When you think of Minsmere, your mind probably turns towards the flagship RSPB reverse that nestles within the woodland and reedbeds south of Dunwich and Westleton. That’s Minsmere today: a bustling place full of birdwatchers and families and walkers – and the wildlife they have all come to see. The Minsmere New Cut stops you from going too far into the marshes to the south, however, unless you are walking the coast path. Beyond that there is a bit of marshland where few people venture, even though it’s still part of the reserve. And that’s where you’ll find the chapel. The chapel of the bells.
From inland there’s a direct path to the beach. Going from Eastbridge, you can walk out very easily to the rather sad looking ruin. My Mum and I did this one warm day in 2012, after being frustrated in getting a coffee at the RSPB reverse café by time and then picking our way along a rather small road that isn’t very advertised but does run from the reserve to Eastbridge! Unfortified by coffee, we hared out along the path to the coast and back again so that we could be in time for a much more important thing – lunch at the Eel’s Foot pub back in Eastbridge with our menfolk who had not joined us on the walk. The path doesn’t actually go to the chapel (and I wouldn’t ever suggest that you trespassed, of course!) but it’s easy enough to see from it. The building, at first glance, doesn’t even look very ancient – there’s an undeniably concrete structure right in the middle of it. Closer inspection shows this to be a WWI pillbox, one of many, many that are found along this stretch of coast, but offering a little more shelter than most.
As your eye gets in, though, you realise that this is an ancient building, and moreover that it is an ecclesiastical one. Most of the larger stones have gone, leaving only the rubble construction behind, but you can see a little buttress here, and the round shape of a Romanesque arch there. A chapel! Then you look around and you wonder why. There’s nothing to see. It’s pretty wild out there, and there is a good mile and a half or so to get back to Eastbridge. Well, never mind, Rendlesham church isn’t very close to the modern settlement, placed as it may be to serve an Anglo Saxon settlement long gone. But this is slightly different.
Minsmere chapel was never a parish church. It was built here to be a desert place for a small group of religious men. The little religious settlement was founded by Ranulf de Glanville in 1182, one of two that this important Suffolk nobleman founded late in life. Ranulf was the Chief Justiciar of England in the last years of the reign of Henry II, and the king’s right hand man, effectively the regent when Henry wasn’t here (most of the time!) The new community was a Premonstratensian community – the White Canons. This was a French order similar to the Cistercians, but canons, ordained priests, who preach and serve in the community, not only in their religious house. I’m carefully not saying monastery – because not being monks, canons don’t live in a monastery! The other one was Butley Priory, which was an Augustinian house, the Black Canons. Not much survives of that, either! Though for different reasons.
The real equivalent to Butley Priory is Leiston Abbey, because just under two centuries later in 1363 the abbey moved to Leiston. It really did move as well – parts of Leiston Abbey are made up of building stone that comes from the Minsmere site – in this area, good building stone was too good to abandon! Only the chapel was left, the canons perhaps unwilling to disturb the house of God. Why did they go? Flooding is the most likely answer, but it’s possible that there was sickness as well – malaria is a possibility, as a recent study of Anglo Saxon populations shows that anaemia without malnutrition was more common in the same coastal and wetland regions as it was in the post-medieval period when we know malaria was definitely here.
It is possible that the church was maintain and a cleric from the abbey was based there throughout the Middle Ages. There may, of course, have been a tunnel to the chapel – Leiston Abbey is well known for its tunnels, which run to the Greyfriars in Dunwich and to Framlingham Castle, they say. So why not to lonely Minsmere as well?
The wild marshland and pasture around the little abandoned chapel doesn’t suggest that anything else was going on except that little religious house. However, areas that look wild now are often discovered to be hotbeds of activity in centuries past. It’s in the Domesday Book, belonging to Roger Bigod, with four free men, and a plough, and a sheriff by the name of Northmann. By 1237 it was described as a port, but when you stand on the empty beach this is hard to imagine. Hard to imagine that is until you remember the little village up the road. Dunwich today is a single street, a church and a few other houses. Everyone knows that in the Middle Ages it was one of the largest ports in England – but then, over the centuries, it was washed away by the sea. The village of Minsmere is gone forever, the people who lived moving perhaps to Eastbridge, or to Theberton where the parish church was.
More recently the coastline had to be guarded. In Tudor times there was some kind of possible artillery fort there against foreign invaders, just like the pillboxes of the Second World War, but in the intervening period a different type of invader had to be patrolled against – smugglers, of course! There was a windpump there from the 19th century: when the marshes were drained for agricultural use – you can even see it at the Museum of East Anglian Working Life in Stowmarket, as it was rescued when it collapsed in 1977. There was even a café and a couple of cottages on the beach by the sluice up to the Second World War, but these were evacuated, used as target practice and then pulled down. The Leiston-cum-Sizewell Newsletter of Autumn 2013 gives details with pictures on pages 15-16.
Now the holiday makers are back, and Sizewell’s gleaming white domes the only threatening things to be seen on the horizon. I recommend the walk down to the beach, and the lunch at the Eel’s Foot, too! Just remember, if you should happen to discover a little bell on the site of the old chapel, just leave it well alone!
This blogpost relates to The Bells of Minsmere, story eight in Suffolk Folk Tales.
All images © Kirsty Hartsiotis, 2012