A group of determined villagers formed a charitable trust to run and maintain one of East Anglia’s ancient monuments – one of the last structures of a once mighty town lost to the sea. Jonathan Schofield went to meet them on the windswept and rapidly changing edge of England
I arrive at Dunwich, on the Suffolk coast, and park outside the Ship Inn pub. There’s a biting wind blasting off the North Sea when I open the car door and I can hear the waves crashing onto the shingle. The lure of a cosy lunchtime pint is tempting. Instead I head up the muddy track towards the remains of Greyfriars Monastery. On this cold spring day I want to meet the hardy souls of the village who toil away in their spare time to maintain and secure the future of the 780-year-old Franciscan monastery. The path along the cliff top is spectacular. Even more so on a wild day when a frothy, angry sea is surging in great swells onto this ever-retreating coastline.
Just before I arrive at the gate on the seaward side of the monastery grounds I spot a single gravestone close to the cliff edge. It’s the last gravestone of All Saints Church, which fell to its watery grave in the early 1900s. It’s a stark reminder of who’s in control here. You can’t visit Dunwich without pausing, staring out to sea and imagining the 13th century port – one of the ten largest towns in England at the time – that once stood there before a series of catastrophic storm surges submerged the town and port.
I turn my attention inland and see a scattering of people in wellies and heavy waterproof jackets, wielding sheers, shovels and chainsaws: the members and volunteers of the Dunwich Greyfriars Trust. When Suffolk County Council withdrew financial responsibility for the monastic remains back in 2013 it was the people of Dunwich who rallied to set up the trust.
It would be easy to criticise the county council for this decision. But squeezed of central government funding Suffolk County Council transferred Greyfriars, along with 20 country parks, to local groups, organisations and charities to save £415,000 from its annual budget. As chairman of the trust Geoff Abell explained, the council, along with financial support from English Heritage, spent £250,000 on restoring key features in 2012, including the perimeter wall of the site before the hand-over took place .
Rallying to the cause
“It was critical that the county council and English Heritage carried out that work before we took over,” says Geoff. “We needed their expertise and investment to make the site safe for visitors so that we could focus on the day-to-day running of Greyfriars.
“Once the residents realised it was up to them to secure the future of this beautiful site the response was fantastic. We now have well over 100 members, who pay an annual fee and volunteer with conservation work throughout the year.”
I wanted to know what motivated people to spend a cold Saturday hammering in fence posts, maintaining footpaths and cutting back trees.
“It’s invigorating,” says Charles Hawke, who has lived in Dunwich for twenty years. “Being out in the elements like this is fantastic. We all bring different skills and it has created a great community spirit in the village.”
Grass roots democracy
For Jane Hamilton it’s about the community “taking ownership” of the last remnant of the original village. “We could not sit back and let this hugely important archaeological site fall into disrepair,” says Jane. “We have a responsibility to preserve it as a place to visit, to understand the past, and to make sure it remains part of our village for future generations.”
The sea, the sea
Later, in the warmth of Geoff’s hilltop house overlooking the long sweep of coastline towards Lowestoft – Britain’s most easterly point – he outlined the challenges that have been faced.
“Without our volunteers we could not have done this. Obviously their financial support gives us security but their sheer hard work in helping maintain the site is enormously important. Our membership now spreads well beyond the village and that is hugely encouraging, but we will always welcome new members to support what we’re doing.”
Geoff points towards an area of the coastline just north of the village where the sea tore a hole in the sea defences and poured in during one of the violent storms that wreak havoc along the east coast from time to time. He described the dramatic scene as the vast stretch of grassland in front of his home was transformed into a vast saltwater lake.
“It’s a constant reminder of the intense relationship that exists between Dunwich and the sea,” says Geoff. “It would be wonderful to think that the trust will live on long after we’ve gone. But living here, on the edge of Suffolk, we know all too well that the sea will decide both the monastery and our village’s ultimate fate.”
The once thriving medieval port, which recorded a population of 3,000 residents in 1086, compared to the 120 who live there today, was one of the greatest ports on the east coast. I spent some time in the small, but perfectly formed, Dunwich Museum to find out more of the town that once stood here. The museum captures the sheer wealth and power of the port, with its grand public buildings, intricate streets full of shops, commerce and shipbuilding companies; plus hospitals, churches, monasteries and a mint. Sadly, this was all lost during a series of great storms in the 13th and 14th centuries. The town was finally abandoned after a storm in 1338 that silted up the port for good. Many of the locals say you can still hear the bells of lost churches ringing from beneath the waves during the storms that continue to batter and erode this constantly shifting coastline.
Would our medieval cousins have been discussing climate change and rising sea levels in the taverns of old Dunwich as the waves lapped at their doorsteps? Pre-industrialisation, the subject of climate change may not have passed their Meade-moistened lips, but as their town disappeared, rising sea levels probably were. Today, for those living on the coast, climate change and coastal erosion is being discussed with some urgency. What happened in the 13th and 14th centuries is taking place again, at a rapid rate, all along the Suffolk and Norfolk Coast. Areas I’ve visited over the past ten years have disappeared entirely – houses, roads, vast areas of clifftop heathland, the coastal regions are being reshaped at an alarming rate. The National Trust, which manages Dunwich Heath, released a report this year on the impact of climate change across the UK. It states that if temperatures and sea levels continue to rise the heath and surrounding area will be lost to the sea within the next 40 to 50 years.
It has produced a map showing the impact of global warming and the threat this poses to some of its most iconic and culturally significant sites. It’s a sobering but fascinating view of how our landscape will change over the next century.
Of course, it’s a controversial subject, and many will disagree entirely or describe climate change as yet another conspiracy – probably the same people who insist planet earth is flat. But whatever is happening, it’s happening quickly, and my advice is to visit Dunwich, its heath, its stunning monastery, sooner rather than later.
As the light rapidly drew to a close I walked back to the monastery. It’s a haunting, beautiful place, made all the more poignant by the crashing waves of the North Sea and the ghost of the town that lies beneath it. Wandering amongst the remains I felt a sense of relief that the final remnant of the old town was now in the hands of its current inhabitants and not those from a distant authority or the financial vagaries of central government.
There was still time for a pint of local ale in the Ship Inn – which I would thoroughly recommend – along with the suitably named Lost City pizza.
A brief history of Greyfriars
- Greyfriars was founded in the mid-1200s by Richard FitzJohn for monks of the Franciscan order. They weren’t alone, Dunwich was home to a number of other religious orders, including the Templars and Dominicans.
- A series of devastating storms swept the low-lying parts ofthe town over the following century. One of the storms – known as ‘The Great Storm’ in 1286 – severely damaged the harbour andthe original Greyfriars, and a new one was built on the present site starting in 1290. Here the monks remained until the monasterywas dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539.
- Much scavenged for stone, still to be seen in walls around the village, Greyfriars was later bought by the Downing family and the remains incorporated into a country house. Following this it was used as a prison and town hall until 1802 when all these later additions were pulled down to leave the remains that we see today, believed to be those of the two-storey monastic refectory.
For more information visit www.dunwichgreyfriars.org.uk
For further information on membership and support of the trust email firstname.lastname@example.org