Life on the edge
PUBLISHED: 16:23 14 April 2014 | UPDATED: 16:23 14 April 2014
A group of determined villagers have formed a charitable trust to run and maintain one of the county’s ancient monuments. Jonathan Schofield went to meet them
I arrive at Dunwich and park outside the Ship Inn.
There’s a biting wind blasting off the North Sea when I open the car door and I can hear the waves crashing on to the shingle. The lure of a cosy lunchtime pint is tempting. Instead, I head up the muddy track towards the remains of Greyfriars Monastery. On this cold winter’s day I want to meet the hardy souls of the village who stepped in to maintain and secure the future of the 780-year-old Franciscan monastery.
The path along the cliff top is spectacular. Even more so on a wild day in January when a frothy, angry sea is surging in great swells on to this ever-retreating coastline.
Just before I arrive at the gate on the seaward side of the monastery grounds I spot a single gravestone close to the cliff edge. It’s the last gravestone of All Saints Church, which fell to its watery grave in the early 1900s. It’s a stark reminder of who’s in control here. You can’t visit Dunwich without pausing, staring out to sea and imagining the 13th century port town – equal in size to London at the time – that once stood there.
I turn my attention inland and see a scattering of people in wellies and heavy waterproof jackets, wielding sheers, shovels and chainsaws – the members and volunteers of the Dunwich Greyfriars Trust. When Suffolk County Council withdrew financial responsibility for the monastic remains, it was the people of Dunwich who rallied to set up the trust.
It would be easy to criticise the county council for this decision. But squeezed of central government funding, Suffolk County Council transferred Greyfriars, along with 20 country parks, to local groups, organisations and charities to save £415,000 from its annual budget. As chairman of the trust Geoff Abell explained, before the hand-over took place the council, along with financial support from English Heritage, spent £250,000 on restoring key features in 2012, including the perimeter wall of the site.
Rallying to the cause
“It was critical that the county council and English Heritage carried out that work before we took over,” says Geoff. “We needed their expertise and investment to make the site safe for visitors so that we could focus on the day-to-day running of Greyfriars.
“Once the residents realised it was up to them to secure the future of this beautiful site, the response was fantastic. We now have 60 members, who pay an annual fee and volunteer with conservation work throughout the year.”
I wanted to know what motivated people to spend a cold Saturday hammering in fence posts, maintaining footpaths and cutting back trees.
“It’s invigorating,” says Charles Hawke, who has lived in Dunwich for ten years. “Being out in the elements like this is fantastic. We all bring different skills and it has created a great community spirit in the village.”
One of the oldest volunteers is 89-year-old Norman Aldous. Aside from his RAF service in the Second World War, Norman has lived in the village all his life.
I meet him as he helps to put the finishing touches to the collection cairn – built to exacting medieval standards – just inside the impressive Greyfriars Gates. With trowel in hand he says: “I’m here almost everyday to feed and look after the horses that live on the site. As soon as I heard that it was up to the village to take care of this site I wanted to do whatever I could to help.”
Grass roots democracy
For Jane Hamilton it’s about the community taking ownership of the last remnant of the original village. “We could not sit back and let this hugely important archaeological site fall into disrepair,” says Jane. “We have a responsibility to preserve it as a place to visit, to understand the past, and to make sure it remains part of our village for future generations.”
Jane, who also works in the Dunwich Museum, explained how grass roots democracy played a part in securing the trust’s ownership of Greyfriars.
“As a tiny village we don’t have a council but we do have a very open and lively Parish Meeting. It’s a place where every resident can come and voice their opinion. The meetings held to discuss the option of taking on Greyfriars were extremely engaging to say the least. It wasn’t just the time and commitment of looking after the site, some people were concerned about the legalities of ownership and the issues of public liability. Once we were assured the investment from the county council and English Heritage would alleviate this concern, there was full support.”
The sea, the sea
Later, in the warmth of Geoff’s hilltop house overlooking the long sweep of coastline towards Lowestoft, he outlined the challenges that lay ahead.
“Without volunteers we can’t do this. We’re on our own now and it will come down to the donations and membership fees we receive that will determine our success. Our membership already spreads beyond the village, including academics from London and Oxford, and that is hugely encouraging, but we will always welcome new members to support what we’re doing.”
Geoff points towards an area of the coastline just north of the village where the sea poured in during one of the violent storms that wreaked havoc along the east coast last year. He described the dramatic scene as the vast stretch of grassland in front of his home was transformed into a saltwater lake.
“It’s a constant reminder of the intense relationship that exists between Dunwich and the sea,” says Geoff. “It would be wonderful to think that the trust will live on long after we’ve gone. But living here, on the edge of Suffolk, we know all too well that the sea will decide both the monastery and our village’s ultimate fate.”
As the light rapidly drew to a close I walked back to the monastery. It’s a haunting, beautiful place, made all the more poignant by the crashing waves of the North Sea and the ghost of the town that lies beneath it. I felt a sense of relief that the final remnant of the old town was now in the hands of its current inhabitants and not those from a distant authority or the financial vagaries of central government.