Friday, 21 March 2014

English Atlantises and Eldritch Dunwich

A grotesque at Greyfriars, Dunwich
H.P. Lovecraft was on to something when he put the heart of horror in a decaying town on the shore of the sea.

East Anglia in winter is bleak and atmospheric. There are mists which rise over the fens and the broads. There are no hills, just flat, rolls of land beneath a sky that is just too big, too empty. The winds that come in off the North Sea will make ice-crystals form in your hair. The sea itself is grey, cruel.

At Dunwich, the beach is a long, shingle shore. It stretches away to the south in a vague curve that will take you to Aldeburgh- where M.R James set A Warning to the Curious. The cliffs are low, yellow stone topped with coarse grass. If you walk up to the village you'll find it trailing away along the road inland, a handful of older cottages, many for sale. A pub, a museum, a red-brick church.

I could write at length about the geography of English villages and its quirks, but Dunwich is more than ordinarily odd. This is the sort of landscape where you can imagine white shapes flitting in the inestimable distance between flat land and sky, the sort of place where the imagination needn't stretch too far to think of, Hollywood style, the inhabitants muttering over their shoulders at interlopers and shutters slamming closed at dusk.

The natural landscape is a thing we tend to take for granted. It gives us a permanence against which we can ground ourselves, a sense that, as we look, we can see what people saw a hundred years ago, a thousand years... Landmarks, after all, are just that - marks upon the land we use to orient ourselves. Man-made, or natural it does not matter. As we walk through the more changeable stuff of human life, earth and stone give a reassuring sense of continuity, of permanence.

For the record, that reassurance is utter bunk.

One of the ... Fumbling for a word here. Not nice. Terrifying?

Okay: One of the interesting things about living on an island** in the middle of some really unwelcoming seas is the way that the transience of the landscape is brought home. I remember very clearly my first visit to Rye, when my father pointed out across the two miles of flat land to the channel and told me that, once, that had all been under water. That once, that had been the sea.

Of course, he then explained, the conditions which had made it so far from the coast had since been reversed.
"So," all innocence and childhood hope, I asked, "Rye will be a seaside town again."
"Yes, it will. Probably in your lifetime."

I realise now this was a dark reference to climate change.

Now I think about it, a lot of my childhood was spent wandering round slightly spooky coastal spots. It may explain my love for East Anglia in winter, its flat fields and cold, grey skies. My father took us to Reculver to see St Mary's towers leaning down over the cliff. In another place, on a day so cold my hands began to feel like something washed up by the sea, foreign to my own touch, he told us about drowned villages, about the churches that had slipped under the waves. About how, on stormy nights (it was said) you could still hear the bells ringing.

I remember, very clearly, wandering the shoreline looking for pebbles and shells, of being terrified of stumbling upon a human skull, a leg bone, some teeth, the debris of some subaqueous graveyard. I remember finding what I'll swear was a stone saint of the kind that sit in niches on church walls. It was wearing a bishop's cope, the faint mark of a crozier clutched to its chest.

Of course, as I got older, I started to question what I had been told. Oh sure, rising sea levels and coastal erosion are damn sight scarier than ghost stories (and my dad tells fantastic ghost stories). But phantom bells? I started to think of such things as bell buoys, or the way that water muffles sound. My main objection, though, had all my characteristic off-beat logic. For the bells to ring, they must still hang, mustn't they? These churches were beneath the waves. Even if the storm that cut the cliffs from under them hadn't done some work on taking down the bell towers, they had been underwater for how long? Surely the ebb and flow of the tide would have managed the job of a demolition crew?

Apparently not.

The cliff edge is just behind those trees.
In Cromer in 1888, a passenger steamer hit an obstruction several hundred yards from the coast and began taking in water. Thanks to the intervention of local fishermen, no lives were lost, and investigation showed what it was that had caused the steamer to run aground.

It was a church spire.

Specifically, it was the spire of Saint Peter's, Shipden, a village that was lost beneath the waves in the 14th Century. The information board on Cromer pier says that, due to the hazard it caused to shipping at low tide, the spire was dynamited shortly afterwards. Local legend says no, it's still there, and, if the tide is very low it can still be seen. Of course, inhabitants will also claim that in stormy weather, the bells will ring. (

I can understand the persistence of these myths. After all, how many were killed by the storms that dragged down buildings, pulled them under the waves? How much land and memory? The reminder of it must come with every storm, niggling somewhere in the back of the mind, with each fall of the cliff, with each shift of sandbank or shingle ridge. In East Anglia, we do not have a lot of hills. The sea wind comes biting in, no matter how far your village from the coast. Erosion is not merely the concern of  a talented storyteller trying to scare his children. Too much rain, a bad storm, and we are threatened with the power of the sea.

