Route details, maps, pubs, features, local history and folklore for a wide variety of walks focusing primarily on Norfolk and Suffolk

Monday, 28 February 2011

In Search of the Lost City of Dunwich

Once upon a time Dunwich was the largest city in East Anglia.

In those days it was a busy port on the mouth of the River Dunwich that brought wealth to its citizens from shipbuilding, fishing and the wool trade. Then came the storms that ravaged this part of the coast and blocked up the harbour and the erosion which left the majority of the city beneath the waves. These days it consists of one street with a church, a pub and a small museum and the ruins of the 13th century friary. This fascinating walk uses both the Sandlings Path and the Suffolk Coast Path to create a circular walk with Dunwich at its midway point.

Leiston to Dunwich Walk - Essential Information

Walk Statistics:

Start point
LeistonView in OS Map | View in Google Map
End Point
DunwichView in OS Map | View in Google Map
Total Walk distance
15 miles
Walk difficulty

Walk Data

Date of Walk
Walk Time
10:30 to 16:30
Griffmonster, Kat
Weather Conditions
Very wet - showers all day.

Walk Notes

After a winter of walks curtailed by the lack of light, this was the first walk of any significant distance. We had planned the walk for the weekend but what was originally forecast as a dry day turned into a day of showers. With the anticipation of getting out of the house, the weather was not going to stop us and we headed forth, ready to brave the elements. Yes it did rain, and some of it was heavy showers, but even so the walk was still rewarding with a complete carpet of snowdrops in Greyfriars wood.

Fishermen braving the ghostly Dunwich beach
Fishermen braving the ghostly Dunwich beach


The route uses The Sandlings and the Suffolk Coast path to make a circular walk with the start/end at Sizewell with alternative routes via Kenton Hill woods and Leiston.

Sandlings Path

From Sizewell take the track opposite the lane to Sizewell Hall which heads towards the west side of the power station. Before it reaches the cottages a footpath branches off to the left. This passes woodland and the new Greater Gabbard Windfarm onshore substation. Pass through open fields and back down onto Sandy Lane. A path goes up to the right of the cottages here and up onto Leiston Common. Cross the common and continue down across Sizewell Belts and up into Kenton Hills Woods. Marker posts lead through to the visitor car park where a track leads through to the Eastbridge road. At the end of the track turn right, pass through Eastbridge and along the road until it turns a sharp right. Continue round the bend and when the road bears another right there is a track up through the woods. Take this up over open pastures, across a road and through more woodland and heathland. Keep a lookout for the Sandlings waymarker which will direct you off to the right. The path ahead can be followed if you want to omit Dunwich Heath from the walk. At Dunwich Heath the path doubles back on itself just before the toilet block and rejoins the path you were on earlier. Turn right and follow through to the road to Dunwich Heath. Cross over the road and through the woods until it leads out onto another road. Turn right and where the road bears to the left continue straight on down the track with the cottages on the right. Follow the way markers through the woods and past the Friary ruins and eventually it comes out in Dunwich village.

Alterntive Sandlings Route: For a shorter route you can follow the original Sandlings route through Goose Hill and Kenton Hill woods. There is a waymarker on the dunes just north of the power station, this will lead you across a bridge into the woods from where there are a variety of paths to take you back up to the car park.

Suffolk Coast Path

From Dunwich return the way you came past the Friary ruins and through the woods all the way back to the road to Dunwich Heath. Cross over and continue until a way marker directs you left off this path and all the way to Dunwich Heath. Here the path will lead down to the beach and dunes from where it continues all the way back to Sizewell.

Alterntives Beach Route: At low tide, when there is a little sand revealed, the beach can be walked all the way between Dunwich and Sizewell. Even at high tide it is walkable but the section between Dunwich and Dunwich Heath is particularly arduous as it is all shingle.

Leiston extension

From the Cliff House camping site a path leads west to Sizewell Hall. Turn right, then left on a farm track by the yellow cottage. At the end of this track turn right along a footpath through to Halfway Cottages. Here, bear round to the left then turn right across the fields towards a house at the far end. A farm track (Grimsey Lane) leads through to Leiston. At the main road turn right and follow the road through the town to Barclays Bank, turn right into Valley Road, and follow this until just after the railway bridge. A footpath on the left will lead you out to the main Sizewell Road from where you can walk either way to rejoin the Sandlings route.

Minsmere New Cut looking towards the sluiceA fairy bridge across the old path through Grefyfriars wood next to the Friary ruins
On the left Minsmere New Cut looking towards the sluice; On the right A fairy bridge across the old path through Grefyfriars wood next to the Friary ruins


The Ship, Dunwich View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Image of pub
The Ship, Dunwich

The Ship is part of a portfolio of inns, restaurants and hotels owned and managed by Agellus Hotels Limited which specialises in distinctive properties offering quality food and accommodation and guest ales.

This 16th century Inn was previously known as The Barnes Inn after the family that once owned the village. There is a roaring wood fire in winter, and a garden complete with a 300 year old knarled fig tree for the summer. The pub offers the usual Adnams ales as well as regularly changing guest ales from a local small Suffolk or Norfolk brewers including Mauldons, Blackfriars and Earl Soham.

The pub is said to be home to a ghost in the attic room. A tale told by a previous owner relates how one dark night she awoke to find a mysterious ghostly figure sitting on the end of her bed. The figure got up and walked through the wall. To add to the intrigue, years later it was found that there was a hidden door in this wall which led to another room which the landlord had no previous knowledge of.


A bowl of hearty warming home made soup with warm crusty bread accompanied with a pint of Earl Sohams Victoria. I have to admit this was the best example that I have tasted from this local microbrewer.

