At the sign of the Barking lion...

old church, Walberswick

At the sign of the Barking lion...

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what's new? - a journey through the churches of Suffolk

fragments of medieval glass

    It is easy to imagine that Suffolk's battle with the sea consists entirely of fighting it back as it nibbles at the land. Actually, it's a bit more complicated than that. Dramatic as this destruction has been at Dunwich, Pakefield and Easton Bavents, a more subtle tactic of the sea has been to suddenly alter the coastline, perhaps in a storm. The effects of this can be disastrous, as communities come to terms with changes that affect their livelihood. Dunwich was a prosperous seaport, and third largest town in East Anglia, until the night of 14th January 1328, when a storm threw a shingle bank across the harbour mouth, ruining the shipping and fishing industries. Instead, prosperity passed up the coast, to the village at the mouth of the new inlet. This was Walberswick.

Walberswick Parish church already exisited at the time of the 1328 storm. Indeed, a church existed here at the time of Domesday, 1085. We know a lot about it, because, incredibly, the 15th century parish minutes survived. We know that it was a thatched church, but that it probably had a tower because there were bells. It had stained glass windows telling the story of the martyrdom of Saints.

Walberswick grew, and this was probably reflected in bequests to the church. But the sea continued to extend its shingle bank, and gradually the village moved northwards, towards the mouth of the River Blyth, the flow of which prevented the bank from blocking any further. In common with other prosperous communities of the time, 15th century piety encouraged the parish to rebuild their church in the new Perpendicular style. This was done on a grand scale. But the decision was taken to build the new church a mile or so inland, near to the heart of the new settlement, perhaps on the site of a chapel of ease. It was dedicated to St Andrew. It is likely that the old church rapidly fell out of use, because we know that the bells, windows and images were transferred to the new church. However, the font wasn't, a new one being made for St Andrew. Perhaps the old one wasn't considered fine enough, or perhaps it actually remained in use for a while.

Whatever, by the middle of the 16th century the old church was a ruin, and the last remains were ploughed under in the middle of the 18th century. Everything is lost; the images taken to the new church were destroyed by 16th century Anglicans, the glass by 17th century Puritans, the bells to fund rebuilding costs.

Nothing survives to mark the site of the old church, but you can still walk to it from St Andrew along Stocks Lane (in this case, the stocks were those used by boat builders), past the now ruinous hamlet of Lampland, to the marshes. When you reach the Dunwich River, you are there. After a brief pause for reflection, you can turn north, eventually reaching the crabbers on the bridges and banks where the rivers meet in the heart of the village. There, you can choose between one of Suffolk's best beaches, or a well-earned pint or ice cream.


Simon Knott, 2002, updated September 2017

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