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Weird Norfolk: The lost village of Eccles which sometimes appears after storms and the graveyard where the dead cannot rest

PUBLISHED: 18:00 04 July 2020

Engraving of Eccles church tower among the dunes in a book on Norfolk churches by Hodgson published in 1823..

Engraving of Eccles church tower among the dunes in a book on Norfolk churches by Hodgson published in 1823..

Archant © 2012

The Eccles church claimed by the waves which occasionally appears after a storm when sea-bleached skeletons appear in the sand.

Remains of Eccles church tower revealed by scouring tides in 1986.Remains of Eccles church tower revealed by scouring tides in 1986.

Swallowed by the greedy sea, most of the ancient village of Eccles-on-Sea is now underwater or beneath the sand we walk on today. All that is left of another of Norfolk’s vanishing villages is the pre-war Bush Estate which hides behind the sand dunes: the thriving medieval village that was once here is now beneath the waves or underneath the sand. St Mary’s Church was one of the last survivors of the village lost to the North Sea – some say you can still hear its bells ringing underwater as you sail by. Probably built during the 12th century with a belfry added 200 years later, St Mary’s appears to have been in use until the late 1500s. Three horrific storms in 1570 wiped out swathes of the village houses and left the church in a dreadful state of disrepair and led to it being largely dismantled. The tower, however, was left standing, a useful seamark to aid navigation for passing ships. In 1605, villagers in Eccles presented a petition to Norwich Quarter Sessions for a reduction in their taxes, pointing out that advancing seas had gulped down 1,000 acres of their land (half what it had) and left only 14 houses and the church in ruins. By the beginning of the 18th century, the church was on the landward edge of the dunes but sand began to bury it, leaving only the octagonal belfry visible.

But unusually high tides on Boxing Day 1862 carved into the sandhills and left the tower exposed, once again, like a late Christmas present for the villagers of Eccles. From this moment, it led a colourful life: sometimes partially covered in drifts of sand, other times laid bare by scouring tides. Families and artists sought it out for picnics or a subject matter and it became known affectionately as The Lonely Sentinel and as such, a fashionable place to visit. In Norfolk Life, by Lilias Rider Haggard (1892 – 1968), she remembers the eerie sight of the stranded church tower and, even more terrifyingly, the hideous sight of sea-bleached skeletons exposed in the sandy graveyard. She wrote: “One September day years ago, when the tower of Eccles Church still stood on the dunes, there came a north-easterly gale and a ‘scour’ which swept the sand from the old graveyard, leaving the long outlines of the graves washed clean by the sea. In one lay an almost perfect skeleton embedded in the clay, the hollow-eyed skull gazing up at the limitless sweep of the sky.”

Until 1895, the tower was one of Norfolk’s best-known landmarks and a constant reminder of the ever-encroaching North Sea. A dreadful gale on January 23 1895, the worst in living memory, finally sunk the tower for good: author Ernest Suffling, who lived at next-door Happisburgh, tried to light his pipe inside the tower as the storm began to gain momentum. “That I was the last to enter the old tower is certain, as during the night the wind increased greatly in force and the next day blew with such hurricane violence that the tower was continually surrounded by the sea,” he wrote. The next day, an Eastern Daily Press correspondent wrote: “On visiting the scene the desolation presented to one’s view is appalling.” Within months, most of the flint masonry of St Mary’s had been swept away or covered in sand until only a few large sections remained.

Often completely buried, the church was remembered every year by an annual beach service held at the spot on August Bank Holiday Sunday. David Stannard, who was previously a geologist in the offshore industry but 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 happened upon the ruins of St Mary’s during a particularly low tide in 1986. 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?’

“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 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.

“I don’t think I will see it (St Mary’s church) again in my lifetime, but who knows?” Mr Stannard added.

And what of those drowned bells, tolling beneath the waves before storms, a story similar to that we have previously covered in Shipden and across the border for Weird Suffolk at Dunwich? In May 1930, Lieutenant Commander RN A Brooks, the captain of HMS Boyne, reported hearing a bell at around 9.30am close to Eccles and, having heard about the stories in Dunwich of underwater bells, wrote to the EDP.

“When abreast of Sea Palling, at about 9.30 a.m., I very plainly heard one stroke of a deep toned bell … have [any of your readers] heard any superstition of Eccles Church bells being heard at sea?” read his letter.

According to Mr Stannard, it is unlikely that spectral bells are chiming beneath the waves. Firstly, the bells were probably sold off by the Lord of the Manor, Thomas Brampton, in 1571, secondly there are no mention of bells from any of the Victorian tourist reports and thirdly, St Mary’s tower is now 30ft below…the sand.

But Weird Norfolk likes to think ghost bells don’t stick by any rules or logic.

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