By the North Sea


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By the North Sea

IT IS HUMAN NATURE to anthropomorphise—that is, to attribute human characteristics to that which is not human. A thing as innocuous as assigning a particular gender to a sailing ship, or else being moved to pity by the sight of a derelict church, forgotten in some farmer’s field. Animals, inanimate objects, vehicles, architecture. It is the latter which concerns us. Indeed it is often said of certain structures and dwelling places that they possess a ‘soul’, and if (for argument’s sake) we are to take this literally, then it stands to reason that there should be an afterlife for such edifices—that these ‘souls’ ought to persist in some manner long after the destruction or demolition of their host.

An absurd notion of course, on the face of it, and whilst there is no shortage of ghost ships or phantom coaches in the folklore of these isles, ghost buildings are conspicuous in their absence. Although I cannot personally claim to be well-versed in such traditions, I have only ever heard of one example, and this not so much a ghost building as an entire town. If the sheer ridiculousness of the concept does not already have you tossing this volume away in disgust, I will now attempt to relay the tale as best I recall it.

The story was told to me in that venerable establishment known by the sign of the Black Horse, in the quaint seaside town of Aldeburgh, Suffolk. I spent a day and night there in January of 1884, trawling through the parish records of St Peter and St Paul’s to settle an inheritance dispute for a client. The day’s labour having yielded a favourable outcome, in the evening I retired to the aforesaid public house for a celebratory pint of stout. The handful of grizzled locals I encountered within—old sailors and fishermen all—proved most hospitable, inviting me to sit with them by the fireside while they shared their tales of the sea; of great catches in days of yore, and hair-raising encounters with tempestuous swells.

The beer flowed, and the stories grew ever more fantastical: the waves taller, and the fish more monstrous. But the strangest of all was an incident said to have occurred a century earlier, during the reign of King George the Mad, which the elderly narrator had heard as a boy. His grandfather had been a smuggler in his youth—a common profession in those lawless days, when extortionate duties on imported goods fuelled a booming trade in contraband, and the entire Suffolk coastline was a hotbed of illicit commerce. Whole communities were involved to varying degrees, from the fishermen who sailed abroad when times were lean, to the innkeepers who signalled to the boats from their upstairs windows, and the local farmhands hired to carry the goods inland. The King’s Revenue Men—overstretched and under resourced—were powerless to stop them, and the smugglers operated with impunity.

One night in midwinter, two brothers were returning to Aldeburgh from the port of Flushing in Holland, their cutter laden with a cargo of gin. Partway across the Strait of Dover they encountered a thick fog, which seemed to envelop them without warning. Now these brothers were no strangers to such conditions, and under normal circumstances the added concealment was to be welcomed. Yet this was a fog like no other. Thick and clinging, the very air seemed heavy, making it difficult to breathe, and it carried a noisome odour—of mildew and damp soil. Most uncannily of all, their compass began to move at random, the needle flicking from one direction to another, rendering any mode of navigation impossible. Even the stars, concealed by a layer of cloud, could not guide them.

Blindly they sailed on, maintaining their heading as best as they were able, keenly aware that any slight deviation could see them land a hundred miles from their intended port. At last, in the early hours of the morning they heard the unmistakeable sounds of a distant harbour. The creaking of many hulls, the gentle lapping of waves against timber, and the straining of rope as anchored vessels tugged at their moorings. The lights of a town appeared on the horizon, the fog giving them an eerie, greenish hue, and from its great size they knew that it was not Aldeburgh. Holding little hope now of reaching their appointed meeting place, and fearing capture in an unfamiliar port with a two dozen barrels of Dutch liquor, the brothers hurled their illicit cargo into the sea.

With their cutter now sitting higher in the water, the wind carried them on with greater haste. A forest of ships’ masts came into view on the starboard side—strange vessels with a high forecastle and square-rigged sails, unlike any craft they had seen before. The distant lights became windows and lanterns, and they could now discern rows of half-timbered buildings with roofs of glistening slate, as well as the stone towers of several churches. They reduced their speed, expecting to strike a wharf at any moment, yet even with the houses practically on top of them there was still no sign of land, nor any hint of breaking water. The brothers greatly wondered at this, for there were now houses to their left and right, and they could only suppose that they had entered a sort of canal.

The sounds of human activity rang out through the mist: the rattle of a wagon drawn over a cobbled street, the slam of a door, indistinct voices. On either side the ground level steadily rose, and high above them the rows of buildings had begun to converge. Seeing this, they expected that the canal would also narrow, yet still they could not see its walls—it was as if the whole town were suspended on the fog; detached from the surface of the water with no land in between.

All of a sudden the rippling waves were set aflame, and glancing behind them, they saw that the sun was sending its first rays over the water. The earthy aroma was replaced with the tang of salt, and one can scarcely imagine their bewilderment as before their very eyes the fog lifted, and the mysterious town faded into nothing.

With a sudden jolt their vessel grounded itself on a sandy beach, and a lonely coastline stretched from north to south as far as the eye could see. Waves crashed against the shore and gulls screamed overhead. A weathered cliff face rose on their left, with a distinctive structure sitting perilously at its edge, and the brothers knew at once where they had landed. This was the church of All Saints, Dunwich—a landmark familiar to all who plied the Suffolk coast, and a welcome sight, for it lay only ten miles north of Aldeburgh. This tiny fishing village marked the western edge of what was once a mighty port in medieval times, rivalling London in size, until a series of violent storms in the fourteenth century sent it tumbling into the sea.

There was nothing more to the tale, nor indeed anything to suggest that it is not a work of inventive fiction. Still, that vision of the lost town emerging from the fog is one that will stay with me until my dying day, and it pleases me to accept it as truth, however implausible. It is a comforting thought, especially when one considers what this nation has lost in the way of architecture—the monasteries ripped down by Thomas Cranmer in the sixteenth century, and more recently, the grand country houses steadily vanishing from insolvent estates—that the works of man do indeed possess a soul, even as he. That perhaps nothing is gone for ever, and on occasion, if the right conditions are met, one may catch a glimpse of some ancient edifice—even an entire settlement!—restored to its former glory by some unaccountable, supernatural power.

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