Suffolk has deep secrets – and few are as well-kept as Dunwich and Minsmere.
These remote and wild places along the Suffolk Coast are well worth exploring if you’re visiting the county and want to get even further away from it all.
Yes, there will be people about, but there’s plenty of space to completely disappear for a few hours and immerse yourself in nature.
Indeed, one of the first places we took our van was Dunwich and on this page we’ll cover what delights there are to see here and at the nearby Nature Reserve of Minsmere.
Let’s start off by exploring a place that’s been called ‘East Anglia’s Atlantis’…
Dunwich – the city lost to the sea
Okay, if you’re coming by campervan or motorhome, let’s begin with some practicalities…
Having driven along narrow Suffolk country lanes you’ll arrive in Dunwich and easily find your way to a large carpark by the shingle beach. Luckily there is no height barrier – yippee – and generally there’s plenty of room to accommodate a decent turning circle for motorhomes.
There’s no ticket needed, though you are asked to leave a donation to local charities which you can’t grudge, given the clean toilet block and arguably one of the best fish and chip shops in the county. What’s not to love?
It was whilst sitting in this car park back in 2017, that we met a couple with a neat Ford Transit Motorhome who recommended Henley Fiveways Garage to us. It’s been the place where we’ve MOT’d and serviced our van ever since.
It’s strange how you meet the right people at the right time, the universe conspiring to teach you what you need to know.
But how did Dunwich, a once thriving port and capital of the Kingdom of the Eastern Angles during Saxon times with a population exceeding 3000 – and mentioned in the Doomsday Book – end up under water?
Well, that’s the thing about this stretch of coast; it’s unforgiving and swallows towns and cities whole!
Take a look at this recent video just a little further north and you’ll get the idea…
The disappearing Dunwich coastline
Anyone who is familiar with the history of this stretch of coast will know what happened…
Huge storms in 1286, 1287 and 1326 caused major damage to the port. A further storm surge in 1338 silted it up and people began to leave the town which was left to fall into the sea.
Not that there would have been much choice. Being Suffolk born and bred, we have seen the coastline change with each storm, as seen in the video above. Homes and farmland are regularly taken by the voracious monster called the North Sea. Attempts at stalling it are usually short-lived.
All that is left of old Dunwich is a strip of land between the ruins of a Franciscan Friary and the cliff edge. For now…
Acoustic imaging of the seabed has revealed four churches showing the wealth and size of what has been lost. It is been suggested that there were once eight churches! All Saints Church was the last to fall in the early twentieth century.
On cloudy days, when the mist finally clears, it’s as if you are just waiting for the old town to reappear before your eyes. And if you listen hard enough you’re supposed to be able to hear the church bells ringing!
Who would dare to argue with Suffolk folklore!
The Dunwich of today is tiny and belies the importance of its past. There is an air of mourning about the place now – a eulogy for mankind’s transient dominance of the area. We came, we saw, we conquered – and on a whim, nature claimed back her own.
It’s a lovely place to walk, either along the beach or inland to the Friary and surrounding countryside. We usually head out onto the shingle that tests the leg muscles as you “splash and paddle” through the pebbles.
The shingle beach often reveals artefacts and bones from earlier times, especially after another storm has battered the crumbling sand and shingle glacial deposit cliffs.
There is a museum which shows the rise and fall of the area. We have walked around the ruins of Greyfriar’s Friary – founded before 1277 – trying to visualise the buildings during their glorious heyday and picturing how much land the sea has bitten off.
Looking south along the coast, the huge white dome of Sizewell nuclear power station rises on the horizon like a full moon. Turn around and you’ll see Southwold dipping its toes into the North Sea, the lighthouse winking at you every ten seconds.
Dunwich Heath – watch out for car parking charges!
Signposted from the road between Dunwich and Westleton, Dunwich Heath is a huge area of natural heathland and beach owned by the National Trust. There are coastguard cottages, now housing the National Trust coffee shop. Lovely.
We took our van, Cree out here in summer 2019, marvelling at the purple heather-strewn heath where the sandy paths amongst the pines and flowers are teaming with birds and wildlife.
You can park here, but if you are taking a motorhome or campervan, it is best that you belong to the National Trust otherwise parking costs £15 a day. Yes, £15. We’ve had overnight stays elsewhere with electric hook-up for that!
We turned around and left first time but have since joined the Trust because the area is simply stunning – part of the Suffolk Coasts and Heaths AONB – and it is reassuring to know that it is being kept for the nation. Until the sea wants it back, of course.
Heading on foot from Dunwich Heath in the direction of Sizewell, you come to a wildlife haven par excellence…
From smuggling to birding
Unlike its neighbour, Minsmere was never a large town. In the Domesday Book it is recorded as having six households. However, it had the crowning glory of an abbey founded in 1182 by Ranulf de Glanvill, Lord Chief Justice of King Henry II.
This was a relatively temporary claim to fame as the abbey was relocated to Leiston in 1363, the constant threat of flooding being the most likely cause of the move.
Smuggling was rife along this stretch of coast and, in an attempt to stem the tide of goods evading customs duties, a coastguard station was manned in the mid 1800s.
Isn’t it odd how the smuggler and highwayman usually end up as folk heroes! What is it about them? We think that it is the anti-establishment position they occupy – Robin Hood “power to the people” types.
The truth is most likely less romantic.
The marshland along the Minsmere river was drained around that time to allow for agricultural use. However, during the second world war it was recognised that the Minsmere Level – low lying land between the cliffs – could be targeted for invasion. And so, the marshes were flooded again, and military defences put in place.
The anti-tank blocks are still in situ today, as they are at other places along the Suffolk Coast, including Bawdsey.
RSPB Minsmere – a twitcher’s paradise
RSPB Minsmere was established in 1947, preserving and protecting the wetland habitats, mixed woodlands and sandy heaths.
We, ourselves, are members of the RSPB (having joined whilst on a road trip around Anglesey) and have spent many a happy hour walking the varied trails amongst trees and heathland and along the sand dunes and shingle banks of the beach.
To note: If you’re not a member, it’ll cost you £9 each to visit and access the nature reserve.
The bird reserve itself is home to many species, notably Bitterns, Marsh Harriers, Hen Harriers, Avocets and Dartford Warblers as well as providing over-wintering to diverse waterfowl species. We also spotted a red deer along the dark, heavily-wooded exit route: a wonderful moment.
Silent echoes of the past
On one such walk, we spotted a ruined building – a barn or cow shed, we assumed – alongside the Minsmere New Cut, an 1812 drainage ditch. It was only in researching this page that we found out that this was a chapel dedicated to St Mary, built when the aforementioned abbey was relocated to Leiston.
It marks the position of the church, a silent echo of the past, set in stone. Geophysical surveys have revealed the buried remains of the abbey church, cloisters and fish ponds. You just never know what is right under your feet!
During the second world war, a pillbox was built inside the chapel remains and the whole site is now a scheduled ancient monument. Some restoration took place in 2011 and we intend to take a closer look at this hidden treasure next time we’re here.
As we travel in our van we see so many meadows and arable fields being swallowed by developers. We’re sure you do too. The landscape is changing. We have seen the last of the small villages, we fear.
It is comforting to know that Dunwich and Minsmere reserves will remain unspoiled and natural for a few more years. Until the sea claims them once again.
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about Dunwich and Minsmere and feel inspired to visit. We welcome your comments on this article below.
If you’d like to know more about Dunwich Friary check out this excellent article by blogger Caroline Swan
And here’s a wonderful BBC video about the ‘Lost City’ of Dunwich