The lost East Anglian city of Dunwich is a reminder of the destruction climate change can wreak

Greyfriars Monastery, Dunwich. Image: Claude Lynch.

It’s 2019 and, if there was ever any doubt that the climate emergency wasn’t the existential issue of our times, it’s fading fast. Low-lying island chains are playing hide-and-seek with the sea, people in Iceland are writing eulogies to their favourite glaciers, the Great Barrier Reef has pulled a sickie and on top of all that this year looks to be the hottest on record. What a scorcher, they’ll say in the UK.

It’s as if we think countries like ours are somehow predisposed to not being entirely blown to bits by extreme weather; instead, we get the benefits. To us a warmer climate brings up-and-coming Surrey wine and a good excuse for a balmy stay-at-home holiday, Somerset Levels be damned.

But the UK already has proof of the damage the climate can do – a drowned city lost for good, our own Atlantis, the victim of shifting seas and a dangerous fable for any low-lying town that remains.

They called it Dunwich, Anglo-Saxon for the “town on the hill”. Located on the East Anglian coast, it was recorded in the Domesday Book as one of the largest towns in England, over 3,000 inhabitants compared to just 400 for Brighton. At its 13th century peak, its size would have rivalled that of the medieval City of London. It had almost a dozen churches, distinct quarters, bustling market squares, a town hall and even a vast monastery. But the ruined wall of the latter is the only trace that still stands of the medieval town: Dunwich has been submerged and, for the most part, forgotten.

The local museum attempts to depict what the town once was, though half of the street pattern is the result of “informed speculation”, because the original has been completely washed away by five centuries of erosion. Remarkably, a solitary gravestone remains from the graveyard of the last church to fall away into the sea. This, along with most of the remaining ruins, is predicted to collapse before 2100, removing the final titbits of evidence for the existence of a town that once rivalled London.

So what happened? The town was built on a natural bay, and grew as a hub of trade. Originally, the Dunwich River provided a protected harbour for ships coming in around the East Anglian peninsula, just as Lowestoft or Felixstowe do today.

But after a storm in 1286, the harbour began silting up and the sea encroaching. The natural spit that once sheltered the town wore away until Dunwich lay at the water’s edge in all directions: the coast was eroding by more than a metre a year. A second storm in 1328 saw 375 dwellings in three separate parishes lost in a single night. The population sank from 4500 to just over 1500 in less than 100 years – and that was before the Black Death turned things from bad to worse.


By 1587, records show that most of the street pattern remained, creating a ghost town of under 200 people. That’s roughly how many remain today, but in scattered houses further inland: almost all of the original street pattern lies beyond the sand bank. One of the greatest towns of medieval Britain effectively fell into the sea.

The chalk of the Suffolk coast is still prone to erosion, and even now there’s little incentive to protect it. While Dunwich now lies between the latter-day seaside resorts of Southwold and Aldeburgh, it never became a pied-á-terre for London’s second homeowners. Instead it was slowly abandoned and then demolished altogether, not thanks to fate or even that lovely GCSE Geography topic of “longshore drift”, but simply shifting sands.

Facsimiles of Dunwich exist all along the East Anglian coast: towns that were once of great importance, miniaturised by social and geographical trends. There’s half a dozen churches on this stretch of coast encased in the ruins of far larger ones: the skeleton of a church far larger was abandoned and replaced with a smaller one that was easier to maintain, as populations dwindled.

The onslaught of the North Sea provoked its own medieval migratory flow; it was simply no longer sustainable to keep protecting towns like Dunwich with the rudimentary sea defences of the time, so its people steadily took their leave. Today, with our modern sea defences, it’s not quite the same story. But just imagine if the storm that swept away Dunwich’s dreams came again; it’s hardly out of the question.

Salty seas, patchy records and sheer obscurity mean we didn’t build a story around the destruction of Dunwich the way we have with Pompeii or Chernobyl.  But we can use the story of Dunwich as a stand-in, until the day comes when Ely, Boston or god forbid Margate face the wrath of the cold, frigid sea.

Thousands lost their homes when the sea came to Dunwich because they weren’t ready to push it back. Either we start sympathising and supporting those across the world who face this fate today, or we renounce the sympathy of others when we eventually face the fate that our ancestors knew all too well. We need to learn from the cities we’ve lost; sometimes you have to sink a city to save one.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.