Coastal Erosion & The Story of Dunwich

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By Paul Homewood

This is a rerun of a post of mine from 2014, as coastal erosion is back in the news again, on which I will post shortly:

Remains of All Saints Church, Dunwich – 1904

The Tyndall Centre would have us believe that erosion of parts of the East Anglian coast has something to do with climate change. The reality, however, is that the coast has been eroding for thousands of years, and the reason is simple – geology.

As a report by North Norfolk District Council points out:

The central part of the North Norfolk coastline is characterised by soft cliffs, fronted by beaches. The whole of the District’s cliffed coastline is thus susceptible to erosion. The rate of erosion is obviously influenced by the coast protection measures in place, such as sea walls, revetments and groynes; hence some areas experience rapid erosion, whilst in others it is almost completely abated. It should be noted that because the cliffs are created from glacial material they are liable to become more unstable when they have a high water content. The coastline is thus highly dynamic and vulnerable to changes in the climatic conditions (including sea level, storms and surges) and groundwater percolation

The Suffolk coastline suffers from the same problems having “some of the youngest and softest rocks in the UK and for this reason it is one of the UK’s most vulnerable coastlines. The ‘oldest’ rocks are London Clay laid down 50 million years ago. Much of the area consists of Crag laid down 1.5 – 4 million years ago – young in geological terms! The top layer of sand and soil is from the ice age. It is this combination of soft rock which has lead to the serious erosion which has threatened the Suffolk Coast.”

And the Environment Agency, who have set up a “Shoreline Management Plan along the Norfolk and Suffolk coastline between Kelling and Lowestoft. tell us that:

Erosion has always been a problem on the Norfolk coast because of its exposed position and soft rock geology. The entire coast has been eroding throughout documented history, dating back around 1,000 years, and the historical record shows us that several villages have been lost entirely.

Erosion rates are between one and three metres per year, so it has become increasingly difficult and expensive to continue protecting certain locations – and trying to do so makes erosion worse in other areas along the coast.

The village of Dunwich in Suffolk is a classic example. Dunwich is now just a collection of a few houses, with a population of about 100. Yet in the Middle Ages, it had one of the greatest ports on the East Coast, and was the 10th largest town in England. So what happened?

The National Archives list the entry for Dunwich in the Domesday Book, of the 11thC, and then compare with later centuries.

The entry for Dunwich shows that it was one of the largest ports on the east coast, with a thriving fishing industry and around 3,000 residents. The ‘gift’ or tax it paid that year – 68,000 herrings – was more than that of any other Suffolk port. However, this entry also warns that Dunwich lost half of its farmland to erosion along the coast between 1066 and 1086.

In the next century, Dunwich became one of the most important towns in England. Its yearly payment to the Crown rose to £120 13s 4d and 24,000 herrings. By the 13th century, its international status as a trading centre was fading a bit. In the 14th century, the old port had to be abandoned. Over 400 houses were swept away in a single storm. In the 17th century, the sea washed out the high street and reached the market place. Records from the 19th and 20th centuries, such as the census and the Valuation Office survey, reveal a quite different community than that recorded in the Domesday Book. Today, Dunwich has a few cottages, a church, a pub, a small visitor centre and the ruins of a friary.

Note the reference to erosion between 1066 and 1086.

Dunwich Museum tell the story in more detail:

Over the centuries Dunwich has been a Roman fort, the capital of a Saxon Kingdom and the base from which St Felix, the first Bishop of Dunwich, converted East Anglia to Christianity.

By the 11th century it was one of the greatest ports on the east coast, the tenth largest place in England, a crusader port, a naval base, and a religious centre with many large churches, monasteries, hospitals, grand public buildings and even a mint. Its citizens grew wealthy from trade, shipbuilding and a seventy vessel fishing fleet. It had half the population of London and two seats in Parliament. All of it has been lost to the North Sea except for the ruins of the 13th century Franciscan friary on the edge of the cliff and Leper Hospital chapel in the present churchyard.

Dunwich is now a tiny village of barely more than 120 people and a few offshore fishing boats, a friendly 17th century pub, a well-known beach café and of course, a museum devoted to its fascinating history.

