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Heritage - 58: The Road to Nowhere - Dunwich, a Tale of Woe and Ground Lost to the Sea

Updated on April 27, 2020

"... By the lost town of Dunwich...

The shore was washed away.

They say you hear the church bells still,

As they toll between the waves"

[From Al Stewart's song, "The Coldest Winter In Memory"]

Once a hub of Suffolk, Dunwich shares little of its past with those who go now as visitors...

The main street gives nothing away of past centuries...
The main street gives nothing away of past centuries... | Source

Let's take a look into the past

For the last 800 years coastal erosion has claimed what was once a lively North Sea trading haven on the East Anglian coast. A few streets are there now, a few houses and a population can be counted in hundreds. Attractions are few in number aside from the noted Flora Tea Rooms venue that boasts a first-rate fish-and-chip shop.

Much of what has been succumbed to hammer-like waves - pictures show them in their destructive glory in the local museum. In a macabre way a thriving business has arisen from a lost heritage and calamitous misfortune. Twelve churches, a market square, guildhall and a rivermouth haven have been swallowed and obstructed by winter rollers. A stroll along the shingle yields artefacts, slicers of history that include human remains from a cemetery gradually losing to a watery fate for the town's past denizens.

This was a profitable haven with a population of around three thousand and a prominent place in King William I's AD 1086 Domesday survey.

Storms began to make away with parts of the town from AD 1286

The early Mediaeval manor of Dunwich
The early Mediaeval manor of Dunwich
The Mediaeval shore of Dunwich - erosion storm damage shifted the river's outflow northward to Walberswick
The Mediaeval shore of Dunwich - erosion storm damage shifted the river's outflow northward to Walberswick
The Priory, Dunwich, yielding annually to winter weather and storms
The Priory, Dunwich, yielding annually to winter weather and storms | Source

Another huge storm vented its fury and took a huge toll of what remained in AD 1362

...The vanishing coastline - a fate shared with much of Holderness in the East Riding of Yorkshire - puts paid to more each passing winter, of what remains of Greyfriars monastery are a haunting reminder of the Renaissance era of English history that took much of the fabric of Mediaeval England. There is a feeling of loss in the village that once boasted a lion's share of England's wool traffic. What is left will be no longer well before the next century dawns.

Dunwich as it is can be found on the coast between Southwold and Leiston.

From the 15th Century Dunwich had been known as 'Dommoc'...

An archaeological map of Dunwich established from digs at low tide
An archaeological map of Dunwich established from digs at low tide
A period photograph shows the extent of cliff erosion in the 19th Century
A period photograph shows the extent of cliff erosion in the 19th Century

...Seat of the East Aengle (East Anglian) bishops of a kingdom converted early in the 7th Century

... in the reign of King Raedwald and established for Saint Felix by King Sigeberht around AD 629. 'Dommoc' was the bishop's seat until around AD 870 when the kingdom was overrun briefly by the pagan Danes under Guthrum, their self-styled King of East Anglia after the death of the Anglian king Eadmund. The region became part of the Danelaw by agreement between Guthrum and Aelfred, king of the West Saxons

'Domesday' shows 'Dommoc' as owning three churches, with a population of around 3,000. Most of the buildings known in the 13th Century have gone, with all eight churches - five added between Domesday in AD 1086 and the winter storm of AD 1286. The nearby village of Newton was also claimed by a flood of AD 1328. Nineteen years later a further storm sucked around four hundred dwellings into the surging sea. On 16th January, 1362 much of what was left of Dunwich was wrecked by a further winter storm.

"The Lost City of Dunwich"

See description below
See description below | Source

War, invasion and pestilence usually take their toll of mankind's achievements. Howling winter gales, surging seas and the movement of geological features doesn't often receive historical credit. Such was the fate of a large town - by mediaeval standards at least -.on the Suffolk coast. A few ruins stand, but apparently not for much longer, as testimony to past achievements. This was Dunwich, a haven for ships that plied the North Sea with the product Mediaeval England's economy thrived on: wool. A shadow of its antecedent, Dunwich is now merely a village of a few hundred souls, and one fairly new church built to replace eight taken by Mother Nature..

