The City That Fell Off a Cliff
Beneath the waves, off the Suffolk Coast, lies a city taken by the sea through centuries of erosion. Matthew Green revisits Dunwich, a once lively port transfigured into a symbol of loss, both eerie and profound, for generations of artists, poets, and historians drawn to its ruinous shores.
April 5, 2023
And in 1922, finally, it fell. It fell amid a waterfall of dead men’s bones onto the beach below; the sole surviving tower of a ruined Gothic church which had teetered for so long on the cliff-edge, now overthrown as the sea moved in. Pelvises and thigh bones from the church’s graveyard were set into the fallen sods like jelly; cracked, toothless skulls too, their worm-worked eye sockets as gaunt and soulless as the ruins of the beached tower, now just “playthings for the waves of the North Sea”.1
The clifftop ruin made a harrowing image, particularly as a jagged silhouette in the twilight or in the dawn’s metal light. It was much photographed — there was a grim inevitability, but also melancholic beauty, as the cliff-face drew near, and the church slid ever closer to the abyss. So strange to think that the house of God had once been a long way from the cliff-edge, in the westernmost part of Dunwich and shielded from the sight of sailors by a swarm of buildings. As the sea drew uncomfortably close in the mid-eighteenth century it was declared a lost cause. By the Victorian period, it lay totally abandoned and it would be eaten, in tantalising increments, by the waves. The nave was occupied by bats and owls as the waters spumed over the cliff at high tide and gnawed away at its base, precipitating the landslides until only a pitiful shard remained, and, three years later, this too went under — a creeping oblivion so perfectly captured on yellowed postcards with their fancy for vanishing worlds.2
Before it fell, All Saints’ Church had been one of three medieval ruins — two of which survive — on a wooded cliff overlooking the North Sea. To the west stand the fragments of wall and austere pointed arches of Greyfriars Monastery, projecting palettes of vivid light onto the lonely green fields; beyond that is what remains of St James’ leper hospital, built from various masonry salvaged from long-gone buildings, a quilt of loss. The fallen Gothic church was just one of eighteen churches, chapels, and monasteries in the vast port of Dunwich. This city was once the same physical size as the City of London with a population, in its late-thirteenth-century heyday, of around ten thousand, before it was savagely diminished by two calamitous sea-storms in 1288 and 1328 initiating a process of coastal erosion that would plunge much of the city off the cliff in the succeeding, sorrowful centuries.
All Saints’ was the last of the seven parish churches to fall headlong into the waves. The drowned church was doomed to lie in a gulley not far out to sea, a habitat for sponges and crabs, and yet it lives on, unvanquishable; for — as the story of Britain’s lost cities, ghost towns, and vanished villages tells us — what has disappeared beneath the sea can rebuild itself in the mind.
At ten o’clock on a hot August night in 1876, while the rest of the village slept, an illustrator named Charles Keene sat down on the beach of Dunwich — “a charming, lonely place” — and took out a set of bagpipes to “skirl away by the sad sea waves” for about an hour or so, their blasts vanishing into the sea air.3 Keene was the cartoonist for Punch, scruffy, depressive, and unusual; “a queer spirit” as his friends described him. He found that one of the best ways to lift his mood was to play his pipes in the lost city; to “strut on the hard sand and skirl away at ‘Fingal’s Lament’ or ‘The Massacre of Glencoe’ . . . out of earshot of a soul”.4 He liked to have “a good blow on the pipes . . . every day at Dunwich, which was a great solace”.5 For such an uplifting place, some of the sights were decidedly morbid. “All along the base of the sandy cliff (striped with layers of rolled pebbles) you come upon human bones that have dropped from the shallow alluvial soil at the top.”6 This stark reminder of mortality was strangely cathartic. Keene’s friend and fellow Dunwich pilgrim was the Suffolk poet and translator Edward FitzGerald who loved the ruined city’s “odd, quaint air” and used to spend entire summers there, with Keene. Most mornings, he would stroll along the cliff, wander towards the ruins of Greyfriars, sit down upon the grass, propping himself up against the flinty shards of the priory ruins, stare out, and write, imagining the monks pacing around by the monastery walls “under such sunsets as illumine them still”.7 The drowned city of Dunwich was his elixir of creativity. He was always reluctant to leave. “I enjoy Dunwich so much”, Keene wrote in 1864, “I can’t help talking of next year directly [after] I leave it”.8 A quarter of a century later, when he was confined to a chair, he went to spend one last, cold autumn in Dunwich. Four months later, he was dead.
