Dunwich: East Anglia’s Atlantis
Dunwich is half the town it used to be. Literally. Although if you go by population figures, then it’s actually a sixteenth of the size it was in 1086 (thank you Doomsday book).
When I was a child, my Lowestoft-born grandfather would say: “Listen carefully, and you can still hear the old church bells toll from their watery grave.” Although he was usually off his head on a combination of Brylcreem fumes and full-sugar ginger beer, so you couldn’t always trust what he said.
At one-point Dunwich rivalled London as England’s most important port, which is hard to imagine when you walk through the idyllic Suffolk village these days. There’s not a Nando’s in sight. But back in the day it was a bustling port, exporting wool and grain and importing fish, fur, timber, cloth and wine. It was also famous for its shipbuilding industry – so much so that in 1229, King Henry III put in an order for 40 ships so he could go and fight the French – like you did back in those days.
During the Anglo-Saxon period (500AD to 918AD), Dunwich was the capital of the Kingdom of the Angles, until the Angles were incorporated into the Kingdom of England in 918. However, the town really rose to prominence following the Norman invasion.
Unfortunately for Dunwich (and the east coast in general), it was battered by major storm after major storm, every year for decades during the 13th and 14th centuries. These storms have been compared to the ones which hit the south-west in 2013-14. Sadly, for the medieval denizens of Dunwich, neither David Cameron nor Nigel Farage were around to don wellies and Barbour jackets and wade around looking indifferent, as people’s homes and livelihoods floated past.
East Anglia has been plagued by the threat of erosion ever since the planet warmed up and sea levels rose at the end of the last ice age. Much of its coastline is comprised of glacial till, which is very easily eroded by the action of the sea (particularly during stormy conditions). However, it wasn’t just erosion that did for Dunwich; over the course of the fourteenth century, the River Dunwich permanently changed its course, significantly impacting the transportation of goods in and out of the town. The final nail in the coffin came in 1328, when a fierce storm moved so much shingle it blocked the harbour; leading to economic disaster as shipping, trade and ultimately people, moved elsewhere.
In its heyday, Dunwich had ten churches, a small monastery, two friaries, two hospitals and a House of the Knights Templar (a Catholic military order founded in 1119). All that remains now, aside from the village itself, are the ruins of the thirteenth century priory and leper hospital. St. James’s Church looks like a typical, medieval East Anglian church; however, it was actually built in 1832 – so don’t be fooled!
Dunwich is a lovely village, with access to a fantastic beach (although be warned: it is stoney!). There are some great cafés and a pub – plus it has a small museum which is open everyday except Mondays and Tuesdays. You can enjoy a walk around the priory ruins and nearby forest.
Dunwich was also a filming location for the BBC’s 1968 adaptation of M. R. James’s Whistle, and I’ll Come to You. The hotel where Professor Parkin stayed is now part of Cliff House Holiday Park. You can stay there too and imagine that you are an elderly academic being haunted by a spectre that you evoked by blowing on a strange bone whistle. Have fun!