Nicholas Comfort takes you through the town's dark, stark, storm-ridden past

13th Century visitors would be lost, looking for familiar landmarks, never realising the low clifftop ruins were the priory, or their river had moved...

Picture taken in 1949 describes the fate of Dunwich in its fight with nature
Picture taken in 1949 describes the fate of Dunwich in its fight with nature

A sheltered haven grew up where the River Dunwich entered the North Sea...

Coastal erosion and storms brought about a shift in the river's course to exit into the sea at Walberswick, around three miles north of Dunwich at the mouth of the River Blyth. Dunwich was therefore slowly abandoned and its breakwaters breached due to lack of adequate maintenance. Erosion brought further woes.

The Parliamentary constituency of Dunwich kept the right to send two members to Parliament until changes of the 1832 Reform Act and Dunwich proved to be one of the well-known 'Rotten Boroughs'. By the mid-19th Century the town with its populace of 237 had become a decayed and disenfranchised backwater.

A new church, St James, was constructed in 1832 after All Saints, the last of the earlier churches was abandoned, without a rector since 1755. All Saints collapsed into the sea early in the 20th Century.,the last vestiges disappeared in mid-November, 1919.

Historian Stuart Bacon let it be known in 2005 that signs revealed during recent low tides that some shipbuilding had taken place on what had been the riverbank.

Where's Dunwich? The county of Suffolk lies 100 miles (160 kms), north-east of London, its coast stretches from near Felixstowe to just north of Lowestoft

Dunwich is marked on the Suffolk coast south of Lowestoft, and situated between Walberswick and Leiston,
Dunwich is marked on the Suffolk coast south of Lowestoft, and situated between Walberswick and Leiston,

Dunwich, Suffolk

Dunwich Saxmundham, Suffolk, East Anglia, England, IP17 :
Dunwich, Saxmundham IP17, UK

get directions

Now a coastal village threatened by erosion and winter storms; once an East Anglian hub with some shipbuilding and a stake in the Mediaeval wool trade

© 2019 Alan R Lancaster


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    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      18 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      None more so than the force of nature that shaped India and the Himalayas, and it's still 'on the move'. Everest has gained a few feet since Edmund Hilary reached the peak with Sherpa Tenzing in the Coronation year (1953). Earned his knighthood, didn't he!

      Glad you enjoyed the tour of East Suffolk. There's another in the HERITAGE series on London Bridge, and one on Wren's churches in the Square Mile (the City of London, started off by the Romans as a trading post around AD 40.

      Enjoy the read Maggs

    • maggs224 profile image


      18 months ago from Sunny Spain

      I really enjoyed this Alan, I had often heard the term Rotten Borough and thanks to you I was inspired to go and find out about them and so now I know.

      It is amazing how the forces of nature can make, break or shape a physical area to this extent and even in this day and age it puts us in our place.

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      20 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      It's the climate change forum, isn't it emge. We'll have polar bears riding ever-decreasing ice floes down past Japan next. Our east coast has been battered for a long time though, since before the climate change bandwagon started to roll. Trouble is, in some parts of East Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and East Anglia the cliffs aren't up to a battering from the North Sea, and physical features are apt to change drastically over the centuries. On the north side of the mouth of the Humber a long spit of land, Spurn Head,.has lengthened to about halfway to Lincolnshire from the easternmost reaches of Holderness. It's all material that's been dragged along the Yorkshire coastline by. the strong current. The same's happened on the East Anglian coast. Councils are faced with the decision, "Which towns/villages to protect, and which to leave to nature?" Mother Nature being as voracious as she is, the coastline will be back pretty much as it was in the early Middle Ages after the Romans left.

      Meanwhile the west coast is lifting, so one day we won't need to take the ferry to Ireland... Boris Johnson has unveiled plans to build a bridge across the narrowest point of the Irish Sea between Ulster and Scotland... If only the Scots had known that, they could've gone by car or bus to the west of Caledonia!.

    • emge profile image

      MG Singh emge 

      20 months ago from Singapore

      This is a fascinating article. I havent been to this place but I am sure it would be a pleasure to travel around. I am also reading that many islands in the South Pacific are getting submerged. The sea can be quite unforgiving.


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