Countless thriving Norfolk villages have been lost beneath the waves of the ravenous North Sea – but a group of opportunist archaeologists want to share the secrets of these doomed communities. Rural affairs correspondent CHRIS HILL reports.

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In the late 1980s, Norfolk’s capricious tides unearthed a tantalising glimpse of what they could do to the communities which trusted their survival to the sea.

Laid bare by the retreating waves were the foundations of a church, roads, and a series of wells – reminders of everyday life in a busy medieval village which finally perished after some great 16th-century storm.

The fleeting glimpse of Eccles’ past ignited the passions of a collection of local people, who spent the best part of a decade on stand-by to collect relics from this settlement during the unpredictable windows of opportunity governed by the vagaries of the tides.

Their discoveries, and the vast catalogue of knowledge resulting from them, will be the subject of an exhibition called The Raging Sea: Norfolk’s Lost Villages, which will be presented in Waxham Great Barn throughout the August Bank Holiday weekend.

Through archaeological artefacts, illustrations, paintings, maps and photographs, it traces the history of these enigmatic communities with bygone names including Shipden, Clare, Keswick and Wimpwell – all devoured by the relentless hunger of the North Sea.

Among the items retrieved from the foreshore are bronze cooking implements, Roman pottery and a child’s leather shoe, dumped into a disused well centuries ago, but perfectly preserved in its airless tomb, complete with the tiny indentations of toes.

But there is also a revealing insight into one of the most evocative icons of the encroaching ocean – the church of St Mary’s at Eccles-on-Sea.

As the village, which once commanded 2,000 acres of land, was gradually eroded away its parish church crept closer and closer to the shore, eventually leaving just its isolated tower standing until it finally crumbled in 1895 and was buried beneath the sand.

David Stannard happened upon the ruins during a low tide in 1986 and it sparked an interest which eventually led to the exhibition and, with it, a greater understanding of the date of the village’s demise.

“If you live in an interesting part of the Norfolk coast like this, you must have an interest in what’s going on around you,” he said. “If you go down the beach on a Saturday evening when it is getting dark and there is the ruin of a church and a circle of flints in the sand, you can only think: ‘How did that happen?’

“It took us until about two years ago to find out when Eccles church was destroyed, but we are now pretty certain that everything we have found pre-dates 1570.

“What happened is there were three horrendous storms in 1570 and the church was destroyed beyond repair so they dismantled it and the Lord of the Manor got the proceeds. But they left the steeple standing. The ruins are still there but they are 30ft under the sand.

“The only reason we saw anything at all was the sea scouring away the area. What was exposed was foundations, cart tracks in the clay, Roman pottery, skeletons in graves... and these wells.”

Between 1986 and 1996, tell-tale flint circles or rings of clay bricks in the sand gave away the locations of 11 wells which, at the end of their useful life, had become medieval toilets and rubbish dumps – creating a time capsule of history beneath the Eccles sands.

But recovering the artefacts became a race against the oncoming sea.

“If you are working on an intertidal beach you only have a couple of hours before the sea might come in and cover it up again for the next two years,” said Mr Stannard.

“With a well, you never know how deep it is. You are digging down and for all you know there could be 20ft of nothing beneath you because you might be standing on a blockage in the well. We were tied together with ropes and we had somebody on the surface keeping an eye on the tide.”

The items found were dated, catalogued and preserve with the help of Norfolk county archeologist David Gurney, who has supported the exhibition.

Finds from other coastal areas included a neolithic hand axe from Sea Palling, early Roman pottery at Winterton and a whole field system at Waxham, complete with boundaries and ditches.

But at Eccles, the ruins have not been seen since about 2000 after the Environment Agency’s urgent work to build an offshore rock reef and recharge the beach to protect homes and property.

For a coastal dweller with a penchant for archaeology, the hungry ocean remains a double-edged sword – causing heartbreak by sweeping cliff-top homes into the sea at Happisburgh, while revealing priceless historical artefacts a few miles away at Eccles-on Sea.

Mr Stannard said: “Our archaeological effort stopped because of the work by the Environment Agency. So, as an archaeologist there was a great loss, but as a householder we were suddenly in a much safer position.

“Happisburgh gained national notoriety because of the loss of the land and houses, but at the same time gaining international recognition because the same process has founded our understanding of when mankind first lived here (due to the discovery of stone age artefacts in the clay). But that is a tough price to pay if you are losing your home.

“I don’t think I will see it (St Mary’s church) again in my lifetime, but who knows? That is the thing with coastal erosion. There is a road my father used to drive me down as a child which is now 100m offshore at Happisburgh. But the same road is still here in Eccles. It is very difficult to predict.”

Mr Stannard, 62, was previously a geologist in the offshore industry but he has also worked as a lecturer at City College Norwich and in local government in Great Yarmouth before becoming an amateur archaeologist, author and historian.

His home, yards from the sea at Eccles’ North Gap, has a collection of paintings and early photographs in the hallway showing the tower of Eccles church, and it’s changing position relative to the menacing sea over time. The earliest one, an 1823 painting, shows it standing in the dunes.

“These pictures are important because they pre-date photography,” he said. “They should be displayed as visual historical documents and displayed in context rather than as pieces of artwork.”

Mr Stannard and his wife Ros, also a geologist, were founder members of the Eccles Lost Village Project, a loose collective of people who lived close enough to react and become “rescue archaeologists” when spring tides or storm surges exposed the ruins.

Mrs Stannard said: “We never knew when it was going to happen. If you spent time ringing people to get them to come along, by the time they arrived the tide would have come in and it would all be gone. It would have to be done immediately. All we could do was plot it, photograph it and collect it.”

Mr Stannard said: “We were privileged to be at the right place at the right time and now it is up to us to start spreading the story to a much wider audience, to tell the story of Eccles and all these other lost villages.”

Funds from the exhibition will go towards the £60,000 appeal to raise money for St Andrew’s Church in neighbouring Hempstead – the church which would have welcomed Eccles’ ousted congregation when their own place of worship was claimed by acts of God.

Church warden and local farmer Ronnie Pestell, another member of the Lost Villages project, said: “This exhibition is a big team effort from a very small parish. We are raising money from one church that disappeared to stop another one from disappearing, so there is a great irony to it.”

Avril Smith, director of the Stalham with Happing Festival, which incorporates the exhibition, said: “We have one of the most important archaeological areas in Europe and, really, Norfolk should be shouting about it, but it is only really known in scientific circles. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see it.”

The exhibition will feature a daily programme of illustrated talks and film presentations about coast erosion including the 1938 Horsey floods and the 1953 East Coast floods.

There will also be displays of locally-found fossils of large mammal bones from elephants, deer and rhinos dating from the last Ice Age, and references to the ground-breaking work undertaken by the Natural History Museum scientists at Happisburgh revealing the earliest known human occupation of Britain some 800,000 years ago.

Visitors can bring their own fossil finds on Bank Holiday Sunday to a Fossil Roadshow when local experts will help identify them and explain their significance.

-The Raging Sea: Norfolk’s Lost Villages exhibition will be on display at Waxham Great Barn, on the B1159 coast road between Sea Palling and Horsey, from 9.30am to 5.30pm on August 25, 26 and 27. Entry is free, but donations are encouraged towards the Hempstead Church Appeal Fund.

-A preview reception will be held on Friday 24 at 7pm. Tickets cost £7.50 from Happing Gallery in Stalham, 01692 583099.

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