It’s an exquisite, blue day in June and I am sat on the beach between Weybourne and Sheringham. A warm breeze makes my hair dance as I watch turbine windmills languidly turn in the summer light offshore. A container ship ghosts along the horizon while closer in, a much smaller vessel weaves around buoys setting crab pots. I hear the scrape, slap and clunk as the baited pots slip into the deep blue water, which by now is peppered with ever hopeful ice-white gulls bobbing on the turning tide.
I turn over a smoothed disc of organic material in my hand. More solid than peat, but composed of discernable seeds and plants, this is moorlog; a remnant of a prehistoric forest bed now beneath the North Sea. We know it as Doggerland – a rich habitat which was once home to bears, wolves, hyaenas, walrus, wooly rhinos, and even the magnificent mammoth some 8,000 – 12,000 years ago. These organic pebbles are tideline remnants of the once lush, buzzing, verdant world which connected us to mainland Europe.
This stretch of the North Norfolk coast is under ever increasing pressure. The building of wind farms, laying of pipelines, mineral extraction and commercial trawling confirms it has always been an area rich in resources. We can only imagine what it must have been like for the people who once walked the land which is now hidden beneath an undulating sheet of wide blue expanse.
This world must have been a bountiful place to call home, as explorations of these moorlog deposits indicate a landscape of bog, fen, marshland, coastal and aquatic environments. The name ‘Dogger’ takes its name from the Fourteenth Century Dutch fishing vessel, dogge which first began trawling the area and recovering large amounts of peat in their nets. In 1909, the Essex Naturalist reports that these deposits were of great annoyance to the fishermen as they choked up their gear. However, one of the most famous finds from the North Sea was a “barbed antler harpoon point found in 1931 within a lump of peat.” This was discovered by Captain Pilgrim Lockwood aboard Colinda, and was what initially alerted archaeologists that this was a region of great interest.
With every disc of moorlog thrown ashore, we can study the ancient forest bed and understand the environmental indicators embedded in the curious material. We grasp at remnants of a place occupied thousands of years ago, but we can never fully know the submerged human history of this lost land. Lost are the place names, anecdotes and folklore which were undoubtedly imbued into the landscape. Stories bring a sense of belonging, connecting people to place through recalling historical events and appreciating ancestral significance.
My own family history has landmarks across this region; a personal topography embellished with anecdotes where I am the legend on the map. The whistle of the North Norfolk steam train invokes memories of an oily game of hopscotch sliding on slippery sleepers late one summer evening, visiting my uncle who volunteered on the railway. A few miles away, I cannot pass through the village of Gunthorpe without recalling a family holiday where my auntie got locked in the toilet and it was over an hour before any of us noticed she was missing. Aylmerton is where news of my grandad’s death reached us, on a night cloaked in heavy August raindrops. And my own story adds another layer to the strata, having got married in Bodham last summer.
One of my favourite stories tied to Sheringham is that of my Mum on a childhood holiday in the 1950s. A fearless and naughty girl, she bravely ventured into one of the grand Victorian hotels which used to dominate the town. She crept into a world of shiny, brass stair rails, plush velvet curtains and ageing, privileged residents, so different to her life back in Lancashire. Hearing these childhood tales of a gregarious, young version of my Mum filled me with wonder and awe for a time before I existed. The hotel has since been demolished and the story is consigned to our family history, but when I drive down the road and consider where this much loved tale occurred, I realise that the space still exists, just the legend on the map has changed.
The East Anglian coast has a rich history of villages lost to the sea as the littoral line between land and sea retreats ever inwards. Legends abound of lost churches whose bells toll beneath the waves, only to be heard on wild, stormy nights. Eccles, Shipden, Clare, Keswisk, Whimpwell – names which were certainly the beginning and ending of so many stories. The demolished hotel offers the briefest of insight into how unsettling the loss of place must have been, and one does not have to watch the news for long to hear heart wrenching stories of diaspora.
Much older of course, out beyond Shipden and Eccles, we can only surmise at the names given to the landscape of Doggerland by its people, where the familiar Thames, Ouse and Rhine cut channels and snaked across the landscape. We understand that Doggerland was inhabited until sea level rise caused catastrophic environmental change. Only to resurface in disconnected clumps, the moorlog is smoothed to its most simplest form and all detail is lost, along with it the human story of this unique place.
Mapped today, the features of Dogger Hills and Outer Silver Pit Lake sound like the names of twee holiday resorts, but the study of Doggerland is so much more than an academic curiosity – it holds real significance for us all as we face the looming impact of climate change.
- Gaffney, V., Thomson, K. & Fitch S. Mapping Doggerland: The Mesolithic Landscapes of the Southern North Sea (2007) Archaeopress
- Matless, D. In the Nature of Landscape: Cultural Geography on the Norfolk Broads (2014) Wiley-Blackwell
- Parkinson, J. Organic Remains of a Former World: An Examination of the Mineralized Remains of the Vegetables and Animals of the Antediluvian World (1811) Sherwood, Neely & Jones
- Reid, C. Submerged Forests (1913) Adamant Media Corporation – Elibron Classics