The Suffolk coast has a long and stormy history shaped by the sea. Whole towns have disappeared, leaving only legends. One such town was Dunwich, which was once a great city with eight churches, two monasteries and even a mint. Now only a few houses remain.
Legend says at times of danger, you can still hear the bells of the lost city of Dunwich beneath the waves, ringing from the shoreline. However, as this story tells, it is on land as well as at sea that the warning bells ring.
About five hundred years ago, in the Dunwich area, close to the sea and surrounded by a thick forest, was a small hamlet of just a few houses. The people living here were all dependent on the sea; most were fishermen. The villagers noticed that, after trading their fish for other goods in a neighbouring village, they would often leave for home on a clear crisp evening, only to find themselves walking through dense swirling mist just yards from their own houses.
Even a blazing fire could not keep out the mists that chilled them and brought illness to the villagers.
Everyone knew where the problem lay. The mists were caused by the restless spirits of dead sailors that had come to grief on this treacherous part of the coast.
The spirits would rise up out of the waters, leaving the sea and creeping on to land to find a warm place to stay, making mischief and bringing tragedy in their wake.
The mist would seep in under doors and through gaps in the windows, making the houses cold and damp. The mists took a high toll on the elderly and sick.
The villagers noticed that the thick mist tended to leave the ruins of the old abbey, that was rumoured to be haunted, untouched. One day a man took some stones from the ruins for house repairs. Whilst collecting the stones, he found a little bronze bell and took it back to his house.
That autumn the mists were terrible. Some nights the abbey ruins were covered by thick swirling sea mist. The man who had taken the bell was lost at sea and his house left empty to be overrun by the mists and the chill of the spirits. There was only one explanation for these events. The removal of the little bell from the abbey had brought a bad omen.
The villagers knew that it must be returned and buried in the abbey ruins immediately. This was done and, in following years, the mists were nowhere near as bad around the abbey.
For the villagers, there was no question that the bell had magical qualities and kept the sea mists away from the ruins, so they had the idea of making their own bells. Bronze was too expensive so small bells were made from clay.
The secret ingredient was added - a small amount of earth taken from the abbey ruins. The bells were painted red, a sure way of protecting against sea spirits, and were hung up in the houses - often just behind the door.
Legend says that when a dense mist full of troubled spirits was coming, good spirits would ring a warning through the little bells. When the bells rang, the people would stay in the house and block up the doors and windows to keep the spirits out. No matter how bright or clear a day, nobody even considered going out in the boats if someone heard a bell ring.