Midway between the town of Aldeburgh and the seaside resort of Southwold, two popular spots on Britain’s Suffolk coast, lies the quiet rural village of Dunwich. Around 200 people live in this one-road settlement with its cosy pub/B&B, local museum, long gravel beach and monastery ruins.
You wouldn’t know it now, but in the Middle Ages the village of Dunwich was a thriving port, the size of the City of London’s square mile, built on fishing, trade and religious patronage. Greyfriars Monastery was established by Franciscan monks in the 1250s on low-lying ground close to the sea.
In 1286, a massive storm swept away the monastery, along with many homes and other buildings. The crumbling stone walls you can visit today are the remains of the “new” friary, rebuilt in the late 13th Century on land half a mile from the sea. Those ruins now stand perilously close to the edge of the cliffs, which illustrates how storms, surges and coastal erosion continue to invade the village of Dunwich.
In the years since that catastrophic event of 1286, a legend arose that the medieval town remained intact below the surface of the water: Britain’s very own “Atlantis”. Locals have even claimed that at certain stormy times you can hear the church bells ringing. They usually hear these bells as they are staggering home from the local pub after closing time!
“This stretch of coastline has a ghostly quality,” said novelist Esther Freud, great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud, who lives in nearby Walberswick; her grandparents migrated to the area after fleeing Nazi Germany. “Walking along the shoreline on a misty day, you feel the past and present intermingled in this strange liminal space between land and sea.”
Experts thought the old medieval town would have long ago been broken up by the waves and washed away. That is, until evidence began to emerge that this legend of “Britain’s Atlantis” was not just a fanciful tale.
Fishermen, in the 1960s, began to report nets snagging on something below the surface of the water where the old town used to stand. Those reports prompted local marine archaeologist and diver, Stuart Bacon, to search for the remains of the last church to be taken by the sea: All Saints, which finally tumbled from the cliffs in 1911.
Although the North Sea is hostile and usually has almost zero visibility, Bacon persisted. On a rare clear day in 1972, he saw the church’s tower looming through the water, covered in pink sponges and crawling with crabs and lobsters. A subsequent dive also revealed the ruins of another church, St Peter’s, but it wasn’t until several decades later that a full survey of the seabed provided a much fuller picture of what lay beneath the waves.
David Sear, professor at the University of Southampton’s Department of Geography, digitising an existing 16th-Century map of the town, which showed the village of Dunwich as it would have been, Sear was able to pinpoint where some of the structures of the lost town might be found. In 2008, he hired a crew, took out a sonar-equipped boat and began his technological search of the seabed. He still remembers that moment when the boat neared the first possible site. “Everyone went very quiet when we approached the first site and waited,” he said. “Then suddenly there was a ping as the sonar detected something and, on the bank of computer screens in the cabin, we saw chunks of masonry appearing”.
Within a square mile just off the shore of the modern village of Dunwich, Sear and his team were able to locate medieval Blackfriars monastery, St Nicholas Church, St Peter’s Church, All Saints, St Katherine’s Chapel, and chunks of masonry that could have been the town hall and various port buildings. The mythical lost village of Dunwich was not lost at all, but lying on the seabed – almost exactly where the Tudor map maker and the old storytellers claimed it would be.
The story of the village of Dunwich is not unique. There are more than 300 settlements in the North Sea basin that have been lost over the last 900 years due to coastal erosion or flooding. Dunwich, however, was the largest of the lost towns. A reconstructed model at Dunwich Museum allows you to see it as it probably looked in its heyday.
Offshore, the Dunwich bank (a shifting sand bank) is moving landwards as the coastline rolls back. “The tantalising possibility is that, as the cliffs recede further and the sandbank migrates inshore, we should start to see some of these earlier buildings gradually exposed. These are likely to be much more intact,” Sear said.
It’s an exciting prospect and one that could bring visitors back to the village of Dunwich in numbers not seen since its zenith. However, it may not happen for some time: Scientists estimate at least another 50 years, perhaps longer.
There is a cautionary note mixed in with this potential excitement. “What we have here is the story of a community failing to deal with rapid changes in its circumstances,” warned Sear. “We will see this happening in other places around the world as communities reach a tipping point beyond which they can no longer absorb series of continuous knocks. He added: “In the 1120s everyone wanted to invest in Dunwich, but by 1270 the damage to infrastructure and the blocking of the port led to loss of revenue. Soon people began pulling out and trading elsewhere.”
As we grapple with the global impact of climate and socio-economic change, the tale of the village of Dunwich is not just a ghostly story of the past. The ghosts of the present and future are woven through it as well.