At one time this was the major town in Suffolk, half as big again as Ipswich. Other coastal towns like Aldeburgh or Southwold may boast a single church, but Dunwich had eight, besides chapels and monastic buildings. Back in the middle ages this made it the principal port on the East Coast of England. The decline of the port, which was long and slow, began in 1286 when a huge tidal surge toppled many buildings into the sea. The river Blyth used to flow out at Dunwich, but over the next century more storms took extra chunks out of the town, and the greatest disaster occurred in 1362, when the river broke into the North Sea sea several miles north at Walberswick. You can still trace the old course of the river along creeks and dykes south from Walberswick. Without a river to scour out the quays they began to silt up, and declining trade resulted in people abandoning the town.
In Domesday the town had over 500 households, a huge number for the time. It is now a tiny village with a total population of under 100, and in many ways it is remarkable that it still exists. Even more remarkable is the fact that, until the Reform Act of 1832, this Rotten Borough of less than 300 souls returned two Members of Parliament! As a memorial to its impressive past the village is almost unique for such as small place in possessing a museum. The last of its medieval churches fell into the sea in 1919, but it had been abandoned in 1750, and for over 60 years Dunwich was without a church or even a rector. In 1830 the church of St James was built in the village, and this remains.
I have been to Dunwich, but not often, as there is no longer much to see. Only the ruins of the former Leper Hospital remain of its medieval splendour. It used to retain a fisherman or two – perhaps it still does – and a visit to the beach was never complete without purchasing a plaice or two from the boat pulled up on the shore. Otherwise it is a peaceful place of open skies and wilderness. The Ship Inn is still there to service those tourists who come to the beach. Except to archaeologists it is of less renown than the adjacent Bird Reserve of Minsmere, with its regular visits from the television crews of Springwatch.
What proved terminal for Dunwich has improved the prospects for other coastal towns in Suffolk. The most obvious beneficiary of the new river outlet was the town of Southwold, which built a fine new church in the 14th century, on the strength of its new status as a seaport. Before the storm it had been a sleepy fishing village, with only a chapel to look after the souls of its inhabitants. Lowestoft emerged as a large fishing port, especially when the coming of the railway opened up vast new markets for its catch. To the south Ipswich continued to expand, with Ransome’s agricultural machinery being exported across the world from the Suffolk port’s docks. All these ports are now severely diminished from their former glory, but in the last forty years Felixstowe has emerged as the busiest port in the UK, handling 42% of the country’s container traffic. For more than a millennium this short stretch of coastline has been of crucial importance for the nation’s trade. In that time the nation’s traders began to look west, and Liverpool and Bristol became the most important English ports, but since the end of the British Empire the importance of Suffolk has returned.
In Anglo-Saxon times Dunwich had been the capital of East Anglia, in fact if not in name, but under the Normans the centre of the province shifted to Norfolk. Norwich, which scarcely existed in the ninth century, had become the Cathedral City of East Anglia by the beginning of the twelfth. The huge Norman castle, which still dominates the skyline of the city, had emphasised the position of the town. I have already hinted at the importance of churches to the people of an age when religion played a central role in daily life. In the Domesday book Dunwich already had three churches, and in the next 200 years that number more than doubled; but by the end of the middle ages Norwich possessed over fifty churches, which meant the city was (together with London and York) one of the principal conurbations in the land.
Since 2008 the submerged port of Dunwich has been the subject of a major survey by English Heritage and the University of Southampton. Using ultrasound they have recorded the pattern of streets long submerged; together with documentary evidence this has enabled the production of maps of the town since 1050, which at its zenith enclosed an area of one square mile. This was comparable to the medieval City of London. How the fortunes of the two ports have changed!