Keene was not the only artist in his twilight drawn to the drowned city. In the final decade of his life, Henry James came to the lost port. He paced up and down the coastal path by “the great church and its tall tower, now quite on the verge of the cliff”, and stared out to sea.9 “I defy any one”, he wrote in English Hours (1905), “at desolate, exquisite Dunwich, to be disappointed in anything.”10 James felt that “the minor key is struck here with a felicity that leaves no sigh to be breathed . . . a month of the place is a real education to the patient, the inner vision”. Sadness hung in the air like the salt spray of the sea; a sense of squandered potential pervaded everything and yet, somehow, was uplifting.
Keene, FitzGerald, and James were part of a flock of writers, artists, and poets who made a creative pilgrimage to Dunwich — as artists who seek beauty in decay like to do, whether in Berlin or Detroit or Rome — leaving behind letters, essays, pictures, and diary entries. The famed city (or rather, absence of it) in the “desperate depth of Old Suffolk” put James into a brooding state of mind. Daniel Defoe had been struck by how at New Winchelsea, a Sussex port reduced to a shadow of itself by the recession of the sea, “nothing of a town but the destruction of it seems to remain”, but to James’ mind, the sensation was even stronger when there was virtually nothing left.11 “Dunwich is not even the ghost of its dead self”, he wrote; “almost all you can say of it is that it consists of the mere letters of its old name”; and yet this had once been “a city, the main port of Suffolk . . . with a fleet of its own on the North Sea, and a big religious house on the hill”. The culprit was the feral sea, or “the monster”, as he later put it. “The coast, up and down, for miles, has been, for more centuries than I presume to count, gnawed away by the sea.” The rest of it, aside from the ruined priory and doomed church of All Saints’, was in the North Sea, “a ruminating beast, an insatiable, indefatigable lip”. By any objective measure, the place was dismal and pathetic, yet it was redeemed, he felt, by the power of sadness. The whole landscape was charged with a sense of mystery which “sounds for ever in the hard, straight tide, and hangs, through the long, still summer days, and over the low, diked fields, in the soft, thick light”. Never can the “spirit and attitude” of “the little city submerged” be recovered from the depths. In one of the dozen little cottages to which Dunwich had been reduced, James found an old man who could count on his hands, until he ran out of fingers, all the acres of land he had seen absorbed by the sea; “he likes to figure that he ploughed of old where only the sea ploughs now”.
Dunwich was a magnet for dreamers. Something lingered in the air: an aura of loss — eerie, profound, and strangely intoxicating. But it was a gentle place to live or visit, its violent destruction kept at a safe remove. Victorian visitors to Dunwich did not have to contend with entire parishes crashing into the sea. This had not always been the case.
Much knowledge would be lost about Dunwich, if it were not for the extraordinary commission of someone who felt a strong personal attachment to it. John Day, destined to become one of the most prolific and prestigious publishers of the Reformation, was, in all likelihood, born in the parish of St Peter’s, Dunwich, in 1522.12 Growing up he would have had a view of the central market square and, beyond the townhouses, shops, and market sheds, the tower of the beleaguered church of St John’s.13 The neighbouring parish had been fighting a desperate battle to keep the sea at bay; its church was teetering on the brink of the cliff-edge and with just a tiny bit more erosion, the base of the cliff would be undermined, and the church would plunge into the sea. In 1544, its defences were bolstered, but the church fell anyway and joined the ghost churches beneath the waves. For the next two years, when Day made the short walk to purchase a new sword blade, doublet, hot sheep’s foot, beef pie, or, for that matter, a book, the twenty-two-year-old was treated to a dramatic experience: many of the various stalls and shops in the centre of the marketplace were now staring straight into the abyss, and human bones and children’s coffins poked out from what was left of the graveyard. Through the casement windows of his parlour, Day may even have been able to see straight off the cliff. Understandably, he did not remain in Dunwich for much longer, going on to seek his fortune in London. But like so many he retained a lifelong fascination with the perilous city on the cliff, leaving a bequest for a statue in St Peter’s Church which, by the time of his death, would barely exist at all.
While he was establishing himself in London, thumping, hammering, and squelching out stories of Protestants cruelly tortured and killed at the hands of Catholics, his home city continued to be oppressed by its own tormentor, the sea. By the time Elizabeth I acceded to the throne, Dunwich was even further diminished. The advancing cliffline had by then capsized around three-fifths of the medieval city. The parishes of St Leonard’s, St Michael’s, St Bartholomew’s, St Martin’s, and the upmarket St Nicholas’ had all been clawed off its face into the waves below. Dunwich’s former economic prosperity was in short supply. Most of the wealthy elite had long since fled; the flourishing shipyards that Henry VIII had impressed to Woolwich never returned; and, as a shingle bar drifted further south, it thinned the mouth of the Blythe river, limiting access to the haven. This benefitted Dunwich’s competitors. The Dissolution of the Monasteries, furthermore, along with the dramatically reduced population, led to a diminution in demand for fish. The fishing fleet, ever a key source of prosperity, dwindled accordingly.
Dunwich wasn’t a completely lost cause, not yet. Wealthy Londoners bought up dissolved monastic land and a healthy number of people left bequests to Dunwich’s churches (an odd thing to do if everyone accepted they were not long for this world).14 But more destruction was to come. Candlemas, each February, was a festival to commemorate the Virgin Mary by lighting candles in churches across the land. They did not stay lit in Dunwich for long. On February 5th, 1570, the sea rose up with unabated fury in the “Candlemas Storm”. Many feet of snowfall suddenly thawed on Candlemas Day, triggering a terrible flood that coincided, as luck would have it, with another sea storm. There was “a great rage of water” that ripped houses to pieces, turning roof beams into battering rams, demolishing stone walls and buildings, uprooting pews from churches, and propulsing people backwards off the cliff in the middle of the night as they slept.
The more the city disappeared into the sea, the more it grew in the popular imagination, as lost cities are invariably blank canvasses onto which we project; empty spaces of the mind that quickly fill with present-day concerns. Myths were born, exacerbated by a lack of information from Dunwich itself as the trade links with London and other ports dried up, portraying the ancient city as a veritable Anglo-Saxon metropolis to rival London. As a major player in the book trade and a voracious reader himself, Dunwich-born Day knew exactly the kind of books that piqued the imaginations of the elite. In the investigative spirit of the Renaissance, there was an appetite for understanding history anew, for cutting to empirical reality instead of mindlessly regurgitating received knowledge.
The idea of getting to the truth of his birthplace seems to have proved irresistible for Day. He knew one of the most esteemed and able topographic historians in the country, John Stow, who had published a series of chronicles of English history and who would later, famously, map the capital in vivid detail. A long letter, overwhelmingly attributed to Stow, survives from 1573 — three years after the Candlemas Storm — and is addressed to one “Master Deye”.15 We know that Dunwich whet his curiosity: in The Generall Chronicle of England (an edition of which was published in 1615), he describes “Dunwich, an ancient city in Suffolk, now decayed, and is supposed more than half swallowed up in the sea”. He goes on to outline the various myths but says these are easily disproved by “Manifest and sound record which I have seen”.16 He states elsewhere that the ancient splendour of Dunwich “excited my curiosity of visiting”, and his faculties as a researcher meant that he was ideally placed to critically examine the legendary, semi-submerged city. It seems that the bookseller Day sent the chronicler Stow on an investigative mission. He would see the city first-hand and go through the borough records, examining many documents that have since been lost in his quest to establish the truth.
“I beheld the remains of the rampart, some token of Middlegate”, recalled Stow in an evocative passage, “the foundations of down-fallen edifices, and tottering fragments of noble structures, remains of the dead exposed, and naked wells, divested of the ground about them by the waves of the sea.” He also found there “diverse coins, several mill-hills and part of the old quai”.17 Day had some specific questions in mind, which he submitted to Stow in advance. What was the physical extent of Dunwich now and “in old times past”? What proportion of the original city survives, and how much had sunk? How many churches did Dunwich have of old? What of the religious houses, hospitals, chapels, and leper colonies? How many gates had there been? Was there ever, as was frequently claimed, a mint or castle? How many people lived there? Had it actually been a city or just a big town?
Stow dealt with these forensically. The town was two hundred acres within its bounds; and from the quay in the north to the southern limits of Palesdyke, one mile in length, and a quarter of a mile from Middlegate in the west to the cliff in the east. Stow deduced that if Dunwich had been built like other historic cities, then it would have been once as wide as it is now long — a square mile. This meant that either two-thirds or three-quarters of the original city was drowned. He does concede, however, that this is “gathered and conjectured” for want of surviving sources.
Something Stow seems to feel uncomfortable entertaining, being flatly contradicted by his first-hand observation, is the “common fame and report of a great number of credible persons” that Dunwich in its prime (around the year 1250) had no less than seventy parish churches, religious houses, hospitals, and chapels, along with a like number of ships and even windmills. This myth would die hard. W. G. Sebald leaves a masterful account of the destruction wrought at Dunwich in The Rings of Saturn (1998), after the storm of January 1328:
When dawn came, the throng of survivors — numbering some two or three thousand — stood on the edge of the abyss, leaning into the wind, gazing in horror through the clouds of salt spray into the depths where bales and barrels, shattered cranes, torn sails of windmills, chests and tables, crates, feather beds, firewood, straw and drowned livestock were revolving in a whirlpool of whitish-brown waters.18
Yet even such a preternaturally talented writer as Sebald also perpetuates myths: despite writing of “more than fifty churches, monasteries and convents, and hospitals’’, the real number of ecclesiastical buildings, after 1066, was eighteen. In his list of parish churches that “one after the other, toppled down the steadily receding cliff-face and sank in the depth”, he includes structures that never existed.19
Made at around the same time as Stow’s survey is an arresting map of half-drowned Dunwich. The land surveyor and cartographer Ralph Agas, from Suffolk, mapped Dunwich and its environs for the first time in 1589. Engraved on fine parchment made from the skin of a calf, Agas’ map was part of his failed project to reform and revive the port, whose blockage, by the drifting shingle bar, had led to such a catastrophic loss of trade. The original map does not survive, but it was copied into Thomas Gardner’s eighteenth-century history of Dunwich, and we see a shadow of the city in its high medieval prime before the terrible events of 1288. Agas was a cartographer rather than a diver, and so could only map what was left — a mere fraction of the original city. However, he does provide a very clear picture of the remaining quarter. The positions of the roads and streets as they are abruptly cut off by the sea have allowed historians to interpolate where those streets might have led in the earlier city.
In the decades following Stow and Agas’ representations, Dunwich’s predicament became even bleaker, and most artisans left for neighbouring towns, cities, and villages, as the merchants had already done. Many of the remainder were impoverished and malnourished, living off the sea-peas that grew around town. In the seventeenth century, the fishing trade with Iceland dried up and the herring trade in waters closer to home diminished considerably; countless efforts to revive the port came to nil. As the coastline threatened to sweep further in, people began to move inland into new, brick-built houses. As ever in the history of vanishing places, there were some stubborn or perhaps overly optimistic souls. In 1631, one Robert Bennett of Westhall signed an ambitious five-hundred-year lease on various houses in St Francis’s Meadow, houses that would plummet over the cliff-face before even a fifth of that time was up.
