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Dunwich and The Rings of Saturn

Dunwich, Suffolk. On the eastern edge of the easternmost county of the UK, a place where several aspects of my life seem to coalesce. It is most resolutely an end, a final destination with no onward stations, a place where the road runs out. And its liminal qualities only amplify with time as the sea seizes more and more ground and slowly brings the coastline ever more inland.

This is a fragile coastline, steadily eroding. Once one of the main ports in England, there are now only a few buildings dotted along the single road that leads in and back out of the village, which include a surprisingly informative and entertaining museum and the decent Ship Inn. The remains of the old priory still just about stand at the top of the cliffs near to the last remaining grave that hasn’t succumbed to the sea.

WG Sebald, a writer I hugely admire, has written at length about this part of the world, including several disorienting pages on Dunwich and the surrounding heathland, in The Rings of Saturn, his book that appears to be about memory, destruction and deterioration, guilt and exploitation (among, no doubt, much else) and that I seem to return to again and again. I suppose I'm just trying to understand the blasted thing, but there is also something in the long, melancholic, meditative sentences that continually spawn subordinate clauses that I find endlessly hypnotic. He's definitely a writer who slows me and encourages me to notice more, which is necessary and welcome. We find so much within its pages: the endless silk references, often as a handmaid or silent accompanist to disaster; the impossibility of ever really disentangling landscape from history; the impermanence of, well, everything; the human compulsion to dominate, exploit, destroy each other, other species, and the surrounding environment; the labyrinths, mazes, disorienting heathland paths which stand for the endless mental tracks through individual and shared memories. And the characters: eccentrics, melancholics, obsessives, victims of tragic circumstances. Particularly in early readings, these often wonderfully drawn people are what pulled me in and provided, along with the journey through the landscape that I know very well, an anchor for all the long distance ranging through streams of thought, of digressions, of mental travelling. 

But Dunwich stands for more than a vivid demonstration of wildly effective East Anglian coastal erosion and a launch pad for melancholic reflections. In 2017 I rode my bike through the night from London all the way into the sea here, showing its function, once again, as the end of the line. Hundreds (thousands?) of us did and continue to do every single year in mid-summer during the so-called Dunwich Dynamo. Other demands on my time, mind and body prevented me participating in 2018, but it's a joyful, almost magical experience and I will be back to do it again.

I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days back in Dunwich to spend time with family, do some walking, and reread The Rings of Saturn, all of which prompted these reflections and pictures.

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