The Drowned Village of Dunwich

There are several places around Britain that are said could be the location of the mythical Atlantis.  Last year I wrote about Doggerland in the North Sea, another possible location are the Isle of Scilly which in recorded history were once a larger landmass before the sea levels rose and people were forced to live on the smaller individual islands off the Cornish Coast.

It’s even been muted that the British Isles themselves could have been the foundation of the Atlantis legend but you don’t have to go back thousands of years to look for disappearing important locations that disappeared under the waves, it happens still to this day.  One of the most interesting is that of the case of Dunwich on the Suffolk coast.  It is forgivable if you haven’t heard of Dunwich today as there isn’t much left of it.  However, 800 years ago it was comparable with London and in the top 10 cities in Britain.

Where was Dunwich, where is Dunwich?

Where was Dunwich, where is Dunwich?

Dunwich is a small village 13 miles south of Lowestoft, the most easterly spot on mainland Britain.   Most of the thriving port however is over 30 feet (10 metres) beneath the waves.  Back in the Anglo-Saxon period, Dunwich was the capital of the Kingdom of East Angles or East Anglia as it is today and it traded with ports all around the North Sea.  There were several churches there and over 3,000 people when the Domesday Book was recorded in 1086.

Unfortunately, as with many places around the coast, Dunwich was hit by disaster and on 1st January 1284, it was hit by a terrible Storm Surge which caused an effect similar to a Tsunami and washed away many of the buildings, harbour works and inundated the land.  Two more destructive surges hit in 1285 and worse was to come in 1287 when at least one and possibly two “Once in a Century storms” hit the city.  This run of carnage was enough to see the once thriving port begin a long road of decline.

How Dunwich disappeared into the sea

Disappearing coast, lost city.

A storm in 1328 entirely washed away the nearby village of Newton and the end really was near on 16th January 1362 when the second legendary Saint Marcellus’ flood or Grote Mandrenke.  This storm killed 25,000 people in South East England and the nearby Netherlands and permanently changed the geographical features on the coastlines.  At Dunwich 400 houses were destroyed along with the harbour.  The River Dunwich also permanently changed its course to the sea and so  with its centre of commerce in ruin, resources for sea defences were concentrated up the coast and coastal erosion intensified as the climate cooled and we entered what is known as The Little Ice Age.

Later in its history as the population shrank, Dunwich became what is known as a Rotten Borough, a parliamentary district with so few people in comparison to when the seat were created hundreds of years earlier, that it was very easy for the results of the elections there to be dubiously influenced.

Map of Dunwich, old and new, from Daily Mail

Map of Dunwich, old and new, from Daily Mail

Due to its unfortunate history, Dunwich is also home to The Dark Heart of Dunwich is piece of a Suffolk folklore, the origins of which appear to lie in the twelfth century. The legend tells of how Eva, a Dunwich maiden due to be married to the son of a local landowner, fell instead for a good-looking local cad, who had his way with her and then deserted her, running off to sea. After waiting in vain for her lost love to return, she cut out her heart and hurled it into the sea. However, according to the legend, she was unable to die, and still haunts the area, particularly around the (constantly shifting) beach, where the land meets the sea. The heart itself, believed to be similar in appearance to a wooden heart, is believed to wash up occasionally, and bring great misfortune onto anyone who picks it up.

The fall of the final medieval Dunwich Church

The fall of the final medieval Dunwich Church

Until the mid-20th century, it was quite common to find people who said that they could hear the bells of the old churches when the sea was rough.

Recently much research has been done both at low-tide and with underwater sonar devices which have been able to accurately map out the streets and buildings of Dunwich as it used to be.

Sonar images displaying buildings and streets of old Dunwich, 30 feet beneath the sea.

Sonar images displaying buildings and streets of old Dunwich, 30 feet beneath the sea.

Today Dunwich is a beautiful if sleepy village with only a few old ruins left which give any indication of the importance of the old town.  If you look at the Google satellite view below though you can clearly see at least one of the old routes of the river just below its present course, old markings in the land and the partial remains of the old port and quay.

View of Dunwich and old markings from space.

View of Dunwich and old markings from space.



About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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5 Responses to The Drowned Village of Dunwich

  1. A very interesting post Stephen – I guess we may never know the true identity of some of these lands that were lost to the sea.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Drowned Village of Dunwich | mapsworldwide blog

  3. Pingback: The sea as a space of historical narrative and loss: The lost city of Dunwich

  4. S Bayley says:

    Fascinating! I’m surprised the Saint Marcellus Flood doesn’t make its way into more historical programs and books non- fiction and fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

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