Beautiful Britain: Covehithe

The hamlet of Covehithe in Suffolk is not somewhere we had planned to visit, however when we got talking to an old local he told us we should go and have a look and we were glad we did.
Whilst Covehithe is now a tiny hamlet with a population of approximately 20, in the middle ages Covehithe was a small prosperous town but by the 17th century it had fallen victim to the devastating effects of coastal erosion. In 1910, in his book “Vanishing England” the author P.H. Driffield wrote;
“At Covehithe, on the Suffolk coast, there has been the greatest loss of land. In 1887 sixty feet was claimed by the sea, and in ten years (1878-87) the loss was at the rate of over eighteen feet a year. In 1895 another heavy loss occurred between Southwold and Covehithe and a new cove formed. Easton Bavent has entirely disappeared, and so have the once prosperous villages of Covehithe, Burgh-next-Walter, and Newton-by-Corton, and the same fate seems to be awaiting Pakefield, Southwold, and other coast-lying towns.”

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According to Ordnance Survey maps, the coastline retreated more than 500 metres between 1830 and 2001. This is apparent from the road that goes past the church – it just drops right off the end of the cliff! The tides of the North Sea are eating away at the cliffs depositing the shingle further south at Orford Ness. Apparently, this is a process that has been occurring for thousands of years and is part of the natural realignment of the coastline, however the erosion at Covehithe has been somewhat accelerated by the rising sea levels caused by global warming and the extraction of sand and gravel from the seabed.

At the centre of Covehithe are the magnificent ruins of St Andrews Church, a Grade I listed building. The church dates back to the late 14th/early 15th century. Only part of the church is in ruins, with a smaller chapel having been built within the footprint when the parishioners could no longer afford the upkeep of such a large building.  This 17th century built church stands against the tower of the original building and most of the materials used to build the new church, came from the old one. It has been mentioned in the past that the old edifice was reduced to its present state by the action of Cromwell’s agents however according to the Southwold Press although William Dowsing, who was the Parliamentary Commission had stated that he “broke down two hundred pictures – one Pope with divers Cardinals; Christ and the Virgin Mary; a picture of God the Father etc.” he did not in fact appear to have carried out much structural damage apart from the breaking of the stained glass windows.

Looking at the sheer size of the ruins kind of gives you some insight into the busy place that Covehithe once was, yet even at its height there were only around 300 people living in the area, not nearly enough to warrant a place of worship of this size. Whilst viewing the ruins, I let my imagination run wild thinking of all the reasons such a building would have fallen into this decrepit state but the real reason wasn’t nearly as exciting!

There is a coastal footpath which takes you along the edge of the cliffs. There is sign telling you not to enter but it’s a very well used path and there’s no real danger – as long as you don’t get too close. Every year this footpath is pushed further back, it’s unlikely that if you were to return the following year you’d be walking on the same patch of land – which is  a rather scary thought I think.

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It’s a shame that with the rapidly encroaching coastal erosion and the church only being one length of a field away from the cliff-top, it’s likely that the church at Covehithe will be no more within the next 50-100 years. Enjoy it whilst you can.

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