A few years ago I read a novel called ‘What I Was’ with my third year students. It was a book for teenagers, a coming-of-age tale set in East Anglia, the story of the friendship between two very different boys in the 1960s. I don’t remember much of the plot, but there is a passage that got engraved in my mind: the two boys are rowing on a boat on a clear Easter day; the sea is calm and they can see the remains of a lost medieval city underwater.
The sea is actually one of the protagonists of the book and the story reaches its climax during a storm that floods the cabin where one of the boys lives. Thirty years on, it will also have claimed the hateful school where the other protagonist felt like a prisoner. The beach where most of the action takes place is a place full of mystery – cold and menacing.
When I read this book I wondered whether this place was real or just a product of the imagination of Meg Rosoff, its author. I recently discovered the truth.
A few weeks ago Pam invited us to spend a few days in Suffolk. She and her family have a cottage in a very small village, Walpole, and she suggested that we could stay there and use their bicycles to move around the region and discover its treasures.
|Tug of war in Walberswick|
There are plenty of cycling routes, and on the first day we embarked on a seven-hour trip that took us as far as Framlingham, where we finally stopped to have a beer in the pub near the station.
On this first excursion we went through yellow fields and green woods, passing almost inhabited places with a church in the middle of nowhere. On the second day, however, we decided to set towards the coast. We had been told about a mysterious town called Dunwich and immediately I knew it was the place the book talked about.
Dunwich was the capital of the Anglo Saxon kingdom of East Angles. It was an international harbour and in the 13th century it had eight churches and about five thousand inhabitants. Between 1286 and 1362 a series of storm surges (or meteotsunamis) destroyed most of the harbour and the town. In the 19th century there were less than 250 inhabitants and only one of the churches remained, the one that was claimed by the sea between 1908 and 1919. Nowadays, Dunwich is just a couple of streets and it has only 50 inhabitants. However, it’s still a town, not a village.
There’s a museum and a cafe on the beach, where you can have the typical fish and chips or drink a cup of coffee before going for a walk along the cliff (you are warned to be careful, because its edge may collapse into the beach when you expect it the least).
The cliff eventually leads to a wood that hides the remains of the Greyfriars priory. What really impressed me the most was the lack of people around, even in the middle of July, the absolute silence only broken by the cries of the birds coming from the nearby marshes.
Going back to the beach, the weather suddenly changed and it started to rain. It felt so different from the scorching sandy extensions full of holidaymakers of Southern Spain (I must confess I have always hated going to the beach in Malaga: too much sand, too much heat, too much noise). Here, in this desolate landscape I felt I could walk forever. The rain stopped eventually and we started moving towards the marshes, following the opposite direction. First we came across a family who were brave enough to adventure themselves into the sea (we had brought our swimsuits but we found the sea too menacing and turbulent).
Later on we came across a man standing next to a fishing rod. His daughter, a twelve-year old girl was lying comfortably inside a bivouac, drawing pictures on a notebook. They told us that the weather was nice enough to spend the night on the beach. Maybe they expected to listen to the bells of the churches of the ghost town, as the legend says.
We continued our silent walk. The prevailing colour was brown: you could see it in the sea and in the stones, different shades that combined with the traditional white, black and grey. The only noise was the one from the sea and the crushing sound of the pebbles under our shoes.
Walking along this barren place, I thought it could very well become a metaphor of the dementia process. This condition is progressive and it erodes not only your memory but your capacity to communicate and do everyday activities. However, the person with dementia is still a person. All the features that define them are still there, but in a submerged form.
Last Tuesday we had dinner with Anita Berlin in a really nice place near the Thames. Anita told us about all the different projects she has in mind to give shape to the history of her family. Anita’s mother, Carmen, who lives with Alzheimer’s, has an amazing history. To give you just an example, she was one of the persons who were saved by Angel Sanz-Briz, the Angel of Budapest, during the II World War. Anita has the original documents. She also has a little diary she found recently, which contains a list of books, some of them crossed out. Carmen, who spoke four languages and had a passion for words, can no longer speak. This little notebook will allow Anita to discover more about her mother through the books she read or wanted to read.
Marine archaeologists have managed to reconstruct the map of the old city of Dunwich. Anita is also an archaeologist of submerged treasures.
Photography: Lorenzo Hernandez www.photolorenzohernandez.com