Dunwich – an English town lost to the sea

Dunwich village

St James Church in Dunwich

The main street through the village looks pretty but unremarkable. A pub on the corner giving off the tempting smell of freshly-fried chips; a row of old cottages with a rusty bench in a modest front garden; a stone church with a sleepy, slightly overgrown graveyard. But Dunwich in Suffolk is no ordinary village. Despite having a current population of barely 100, at one time this was the largest port on England’s east coast and in the 13th century had a population of over 4,000, making it one of the most important cities in the country.

Where is that old Dunwich? The answer lies down at the beach, or to be precise under it. Staring at the waves lapping harmlessly against the shore I try to imagine a major trading port with merchant ships from across Europe coming and going; a thriving community with churches and monasteries, a busy marketplace, money-lenders, craftsmen; and people from miles around coming into town to buy exotic items from foreign shores. But I can’t; all I see is the brown water of the North Sea, a few people enjoying the sun and in the distance the giant golf-ball dome of the nuclear power station at Sizewell.

dunwich map

The yellow line showing the current shore, with everything to the left now lost to the sea

I head to the village museum to learn more about the demise of Dunwich. It’s been a gradual, relentless process of erosion in which the sea has claimed 2000 metres of shoreline since Roman times – that’s a metre a year on average. It was erosion that made the perfect harbour which allowed Dunwich to flourish for several centuries; the same process then silted up the harbour in a major storm in 1328. With ships unable to come and go from the port, they took their trade elsewhere. The town lost its most important asset and people drifted away.

Over the centuries the sea gradually ate away at the shoreline, with each storm taking another 20 metres here, another 100 metres there. The houses, typically made of mud and straw, were abandoned to the elements, leaving the churches, the only buildings that would have used stone, to fall into ruin. There were 12 churches and monastic buildings in Dunwich’s heyday, all but one now a pile of rocks somewhere under all that silt and water.

The museum, staffed by local volunteers and funded entirely by donations, does an excellent job in telling the story of Dunwich. There are artefacts found along the shore, including an elaborate Dutch treasure chest. There’s also a short film and a simple graphic that shows the process by which the erosion has changed the local landscape.

Treasure Chest in Dunwich Museum

Treasure Chest in Dunwich Museum

I visit the Church of St James on one of the higher points in the village. It’s home to the ruins of a leper hospital, one of the only surviving traces of old Dunwich. There’s a stone pillar in the graveyard; this is the last remaining piece of the once-mighty All Saints Church. One of the largest churches in Suffolk until the early 18th century, the coastline approached and gradually consumed it, by the early 20th century leaving this solitary ruin waiting to be claimed. It was then that the stones were taken to the relative safety of St James churchyard.

All Saints Church Dunwich

The gradual collapse of All Saints Church

I ask the volunteer at the museum about the future prospects for Dunwich. The elderly man tells me that the museum lies on the 70 year line; in other words, if erosion continues at its current rate, the museum, and all the land between it and the coast, will be lost in around 2084 (give or take). He’s hopeful that recent measures by the Environment Agency will help save the village from further loss; I can’t help but wonder if people have shared the same optimism over the centuries.  In any case he tells me, at his age he’s hardly going to lose any sleep worrying about it.

Churchyard of St James Dunwich

Churchyard of St James Dunwich

Pillar from All Saints Church Dunwich

Solitary salvaged pillar from All Saints Church Dunwich

Leper Hospital Dunwich

The ruins of the old leper hospital in Dunwich

Author Information

Freelance travel writer

2 Responses to “Dunwich – an English town lost to the sea”

  1. Wow that was fascinating! I love that there is a whole museum and timeline for this place. So much of old history is lost and so much of life is lived thinking only 10 minutes into the future. It’s really great to see this perspective of how life on earth is constantly changing — even if slowly.

    April 17, 2014 at 7:18 pm
  2. A potential canary in the coal mine vis a vis global warming for the entire world? Sea levels continue to rise and the world is vulnerable, just like poor Dunwich…!

    Great article!

    May 1, 2014 at 6:56 am