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 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 lower-lying ground closer to the sea.
But a massive storm in 1286 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. They now stand perilously close to the edge of the cliffs – illustrating how storms, surges and coastal erosion turned the tide on thriving Dunwich, some of which was later built on higher ground.
The ruins you see today are remains of a 13th-Century monastery, built to replace the one swept away by the sea (Credit: Paul Dunn/Getty Images)
In the intervening years 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.
“This stretch of coastline has a ghostly quality,” said novelist Esther Freud, great-granddaughter of Sigmund, 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.”
This stretch of coastline has a ghostly quality
Experts, however, thought the old 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, but that medieval Dunwich – in at least some of its former glory – was out there, just metres from the shore.
The quiet town of Dunwich was once a thriving medieval port (Credit: Graham Prentice/Alamy)
From around the 1960s, fishermen began to report nets snagging on something below the surface of the water where the old town used to stand. These 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.
A map put together by Sear’s team shows where the 16th-Century coastline and buildings would have been (Credit: GeoData University of Southampton)
David Sear, professor at the University of Southampton’s Department of Geography and Environmental Science, grew up holidaying in Dunwich as a child. “Thirty or so years later I became interested in using the latest sonar technology to map riverbeds and suddenly my childhood interest in this mythical lost city and my academic interests came together,” he said.
By digitising an existing 16th-Century map of the town, which showed 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 and took out a sonar-equipped boat and began his technological search of the seabed.
Guided by sonar, divers looked for the ‘lost’ city of Dunwich (Credit: D. A. Sear)
He still remembers that moment when the boat neared the first possible site. “Everyone went very quiet when we came up towards 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.”
And then it kept happening.
Everyone went very quiet when we came up towards the first site and waited
Within a square mile just off the shore of modern 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 town 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.
St Katherine’s Chapel appears on the seabed hundreds of years after being ‘lost’ (Credit: Sear et al 2013)
The story 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.
“Dunwich boasted about 10 churches, two friaries (Blackfriars and Greyfriars) and its port and daily market made it a very important trading post and centre for ship building,” said museum manager Jane Hamilton. “Dunwich merchants were rich men, profiting from the wine, stone, wool and salt trades. Their prosperity would have been reflected in the buildings in which they lived, making Dunwich an outwardly wealthy place.”
But its success was threatened by its geography. Dunwich was established on the estuary and mouth of the Dunwich River, which allowed trade to flourish. The northern part of the town was built on low-lying ground close to the river, while the centre was built on the higher ground to the south, where the soil was made of highly erodible sands and gravels. Severe storms in the 1280s and 1320s destroyed buildings and blocked the harbour on which trade depended. The lower lying areas were inundated during storms and storm surges, while the higher ground was eroded as the cliffs collapsed.
Imaging of masonry from St Peter’s from the explorations done by Sear and his team (Credit: Sear et al 2013)
The way in which these two parts of the town were destroyed is directly related to the remains that have, so far, been found.
“While we discovered the buildings that had fallen from the cliffs landed in pretty much the same spot, albeit broken into chunks, the earlier, low-lying part of the town is more likely to have been submerged” with building foundations relatively intact, said Sear.
Offshore, the Dunwich bank (a mobile 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 Dunwich in numbers not seen since its zenith. However, it may not be for some time. While it’s impossible to know when this reveal could happen, scientists estimate not for at least another 50 years, perhaps longer.
As the sandbank off Dunwich migrates inshore, some of the ‘lost’ medieval buildings might be exposed (Credit: Graham Custance Photography/Getty Images)
And alongside the thrill of its rediscovery and the possibility of more to come, there is a cautionary tale.
“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 Dunwich is not just a ghostly story of the past. The ghosts of the present and future are woven through it too.