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Last Updated: Tuesday, 23 January 2007, 15:52 GMT
The great scavenging beach party
By Jon Kelly
BBC News, Branscombe beach

With debris strewn across the beach and fires burning along the seafront, Branscombe looks as though it has been battered by a hurricane.

Scavengers on the beach
Most of the lucrative cargo has been taken

In reality, however, the village has been struck by an even more powerful force of nature.

The scavengers, many of them having travelled hundreds of miles through the night, have transformed this little Devon cove into a hubbub of cheerful plunder.

Amid the crackling improvised bonfires and the ever-present rumble of rolling wheelbarrows, the air is filled with chatter about how much the spoils might be worth.

Some say they will fetch 6,000 for a gear box, others think they will be lucky to get 150.

Chop a barrel in half and fill each end with soil, you'll make 100 from a garden centre. Those big packets of cat food will go for 40 on eBay. Or so some reckon.

Family affair

The best pickings have already been taken. Ask Aidy Larkin, a 40-year-old builder from Middlesbrough.

As soon as he heard about the MSC Napoli he headed for the West Country, pitching a tent among the coves.

Their reward - two BMW motorbikes taken on Monday.

"We've managed to lift a few gear boxes this morning, but to be honest the best stuff's gone," says Aidy. "We'll be here until everything's clear.

"Already I've got two 15,000 bikes.

It was like a proper beach party here last night
Howard Harding, a beachcomber

"We've managed to cart away a few barrels and gear boxes, but to be honest everything we take from now on is a bit of a bonus."

This is the morning after the night before.

In the early hours, when it became apparent it was too dark for any more plundering, the scavengers decided to take a break and enjoy themselves.

"It was like a proper beach party here last night. Only a lot colder obviously," says 53-year-old Howard Harding, a carer from Chippenham, Wiltshire.

Howard was in his pyjamas last night watching the 10 o'clock news when he saw images of the spoils on offer, and decided he wanted some of them for himself. He arrived at 0130 to find the celebrations in full swing.

"Fires were burning, there were people singing, bottles were getting passed around. It was brilliant," he smiles, not too bothered that all he left with at 0930 was a Greek bible and few tubs of moisturiser for his wife.

Professional dealers

Others have a more professional interest in the scene. Robert McDonald, 28, is a scrap dealer from Mansfield, Nottinghamshire.

He knows he will be able to make a tidy sum from the twisted metal and spare parts that line the beach.

"When I got here at 0400, the place was packed solid with people. There must have been 1,000 here. I know where I can sell all this stuff, I'm sure most of this lot don't. Still, as long as everyone is having a good time," he says.

Scavengers rolling barrels
People were rolling away barrels through the night

With the bright winter sun shining over Branscombe, most of the revellers seem unconcerned that what is now left will in most cases barely raise the cost of their petrol.

Ali Akabari, a 26-year-old shopkeeper from Manchester, was staying with a friend in Plymouth when he heard the news.

"I can't really be bothered taking anything, to be honest," he admits. "It's a nice day out. I'm enjoying the walk. Maybe I'll bring home a little souvenir or something, but there are easier ways of making money."

Police presence

At first light police began sealing roads around the village. Not that it stopped the scavengers.

Some crossed fields on foot as the sun rose. Danny Gilbert, 33, from Southampton, had his quad bike in the back of his carpenter's van.

"I can't really get much on it. But it was good fun meeting everyone here," he says.

It's like an invasion. It's quite a surreal sight.
Barbara Farquarson, resident

Steve (not his real name), a builder from Falmouth in Cornwall, says: "I rang in sick this morning, and was here by 0730GMT. I am just hoping someone in my local will want to buy these big bags of cat food."

The chatter of hopeful vendors, the camaraderie, a clientele that is 99% male, the atmosphere resembles that of a Sunday morning car boot sale.

Locals are divided about the impact of the scavengers.

"I'm glad they are here. They'll probably clear the beach quicker than the authorities ever could," says Dianne Ffoulkes, 44, an estate agent from nearby Bridport, Dorset.

But Barbara Farquarson, 67, a retired archaeology professor, who lives 100 yards from the beach, is less sanguine.

"It's like an invasion. It's quite a surreal sight. I don't blame people for coming. But it is annoying having to spend an hour and a half travelling one mile because the roads are jammed.

"All night I could hear the sound of barrels being rolled up the hill past my window."

Roads are cordoned off near Branscome Beach

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