Which brings us to Dunwich.

I don't think I'll ever forgive Lovecraft for setting it inland, for making it the home of subterranean, batrachian monstrosities, while the honour of the seaside go-to for eldritch abominations is fictional Innsmouth. Still, perhaps it's for the best. After all, Insmouth is an industrial town. Its horrors are based on a fear of human depravity. Boarded up, run-down, ghostly though it may be, it teems with debased life.

 At Dunwich, the real Dunwich, the sense of the uncanny is a thing of wildernesses, of absence. What happened at Dunwich is far scarier than some bloody peculiar frogs.***

Once, it was in the running for possibly England's third largest settlement.

Still a bit flooded from December's storms
It was an ideal spot for a port. A natural harbour was created by the spit of sand and shingle to the North East of the town, known as Kings Holme. As trade to that harbour increased, it became clear Dunwich had a further asset in the course of the river Blyth, which brought ships from Southwold, Walberswick and Blythburgh.As well as increasing local commerce, these ships were charged harbour dues, which brought more money into the town.

Over time, Dunwich became a centre of trade, of shipbuilding. It had churches, priories, a Templer preceptory. It had a fleet of seventy fishing vessels. It even had a bishop.

And it was destroyed by the sea.

The image one gets, the myth that one draws from its title (The English Atlantis) is that the sea reared up in a huge storm and bit the entire town away. This story has a shock value, has emotional resonance. It also makes the end discreet - it becomes an incident, unprecedented in its ferocity. The people were unwitting, overcome by a thing that must have seemed divine retribution, a sudden and terrible tragedy.

The truth is more unsettling.

The land of the Suffolk coast is eroding at about a metre a year. The sea slowly, gradually undercuts the cliffs, so that when a storms comes (and this is the North Sea, remember) chunks of it will fall. So weakened, they can still do this at any time, at any sudden pressure. It is a slow, wearing destruction, inexorable. It will not be stopped by a mild winter. It is not the fault of a few bad storms.

Note - many fences and cliff-fall warnings
The first storm (1250) flooded the town, causing damage to property and, one suspects, loss of life. It also accelerated the process of long shore drift upon Kings Holme, causing it to block the harbour and shift the course of the river Blyth.The economic impact of this would be catastrophic. Dunwich's inhabitants dug a new harbour, and made a channel to restore the course of the Blyth.

In 1286, that channel was destroyed. Worse, a strip of the town, in places up to 100 meters wide, was dragged into the sea. This included the original Greyfriars priory and a significant residential area. Even today people are killed on coast in that kind of conditions. With no 'severe weather warnings', no radio contact...

Over the next 100 years, Dunwich began to die. Bad weather in 1328 moved Kings Holme south, blocking Dunwich's new harbour. Already, there seems to have been some resignation; before it was destroyed in 1328, the timber, bells and furnishings of the precariously situated St Leonard's church were removed. That said, the town was not a ghost town, left at the mercy of the waves. It was still where people had their livelihood, where people lived. During this period, a new Greyfriars was built, just outside the town's westernmost boundary.

That building now stands upon the clifftop, perhaps thirty metres from the edge.

By the time the final building of medieval Dunwich - All Saint's Church - was being lost in the early 20th Century, Dunwich was as it is today: a village, an atmosphere, a handful of ruins. This is not the story of a vengeful sea rising up and swallowing a city in one, dreadful storm. This is a story of a slow exodus, a long dying, a battle that cannot be won. It is a sign of humankind's futility in the face of ancient and implacable forces.

Maybe Lovecraft had it right all along.

Sources and further reading:

-Abandoned Communities has some great info on Dunwich's destruction, as well as details of the town's relationship with its neighbours and general historical background. Invaluable stuff.
 -For some incredible photographs of the All Saint's falling off a cliff, and information on current archeological exploration of sunken Dunwich:
- There is also Dunwich Museum, who should definitely be visited if you are in the area, and have some useful info online as well.
- Naturally, there is also a Wikipedia page, but this appears to be undergoing an academic dispute at the moment, and is therefore not in the best of states.

* For the record, the inhabitants of Dunwich do not do this. They seem quite lovely. It's an atmosphere thing.
**I am aware I say 'England' in the title and then talk about living on an island.
*** and if just one of you is thinking of Shoggoth's Old Peculier, my work here is done.