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

Sunday, 18 March 2012

A Walk to the Dunwich Leper Chapel

Leper Chapel

A 15 mile circular walk from Leiston to Dunwich along the Suffolk Coast Path

A simple walk up the Suffolk Coast to Dunwich to visit the 12th century ruins of the Leper Chapel. Return is across Dunwich Heath via Eastbridge using tracks including the Sandlings path.

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
22 miles
Walk difficulty

Walk Data

Date of Walk
Walk Time
10:00 to 16:30
Griffmonster, Kat
Weather Conditions
Warm spring day with lots of sunshine and blue skies.

Walk Notes

Despite living in this area for nearly 15 years and many visits to Dunwich I have to admit I had never looked around the ruins of the old Leper Chapel and so it was about time to rectify this. Springtime is my favourite time for visiting Dunwich as the woods are filled with snowdrops soon followed by daffodils. On this occasion the snowdrops were on their way out and the daffodils were all taking centre stage. The day was absolutely glorious with bright sunshine and blue skies and very warm for the time of year.

This was the first time we had walked this part of the coast since the new Minsmere North Bank had been completed, its official opening being on 3rd February 2012. This earthen defence bank connects the coastal dunes and the westerly visitor centre and reflects Minsmere RSPB's retreat from the ever encroaching sea. The north side of the reserve has been regularly breached by North Sea storm surges in recent years and with the lack of finance from the Environment Agency to defend this coast, the RSPB have allowed the northern reed-beds to be taken by the sea whilst this new bank will protect the southerly lagoons. The wall clearly marks the northern extent of the reserve and supports a footpath to the visitor centre, which we aim to walk sometime in the future.

The return journey across Dunwich Heath has some rather mysterious decaying concrete structures dotted about it. These are most likely remains of WWII defences of which I am slowly learning more about, including a long ditch which is quite possibly part of the anti-glider defences. At a guess, the trees that populate this part of the heath are a recent addition to the landscape, and they don't seem to last long with numerous examples occupying horizontal positions, knocked down by the winds over these loose sandy soils. Some still manage to grow from their tumbled position, offering up tree-lets from their old trunk. I hope to write more on the history of the old defences in the future, its a fascinating part of the history of this coastal part of Suffolk that is slowly disappearing from both the landscape and peoples memories. Also noted on this part of the heath was a tree with a sad looking couple of roses taped to its trunk which I guess marks a tragic death. There is also a new bench with small brass plaque and a nearby wooden memorial both marking Clives Place. Whoever Clive was, he must have regularly enjoyed coming out to this area on the edge of the woods to gaze across Minsmere and the coast. I can appreciate why he came up here and hope he doesn't mind me sharing the view on the odd occasion.

I make no apology for the fact that there is already a similar walk on this site entitled In Search of The Lost City of Dunwich. This walk compliments the previous and includes an alternative track back from Dunwich village to the Sandlings path. This trail is walked regularly and there is always something new to see or investigate. One never truly knows a landscape no matter how many times one walks it, there is always more to discover, always something to find that has previously been overlooked. Expect more to come!

Fairy bridge in Greyfriars WoodSnowdrops and Daffodils
On the left Fairy bridge in Greyfriars Wood; On the right Snowdrops and Daffodils


The walk uses the Suffolk Coast path northwards to Dunwich, returning along the Sandlings.

Leiston to Sizewell

Take Redhouse Lane on the south side of Leiston, continuing onto the track marked as Grimseys Lane and at the end cross the field and emerge onto the Sizewell road at Halfway Cottages. Follow the road through to Sizewell.

Suffolk Coast Path

Walk up the coast in front of Sizewell Power Station, past Minsmere and at the northern edge of the reserve head up the cliff to the coastguard cottages. There is a path that winds its way in front of the cottages and across the heather, following the cliffs. This eventually meets the road. Cross the road and follow the path that runs alongside the road until it meets the coast path route which crosses the road and heads into Greyfriars Wood. Take this through the wood to emerge onto the road into Dunwich. Continue straight on as the road bends sharp left, down the track in front of a terrace of cottages. Before it meets a small bridge, turn left through the woods and follow the Greyfriars perimeter fence around to the cliff edge, keeping to the path until it emerges opposite the Ship Inn. The Leper Chapel is at the end of the road, just behind the church.

Return journey

Opposite the church, just around the corner from the war memorial is a track marked as the Sandlings. Take this until it passes a farm on the right. Just before the farmhouse take the track on the left. This eventually crosses the road and meets the Suffolk Coast Path on Dunwich Heath. As the paths cross, turn right and follow the footpath across the heath. Keep to this, through the woods, across the Minsmere road, across a grassed field and then down through more woods where it joins the road into Eastbridge. Continue through Eastbridge and beyond there is a track on the left marked with a Sandlings waymarker. Take this all the way through until it meets the Sizewell Road. Keep straight ahead, down the hill and in the dip is a footpath on the right which leads back into Leiston. Keep to Valley Road through Leiston until it gets to the town centre, turn left and walk through the town.

Leper Chapel window archButtress from All Saints church
On the left Leper Chapel window arch; On the right Buttress from All Saints church


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.


