The Lost City of Dunwich

Last weekend’s unexpected trip to Suffolk ended up being a bit of a wash out. On the first of our two days in the easternmost English county I had a brain-splintering migraine — the first I can remember having in about a decade — and so spent all of Saturday in bed, napping in between shrouded attempts to watch the second season of Netflix’s geophilosophical time war drama Dark, which I’m going to have to write something about soon. (I never fulfilled my last promise to write about season one.)

Thankfully, after a somewhat wasted day hiding behind black-out blinds in a relative stranger’s house, we did manage to go on an adventure the following day to Dunwich — or what’s left of it at least.

I had wanted to see Felixstowe, Lowestoft, Sutton Hoo and go on a full Sebaldian / Fisherian expedition but with Dunwich a convenient 15-minute drive away it was the only place we had time to properly explore.

Dunwich is a famous ancient site on the east coast of England. Founded during the Roman empire’s occupation of Britain and growing ever bigger throughout the so-called Dark Ages, it was one of the largest cities (and ports) in the country for many centuries. Then, following a devastating storm which accelerated an already steady process of coastal erosion, the city was essentially let go. By the end of the 19th century, all that remained was the church of St. James’ and this last bastion of the settlement at Dunwich was itself gone completely by the 1930s — a process that was heavily and eerily documented.

Today, looking out from the top of the cliff, you wouldn’t know anything had ever been there. Misremembering the state of the city today, I expected to see some anonymous structures or even just the odd bit of wall but, looking out on the site from the cliff edge, we saw nothing but an east coast beach like any other.

Last time I mentioned just how laden this landscape was with all that I’ve read about it and, indeed, all that I’ve seen of it.

There is something of a photographer’s curse is going out to locations that are famous to you. Most often this is the likes of Paris or New York — heavily photographed locations that you may dream of photographing for yourself, only to find the photographs of others inescapable in your mind’s eye.

Looking out over this blank expanse where Dunwich had once thrived, the sight of fishermen on the beach only brought to mind the habitual hauntings of W.G. Sebald’s photography and prose. He describes a similar sight, seen a little further down the coast, in The Rings of Saturn — and he even has a picture of this beach tribe to boot.

He writes:

From the footpath that runs along the grassy dunes and low cliffs one can see, at any time of day or night and at any time of year, as I have often found, all manner of tent-like shelters made of poles and cordage, sailcloth and oilskin, along the pebble beach. They are strung out in a long line on the margin of the sea, at regular intervals. It is as if the last stragglers of some nomadic people had settled there, at the outermost limit of the earth, in expectation of the miracle longed for since time immemorial, the miracle which would justify all their erstwhile privations and wanderings. In reality, however, these men camping out under the heavens have not traversed faraway lands and deserts to reach this strand. Rather, they are from the immediate neighbourhood, and have long been in the habit of fishing there and gazing out to the sea as it changes before their eyes.

The irony of this, perhaps, is that at Dunwich it’s not just the sea in front of you that you have to keep an eye on, but everything you know that exists behind you as well. Having turned their back on the cliffs in favour of the sea, what occurred was inevitable.

It is a given that a change in front of you occasions a change behind. The pebbles they camp out on are the detritus from the moments where both sides meet. This is true of any beach, of course, but the memory of Dunwich still lingers down the generations even though its buildings do not.

Today, only one sign of this particular settlement remains. Tucked away under brambles and behind a fence which warns you of how close the cliff edge is, despite being obscured by overgrowth, is “the last grave”. A sign nearby reads:

This is the last surviving gravestone from the churchyard of the medieval church of All Saints, which lay about 40 metres to the east of this spot. Old bones still occasionally weather out of the cliff face. 

The church was disused from 1758 and fell over the eroding cliff between 1904 and 1920. The last tower buttress was dismantled and rebuilt in the present churchyard of St James Church. 

