The tiny village of Dunwich clings to the edge of the Suffolk coast and is in many ways a pretty but unremarkable place, a sleepy settlement a long way from any large towns. There’s a beach, a place to buy ice cream, a little museum, a pleasant old pub that draws visitors from miles around. But in the grounds of its Victorian church, and in a field on the edge of the villages, are ruins that suggest a more propserous past. Two impressive archways welcome the motorist into Dunwich, a sign between them proclaiming that they are a part of Greyfriars, Dunwich’s medieval friary. The ruins of this Franciscan friary are some of the final remaining relics of what was once a thriving and significant port – an ancient settlement that today is sometimes dubbed “Britain’s Atlantis” due to most of its medieval fabric now lying beneath the North Sea.
The heart of London is full of strange old places with unusual names and odd stories, but there is one place that for a very long time was not a true part of London at all. Ely Place, just to the north of Holborn Circus, was until relatively recently considered to be a part of Cambridgeshire. For centuries, it was an enclave – an area of land physically located in the City of London but not under its jurisdiction. Instead, it was privately owned by the Bishops of Ely, and even today the street has its own gatehouse and beadles.
It’s easy to look at a map of the British Isles and assume that the outline of land that’s so familiar to us has been that way for millennia. However, the coastline – particularly in the east – has changed dramatically over the centuries, partly due to human intervention (such as the draining of marshy areas) and partly due to the forces of nature. Often, these changes are quite gradual and happen over many years (for example, towns on the Norfolk coast that have been gradually disappearing into the sea over many decades and centuries), but sometimes, a storm or other natural disaster could change the fortunes of coastal towns overnight. New Romney in Kent is one of these places. Once a thriving and important port, a terrible storm in 1287 cut off the town’s lifeline.
I visited the Lune Valley again recently, that picturesque corner of Lancashire that I’ve found to be rich in history and fascinating old churches. This visit was no different – driving into the village of Hornby, a striking octagonal church tower caught my attention. Stopping to explore this church and the church situated opposite uncovered the stories of two men with strong links to Hornby who both made their mark on history.
The church of St Leonard sits on a hillside in the pretty coastal town of Hythe in Kent, overlooking the English Channel. Its history goes back at least 900 years, perhaps even further – a lot of the churches in the area have pre-Norman origins. It’s a beautiful and imposing building – but if you visit the church’s crypt you will find yourself coming face to face with some unexpected people.
I first came across the ruined chapel whilst on a wildlife trek – we had stopped near the little town of Salen to watch harbour porpoises in the Sound of Mull. Intrigued as I was by the ruined chapel and its surrounding burial ground, there wasn’t time to stop and explore and I had to return a few days later to get a good look around the site. My stay on the beautiful Scottish island of Mull had been blessed with warm sunshine, but on the final day of my trip – when I finally had time to visit the chapel and the burial ground surrounding it – the clouds had arrived.
This is Pennygown burial ground, and it is still used by the people of the Mull today.
Winchester, England’s ancient capital, is home to a great many fascinating old buildings. The area was originally settled in the Iron Age, then became the Roman town of Venta Belgarum and there has been a cathedral in the city since the 7th Century. King Alfred the Great was buried at Winchester and his links with the city are commemorated by an imposing Victorian statue of him in the city centre. Visitors to the city flock to the grand Gothic cathedral and its beautiful cathedral close , the medieval almshouses of St Cross and Winchester Castle’s Great Hall, which is the subject of today’s blog post.