Dunwich was becoming a thriving port despite the ravages of Viking raids. The sea, all the time, was changing the coast, producing a safe haven protected by the encroaching spit of land to the north. In the 11th century William the Conqueror, a Norman (themselves descendants of Vikings), marched into Britain and in 1086 he ordered a survey of his new kingdom. This was the Domesday Book, which is kept at the National Archives in Kew. Dunwich rated a long and detailed entry, part of which reads:

‘Edric of Laxfield held Dunwich before 1066 as one manor; Twenty Four Frenchmen with 40 acres of land. Burgesses 236, poor men 180, They pay 4 10s. The land on the cliff used to be 200 acres, as the Sea had carried off the other 100’

This was an early mention of coastal erosion, the factor that was to destroy the town. But at this time the erosion, coupled with the growing spit of land, was creating a near perfect harbour, where ships from the Continent could be safe from gales. Dunwich was a boom town. Ships brought wine from France, alum from Spain, flax from Prussia, and salt from Gascony. Cheese was exported as was wool, to the low countries where it was woven into cloth and brought back to England, via Dunwich.The markets would have bustled with cosmopolitan crowds: merchants, farmers, tradesmen, officials, clerics and pilgrims. The fishing trade was at the heart of Dunwich’s prosperity and part of its debt to the Crown was paid in barrels of herrings.

Medieval Dunwich had eight churches and a Knights Templar church. The Dominicans (Blackfriars) and Franciscans (Greyfriars) both had monasteries. Because the town was so full the Greyfriars had to build outside the ramparts and their ruins survive. There was a leper hospital (next to the present church) and the Maison Dieu hospital (now the car park). The 13th century was the golden era for Dunwich. It was one of the ten largest towns in England, high in the estimation of the crown. It was rich, ecclesiastically and politically important. The sea had created a fine deep water harbour.

But the tides were still coming from the north, bringing with them thousands of tons of sand and shingle, twice a day. On three nights early in 1286 a huge storm raged, sweeping away the lower parts of the town and joining the spit of land to the coastline to the south of the town. Dunwich no longer had a harbour. Channels were dug through the shingle to enable some maritime access to the town but in 1328 an even fiercer storm, causing great loss of life, finally blocked the harbour. The Blyth and Dunwich rivers forced their way to the sea between Walberswick and Southwold. Dunwich went into a slow decline.

Wikipedia chart the gradual loss of the town to the North Sea, via the cast list of churches that disappeared one by one into the waves.

  • St Leonard’s: was a parish church that fell to the sea in the 14th century.[20]
  • St Nicholas: this was a cruciform building which lay to the south of the city. Lost to the sea soon after the Black Death.
  • St Martin’s: built before 1175, it was lost to the sea between 1335 and 1408.
  • St Francis Chapel: standing beside the Dunwich River, the chapel was lost in the 16th century.
  • St Katherine’s Chapel: situated in the parish of St John, this was lost in the 16th century.
  • Preceptory of the Knights Templar: the preceptory is thought to have been founded around 1189 and was a circular building not dissimilar to the famous Temple Church in London. When the sheriff of Suffolk and Norfolk took an inventory in 1308 he found the sum of £111 contained in three pouches – a vast sum. In 1322, on the orders of Edward II, all the Templars’ land passed to the Knights Hospitallers. Following the dissolution of the Hospitallers in 1562 the Temple was demolished and the foundations washed away during the reign of Charles I.
  • St Peter’s: similar in length to the church at nearby Blythburgh, St Peter’s was stripped of anything of value as the cliff edge drew nearer. The east gable fell in 1688 and the rest of the building followed in 1697. The parish register survives and is now in the British Library.
  • BlackfriarsDominican priory situated in the south east of the city. It was founded during the time of Henry III by Roger Holish. By 1385 preparations were made for the Dominicans to move to nearby Blythburgh as the sea front drew nearer, although these were certainly premature as the priory remained active and above sea level until at least the Dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, with the last building recorded as having fallen to the sea in 1717.
  • All Saints’ Church: last of Dunwich’s ancient churches to be lost to the sea, All Saints’ was abandoned in the 1750s after it was decided the parishioners could no longer afford the upkeep, although burials occurred in the churchyard until the 1820s. The cliff edge reached All Saints’ in 1904 with the tower falling in 1922.[21] One of the tower buttresses was salvaged, however and now stands in the current Victorian-era St James’ Church. One of the last remaining gravestones, dedicated to John Brinkley Easey,[22] fell over the cliff in the early 1990s. A single gravestone still remains (as of 2011) around 15 feet from the cliff edge in memory of Jacob Forster who died in the late 18th century.

Just think, the inhabitants of Dunwich could have avoided all this, if they had given up their SUVs!


JANUARY 8, 2022