The gravestone reads: “In Memory of JACOB FORSTER who departed this Life March 12th 1796 Aged 38 Years”

These faded letters and the continued eerie presence of this long lost city bring to mind Henry James’ comments on old Dunwich. He once wrote:

Dunwich is not even the ghost of its dead self; almost all you can say is that consists of the mere letters of the old name. The coast, up and down, for miles has been, for more centuries that I presume to count, gnawed away by the sea. All the grossness of its positive life is now at the bottom of the German Ocean, which moves for ever, like a ruminating beast, an insatiable, indefatigable lip. Few things are so melancholy — and so redeemed from mere ugliness by sadness — as this long, artificial straightness that the monster has impartially maintained. If at low tide you walk on the shore, on the cliffs, of the little height, show you a defence picked bare as a bone; and you can say nothing kinder of the general humility and general sweetness of the land that this sawlike action gives it, for the fancy, an interest, a sort of mystery for there is now no more to show than the empty eye-holes of a skull; and half the effect of the whole thing, half the secret of the impression, and what I may really call, I think, the source of the distinction, is the very visibility of the mutilation. Such at any rate is the case for the mind that can properly brood. There is a presence in what is missing…

If this sounds familiar in its evocation of an eerie Suffolk, we might note that James’ comments (and those of another James — M.R. James — who also wrote so much about this coastline’s haunted melancholia) were central to Mark Fisher’s writings and undoubtedly form the backbone of what he would term “the eerie” — that failure of presence and failed of absence.

Mark would open a k-punk post with this very quote. Titled “Suffolk hauntology (some provisional notes)“, his notes on the lost city are not only a beautiful evocation of a Dunwich Gothic but of a more general eerie Britishness, tangled up with the growing pains of modernity and the phantom limb of feudalism. He writes:

The fate of Dunwich fascinated the Victorian mind. The town had come to public notice in the 1830s as one of the ‘rotten boroughs’ eliminated by the Reform Act of 1832 — until the Act was passed, Dunwich, which then had a population of less than forty, still had the right to elect two MPs. Its notoriety led to a reawakening of interest of the ‘visibly mutilated’ town, and poets and painters — most, no doubt, taking advantage of the East Suffolk Railway, opened in 1851, — rushed to Dunwich to indulge in melancholy disquisitions on the vanity of physical existence. After all, the disappeared port was practically a vanitas painting brought to life — or to unlife; for, if as James notes, all the town’s ‘positive life’ had crumbled away, what is left at Dunwich must be either a negative life or a negation of life.

There is rather more in James’ observations than the penny dreadful piety and mawkishness which Dunwich brought out in many of its Victorians observers. James understood that, for the mind capable of brooding — and he insists, later in the essay, ‘that it to the brooding mind only, and from it, that I speak’ — there is a jouissance to be derived from the melancholy contemplation of what has disappeared, and continues to disappear.

There were major landmarks yet to disintegrate when James visited in 1897. He would have still been able to see All Saints Church — shown above in a photograph from 1904 — but by 1920, it, too, would be ‘at the bottom of the German Ocean’. Twenty years ago, ‘the bones of those buried in All Saints’ graveyard protruded gruesomely from the cliff, and a single gravestone, to John Brinkley Easey, stood in an inconceivably bleak loneliness at the cliff top.’ Now even those traces are long gone. Slow change is a constant at Dunwich. When I visited last week it had changed even in the comparatively short time since I was last there. Paths that were once walkable are now fenced off as unsafe.

Walking around the remains of Dunwich — and Dunwich is nothing but remains — is not, then, only to contemplate a past disaster. Even without global warming to accelerate the process, visitors can be certain that the land on which they walk will soon be consumed by the sea. The destruction of the great port ‘with a fleet of its own on the North Sea’ was dramatic and sudden, but if the erosion which still gnaws away at the coast around Dunwich is more gradual, it is also implacable. Global warming means that oceanic catastrophism confronts us now neither as a possibility that can be quarantined off in Science Fiction, nor one that is unthinkably distant. It was fitting that James should have devoted most of his ‘Old Suffolk’ to writing about Dunwich. Disappeared Dunwich, its churches and cathedrals now lying on the ocean floor, anticipates the near future of the whole county.

This description of a kind of Dunwich Gothic is worthy of a bit more emphasis, I think. It is wonderfully xenogothic in its ostentatious non-existence; xenogothic in that Dunwich offers up the opportunity not to explore a graveyard, that stereotypical Gothic environ, but a graveyard that once was — a graveyard folded in on itself and infrequently spat out of the landscape unceremoniously. It is Gothic not for its ostentatious architecture and grotesque ornaments but for its emptiness. It is xenogothic in the way that the Gothic lingers absently.

