Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Dunwich, Suffolk

Dunwich is not so much a seaside parish, more of a seabed one.

The north sea has been nibbling at it for 500 years, gradually claiming almost all of what some see as a 14th century city to rival London. Today, a town that had eight churches, five houses of religious orders and three chapels, is 50 feet beneath the waves and up to a mile off the Suffolk coast.

All that is left – on dry land – of the town where St Felix is believed to have reintroduced Christianity to East Anglia in the 630s, is one street with a pub and a museum, the cliff-top ruins of the Greyfriars friary, and the church of St James; a Victorian reclamation of stone from subsumed churches that stands alongside the 800-year-old ruins of a leper chapel.

Dunwich is nothing less than England’s Atlantis and, despite the fact that there is almost nothing left to see, attracts thousands of visitors.

The village is one of eight Church of England parishes that come under the sway of Revd Canon Richard Ginn, and he is very conscious of its appeal: “Dunwich draws people. It is a place of boundaries, not just that between land and sea but between past and present. There is a sense here in which time erodes the human story, and people find it an interesting place to be and to contemplate in.”

Despite its diminished state, Dunwich is still a community. When I visit, the church has just held a flower festival with the apposite theme of Living Water.

I find Dunwich a powerfully evocative place. I accept an invitation in a leaflet I pick up in the church to stand facing the ruined chapel of the leper colony and imagine I am standing at the west end of a long, now removed hall. On either side of the hall are rough open cubicles, housing a dozen men on one side, 12 women on the other. Their cubicles are open so that they can see into the sanctuary of the chapel, and participate in worship.

Dunwich has had its distinguished visitors down the ages. Henry James declared: “I defy anyone, at desolate, exquisite Dunwich, to be disappointed in any way.” Turner painted it and Daniel Defoe saw it as “a testimony of the decay of publick things.”

Mr Ginn gives me an example of others who have been drawn here.

“A lady said to me ‘Oh I don’t go to church, my church is Dunwich beach, there is a certain spot there where I find I like to contemplate.’ So I asked her to describe the exact spot and was able to say “That’s where All Saints church once stood.

“There is a story of bells being heard ringing from the churches on the sea bed. Now I haven’t heard this from a living soul and I certainly haven’t heard them myself. As far as I’m aware the bells were removed before the churches toppled, but I have read two accounts of travels in desert regions, one of the singing sands in which the shape of the dunes causes the wind to make a sound like singing, and the other in Thesiger where he talks of sand that makes a sound like church bells. I wonder whether at a certain point in the erosion the cliff was shaped in such a way that the wind made that bell sound.”

All Saints has been key to another of those for whom Dunwich has great resonance. Stuart Bacon is a marine archaeologist and director of Suffolk Underwater Studies. As a seven-year old in the 1940s, he was picnicking with his family on some rocks that where about to crumble into the sea, and he asked what they were.

“My family just had very little idea,” Stuart recalls. But, living just down the coast at Benjamin Britten’s Aldeburgh, his boy’s imagination and curiosity was whetted.

“I never forgot and when I was in my teens I found out that this was the remains of one of the churches of Dunwich, a city to rival London, the fifth largest port in the country, which traded as far afield as Iceland and exported wool and grain and imported fish, furs, timber and wine.”

As an adult, Stuart qualified as a diver in order to explore Dunwich. “I first dived on it in 1971 and have been doing so ever since. There isn’t a day when I don’t talk to someone or do something connected with Dunwich.

“My mother used to say ‘you were born in the cottage hospital on the seafront with the window open and a gale blowing and that’s when you became hooked on the sea’.”

For three decades, armed with a map of Dunwich from 1587 that has proved remarkably accurate, Stuart has explored this underwater marvel.

“It’s pitch black at times - today it would be. You go by feel and sound, you strike things. I found Roman bronze cannon by striking them - they boom.”

With the help of his map, Stuart sought to discover key landmarks, and in 1973 he found the ruins of one church, St Peter’s, which was taken by the sea 200 years ago.

“We had the map and we took a rope and measured and found that the remains fitted the map.

“When I dive on some of the churches I get a very strong sensation. I’ve been to almost every East Anglian church and the feeling you get in each is different. At some of the churches on the seabed I have had similarly strong sensations.

“I sit and watch my bubbles, then I stop breathing and listen. In the silence I get a very intense feeling of I don’t know what. I also get it in certain dry land churches.”

Stuart is about to get a much clearer picture of Dunwich – one that does not depend on touch to make it real. He has teamed up with Southampton University scientists who, armed with the latest thermal imaging equipment, which can map buildings beneath the silt, will spend the summer surveying the seabed, and create a 3D image of the ruins of this lost city.

A model in Dunwich’s museum gives a vivid picture of what was once here. There in miniature are the grand Preceptory of the Knights Templar – similar to the Temple Church in London - and the houses of the Benedictines and Dominicans. Lines painted across the model date the relentless march of the sea.

I take a walk to the Franciscans’ friary – a rather sorry ruin swathed in orange plastic building-site tape that sits in a field close to the cliff, nuzzled by cows. Until recently the bones from the graveyard stuck ghoulishly from the pale sandy cliffs.

Drowned Dunwich is fascinating, but what of the living village? Mr Ginn sees the threat to it not just from the sea but more immediately from the desirability of Dunwich for wealthy second home owners.

“One of the difficulties with Dunwich is the number of houses that are no longer lived in full time. About half the total of roughly 120 houses are either second homes or accommodation for rent, so that means the community is quite stretched to do all the things a community must do to survive. But we are very fortunate in Dunwich. We get help from other villages, they have to work together, they have become micro communities and they have to help each other in order to retain their identities.

“Dunwich has an active church that is cared for and loved. It’s made up to look much older than its age - it was built in the 1830s - but because it is alongside the 12th century leper chapel there is an immediate link with the past.

“There is a congregation of about 15 but it was 60 last Sunday when a neighbouring village - Westleton - cancelled its service and everyone went to Dunwich.”

Westleton is Mr Ginn’s home. He came here from London in 1985, with his wife Linda, a former nurse who is now part of the ministry team as the parish nurse.

“Parish nurses don’t actually treat the sick but, as medical provision retreats – we often have to travel a long way to a doctor’s surgery – they play a vital role. The parish nurse is there when someone is frightened and alone. They can help the individual or the family that is affected by the illness of one of its members.”

So there is Dunwich, drawing together in faith to cope with modern life – and occasionally looking over its shoulder at the approaching sea.

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