Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Map of Old Dunwich, and Egypt in England

The county of Norfolk is well-blessed with second-hand bookshops, so I can’t now recall exactly which one led me to the book called Dim Corridors (Wymondham: Geo. R. Reeve, 1948), but surely no-one with an antiquarian cast of mind could resist such a title? It suggests at once hushed passages in some ancient hall, or wanderings at dusk in hollow-ways through lonely country. My interest was further quickened when I opened up the book and found the first page was a fold-out street map of Old Dunwich, the medieval city that is now beneath the waves.

This showed the town as it was in the 16th century, in an engraving from 1753 for the Society of Antiquaries. I like maps in books and a map of a lost world even better. The chart has neat letters marked on it, and on the reverse a key to these is a roll-call of the vanished: the Black Friars, the Grey Friars, the Temple, St James Hospital, the Maison Dieu, the Cock Hills and the Hen Hills, the Windmills, St Francis’ Chapel, and the Sea Fields. That last name was suitably ominous since sea was what so many fields indeed became.

In his foreword the author, R.D. Clover, says that though the articles in the book are “built upon a framework of history” they are “first of all, impressions” of the lesser-known parts of East Anglia. Places have different atmospheres, he notes, and he has attempted “to grasp something of this intangible thing “atmosphere” and put it down on paper.” This is perhaps an unusual idea for the time, at least so particularly stated, and Clover’s approach might be seen as a precursor of the “earth mysteries” writers of the Nineteen Sixties and Seventies, the psycho-geographers of slightly later and the “new landscape” writers of today.

But it must be said that Mr Clover does not stray all that far from the sort of sense that any keen visitor might get of the places he discusses. His essay on the lost town is entitled “Dunwich – A Place of Ghosts” and begins, “Dunwich is not an easy place to find.” He had to make his way through half-forgotten lanes to the last street left, and scramble around war debris, put here to deter invaders, to get to the beach. The atmosphere, it will not be surprising to learn, was distinctly melancholy. The author certainly conveys this mood convincingly enough: “I picked up a fragment of skull and looked at it. What sort of brain once lived within that bit of hollowed bone? . . . I looked up and down the beach; not a soul was in sight. Nothing moved but a little chilly wind and the restless sea. Dunwich was dead.”

In fact, the remaining village of Dunwich is not in the least dead now, as it receives quite a few visitors attracted by its mystery and romance, and has an excellent little museum and interesting ruins, quite apart from its long if often windswept shore with its beachside chip shop shack. A short walk will also take you to sighing pine woods and crumbling clifftop walks, to be negotiated with care, since the sea has not quite finished with Dunwich yet.

The other essays in the book discuss old abbeys, churches, castles and towns, often then little-known and not much visited. There is an aura of wistfulness. R.D. Clover was, so far as the sources show, otherwise only the author of local history monographs. One of these was St. Mary's Parish Church and College of the Holy Cross, Attleborough, Norfolk: A history with notes on famous Attleborough families, published by the author in 1960.

Another was Tales of an area : a village study and history of Croxton, Kilverstone, and Barnham and the infancy of Thetford (Thetford: the author, 1975), for which he also supplied pen-and-ink drawings. Dim Corridors has three articles on Thetford, the first describing it as “an ancient capital” of East Anglia, the other two entitled, somewhat surprisingly, “Egypt in England I and II”. This proves to be an exciting variation on the notion that the Phoenicians visited England in ancient times—I am a connoisseur in a small way of such theories—only here having Ancient Egyptian voyagers discovering these islands on the edge of the world instead.

In part I of the Egypt discussion, Mr Clover summarises the ideas of H J Massingham, in his book Downland Man (1926): “Mr Massingham believes Avebury was built by people or rather descendants of people from the Nile Valley in Egypt . . . He sees a kinship between Megalithic England and Egypt in . . . the terraced cult of the hills; study of the heavenly bodies in the orientation of megaliths; chambered barrows, and sun worship; the resemblance between a Trilithon of Stonehenge and the postern of the Lion Gate at Mycenae . . .” And so, Silbury Hill at Avebury, that great cone of grass-covered chalk, the largest human-made mound in Europe, might be “the memory of a pyramid.”

What has this to do with Thetford? Well, says Mr Clover, let us go by Spring Walk in the town, “that lovely quiet backwater beside the Little Ouse . . .and so on by Nun’s Bridge to Castle Lane (old Icknield Way) and so through the gate in the wall and on to the green where westward, up the slope half smothered by trees, stands Thetford mound.” And in Part II of “Egypt in England”, he considers the various ideas about this prominent earthwork. It is a place, he avers, “still carrying an aura of antiquity, a singular impressiveness begotten in remote times.” Could it be “the remains of a chalk pyramid”?

Curiously enough, another book I acquired not long after this one, Prehistoric London, Its Mounds and Circles by E.O. Gordon (London: The Covenant Publishing Co Ltd, 1932) is also concerned in part with the nature of sacred hills in Britain, particularly those which might be seen to be somewhat in the shape of a cone, and has speculations as to their ancient purpose. However, a distinctly sceptical annotator in my copy has noted that most of these are now thought to be Norman mottes: and indeed Thetford Mound is regarded as an early 12th century earthwork for a medieval castle.

But the story may not end there, for more recent archaeology has now found that some of these fortifications were built on much older mounds and banks. And Thetford Mound has certainly attracted legends: that it was made by the Devil, that there is a palace beneath it, or buried treasure, or six silver bells from the ruined priory. So perhaps, even if ‘Egypt in England’ is too picturesque a theory, R D Clover might, in pursuing his avowed intention of recording some of the atmospheres of places, have not been quite so far off the mark after all.

Mark Valentine


  1. Sounds really interesting, Mark. Having spent time in Dunwich I look forward to reading this book. I posted a few my photos of locations mentioned in your article...

    1. Thank you, Martin, your photo's are evocative indeed.


  2. Many thanks for this fascinating article. Dunwich has a special meaning for me, ever since a romantic weekend from London in 1978, staying at the Ship Inn when the village was mostly undiscovered by visitors and rather eerie.

  3. I have many fond memories of Dunwich...Wilbur