Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Day 31 - England East Coast - Great Yarmouth to West Mersea - The Vanishing Coast at Dunwich

There's less and less to see on the east coast of England. That's because - well - the coast is actually vanishing...

Take Dunwich, between Great Yarmouth and Felixstowe, for instance. It's the most spectacular case of disappearing coastline. When the Romans pitched their tents on Dunwich's natural harbour, the coastline was almost 2 kilometres east of where it is today. (On the map below, that would be about two centimetres - on the map scale - to the right of its current location.) And imagine a twisty estuary, with a big harbour. Because there was one (even though there isn't a trace of a harbour today!), and it gave Dunwich a lot of strategic power. It was one of the few natural harbours along this coast with deep anchorage.

View Edge of Britain in a larger map

During medieval times, the town's population of 4 000 was only half that of London's. (Today it's population is only a few hundred). But the coastline was disappearing even then. In the 1000 years from the Roman arrival to the arrival of William the Conquerer in 1086, the coast had already retreated by almost one kilometre.

But no-one was complaining, because the harbour was still one of the best in the region. Dunwich continued to thrive. It was one of the ten biggest towns in Britain, and had eight churches, three chapels and two hospitals, plus close to one thousand houses.

All Saints Church in Dunwich in 1904

And the same church in 1919...

The north sea, though, kept bringing more and more shingle on its tides, twice a day. And when a storm raged for three days in 1286, a large chunk of the town was swept into the sea. Equally catastrophic for Dunwich, the harbour was partially closed by huge banks of shingle stone. Another storm in 1328 sealed it off completely. Dunwich's commercial and political power collapsed along with it's coastline - without a harbour, it was useless to traders and shipmen.

Today, all the old houses and churches have been captured by the sea, except for the last remaining ruin of All Saint's Church, whose final capitulation is inevitable.

The whole story of Dunwich is very well told in the museum of the town. Below is a snippet of a DVD entitled "Whatever Happened to Dunwich", produced by John Cary, and copyright of Dunwich Reading Room and Museum. The DVD is sold for £4.95, and can be bought at the museum or from John Cary Studios.

Right next to the museum is The Ship, a pub and inn that serves very good food. It's not the usual burger and chips - you'll get a freshly-made, diverse menu.

About ten minutes from Dunwich is Minsmere Nature Reserve, one of the leading birding spots in Britain. You can see more than 300 species of birds - check out the seasonal highlights.