There is an affinity here in that this point on the coast of East Anglia, that great protrusion, serves as a painful reminder of so much of that coastline. Sebald writes, at the end of his own recounting of Dunwich’s history: “The east stands for lost causes.” I’m unaware of any town on England’s east coast, at least from Felixstowe northwards, that would not feel a pang of painful recognition in reading those words.

Sebald emphasises this point in his own globe-trotting account. He notes how the residents of Dunwich who lost their homes and sought refuge elsewhere would move westwards. West was the direction of new hope. He points out that this is true around the world for so many displaced communities.

In Brazil, to this day, whole provinces die down like fires when the land is exhausted by overcropping and new areas to the west are opened up. In North American, too, countless settlements of various kinds, complete with gas stations, motels and shopping malls, move west along the turnpikes, and along that axis of affluence and squalor are unfailingly polarized. I was put in mind of this phenomenon of flight by Dunwich. After the first serious disaster [the storm of 1285], building began on the westernmost fringe of the town, but even of the Grey Friars monastery that dates from that time only a few fragments now remain. Dunwich, with its towers and many thousand souls, has dissolved into water, sand and thin air.

The monastery that Sebald speaks of feels wholly distinct from the city of Dunwich that is now lost to the sea but it is an intriguingly well-preserved monument, appearing behind the woods that line the cliff edge as a small building — although archeological excavations suggest there were many others — in the middle of an abnormally broad expanse of land.

Our guide — my girlfriend’s godmother — tells us that many of the local retirees who now populate the small village of Dunwich to the west (and very much inland) of its former namesake, have taken up the occupation of “ruin polishers”, making sure that these decrepid old structures last until at least the sea takes them as well.

The Grey Friars monastery is a case in point, reenforced at every opportunity to appear more like Victorian folly than original mediaeval structure.

Dipping into the local museum, it seems as if the village is now torn between god-fearing citizens and part-time archaeologists. Looking over the impressive collection of artefacts and coins from as far back as the Roman times that have been collected from the cliff’s various vomitings, I overhear a woman who tells the man running the museum, with great enthusiasm, about the large attendance at the new church of St. James that Sunday afternoon.

Sebald, again, describes the Christian heritage of this settlement.

There were more than fifty churches, monasteries and convents … The parish churches of St James, St Leonard, St Martin, St Bartholomew, St Michael, St Patrick, St Mary, St John, St Peter, St Nicholas and St Felix, one after the other, toppled down the steadily receding cliff-face and sank in the depths, along with the earth and stone on which the town had been built.

In the museum, there is documentary evidence of various Catholic pilgrimages taking place in the name of St Felix in particular. St Felix was the first bishop of East Anglia, supposedly establishing a church in Dunwich around 633 AD. He lived and died there and his remains no doubt ended up at the bottom of the ocean.

Still, why so many churches? Was it just a sign of the times? Or are the residents of this town who continually face their own doom more god-fearing than most?

I’m reminded of Nick Land’s equivalence between annihilation and religion along the coasts of the world.

Is not transcendental philosophy a fear of the sea? Something like a dike or a sea-wall?

These are places in far more need of theodicy than most, we might argue. Land continues, in what is probably my favourite passage from his Thirst for Annihilation:

A longing for the open ocean gnaws at us, as the land is gnawed by the sea. A dark fluidity at the roots of our nature rebels against the security of terra firma, provoking a wave of anxiety in which we are submerged, until we feel ourselves drowning, with representation draining away. Nihil ulterius.

Incipit Kant:

We are not amphibians, but belong upon solid earth. Let us renounce all strange voyages. The age of desire is past. The new humanity I anticipate has no use for enigmatic horizons; it knows the ocean is madness and disease. Let me still your ancient tremors, and replace them with dreams of an iron shore.

