Cockle Row Cottages, GroomsportThe little beach in front of these ancient cottages (now a summer attraction) seems at first glance like any other shingly patch of sand. But closer inspection reveals a curious thing. Infinite fragments of pottery wash in on every tide! This phenomenon was first noticed, as far as I know, about ten years ago by Kim Barry, one of the seasonal attendants employed by North Down Borough Council, when she adjourned there for her lunch on fine days! And she began to realise the fragments made sense – pictures could be pieced together, pictures of smartly-dressed Victorian men!

Intrigued, she began to ask around, and a local lobster fisherman told her he had raised similar items close to the rocky point projecting from the south-westerly corner of the big Copeland Island! This is the site of the wreck of the large American sailing ship Mermaid in January 1854! Kim was certainly on to something!

The Mermaid, a new ship, belonging to the port of Bath, Maine, had left Liverpool just after New Year for Philadelphia with a very varied and valuable general cargo. Running before a south-easterly gale and snowstorm, and with Captain Robinson allegedly still drunk from carousing in the ale-houses of Liverpool, she passed close to Donaghadee under full sail to the dismay of watchers ashore. Sure enough, she careered across the Sound and ended up on the island.

Although the skipper threatened to shoot anyone who came aboard, he and all 28 crew were gallantly rescued by an island boat and a boat from the mainland. Till the sea went down, they were hastily accommodated in a barn! Meanwhile, the cargo was spilling out. Despite three coastguards being despatched to the island, where they had to live in tents, huge amounts were ‘salvaged’ by local coastal residents. Linen, silk, muslin, delft, cutlery – all manner of English manufactured goods in bales and crates were floating away on the tide. One bale is even said to have floated up the Lagan with the tide and been retrieved at the Queen’s Bridge!

So how come the broken crockery is still washing up in Groomsport, three miles away?

A theory is that it was in boxes or crates being landed legally or illegally at Groomsport pier, and broken items were simply discarded and thrown into the sea. So the pieces are in fact only carried a couple of hundred yards. But, fascinatingly, Kim found out more. The pictorial pieces made sense. They were, her researches concluded, empty jars which would be filled with gentlemen’s hair cream for the American market when they arrived!

No less a media celebrity (if you watch Coast) than Professor Mark Horton has been down on his hands and knees on the beach and pronounced the pottery of Victorian manufacture!

So next time you are visiting Groomsport take time to do some beachcombing!