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Talking Location With S A Harris – SUFFOLK

12th May 2023

S A Harris#TalkingLocationWith … S A Harris, author of Seahurst, set in Suffolk.

Is Suffolk the most haunted county in England? It has long-inspired writers of the supernatural with famous ghost stories such as Whistle and I’ll Come to You by M.R. James and, more recently, Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver. The stark and isolated landscape provides a natural setting for supernatural stories. Marsh and whispering reed beds, mudflats and estuaries, vast skies and towns lost beneath the North Sea give an eerie quality perfect for unsettling tales. Steeped in history, Suffolk is populated with hundreds of ancient churches, many with small round towers of knapped flint and stone. There are medieval buildings, manor houses, castles and priory ruins, ancient market towns and villages, often with fascinating histories and a resident ghost. I grew up in Suffolk hearing weird tales of hauntings, folklore and legend, which inspire my writing today.

In Seahurst, the family home is a modernist building of glass and steel built on the crumbling cliffs overlooking the North Sea. The fifty-odd miles of Suffolk’s coastline is one of the areas most threatened by coastal erosion in the UK today. Homes are often overwhelmed by the sea along the length of the East Anglian coast, but this is not a modern-day hazard. It has been happening for centuries.

Dunwich Cliffs

Seahurst is entirely fictional but greatly inspired by the tragic history of the lost city of England. Dunwich was once a thriving Medieval port that rivalled London until, in 1286, the first of a series of storm surges swept in. Two further surges followed in 1287, drowning the town and slitting up the port. In its heyday, Dunwich had a population of approximately three thousand residents. Many were wealthy merchants dealing in the wine, wool, salt and stone trades. Today it is a hamlet of fewer than two hundred people, and the port, the many churches and two friaries, streets and houses, are beneath the waves. It was initially assumed that the town had been destroyed when the sea swept in, but scientists have recently mapped out the sea bed and discovered underwater buildings and roads. Dunwich is often known as the Suffolk Atlantis, and folklore warns of bells ringing beneath the waves on wild and stormy night.

Today little remains of the medieval town other than the ruins of the 13th-century Franciscan priory, Greyfriars. The Priory was originally built closer to the sea but was rebuilt further inland as it came under threat. The sea is catching up with Greyfriars for a second time as it is now, once again, nearing the cliff edge. The ruins are fascinating to wander around. There have been numerous sightings of supernatural events there. Hobby lanterns glowing at night, luring the unwary to the cliffs and a watery death between Michaelmas and Christmas Eve. There are reports of ghostly monks wandering through the broken rooms, their chants carrying across the fields to the cliffs, and even a sighting of the infamous hound, Black Shuck. I’m happy to say I have only encountered a few animals grazing and a chill wind whenever I have visited the ruins.

S A Harris

Greyfriary, Dunwich

Between Greyfriars and the sea is the last grave from All Saints Church. The gravestone is perilously close to the cliff edge, fenced off, and partially hidden amongst lush undergrowth. The solitary headstone of Jacob Forster, who died aged 38 years on 12th March 1796, is a popular place for walkers to stop and take photographs. All Saints church reached the cliff edge in 1904, and its tower succumbed to the sea in 1922. The Priory and All Saints Church inspired the abbey in Seahurst. My protagonist, Evie Meyer, spends time there with a favourite running route between the ruins and walks through the reed beds and marshes that lead her to the sea. 

Suffolk is a county full of contrasts. Away from the eroding coastline are dozens of narrow winding lanes, green and lush in spring and early summer. Lined with high hedges and frothing with cow parsley, they tunnel through the countryside flanked by fields and ancient woodlands. It would be difficult for even the most imaginative writers of the supernatural to find such locations sinister. Still, some of Suffolk’s most stunning scenery is the watery flat landscapes of the estuary and marshes. Stark, isolated and eerie, this liminal land has all the perfect ingredients for disturbing supernatural tales. Who knows if Suffolk is the most haunted of English counties, but its coastline is be hard to beat.

Seahurst by S.A. Harris is published by Salt Publishing on 15 May as a Paperback Original at £10.99

Catch Sally on Twitter @salharris1

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