Searching for Doggerland, an ancient land that once stretched to Europe
PUBLISHED: 13:09 03 September 2019 | UPDATED: 13:09 03 September 2019
Matt Gaw goes in search of Doggerland, an ancient land that once stretched all the way from the east coast to Europe
After the heat comes the rain. The first hot, spiky drops land flat and suck up the dust of the car park. The sky, with its black clouds velcroed together, feels like it is fighting gravity, trying to hold on to the water.
Finally, it gives in. The rain falls faster and faster, bouncing from parked cars, concrete and gravel, so fast, so hard it bounces back from the earth until I'm not sure if the rain is going up or down.
My dog, Lyra, noses the air, sucks in scents created by the magical chemistry of water and heat. It is the smell of the earth's pores being sluiced clean. The rain is chasing away people too. A man and a woman run from Dunwich's beach towards their car, a sodden newspaper held above their heads.
They laugh and wipe water from their eyes as the man lets go and fumbles for his key. Lyra tries in vain to shake off the rain, her collar and harness, rattling with each effort, before looking up at me. She knows the route and wants to get going.
On the beach there are still people, after all. To the south stretches a long line of fishermen, all hunkered in small tents, their hooks sunk into a murky grey-green sea whose foam-fringed waves spit stone and spray up the beach in noisy mouthfuls.
We head north, pushed by the wind onto a shingle ridge that separates the North Sea from the freshwater lagoons and marsh of Dingle, towards Southwold, whose lighthouse winks white through the rain.
I love coming to the coast when the weather is like this. It is when the rain lashes and the wind blows that the idea of a 'coastline' as a static, map-drawn thing fails to make sense.
When you can feel and sometimes even see the dynamism of the landscape, the sea rushing, nibbling, carrying off sand, stone and mud to deposit it elsewhere.
Just past Southwold is Covehithe, a place where erosion is taking place at the fastest rate in the UK. Trees are left marooned, salt-blasted and sand-drowned, on the beach. Roads and paths are broken black tongues, left to lap at the sea.
Dunwich, too, is famous for its erosion. In fact, it is known more for what has disappeared than what remains. But today I'm looking for something older than the lost city. I hope to find evidence of an entire lost country. A sunken neighbour.
Geological surveys suggest that around 12,000 years ago a wide area of land, known as Doggerland, would have stretched from here on the east coast all the way to the Netherlands, the west coast of Germany and the Jutland peninsula.
It was a rich landscape, with a coastline of lagoons, saltmarshes, mudflats and beaches as well as inland streams, rivers, marshes and lakes. A place that teemed with life.
Modern fishing trawlers still bring clues of past inhabitants to the surface, the bones of mammoth, lion and rhino, as well as the tools of those that hunted them, Mesolithic spear tips, antler barbs.
I walk on, slowing for Lyra to catch up. She has been delayed by the depth of the shingle and the shin-sized bone of a cuttlefish she is attempting to carry in her mouth.
The rain has eased and fallen into a steady rhythm. Along the beach, both high on the ridge and on the wrack line itself, I can see dark, peaty lumps. I skitter down the stones and pick one up, turning it over and over, feeling its weight, sniffing it.
I break the lump apart gently to see a veined network of ancient roots, rubbing them between finger and thumb like butter and flour. It feels strange to hold a small, soggy part of Doggerland in my hand, to see fibrous, black remains of marshland and forest, to feel the fleeting history of land and people.
After a mile or so we swing west, towards the dark brow of Dunwich Forest. The rain stops as suddenly as it began. The land breathes. Birdsong starts. The call of skylarks stitch the earth and sky together, terns chatter and squabble.
I take a break, hanging my arms over the rough wood of a five-bar gate and watch swifts feeding over a scrubby field. They are marvellous things.
The birds circle, rising like scythe-winged smuts from a fire and moving so fast they seem to wink in and out of existence. It seems fitting that they are here, a bird that never touches the land, in a place where land is running out.
My mind moves back to those clumps of salt-sodden earth on the beach. I wonder if 8,500 years ago, as the seas rose around them, people on Doggerland watched the swifts and thought the same thing.
Matt Gaw is author of The Pull of the River: A Journey into the Wild and Watery Heart of Britain