Reason in its legitimate function is a defence against the sea, which is also an inhibition of the terrestrial; retarding our tendency to waste painstakingly accumulated resources in futile expeditions, a ‘barrier opposed to the expenditure of forces’ as Bataille describes it. It is a fortified boundary, sealing out everything uncertain, irresolvable, dissolvant, a sea-wall against the unknown, against death.

Serendipitously, on our way back from Dunwich and London bound, we passed a second-hand bookshop in an old church in the village of Westleton. Heading straight to the philosophy section, I found it lacking but was very much entertained by the “sex + erotica” section on the shelf below. Alongside the usual vintage sex romps was an enormous edition of works by the Marquis de Sade.

In particular, I bought it for an introductory essay by Pierre Klossowski which resonated with these thoughts already had on the beach at Dunwich. Titled “Nature as Destructive Principle”, Klossowski emphasises the Sado-Bataillean-Landian trajectory of an “atheistic and asocial philosophy of Nature and a moral system based on the idea of Nature as perpetual motion.”

Here the excessive religiosity of Dunwich truly does feel like a sea-wall for a conscience ravaged by the sea. Klossowski writes that, for Sade,

the substitution of Nature in a state of perpetual motion for God signifies, not the arrival of a happier era for humanity, but only the beginning of tragedy — the tragedy of man’s open and conscious acceptance of change. Here we can detect the Nietschean theme which opposes to the sufferings of the innocent a consciousness which agrees to endure its guilt because the guilt is the price of feeling alive. This is the hidden sense of the atheism which differentiates Sade so clearly from his contemporaries. To admit matter considered as perpetual motion as the one and only universal agent is equivalent to agreeing to live as an individual in a state of perpetual motion.

The absence of God leads to a becoming-sea of consciousness and undoubtedly the religiosity of Dunwich represents an over-compensation for this tempting lack, or for their own guilt at having turned their back on a Christian city of blessed land, polishing ruins to placate themselves.

Further down the coast, in Felixstowe, this relationship to the sea seems wholly different. Our navigational skills being severely lacking, I didn’t get much chance to look around the city Mark Fisher once called home. I wanted to see the shipping container port, which Mark describes in The Weird and the Eerie as “loom[ing] over the declining sea town, the port’s cranes towering above the Victorian resort like H.G. Wells’ Martian Tripods.”

Watching the container lorries and the ships do their work, or surveying the containers themselves, the metal boxes racked up like a materialised version of the bar charts in Gibson’s cyberspace, their names ringing with a certain transnational, blank, Ballardian poetry — Maersk Sealand, Hanjin, K-line — one seldom has any sense of human presence. The humans remain out of sight, in cabs, in cranes, in offices. I’m reminded instead of the mute alien efficiency of the pod distribution sight in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers.

We were unable to find a good vantage point at which to stop and get out of the car, instead driving around the bare roads of industrial dockland and the grid-like Victorian lanes by the seafront. Tired, we elect to try again another time, but my impression from the car is enough to satisfy a curiosity.

Mark is right, of course — the container port is a striking addition to what is otherwise your bog-standard east coast seaside town. I’m reminded of my own home town in Hull, where the old docks haunt a city who sees nothing but dead industry, whilst the oil refinery outside of town glistens at night like the mirage of a cyberpunk city — Saltends Chemical Park is its official name, a site run by British Petroleum; “BP City” is how it is best known locally.

The strange spectre of eerie depopulated industries at the edges of these otherwise “post-industrial” cities emphasises “the triumph of finance capital” that Mark describes but we might also say it signals an embraced relationship with the sea. Driving along the seafront we see that familiar sight of penny arcades, casinos, pubs and amusements. In Felixstowe, there seems to be a much more conscious emphasis on gambling rather than just weekend entertainment for all the family.

The ebb and flow of penny slots share only a weak affinity with the sea, being so motorised and always feeling rigged. The casinos and their hidden depths of chance feel far more fitting as a sort of Sadean coastal debauchery.

“The Sadean man”, Klossowsky writes, “will arrive at a point where he considers himself a microcosm of Nature, suffering, like Nature, from his own activity.”

Back in Dunwich, there are signs — some endearingly home-made — that, despite their futile situation, the residents still retain a reactionary sense of being holier-than-thou; resistant to the change that has for centuries defined them. An unending hubris.

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