Disappearing Dunwich

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Roy Bullard (UK)

There are many places around the coastline of the British Isles that are quite simply majestic and, in their own unique ways, full of magic. Dunwich lies between the lovely town of Southwold and the village of Sizewell on the East Coast of England in the county of Suffolk. It is a coastal area that is easy to include in this category and is a place that I love to visit. However, as you sit there on the shore watching the cliffs and the North Sea, it is hard to imagine that so much has been lost since the time when Dunwich was once a large, thriving community.

Fig. 1. Sandy cliffs of Dunwich.

My aim in this short article is to take a look at the present state of this coastline and compare it with the coast as it once was before huge amounts of coastal erosion had taken place. In addition, I will take a look at the area’s history and mention, in passing, one of its well-worked, mythical tales.

A steeply sloping shingle beach now lies in front of the cliffs at Dunwich. These cliffs have changed a lot over time but, over the past few years, erosion has decreased substantially. The cliffs today are overgrown and this indicates a significant slowdown in the rate of erosion. However, with the ongoing threat of climate change and rising sea levels, the local residents and council have joined together to act now to protect the northern end of this cliff. As a result, the construction of a small defence work, which uses large, buried sandbags, can now been seen along this part of the beach.

The ancient city of Dunwich was once a thriving Saxon settlement and commercial centre. It was to grow after the Norman Conquest and became one of England’s foremost towns. During this period, it was rich and prosperous with a fleet of ships that traded across the North Sea and into Scandinavia. Sadly, all this was lost to the sea, due to rapid and extensive erosion along this part of the coastline.

Fig. 2. Norwich Crag cliffs at Dunwich.

It is said that, at times of very low tides, you may still hear the ancient church bell of the city that fell into the sea many years ago. So what of that Dunwich history and the times of long ago? In 1754, it was recorded that there was the City of Dunwich surrounded by stonewalls and brazen grass. It was a city that contained chapels, religious houses, hospitals and no less than 52 churches. Therefore, it is surely impossible to deny that Dunwich was a very significant place, probably the most important city in the whole of East Anglia.

Fig. 3. Sand Martins nesting in the cliffs.

It is stated in a manuscript, written during the reign of James I, that hunting was allowed in the forest on the east side of Dunwich – a forest that was 15 miles in depth. Today, the village of Dunwich is right next to the coast so it is hard to appreciate that erosion and the sea have swallowed up all of those 15 miles. So, if we are only now suffering from the effects of ‘global warming’, what was it that caused all this to happen so many years ago? Fifteen miles lost is an enormous distance. We cannot now doubt the opinions of experts and the data on global warming that suggest the overwhelming likelihood of rising sea levels. However, it is must also be clear from Dunwich that times of relatively rapid encroachment by the sea have occurred throughout history.

So why was erosion so rapid? You can see today that the cliffs comprise of sand and fine gravels. This is part of the Norwich Crag series probably deposited about 1.6mya, just before the Pleistocene ice age. Gravels in the upper part of the cliff consist of well-rounded, flint pebbles, mixed with sand layers and some muddy bands, giving a brown, rusty colour. Paler white or yellow sands are prominent below the Norwich Crag gravels and often consist of orange/brown, muddy layers. Such sands, gravels and mud provide little defence against the powerful North Sea and heavy rain has also caused the cliffs to slump and slide. As a result, over the period of hundreds of years, the cliffs have receded by at least the 15 miles referred to above.

Fig. 4. The remains of the Greyfriars Monastery.

Those visiting the beach must remember that the cliff is still quite unstable and liable to collapse at any time. In fact, the nesting of sand martins has also made parts of the cliff even more unstable. Tidal currents here are also very strong and it is advised that you take great care at the water’s edge, particularly where there is loose shingle. Waves of untiring energy and ceaseless activity have constantly washed these shores resulting in places that were once comparatively far inland now being washed by the waters of the deep!

Fig. 5. Construction of the new defence, March 2007.

The Dunwich of today is a quiet, small village but very popular with visitors especially during the summer months. Now, a small fleet of inshore fishing boats catch and sell their fish locally on the beach and there is a fine fish restaurant to be found on the beach that is highly popular and packed with visitors in peak season. The village pub, the Ship Inn, remains and is, in itself, an ancient part of the local history and (perhaps more importantly) still serves fine Adnams ale and food daily. The Inn has an underground tunnel linking it to the former monastery that allowed the monks of old passage to the Inn to drink without the knowledge of the locals!

Today, the remains of that monastery, Greyfriars Monastery, can still be seen. This monastery was completed in 1307 and was one of East Anglia’s most important Franciscan centres. It sadly became a ruin after the dissolution during the reign of Henry VIII. St James Church, in the present village of Dunwich, was built on the site of the former leper hospital in around 1830 and over 20 different types of building stone can be found in the chancel alone, mostly local flints with Caen limestone. It is also constructed of red, white and pink granites with black dolerite, and basalt also to be seen.

Fig. 6. Construction of the new defence, March 2007.

I hope this article has inspired some people to visit the site for both its geomorphology and geology, and also its fascinating history. More information of this location can be found at http://www.ukfossils.co.uk/Fossils-and-Geology/Dunwich/Dunwich.htm.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: