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To Suffolk, and a chance to take a look at a town that no longer exists.

Well, sort of. Today, Dunwich is a small coastal village with a quiet shingle beach from which you can see Southwold – key landmarks being St Edmund’s church and the lighthouse – to the north and the dome of the Sizewell power station to the south.

There are low cliffs at the back of the beach. It’s part of an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty – to all intents and purposes, one level down from a National Park) and has a couple of nature reserves in the vicinity, most notably the birding heaven that is the RSPB’s Minsmere reserve just to the south. The sort of place where a P.D. James murder mystery might take place. As you drive into the village, though, the ruins of a Medieval monastery give an indication that at some point, Dunwich was much bigger than it is today.

Back in the Middle Ages, Dunwich was a thriving port town – one of the most important on the east coast of England. In the Dark Ages it was known as Dummoc and was the capital of the Kingdom of the East Angles. It was considered important enough for the Knights Templar to build one of their churches there (similar in structure to London’s Temple Church, apparently), and several monastic orders had priories there. Recent archaeological discoveries have shown that ship-building was a major local industry.

So what happened? Dunwich has often been described as a town that was lost to the sea, which is partly true as much of the old town now lies beneath the waves as a result of centuries of coastal erosion. Storms also played a part too, though, for much of the damage was done by six big storms – one in 1286 and two more the following year, then another in 1328, another in 1347 and the last in 1362 – which between them destroyed much of the town. Subsequently, it was largely abandoned and as a result sea defences were not maintained – which meant that over time the cliffs were eroded over time, causing the ruins atop them to fall into the sea as the cliffs receded. The last of the Medieval town’s eight churches, All Saints, was abandoned in the eighteenth century and gradually fell into the sea in the early twentieth.

Local legend has it that the bells of the vanished churches can still be heard from the sea on calm nights!

In recent years, Dunwich has attracted much attention from marine archaeologists who have used sonar and acoustic imaging cameras to map the seafloor all around what used to be the town. Ruins were identified, which were subsequently examined by divers. This has made Dunwich the largest underwater medieval site in Europe, while back on land it has also featured on Time Team.

The monastic ruins that survive today do so on account of the fact that Dunwich’s Franciscan priory was built to the west of the town. The ruins of the Greyfriars (so called because the Franciscans wore grey robes) are the last of what remains of Medieval Dunwich.

The priory was closed down in 1538 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries; it was later rebuilt during the eighteenth century but then demolished in the nineteenth, leaving the monastic ruins that we see today. There’s a very nice short circular walk in Dunwich that takes you from the entrance to the car park at the beach, along the top of the cliffs, past the Last Grave (all that’s left of the churchyard of All Saints) and then right past the Greyfriars before you head back to the beach.

Definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area!

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