Start The Ship, Dunwich
Distance 9 miles
Time 5 hours
Ascent 100 metres
Dunwich is a village with a handful of cottages, a ruined friary, a church, a small museum, and a pub. But in the 12th century, it was an internationally important port with a thriving fishing industry; it had a dozen inns, several churches and two hospitals. The Domesday Book records that the town paid a tax of 68,000 herrings and had 3,000 inhabitants.
Google map of the route
Now it’s a kind of Suffolk Atlantis. A series of devastating floods eroded the coast and swept away more than 400 houses on a single stormy night in the mid-14th century. Divers have found starfish and sponges living on the walls of one of the churches washed from the clifftop. On the edge of a cliff a short walk from the Ship pub, you can still see the last grave from the churchyard of vanished All Saints.
The Ship is the sole surviving pub in Dunwich. It is perfectly placed for a garden or fireside pint after walks through woods, marshes, heath and along the shingle beach. Drinking a pint of Adnams in one corner of the pub’s refurbished bar, I study drawings on the wall that show the fate of All Saints church from 1880, when its tower was still standing. In that year, poet Algernon Swinburne described the erosion of the church in his poem By the North Sea. Roofs that were “exalted once with prayer and psalm” had disappeared, he wrote, and now “one hollow tower and hoary/Naked in the sea-wind stands …”
By late 1919, All Saints was reduced to a single buttress. Three years later, the buttress was moved to the churchyard of St James’s, a couple of minutes’ stroll from the Ship. You can see it today along with the remains of a leper chapel – the only piece of 12th-century architecture left in Dunwich.
I pass the chapel at the end of my first day’s nine-mile hike, which starts with a bracing tramp north along the beach towards Walberswick. Blueish sea kale and faded yellow horned-poppies are sprouting from the shingle bank. It’s a bright, clear morning and I can see egrets and plovers round the saline lagoons on the Dingle marshes. There are views of distant Southwold landmarks such as the 15th-century St Edmund’s church and white Victorian lighthouse. Before Walberswick, I head into the marshes and follow an embankment path.
Just before I reach a derelict brick windmill, I turn left on a long, grassy path through the reeds. It is deep in autumn mud; there are flocks of starlings in the rushes and marsh harriers hunting overhead. My feet might have stayed drier had I kept on past East Hill to pick up the Sandlings Walk, which I rejoin later, but I don’t regret choosing to wander through the wild Westwood marshes.
The two routes meet eventually in Dunwich forest, where paths through ferns and trees lead over wooden walkways and wire-covered duckboards. Waymarks with a bird symbol now guide me back to Dunwich through copper-coloured bracken and glowing golden birches. When I finally arrive at St James’s churchyard, it’s a few steps further to the little village museum with its model of the drowned town and, beyond that, to the Ship.
On day two, I circle the flagship bird reserve at RSPB Minsmere. It’s a wild and beautiful area, although the proposed nuclear power station at Sizewell C is set to change the view again. I follow the waymarked coast path up on to the cliffs, past Greyfriars, a 13th-century Franciscan friary dissolved in 1538. On over Dunwich Heath, through Scots pines, gorse and burnished heather, to reach the Eel’s Foot pub in Eastbridge. Heading across marshy meadows towards the sea, I pass the remains of another chapel, near Minsmere sluice, which has a colourful stained-glass installation in the ruined wall, part of a public art project launched in October 2020.
Walking north up the coast, I spot a line of concrete anti-tank blocks marching along the beach. The land around the Minsmere River was drained in the 19th century for farming. During the second world war, it was deliberately flooded and turned back into marsh to deter German invaders. After the war, these wetlands became RSPB Minsmere, with thousands of acres of lagoons with bird hides. Long-absent avocets returned.
Back in the Ship’s flagstoned bar, Adnams ales, brewed in neighbouring Southwold, are always on tap. During lockdown, the owners redecorated. The bar has smart blue walls and the dining room boasts striking pelican wallpaper. Former general manager Sheila Magan, who ran the Ship until August, enthuses about the area’s varied landscapes. “No matter the season, it’s beautiful here,” she says, showing pictures of blooming heather on her phone.
She tells me how the colours change throughout the year – green leaves, purple heather, autumn golds, blue sky – and there are paths to suit all kinds of visitors: “Dog walkers, birdwatchers. It has a bit of everything.” Magan says closing the pub for lockdown was “one of the hardest moments of my career”. But the staff stayed cheerful, with photography challenges and online cocktail classes. The pub thrived in the summer with visitors flocking to the UK coast. Now, as the summer rush subsides and the birches around the beer garden turn bronze and amber, is a good time for a pint in the Ship and for walks through the forest, marsh, and heathland around Dunwich.
Records suggest there has been a Ship Inn here since about 1560, although the current buildings date from the 18th and 19th centuries. Old brick walls and casement windows surround woodburning stoves and beamed ceilings. The beer garden has a new outdoor bar and kitchen. The spreading fig tree is nearly 400 years old. The chefs use ingredients from local farms and fishing boats, including Brancaster mussels, Blythburgh pork and Aldeburgh ice-cream. I enjoyed the black pudding scotch egg with tangy, homemade piccalilli and Baron Bigod cheese, made in Bungay.
I’m sleeping in one of the pub’s 16 tastefully shabby-chic bedrooms, all named after local landmarks such as Greyfriars. Wood-panelling, rattan or wrought iron headboards and printed cotton cushions furnish spaces that range from cosy doubles like mine to spacious family rooms, featuring extra beds, sofas and claw-foot bathtubs. The windows mostly overlook the garden, with its birches and apple trees, but there are also rooms with fireplaces, looking across the coastal wetlands.
Double rooms at the Ship from £145 B&B, shipatdunwich.co.uk