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Now you see it! Suffolk's disappearing village

PUBLISHED: 17:50 28 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:38 20 February 2013

Now you see it! Suffolk's disappearing village

Now you see it! Suffolk's disappearing village

Make the most of one of Suffolk's hidden gems before it disappears forever, says Cathy Brown

Make the most of one of Suffolk's hidden gems before it disappears forever, says Cathy Brown



Well off the beaten track, Covehithe is one of the beat-kept secrets of Suffolks Heritage Coast a hidden gem that deserves to be better known. But part of its appeal is the sense of desertion and mystery that surrounds this tiny hamlet, which these days comprises the church, Church Farm, and very little else.
Covehithe, which lies between Southwold and Lowestoft at the heart of the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB (Area of Natural Beauty), is literally at the end of the road. Or rather, it is where the road now ends abruptly on the edge of the short but steep cliff which marks the current limit of erosion on this rapidly retreating stretch of coastline.
And not far back from the cliff lies the ruin of the magnificent medieval church of St Andrew, which testifies clearly that, before the sea washed most of it away, Covehithe must once have been a very much more significant settlement than it is today.
During the reign of Edward I, the settlement was granted a fair on the feast day of St Andrew another indication of that earlier prosperity. Sadly, very little else is known of the history of this place, as parish records have been lost.
In the Middle Ages it must have been a thriving town, presumably a port as well, to have generated the wealth to create such a huge symbol of civic and religious pride. The church once ranked alongside such celebrated neighbours as Southwold and Blythburgh in size and splendour.
Inside the vast, roofless shell nestles a much smaller church. Apparently this was built by the local people in 1672 by when the settlement, previously known as North Hale, had already shrunk so much, due to coastal erosion, that the congregation could no longer afford the upkeep of the larger church.
They got permission to remove the roof, and built the more modest, thatched church inside the original nave, against the west tower. Walberswick, on the other side of Southwold, another victim of declining fortunes caused by coastal erosion, has a similar church within a church.
The new church at Covehithe is not particularly distinguished architecturally, but is interesting because of its use of materials recycled from the older building. Decorated carvings can be seen on the east wall, among the reused masonry. The original font is also preserved inside the younger building itself nearly 450 years old.



"Covehithe is living on borrowed time as the process of erosion which made the old town disappear continues



The tower, which remains intact, is actually even older than the old church, part of what was probably the original stone church on the site, a less grandiose affair than the vast, doomed medieval status symbol that now stands in ruins.
The tower much admired by church architecture enthusiasts probably owes its survival to its value as a navigation mark. Down the centuries it has been a vital signpost for local fishing boats, bigger ships trading between Britain and Europe, and more recently, pleasure craft.
At one stage Trinity House, the lighthouse authority, took over responsibility for its upkeep, to ensure that it did not suffer the same fate as the church to which it had been attached.
Nowadays the tower, and the ruins, are in the care of the Redundant Churches Trust. The smaller, thatched church, however, is not redundant. Regular services are still held there.
There is more to Covehithe than just the church although that in itself is well worth making the necessary detour to visit. The best time to see Covehithe is when the weather is wild and windy. Walking among the church ruins is an extraordinary and atmospheric experience.
But so too is walking along the clifftop path, admiring the beautiful sandy beach, and enjoying the abundant wildlife especially sea birds in the nearby marshes. Covehithe is part of the Benacre Estate, and these days is a purely agricultural settlement. Even the former Anchor Inn has become merely Anchor House.
But the estate manages its farms with an enlightened attitude to wildlife and there is a nature reserve at nearby Benacre Broad. Those following the Suffolk Coast and Heaths path will find plenty of temptation to look and linger when they reach Covehithe.
And there is good reason to stop and savour this mysterious relic of a bygone age. For it is living on borrowed time. The process of erosion which made the old town disappear, and made its huge church redundant, is still continuing.
Ordnance Survey maps down the decades show that between the 1830s and the start of the new millennium, the coastline has retreated some 500 metres nearly half a mile. This suggests that a couple of miles may have been lost since the Middle Ages, when the vast church, with its distinctive chess-board knapped flint decoration, was under construction.
No less worryingly, it suggests that it wont be long before the retreating cliff, with its dramatic drop-off at the end of the road, reaches the church ruins, and they too will be lost to the sea, like the rest of the old town of North Hale and so much of its near, better-known neighbour Dunwich.
So visit Covehithe while you can. Some estimates suggest that in as little as 50 years time, it will have disappeared completely.


To reach Covehithe, turn off the A12 at Wrentham and follow Mill Lane towards the coast about a mile and a half. Just before reaching the church, there is a junction with another minor road which leaves the B1127 three quarters of a mile south of Wrentham. This is the road to nowhere which ends abruptly on the cliff edge. It is intriguing to speculate how far it originally extended.



Photograph by MIKE PAGE

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