The surviving churches degenerated, along with their parishes. All Saints’, “impoverished by the beat of the sea”, and decayed St Peter’s, according to a spiritual report in 1652, suffered outbreaks of witchcraft. Eliza Southerne claimed that the Devil himself had assumed the form of a crab, snuck into her bed, bitten her, then forced her to sign away her soul in blood for fourteen years. The population continued to fall: the hearth tax returns of 1674 showed only 114 fireplaces, nineteen of which were in houses that lay empty. And then, one night in 1677, another ruinous storm came. Waves rolled across the marketplace. The market cross, with its shelter for stalls, was taken down, and all the tradesmen and women began to seek new venues further inland. All the houses north of Maison Dieu Lane were destroyed. In 1688, the east end of St Peter’s Church collapsed, and, not long after its bells were removed, its final, pitiful chunk plunged off the cliff, the church where John Day had been born now architecture for the crabs, and inspiration for windswept promeneurs some centuries later.
The skies were heavy, the sea slow. I wandered away from the cliff-edge, through the lifeless village which I was unable to connect with old Dunwich in any meaningful way, towards the remains of Greyfriars. The priory spread its wings through a lonely, cold meadow. Ruins are time in abeyance. They are at once of their time, yet derailments of it, too, bringing the fragility of the present into stark focus. They also portend how our civilisations might end in the future. As I wandered, aesthetics demanded that the ruined nave and fallen arches should be windswept, but they were not. They just stood there. Looking at what was left of the walls, now standing so vulnerably in the field like a domino, it was hard not to contrast this fragile ruin with its earlier purpose. It was once the refectory, where the monks gathered to eat fish from Iceland and wine from Gascony by the light of a flame, a rare break from their symphonies of silent prayer — now just a heap of stones in a field.
I walked away from the field with its ruins, opened a gate through an ugly mesh wire fence, and followed a footpath into a little wood where the trees were frail and wispy. In the distance, I could see a stone bridge and, beyond that, the sea. Before the coast swept in, this was Middlegate Street, which itself gave way to Duck Street, which in turn curved left up to the marketplace, eventually opening onto the mouth of the port. It would have been a track busy with carts, riders, litigants come to attend one of the courts, and flocks of geese and ducks and other livestock for sale in the meat market. The only place it led now was the cliff-edge, my destination.
I looked out to sea, tracing what I imagined to be an area half a mile out. The waters were grey and quivering, and it was silent. None of Dunwich’s churches rang their bells from the deep. The sense of emptiness is haunting and overpowering. “There is a presence in what is missing”, writes James; “there is history in there being so little”. One need only stare out at the site of medieval Dunwich to understand that an absence can have more presence than what is actually there. How many of our own settlements are going to end up this way, I wondered, eaten by the sea?
But I was sidetracked by one of the most poignant sights I had seen so far. It was the last surviving gravestone from the churchyard of All Saints’. The gravestone rose like a dead tooth from the barren earth beneath low-hanging branches. The inscription reads: “In memory of Jacob Forster who departed this life March 12th 1796 aged 38 years.” He was exactly my age. Soon he too will fall to the sea.
Matthew Green is a historian and broadcaster with a doctorate from the University of Oxford. He writes for national newspapers, has appeared in many television documentaries, and is the author of London: A Travel Guide Through Time and Shadowlands: A Journey Through Lost Britain. He lives in London.
This essay has been exclusively adapted and excerpted from the forthcoming paperback edition of Matthew Green, Shadowlands: A Journey Through Lost Britain (London: Faber & Faber, 2023). Copyright © 2023 by Matthew Green.