A new forest for Dunwich

 A feature from the November 2016 issue of Suffolk Norfolk Life magazine
Suffolk Norfolk Life November 2016Click to view this issue »
Public enjoyment and biodiversity in our forests is now as important as timber production, says Laurie Forsyth

Ancient stones are full of history and memories. At Dunwich, lichen-encrusted walls and two gatehouses are all that remain of Greyfriars’ Franciscan Priory. Built in 1277 within medieval Dunwich, it was soon threatened by coastal erosion, and was rebuilt on its present site just one decade later. Basking in a sunny meadow near the clifftop, the ruins could now so easily be lying scattered on the seabed, with the rest of the doomed town.

On land and sea, the Sandlings coast was always a challenging place for the people who lived here in the past – nature saw to that. Furze (gorse,) heather and birch fared better than sparse crops in the sandy soil, which often ‘blew’ when cold winds struck from the east in the spring. Life was hard, and for centuries people lived their entire lives with the scent of flowering furze and the tang of heather in the wind. Generations of sheep graziers, furze cutters, bracken gatherers, woodcutters, villagers and farmers worked the heaths: they and their forebears kept woodland at bay by burning, cutting and grazing, and perpetuated the heaths we know today. Like the working people in the purple Egdon Heath landscapes immortalised by Thomas Hardy, the Sandlings heathlanders must have thought their world was timeless and enduring. It was neither.

Their way of life was ending: the heaths became increasingly irrelevant to local people from late medieval times, and were then fragmented by Enclosures from the 17th century. Commoners’ rights were abandoned, and many fields and heaths became overgrown by bracken and thickets of birch and furze. By 1890 only about 7,000 ha remained – a tiny sliver of the great medieval ‘wastes’ that once stretched from Ipswich to Southwold. By then, Greyfriars’ Priory was already a picturesque ruin. The last fragments of abandoned All Saints’ Church teetered above the waves on the crumbling cliff, and within a few years they too slid into the sea.

The First World War brought heartbreak and a crop of poignant war memorials to the villages of the Sandlings, although it was also a period of relative prosperity. Victory, though, was bittersweet. In the wake of the agricultural depression that struck when the war ended, farm profits and workers’ wages fell, farms became vacant, marginal land reverted to weeds and scrub, and land prices sank. Meanwhile, a government shaken by the knowledge that U-boats had almost strangled supplies of vital imports ordered that a British national forest was needed to produce future timber reserves. In 1919 the Forestry Commission (FC) was established to make it happen.

Read the full article in the November 2016 issue of Suffolk Norfolk Life Magazine
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