Rachel's Weekend Visits
National Trust cottages in Dunwich.
By Rachel Sloane
Dunwich is on the lonely Suffolk coast between Southwold and Aldeburgh, right next to the internationally important Minsmere bird reserve. There are 88 people on the electoral role.
However the population is boosted to around 120 with holiday home owners and then there are the many thousands who visit because of the village’s scenery and history.
I had chosen a coastal community for the August Weekend Visit deliberately. I could take photos of paddling children and bucket and spades, talk to day trippers and holiday makers and eat an ice-cream or two. Instead of that, I find myself sheltering in a tea room, drinking coffee to warm myself up.
Dunwich is a fairly remote and bleak place in the winter but in summer you expect to find a full car park and a queue for fish and chips.
Flora's Tearoom is better known as “the fish and chip shed on the beach”, even though it has, for several years now, been a very well presented restaurant with a terrace. John Elsey explained to me how it got the name that no-one seems to know...
"It was because of a barge which sank off the beach and the original building was built from the wood of the barge…. and it was called The Flora".
Seating 150 diners, the team of fourteen (on the day I visited), who all seemed to have worked there year after year, never seem to have the time to count the total number of meals they serve on a busy summers day. John, who has been there for over twenty years, told me why Floras Tearoom closed in the winter:
"When the winter comes obviously it really does get bleak down here. The trouble is we use fresh (fish) and you could come down here for four days and if you had this weather in winter, who would come out? You’d have to throw it away".
More than just fish and chips
Apart from its fish and chips, Dunwich is famous for what isn’t there, rather than the village that does exist. In medieval times, a town that equalled Ipswich at that time, thrived there with a harbour that guaranteed prosperity to a fine town of homes, churches, monasteries, and hospitals.
Then, gradually, the sea advanced foot by foot, swallowing up the beach and the buildings. One night in 1286, a disastrous storm shifted thousands of tons of shingle into the mouth of the harbour and overnight the town’s source of wealth disappeared.
The legend is that, if you stand on the beach and listen carefully, you can hear the sound of the bells of the lost churches tolling beneath the waves. Morgan Canes, Deputy Manager of the award-winning Dunwich Museum, told me that villagers dismantled the stone buildings before the sea reached them and that little remains below the water. He has his own view on the spooky stories of ghostly bells, blaming post-pint hallucinations!
The last medieval church in Dunwich was All Saints church, and many Suffolk people can remember how the tombstones fell as the cliff crumbled. Some tell stories of the bones they discovered on the beaches below. The final stone buttress from All Saints stands today, moved to the church of St James that was built in 1832.
Fifty years later the round tower was rebuilt and the walls were clad in flint. Well cared for, much visited, and holding a weekly service and, as the ruins of the medieval leper hospital is in the grounds of the church, it's a very appropriate cause for parishioners to support.
Busy summer days
The population of the village expands greatly in the summer months what with second home owners, day-trippers and holiday makers. Chairman of the Parish Meeting is Geoffrey Baverstock and he told me that local people welcome the hundreds of visitors, who come to enjoy Dunwich.
The National Trust also values the special environment of the village. They own 87 hectares of Dunwich Cliffs – a Site of Outstanding Natural Beauty - that offers thousands of bird watchers and walkers a variety of activities all year round. Between May and September, the site is covered with shades of purple heather, stretching as far as the eye can see.
My guide was Richard Gilbert, the Countryside and Visitor Services Warden, who told me about the education programme for families and school children … and showed me the cluster of coastguard cottages,
"On the end nearest the road is the present warden’s accommodation, and then we have three flats and holiday cottages for people who like to stay. They are very, very popular. Then we have the gift shop and the National Trust tea room".
So, a town of churches, smugglers, ghosts and legends, is now a community of 60 houses, a church, a pub (the 16th century Ship Inn, previously known as the Barnes Inn, after the family that once owned the village), a museum, fish and chips, and breathtaking views.
Do you know, I think I actually preferred the empty shingle beaches and crashing breaking waves, rather than the expected summer crowds? Somehow it seemed much more appropriate, as I stood on the rainy beach and tried to hear the bells of long gone churches.
last updated: 10/09/07
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Clare Self (married name Foston)