A splendid display of snowdrops can be seen in the early months of the year in the woods adjacent to the Friary ruins
A splendid display of snowdrops can be seen in the early months of the year in the woods adjacent to the Friary ruins


History of DunwichView in OS Map | View in Google Map

There are many tales to tell of the lost city of Dunwich. They say that it was from here that St Felix, the first Bishop of Dunwich, converted East Anglia to Christianity and local folklore proudly states that Dunwich was the capital of all of East Anglia. We do know, as there are records to that effect, that in the 11th century Dunwich was a thriving port. In those times Dunwich used to sit at the end of a shingle spit which started at Southwold and led the River Blyth south, merging with the River Dunwich and out to the open sea. This formed a natural harbour and was the reason Dunwich became such a prominent port and reputedly the tenth largest place in England, half the population of London. Depending on what text is read, the number of churches in the town during the 11th century varies though folklore would have it known it was as many as 12. The town also had a mint and a large guildhall and many hoouses of great importance and a population estimated to be as great as 5000.

The first recorded evidence that the town was being ravaged by erosion from the sea was recorded in the Domesday book when over half the taxable farmland was lost to the sea between 1066 and 1086. During the 13th century, two town suffered greatly during two great storms just over a year apart. The first on 1 January 1286 swept much of the town into the sea and partially silted up the River Dunwich; this was followed by a storm surges that affected much of southern England in February 1287. Although the residents fought hard to open up the harbour, another storm in 1328 shifted the shingle and effectively blocked it up for good. To add to the woes of the Dunwich people, yet another storm in 1347 swept another 400 houses into the sea and the rest of Dunwich slowly succombed over the next 200-300 years.

When the last church, All Saints, was abondoned in 1755 as it got closer and closer to the cliff edge, a new church was built. St James church was completed in 1832 and still stands in the village and is the last of the many churches of Dunwich. All Saints church fell to the sea between 1904 and 1919 and all that is now left is a single gravestone by the cliff edge in front of the ruins of Greyfriars Priory. The inscription upon it reads "In memory of Jacob Forster - Died March 12th 1796, Aged 58". It is interesting to note the date is beyond that of when the church had been abandoned.

Greyfriars was a Franciscan friary founded by 1277. Its original location was near the 11th century seafront but coastal erosion forced it to move to its present site in 1290. It's end came with the dissolution of the monastries in 1538. Surviving remains include the precinct wall with two gatehouses in excellent condition, and the South range of the cloister, possibly the refectory.

One legacy of Dunwich's past prominencce was that up until the Reform Act of 1832 the parliamentary constituency of Dunwich retained the right to send two members to Parliament. When the consitiuency was abolished there were just 8 residents left in the constituency, represented in parliament by two MPs. The freemen of Dunwich had passed on their honour to their descendants who had moved away to other parts. At the end of the 18th century it has been said that people travelled to Dunwich on election day and then went out in a boat to the point where the town hall used to be, to cast their vote. Such a state of affairs was commonly known as a Rotten Borough and this was satirised in an episode of the Blackadder the Third titled Dish and Dishonesty. Named Dunny-on-the-Wold, it had a population of three cows, a dachshund called 'Colin', and 'a small hen in its late forties' and only one person who was the voter.

Dunwich does retain its ghostly reminders of a once great city. It is said that on dark and stormy nights if one listens very carefully you can hear the lost church bells ringing out from under the waves. In more recent times archeaological divers have reported the sensation that they are not alone as they investigate the subterrainean ruins. And if you dare to venture along the beach on dark moonless nights you may very well encounter one of the ghostly apparitions that haunt this area; there are many accounts of a phantom sailor dressed in Elizabethan garb who crosses the beach and wades into the water before climbing into a small boat and vanishing into darkness. A tale I have heard first-hand tells of a group of fishermen who were on an all night fishing match on Dunwich beach. They all reported seeing a couple walk past them, their steps crunching on the shingle. The last fishermen at the southerly end watched them walk past heading towards Minsmere. He turned his attention back to his line when the steps abruptly stopped. He looked around and there was noone there, just the sea and the shingle and the cliffs with no other route away from the beach. Even today he lacks an explanation for these phantom walkers who just disappeared. One last mention, up at the ruins of Greyfriars, if you dare to venture there late at night it is said that you can hear the ghostly chants of long dead monks.


Dunwich MuseumView in OS Map | View in Google Map

To compliment the stories about the history of Dunwich it is always worthwhile visiting the villages small museum. This delightful and charming cottage based museum has many artefacts that tell the story of a city lost to the sea from the first millennium to the present day. A detailed model shows you what Dunwich was like at the height of its powers in the 13th Century, and the many exhibits cover Roman, Saxon, Medieval, Elizabethan, Jacobean Georgian and Victorian periods. The people of Dunwich run the museum on a purely voluntary basis and they are very knowledgable in the history so can give you a fascinating insight to add life to the exhibits on show. It is open from spring to autumn and admission is free, although there is a donation box to help with the funding.

Looking down the only road left in town, with the Ship Inn and the Museum on the left
Looking down the only road left in town, with the Ship Inn and the Museum on the left


Below are a selection of images taken from from the photo album for this walk. Feel free to browse through these or click on any image to view a larger version in the Gallery.

Click on an image below to view the Image Gallery


Below is the route depicted on the OpenStreetMap, Ordnance Survey Map and Google Map. Links to full page versions are found in the Essential Information

Summary of Document Changes

Last Updated: ... 2016-02-22

2012-03-25 : Bring format into line with rest of blog - review features


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