Weird Suffolk: The lost port of Dunwich

The tale of the lost port. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

The tale of the lost port. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

In medieval times, Dunwich was a thriving rival to London, the capital of East Anglia, a town filled with riches: and then, a series of great storms and coastal erosion turned it into Britain’s Atlantis.

The lost town of Dunwich lies far beneath the waves of the North Sea, 50 ft below the surface and up to a mile out from the beach along which visitors walk today.

In its watery tomb lie eight churches, five houses of religious orders, two hospitals and three chapels, illustrating what an important centre Dunwich once was, with its bustling port and Royal charter.

It had grown rich thanks to its exports of wool and grain and imports of timber, fish and furs from the north, fine cloth from Holland and wine from France.

Ships were built at Dunwich which then went on to trade with Europe, travelling to the icy waters of Iceland for cod.

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In 1229, King Henry III requested 40 ships from Dunwich join him in a war against the French: the Suffolk ships formed an eighth of the entire fleet. But Dunwich was already fighting a far more powerful force.

Shingle shifted by the sea began to incur on the harbour forcing those whose livelihood relied on it to physically remove sand and stones by hand.

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Then, in 1286, came the first of many devastating storms which swept away swathes of the town.

Forty-two years later, fierce winds and waves destroyed priories and blocked Dunwich harbour, forcing trade further up the coast – 19 years after that, 400 houses, two churches, shops and windmills were swallowed by the sea: Dunwich’s reign as one of Britain’s principal towns had come to an end.

On his Tour Thro’ The Whole Island of Britain, author Daniel Defoe put forward the theory that Dunwich had suffered “from a certaine peculiar spite and envie of Nature, that suffereth the greedy sea to have what it will.”

Legend has it that sailors and fishermen refuse to go to sea if they hear the chiming of bells from the lost churches of Dunwich which they believe foretell the arrival of another devastating storm while divers who have explored the ruins underwater say they have felt an eerie feeling that they are not alone beneath the waves.

The last church to have fallen prey to erosion was All Saints which was decommissioned in 1758 and gradually fell over the cliffs and on to the beach over the following years.

A contemporary poem by Thomas Gardner spoke of Dunwich’s tragic loss to the sea and the grim consequences of erosion which left sun-bleached bones jutting out of the cliffs where graveyards had been disturbed.

“Thy pomp, thy pow’r, o Dunwich, now’s no more; lost is thy splendor, sunk in endless night; fair trade and commerce have forsook thy shore, and all thy pristine glories vanish’d quite,” it reads.

“The pleasant hills, thy vales, thy rich domains, the sea’s devouring surge hath wash’d away; disclosed thy graves, and gave their last remains to the remorseless waves, a fated prey.”

In 1920, the remaining buttress from the church was saved and moved to St James Church in the village along with a brass memorial dedicated to Jacob Forster, who died 222 years ago on March 12 1796 aged 38 years of age.

Dunwich’s lost majesty is now far beneath the black waves of the North Sea, disturbed only by divers and researchers, a submerged relic of Suffolk’s distant past, remembered only when the underwater bells toll to warn of approaching storms.

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