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England’s frailties laid bare – but there’s still time for a cup of tea in Suffolk

May 21, 2010
A sign warning visitors of the dangers of standing on the cliffs at Dunwich

Dunwich cliffs - a case of what happens when people give up the will to survive

Yesterday, taking a day off from the pressures of work, I dusted down the Triumph, donned helmet and gloves and took off for rural Suffolk, one of England’s more bucolic counties. What a day – a man, a motorbike, and the ancient lanes and tracks of old England.

The point of my trip was to visit Dunwich on the coast, just below Southwold. This is a place of legend, a mediaeval city which was overwhelmed by the sea in the Sixteenth Century yet still managed, as a “rotten borough” to return two MPs to Parliament in the years before the 1832 Reform Act.

Today, at Dunwich, little now remains. Like Ozymandias, a few relics lie in the sand (or more specifically, the shingle) and only a few houses cling to the sea edge, the last testament to a place which was once one of the most powerful ports in all England. Where once there were more than 20 churches, only a ruined abbey rests at the cliff tops and a small parish church lies a few hundred yards inland, waiting for the day when its turn too arrives to be consumed by the low and muddy waters of the North Sea.

Dunwich, in a way, is a metaphor for businesses which give up on core tasks. When the storms came in the 12th Century, the city folk rebuilt their harbour many times but eventually, the harbour was swept away and rival towns up the coast took their trade. As allies of the King, the people of Dunwich demanded and received the King’s backing that any goods landed at Southwold and elsewhere would still pay dues to Dunwich. But, in the end, the irrefutable logic of a town long past its sell-by date bore down heavily on this forsaken settlement.

In the years that passed, the waters came and sucked that city away. By 1904 there were still church remains and a tower to be seen on the beach. By 1919 they too were gone. Today, maybe 20 houses, a pub, a cafe and a church shelter behind the shingle banks. Here, more than anywhere, time and tide wait for no man. The ooze creeps but slowly through the stones.

But here’s a curious thing. On my trip to Dunwich, I stopped off at a dealer in old motorcyles in Framlingham, Andy Tiernan. He and his team are a great bunch of Suffolk aficionados and were happy for me to look at the stock of old Sunbeams, Panthers, Matchlesses and all. They asked me where I’d come from and realising that I had travelled some 80 miles already offered me a cup of tea and a chat about bikes, their foibles and their pleasures.

Then, later on, driving through High Suffolk and on into the Sandlings, I came upon a second hand bookshop in Westleton, a country village there. Here again, the proprietor offered me a cup of tea while I browsed his stock.

In deepest Suffolk, the country folk know a thing or two. Perhaps it’s bitter experience or perhaps it’s customer service but they know how to treat people. Be friendly to strangers and they will help you. In simple gestures, people and companies build stronger reputations. And these people get talked about, as I am talking now about them to you.

Did I buy a bike from Andy? Not this time (but he had some seriously tempting machines). Did I buy any books? Oh yes, far too many for sanity’s sake – including (for goodness knows what reason) a seriously heavy Geographical Study of Fiji. Might come in useful when the flood calls…

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