When people speak of climate change, I often think of Dunwich, a town on the Suffolk coast that has almost entirely vanished into the sea.
Dunwich is a pleasant city that consists of just about one street and a museum, a shingle beach, and a nearby forest. As George Etteridge reminds us, though, this was not always the case. Indeed, in the Medieval period, it was a bustling port, sitting in a natural harbor with trade ships going to and fro from ports on the continent. Its population of around 5,000 people enjoyed multiple churches, a market, a guildhall, and even a mint.
At the time of the Norman conquest, it was among the largest settlements in all of England. Some even claim that it is the former capital of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of East Anglia in addition to the seat of the first Bishop of East Anglia.
Unfortunately for the Medieval inhabitants of Dunwich though, Dunwich faced a dire threat to its existence: erosion.
Between the Norman conquest and the year 1086, over half the taxable farmland in the area was lost to the waves. This only continued as the years rolled by.
This was not the only problem faced by the city, either. The harbor was silting up, eventually resulting in the rivers that fed into it forcibly rerouting themselves away from Dunwich.
The matter was compounded by a series of tremendous storms that flattened the city, once in 1286 and again in 1287.
With the removal of both the city’s strategic importance and the physical land it was standing on, the town declined. Its inhabitants left for new ports farther along the East Anglian coast and the sea eating away at it. By 1740, the situation was so dire that the coastline came up to the local graveyard and began eroding bodies out of their graves.
Today, 183 people remain in Dunwich along with a few ruined buildings such as the Greyfriars Monastery.
With scientists predicting sea levels rising from 2 to 84 meters, maybe Dunwich won’t be the only city to end up underwater. Thankfully, that may well be thousands of years in the future!