Historians uncover lost Suffolk port
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
It comes as no surprise that Britain’s coastlines are constantly changing and evolving due to a variety of natural and unnatural forces.
However, here in Suffolk, a lost port has just been discovered where Shingle Street now is – much to the surprise of all involved.
This recent and eye-opening discovery will help scientists and historians understand more about East Anglia’s past - but how did this happen, and what does it mean for the future of Suffolk’s coastline?
The man who recently discovered this fascinating find is Mark Bailey, a professor of late medieval history at UEA, who was brought up in Suffolk and knows the county’s history pretty well.
But it wasn’t until he was approached by a Bawdsey resident with evidence that he was able to piece together the significance of this information.
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“A while ago, Peter Wain, a local historian and retired judge who lives in Bawdsey, was researching some local 15th century documents. He came across references to ‘Oxeneye Haven’ and other evidence that showed there was once a port between Bawdsey and Butley creek. But there is no obvious trace of this port in the landscape, and the whole area has been farmland for centuries, so this was a surprise, and he asked me to help make sense of his findings.”
Peter and Mark did further research, which confirmed a sizeable haven once existed on the east side of Alderton and north of Bawdsey, and reached the sea above Oxley farm, which was then an island. They found that the port had disappeared by about 1600.
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“I raised this with professor David Sear, a scientist at Southampton University, who said its disappearance fitted his scientific data for storm activity between the 13th and 17th centuries, so the pieces of the jigsaw began to come together.”
In total, it took around 10 months for Mark, Peter and David to piece together this ground-breaking revelation. The trio worked online, looking at a variety of documents, with Mark also walking around the coast alongside another local historian, Val Dudley, to exchange their findings.
“The historians and scientists had accrued some pieces of the jigsaw over time – but it was only when we put all of these different pieces of evidence together that we saw the full picture.
“It happened by chance, but the big picture was very different to the ones we were seeing with our own little fragments in our separate corners.”
The lost port is now farmland with a string of Martello towers lying well below sea level, protected by river walls and sea banks – but in the Middle Ages, it was a very different story.
“In 1250, Orford spit hardly reached past the castle, Havergate island did not exist, and the Butley river flowed directly into the sea. The northern part of Hollesley and part of Boyton, which are now inland, were on the coast, and ships could reach Hollesley village and Alderton through Oxeneye Haven. The port was protected by a shingle bank between Bawdsey cliff and Oxley.”
However, that all changed between the 14th and 16th centuries, thanks to major global climate change.
“The scientific data shows that climate change caused the frequency and severity of storms to increase greatly. Some storms caused Dunwich to be washed away, and others resulted in the deposition of vast amounts of shingle further down the coast, which meant that Orford Ness grew to almost its current length. By 1600, the Butley river flowed into the Ore rather than the sea, and the original Oxeneye Haven was blocked by shingle.
“The old port was no longer accessible, so in the 16th century the former tidal saltmarshes and creeks were embanked behind river walls and the land reclaimed, meaning the old haven and its creeks completely disappeared.”
Mark and Peter’s research shows that the now-sunken port was once home to an array of boats and fishermen, and acted as a busy hub as part of the wider port of Goseford, centred on the River Deben. Goseford was one of Suffolk’s most important medieval ports.
“I had walked along the river walls at Boyton and the shingle at Bawdsey beach for years, but it had never occurred to me that these exact spots were under the sea in 1300 - but once all of the pieces were put together, it was obvious. Erosion events such as Dunwich capture the imagination, but for every erosion event on the Suffolk coast there is a deposition event. While Dunwich was being washed away, Orford spit was rapidly growing in the 14th and 15th centuries due to this storm activity. As Orford Ness grew and shingle was being deposited further south, they deflected the mouth of Butley creek, blocked the mouth of Oxeneye haven, and completed the shingle barrier where Shingle Street now is.
“The growth of the spit from Orford also narrowed the mouth of the Ore, making it more difficult for ships to access and making the river itself shallower. The blocking of the old port increased the sedimentation in the marsh behind Bawsdey beach, making that area much shallower than it had been in 1250. So in the 16th century, it was much easier for coastal communities to build river banks, pump out the water out, and reclaim the land.
“By 1600, the modern coastline would have been recognisable. The traces of the port have disappeared, and Hollesley and Boyton, once on the coast, are now about one and a half kilometres away from the sea.”
After uncovering such a drastic shift in the local landscape, Mark remains aware of the implications this could have for the future of Suffolk’s coast in years to come.
“These findings reinforce the vulnerability of our coastline and its susceptibility to dramatic change. The medieval coastline was transformed as coastal communities responded to global climate change by abandoning some stretches of coast and reclaiming others. As a result, 30% of Suffolk’s coastal zone is currently under sea level, and protected by more than 200km of sea and river walls. It also reinforces how erosion and deposition events are closely linked, and create opportunities as well as threats.
“Until this research, we never really knew when the river walls were formed, and when major land reclamation took place. We can now understand how communities in the past responded to both erosion and deposition events, and we’re in a much better place to inform the managed retreat of the coastline in the future.”