There was two guest beers on tap during this visit, Brandon's Rusty Bucket and Green Jacks Red Herring. I elected for the Red Herring on account of it being one of Green Jacks brews I had never tried before. This was a smokey full flavoured 5% ale, probably not the ideal companion for the dish of Morston mussels we had to accompany it, but certainly a rewarding and distinctive brew, and worthy of the Green Jack name.

Eastbridge Eels Foot View in OS Map | View in Google Map

Image of pub
Eastbridge Eels Foot

A curious name for a pub; some say it comes from a Heel's Foot, a cobblers implement, others will argue that it is named after the Eel's Boot, a type of woven reed basket used in Eel Fishing. A more fanciful explanation is that it is a derivation of Neale's Boot, named after a medieval priest who trapped the Devil in his boot and tossed him into the river. The Devil escaped disguised as an eel.

The pub is an Adnams establishment and regularly has at least three of their cask ales on tap, with the Bitter and Broadside plus seasonal ales. The pub is popular with walkers and birdwatchers from nearby Minsmere bird Reserve.

Food and Bed and Breakfast accommodation is on offer and The Eels Foot is renowned for its long tradition of Folk Music which still continue on Thursday evenings with a jam session.

Up until late 2014 the wall in the alcove adjacent to the bar was decorated with a curious painting of a medieval country feast. On a casual glance it was nothing more than an insight into times gone by but on closer inspection would could see that some of the men within it were wearing rather large codpieces. The painting appeared to be a corruption of 'The Peasants Wedding Feast' by Pieter Bruegel. His son, Pieter the Younger, would copy his fathers work and this particular article could have been a humorous copy as the original has a completely different background and no cod-pieces. Unfortunately this has now been removed, which, so I am told, caused some controversy.


Ever since Adnams re-branded their bitter as Southwold Bitter I swear they have changed it, in my opinion for the better. It used to have fruity plum tones which I was never keen on, but these days it is more of a rounded hoppy traditional English bitter which is what I like. The change has been denied by both publicans and even the brewery on a recent visit. However, I am not alone in my opinion and other drinkers have also noted this change. So, on this occasion I passed up on the Gunhill and went for the bitter, and yes it is still as I like it even though it was the last one in the barrel!

Minsmere New Bank
Minsmere New Bank


Leper ChapelView in OS Map | View in Google Map

Leprosy is a disease most associated with biblical times and was known in Ancient Greece as elephantiasis. There is evidence of the disease in Britain as far back as the 5th century AD though its prevalence was not significant until post Norman conquest times, most likely bought in by returning crusaders. Dunwich in those times was a major port, second only to London, and in so being was more susceptible to contagion from visiting crews of the ships that would have docked there.

Leprosy is a progressive disease caused by bacteria and eventually results in skin sores, nerve damage and muscle weakness. No effective treatment was found until the 1940s, prior to which a range of practices were used as treatment. Up until the late 1700's drinking or bathing in blood was thought to be a cure. The blood of virgins or children was said to be especially potent, although dogs, lambs and even the blood of the dead was used. Other practices included snake bites, bee stings, arsenic and hellebore and even castration!

Those that were unfortunate to contract the dreaded disease were condemned to a life of isolation, forbidden to mix or work with the rest of society and required to ring a bell if they ventured into town. In 1175 the English Church Council decreed that that lepers should be accommodated in hostels on the outskirts of towns and cared for by the church. It was during this period that the Dunwich Leper Hospital was most likely built, paid for and maintained by Walter de Riboff. Its location was beyond Pales Dyke, a fortified ditch that marked the limits of the old town of which the only remaining evidence is a small section from the Grey Friars Monastery precinct wall to the eroding cliff edge. The original Hospital building was over 100 feet in length, constructed with stone from Caen in Normandy and local flint. The hospital had two parts, a hall and a chapel, the remains which still exist, and was able to house 20 men and women in the open-plan hall from which they could view the alter of the chapel from their beds.

Leper hospitals had no form of regulation and financially they relied purely on the honesty of those in charge. Unfortunately, in the case of Dunwich, a succession of dishonest masters resulted in an investigation being ordered by Henry II in 1252. With the town slowly succumbing to the sea, especially during the 13th and 14th centuries, and its importance as a port becoming untenable, the viability of the Leper Hospital diminished. Despite this, it managed to carry on as a hospital until the 1800's, even surviving Henry VIIIs dissolution of the monasteries. The last leper to be buried there was in 1536 and the Chapel was last used in 1685.

It is thought that there was probably a church nearby when the hospital was built. The present church of St James was built in 1830. The towns only remaining parish church of All Saints closed its doors in 1778 when the threat of erosion beckoned to topple the church over the cliffs, although this did not actually happen until the 1904, the final part falling in 1919. The north west buttress of All Saints was rebuilt in St James churchyard in 1923 and still stands there as a monument to the old church.

Local legend states that mysterious shadows accompanied by wails from the old leper colony can be seen and heard during the hours of darkness.

Swan near Eastbridge
Swan near Eastbridge


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: ... 2016-01-15


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