Goodwin Sand's Campaigners Fight Against Dover's Dredging

After Dover Harbour Board were given the go-ahead to dredge part of Deal's famous Goodwin Sands 3 years ago, Fiona and Joanna have been working tirelessly to save the town's most important landmark from irreversible damage.

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Just off the coast of Deal and in the middle of the English Channel lies a 10 mile long naturally formed sandbank named the Goodwin Sands. It’s an area of huge significance with archaeologists, marine historians, conservationists and many local residents. However, the future of the Sands as we know it, is currently under threat, and not from what you might think.

Just up the road is the busy town of Dover. Well known across the UK as being the gateway to French holidays, Banksy’s Brexit Mural and for the departure of 50 ferries per day. The town is currently undergoing some well deserved regeneration, however it is Dover Harbour Board’s Western Docks Revival that is threatening the existence of the famous Goodwin Sands.

As part of the £250 million rebuilding of the Western Docks, Dover Harbour Board want to dredge part of the famous Sands for aggregate, essentially for landfill. They want to take 2.5 million cubic metres in a 6 year period, taking about 13% of the overall total area of the Sands purely to plug holes in the Western Dock.

“We have no intention of wanting to stop the regeneration, it's essential for Dover, it's incredibly important that more money and funding is put in to Dover. We challenge the need to actually use the Goodwins.”

What Will The Aggregate Dredged From The Goodwin Sands Be Used For?

There is no concrete plan on what that area is set to be used for in the regeneration plans; bars and Restaurants are planned instead towards the Marina. It has been suggested perhaps it will be used as an alternative to Operation Stack and could become a lorry park, not really a respectful use of the dredged Sands.

“[The sand is] going to fill in the two basins in Dover, [there is] no designated purpose for this land yet”

 “We could be wrong but we think it's going to be a lorry park… it's actually where the lorries come off the ferries and who's going to want to sit in a bar with lorries belching diesel out all over [the place]!”

“When we went to their annual meeting last summer [they said] ‘oh it depends on Brexit’ but the Western Docks Revival program was put forward before Brexit was even thought about so it's got nothing to do with Brexit!”

What is the Goodwin SOS Campaign?

The Sands were used in the building of the Channel Tunnel over 25 years ago but attitudes towards the environment have changed a lot since then. What the developers probably didn’t bank on was being postponed by a fast growing local opposition group called the Goodwin Sands SOS Campaign.

“It's a bit like somebody saying they're going to quarry the White Cliffs of Dover!”

The Goodwin Sands SOS Campaign was set up by a group of Deal residents to oppose Dover’s dredging plans back in 2016 - however 3 years on only two founding members remain, Fiona Punter and Joanna Thomson and they haven’t come up for air since. 

The team have delivered a petition of nearly 20,000 signatures strong to the Marine Management Organisation, successfully campaigned to get the area confirmed as a designated Marine Conservation Zone by DEFRA and have secured the backing of many notable supporters. 

“They're… unique in terms of their environment and the ecology of the sands from the little wiggly worms that live in there which are part of the lower part of the food chain, from the seals and the pupping grounds.” 

“People have lost their lives, thousands of ships and thousands of sailors going back centuries.”

The Goodwin Sands SOS Campaign states four main reasons the iconic site should be protected: the habitat it creates for a variety of wildlife, the part it plays in protecting the coastline, it’s recognition in UK Cultural History and lastly, perhaps the most poignant of reasons, it is the final resting place for many sailors and pilots throughout maritime history.

Maritime History

Perhaps the most poignant of reasons for wanting to preserve the Goodwin Sands, is the fact that it is the final resting place for many sailors and pilots throughout maritime history. David Brocklehurst MBE, Chairman the Kent Battle Of Britain Museum believes the archaeology of the Sands is like no other…

“It was very much Britain's front line during 1940-45… out of 544 Airmen that were killed in the Battle of Britain 191 still remain missing.. more people were lost in this area, Hellfire Corner and the Goodwin Sands anywhere else.”


Fiona and Joanna are constantly consulting experts in Marine Ecology and Archaeology to understand fully the impact Dover’s dredging plans may have on the Deal Coastline. 

Several types of fish, blue mussels, ross worms and shellfish are all under threat from the dredging. However, the Goodwin Sands are surprisingly most known for a colony of 500 grey and harbour seals which live on them, right in the middle of the English Channel!


The Goodwin Sands protect the town of Deal and adjacent villages of Walmer and Kingsdown by creating a natural anchorage named The Downs. In unsafe weather conditions it is not uncommon to see cargo ships, ferries and even the Border Force sheltering close to the beach.

War Graves

There is said to be around 2,000 shipwrecks on the Goodwin Sands; on one infamous occasion in 1703, four ships sank simultaneously drowning their 1,200 crew in one night. 

“In modern times the Lighthouse ship went down… from the early nineteen fifties so… it touches people that are still alive [and] that have got loved ones missing in that area.”

