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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.