Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Kingsholme

Dunwich may have fallen off the edge of a cliff, but that wasn't why the town died. Buildings can be rebuilt, but economics is fatal.

The Kingsholme was a shingle spur a mile offshore, and the waters behind it formed the harbour which made Dunwich. Over the centuries, the sea ate the land underneath Dunwich and simultaneously pushed the Kingsholme onshore. Eventually, the river Blyth broke through the Kingsholme three kilometres north of Dunwich, Dunwich's harbour was blocked and its river reversed its flow, emptying northwards into the Blyth at Westleton.

There was no reason for Dunwich to be there any more, so it died.

The Kingsholme, though, survived as a shingle barrier keeping the sea from the silted-up harbour, which became a freshwater marsh.

Picture a three kilometre line of pebble and sand, three metres high by fifteen wide, cutting between marsh and sea. Beautiful in summer, and absolutely desolate in winter.

I've always had in mind that this would be a good setting for a novel, not least because it's one of England's most sad and haunting places. And it's transitory: not a generation has passed without Dunwich changing its form. How can you not make something of a setting where the landscape can change faster than the characters?

I imagined the Kingsholme as a processional way by which the main character would symbolically return back to the village of his birth. But in one of those rather unsettling coincidences, the same night I started writing about it, the sea annihilated the Kingsholme. A swell simply pushed much of the shingle ridge away, leaving a very low beach between sea and the now-tidal marsh. At low tide, you can now stand to the rear of the beach and see the waves at head height. It is disconcerting to see a familiar landscape so utterly changed.

An old tree, polished with age, now lies on the sand. I can only guess that it must have been buried in the shingle and liberated during the storm. It must have originally grown on one of the eroding cliffs, perhaps at Pakefield or Dunwich itself. I like to think that it might have been part of the East Wood, the oak forest which once stood between Dunwich and the sea, but was lost at a time when the land was eroding at ten metres a year.

The shingle had been artificially maintained for decades, and apparently they're going to rebuild the shingle one last time, but the next time the sea comes in, that'll be it. Which just about sums up the last thousand years at Dunwich.


Anonymous Dick said...

Brian Eno captured something of that sadness & desolation about which you write with 'Dunwich Beach Autumn 1960' on 'On Land'.

6:18 am  

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