Dover Harbour Board has since surveyed the Sands to find artefacts of archaeological importance, however Fiona and Joanna weren’t convinced by their analysis so send their independent diver, Vince, down to take another look.

One of the problems with diving on the Goodwin Sands is that they are always moving from the tide. You could dive down one day and see a multitude of artefacts but on the next they may have been covered up again by the shifting sand. Nonetheless, Vince’s findings were staggering and included: three plane engines, two propeller blades, and a boiler from a steam ship. As well as, the possible site of a World War II Bomber which had previously been identified twice by Dover Harbour Board’s archaeological contractor as a purely a “seafloor disturbance”.

“Archeologists call it ground truthing… the common parlance would be ‘eyeballing it’ – you actually need to send someone down to have a look and if it's covered by sand and you don't know what it is.. you should give it a jolly wide birth.”

Joanna Thomson believes that “the moral compass has been lost”. The Crown Estate, which owns the Goodwins, has protection in place for War Graves stating that they should be left untouched, this includes not granting any dredging licenses…which they seem to have disregarded in the case of the Goodwin Sands.

Long term Marine Archaeologists have expressed to the pair how difficult it would be to tell the difference between sand and human remains due to the level of degradation.  

The most shocking confession is that the Goodwin Sands SOS Campaign have it on good authority that once dredging begins, if there are human remains found, the workers may potentially “throw [them] back over the side” “as the protocol for reporting them is such a hassle”.

“Long-term Marine Archaeologists have told us that it's virtually impossible with degradation [to differentiate sand from bone] and we've also been reliably informed that if any bits are found they'll be thrown back over the side… because the protocols of reporting them is just such a hassle and you have to stop.”

Dover Harbour Board’s Response

In response to the Goodwin Sands SOS Campaign, Dover Harbour Board ran a widespread advertising campaign.

“It was two years ago they had posters up, they were on radio, they were in the papers, we haven't got that sort of budget, I'm quite amazed that they were prepared to spend their budget!”

“They were saying we were going to cause them a loss of half a billion pounds in lost revenue and in fact they're being really naughty because in fact, the bars and restaurants they were talking about are all going to go around the new marina.”

Marine Management Organisation Grants License

The Goodwin Sands SOS team looked as if they were on to victory however, around the same time one Government department gave the go ahead on the Marine Conservation Area, another department actually granted the dredging license to Dover Harbour Board.

“It just seemed to us to make such a mockery of the conservation zone public consultation!”

With the Marine Management Organisation seemingly taking a dim view on the newly designated Conservation area, Joanna and Fiona rolled up their sleeves once more and started putting together a strong legal case.

This is when the team started crowdfunding for the legal fees on Crowd Justice - an online platform that has been designed for cases such as this. 

Originally setting a target of £5,000, the Goodwin Sands Campaign have now raised a total of £50,000 from supporters all around the UK. 

With sleepless nights, fundraising targets smashed and countless box files later, the pair had put forward a strong case to the High Court for Judicial Review. 

“We had a reply, a really vitriolic reply in November from a Judge saying this case is completely without merit and that you're not having a judicial review, almost get back in your box sort of thing. That really got us cross as well and it was the way he said it he was just so rude and it was very clear he hadn't read the papers because his comments were just wrong.”

Appealing To The High Court

Unsatisfied with this first response, Joanna and Fiona pushed further and were finally granted their appeal and Judicial Review by The Honorable Mrs Justice Thornton on one ground, the MMO had not considered the impact of the physical removal of the sand from the Marine Conservation Zone. Leave was refused for their second ground, that the Marine Management Organisation could not determine the risk to underwater cultural heritage of the Goodwin Sands.

“She'd been an environmental lawyer so we had faith that she understood the system and she granted us our Judicial Review. We thought it'll be all over, done and dusted in a day and we still haven't heard anything and we have no idea when we're going to hear.” 

Long Term Plan For The Goodwin Sands

The Goodwin Sands have always been a place of cultural significance. Sailors have been avoiding them for centuries nicknaming them ‘the ship swallower’, William Shakespeare described them in the Merchant Of Venice as “very dangerous flat and fatal, where the carcasses of many a tall ship lie buried”, Ian Flemming wrote them into Bond’s Moonraker and even as recently as 2012, Members of Parliament have been speculating about building a 24hr airport costing £39 billion pounds on the site. 

UNESCO World Heritage Site

Perhaps in 2019, the Sands could be protected from dredging and go on to be named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the future; Joanna and Fiona’s ultimate goal.

“We’ve come up with a long-term plan and we have created a charity Goodwin Sands Conservation Trust. The long-term aim for that is to get the Goodwins registered under UNESCO as a World Heritage Site which is pretty exciting! It's very ambitious... we hope we live long enough!”

Save The Goodwin Sands - Goodwin Sand's Campaigners Fight Against Dover's Dredging

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