‘The trail starts here,’ says Caroline Millar, Project Manager at Discovering Britain, gesturing at the narrow road, lined on one side by a string of houses – the remaining houses of the village of Dunwich. ‘Then walkers can get a sense that this small village is all there is left.’
I am shadowing Millar, witnessing the process of writing one of the new trails for the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG). ‘Writing a short trail can be challenging,’ says Millar, ‘because they’re shorter and more tightly focused than the longer walks. Like writing a story, part of the task is choosing what not to include.’
In the case of Dunwich, however, what’s not there is the focus of the story. Found right on the edge of the Suffolk coast, this is the legacy of a city reduced to a village. The culprit? Coastal erosion. At its height in the 12th and 13th centuries, Dunwich was one of the largest cities in the country, equal in size to 14th century London. However, over hundreds of years, whole buildings, roads and churches disappeared over the receding cliff edge into the sea below.
“What happened to Dunwich challenges our understanding of solid land. It’s a sobering place, especially as the cliff is still receding today”
‘From here the land would have stretched another two kilometres out to sea,’ says Millar as we approach the beach. ‘It became a major port for the North Sea and traded with countries as far as Scandinavia.’ The sea, however, came at a price. Dunwich’s cliffs, were especially vulnerable. Made of sands and loose stone, they eroded quickly, with large chunks lost to a series of storm surges in the 13th century.
To our left, the coast swings in a broad, flat arc all the way to Southwold, the next town along. The area’s flatness is the second half of Dunwich’s demise: ‘It’s flat because it was once the estuary of the Dunwich river,’ says Millar. ‘The river was the city lifeblood, and trade grew up around it.’ Disaster struck when one of the worst storm surges moved silt into the estuary and diverted the flow of the river northward.
The city, already grappling with the cliff erosion, was brought to its knees. Without the river, the town degraded over seven centuries as the insatiable sea pressed in. It put the town in a watery grave, and gave rise to its nickname among archaeologists: ‘Britain’s Atlantis’.
Standing on the cliff edge, it’s hard to imagine that this would have been the outskirts of the disappeared city. Or even to guess where two kilometres would likely end on the horizon. For walkers, the sea is always a natural terminus. What happened to Dunwich challenges our understanding of solid land. It’s a sobering place, especially as the cliff is still receding today. Hidden defences have been put in place to reduce some of the wave action. However, most of the damage has already been done.
‘It makes you question the permanence of human settlement doesn’t it?’ says Millar as we move along the ridge. ‘Nothing lasts forever.’
We have come on a good day as the first of the snowdrops have appeared between the trees. For a brief moment, the forest becomes an ad hoc mecca for a few photographers lying prostrate in the clumps of flowers, focusing macro lenses. Further along is a single tombstone that once sat on the outer edges of the All Saints church graveyard. The church was all but lost in 1919 (its remaining buttress was moved to nearby St James church in memoriam). This gravestone is the last of dozens sucked one after the other, like shark’s teeth, over the cliff.
Set back from the sea, we pick through the ruins of Greyfriars priory. Moved from its original position closer to the sea in 1290, it now sits so far to the west of the original city that it has – so far – been spared destruction. A friary in the suburbs. Low, bright sunlight throws the area into stark relief and creates long shadows of the ruin’s perforated wall. Creepy sure, but arresting too.
“Ghost stories and legends have thrived on Dunwich’s subject matter and over the centuries its absence has continued to attract the curious and inspire creatives”
Besides Greyfriars, the ruins of the lost city are invisible to the naked eye. Almost disappointingly, there are no husks of medieval buildings poking from the waves, or villagers petrified, Pompeii-like, at low tide. Each building fell off the cliff – sometimes gradually – as it eroded, of which the most durable heaps have been rediscovered in the seabed. But the ruins are not the draw here.
Before these discoveries, the site lured visitors. It seems Dunwich’s pull is also a cerebral one. Ghost stories and legends have thrived on its subject matter and over the centuries its absence has continued to attract the curious and inspire creatives. With muddy browns and greys, artist JMW Turner painted a void of ocean with All Saints perched perilously above; with the arrival of photography, the church’s gradual disappearance was avidly documented by Victorians. ‘And with the church finally lost,’ says Millar, ‘modern writers like WG Sebald came here to explore what he described as “the immense power of emptiness”.’ It is an absence felt like a phantom limb. Over time, scores of visitors have come here to stand on the cliff edge and look nothing in the face.
‘This is a sizeable car park for a village consisting of a few houses, one pub and a beach,’ says Millar. ‘It can get busy in the summer, so seemingly people are still captivated by the idea of absence.’ It becomes clear that the history of Dunwich is more than just the villagers that perished, it is also the visitors who come to contemplate it, standing each decade, a little further back than the last.
This was published in the April 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.