But they I wonder how more ambivalent the experience of watching an oil disaster would be then. It’s novel obviously - it’s not as though people were unaware of the dangers, but as the ships went further and became bigger the risk grew. The Torrey Canyon was a huge ship - a supertanker, a suezmax, some of the largest single mobile structures humans have made. 

The reports in the 1980s from the wreck itself shows both fragmentation and recovery of it’s immediate environment. The wreck sunk and fractured, bombed - and almost certainly resting on more wrecks and munitions beneath it. I picture it, unseeable, on a pile of teetering wrecks like the toys in a fish tank standing on top of each other. The only real model for what it might look like I have from the wreck of the SS Vina on Brancaster sands in Norfolk. Before parents became cautious we’d, if we got the tide right, walk about the kilometre or so over the doggerland plains to see the ship, now only the hull and stern remaining, and try to peer into the cavity of the aft in which a whole marine wonderland of bright anemones and seaweeds had grown, protected from the sea - and us.