Weird Norfolk: 'Tomb raiders' commit gruesome crimes at lost coastal graveyard

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

Engraving of the now lost Eccles church tower among the dunes in a book on Norfolk churches by Hodgson, published in 1823. - Credit: Archant Library/Supplied

Last week Weird Norfolk recounted the strange tale of the disappearing and reappearing church at Sidestrand and the bones on the beach. Today we travel south to Eccles-on-Sea where another tower was taken by the sea – a story we’ve already recounted in Weird Norfolk and which is no stranger to the strange

The church tower emerged from its sandy grave in late 1862 after storms and, before it disappeared again, was a tourist attraction where people would enjoy picnics and meetings. It was also where, according to writer WH Cooke in 1908: “For 95 years in succession the teachers and children of the Baptist Sunday School at Stalham, formerly at Ingham, visited Eccles on Trinity Monday, the original motive being the removal of the children from the evil influence of Ingham Fair.” 

A lonely sentinel in the tides of time, Eccles was like a small-scale English Pompeii, a church claimed by the elements and taken back by them on January 23, 1896. John Clements of nearby Manor Farm had watched the tower through a tremendous storm – he stayed until 6pm and when he returned an hour later, the tower had disappeared. “The Manor House is not more than 100 yards distant, but, owing to the roar of the hurricane and the noise of the breakers, no sound was heard when it fell,” an Eastern Daily Press article read. Before the tower fell, Cooke wrote that: “Just opposite the ruined tower, in the morning, the body of a sailor, fearfully mutilated, was seen entangled in the rigging” and in 1880 and 1881, human bones were found on the beach. 

In 1912, the EDP reported ‘A Gruesome Scene’. 

“The appearance of the churchyard has been particularly horrible,” it read. 

“Every particle of sand has disappeared; the action of the waves has so worn away the earth that the bottoms of the graves are now level with the surface. Their shapes are plainly discernible in the solid clay. 

“On Tuesday week 36 skeletons were exposed. The sand is now returning, so much so that when a Stalham gentleman visited the place more recently only 16 could be seen. “One of them had the arms crossed on the breast. The scene is very suggestive of the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. The gloom and silence is simply appalling – a region of the dead.” 

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Worse was to come. Just a few days later, on January 2, 1913, the EDP published another letter that recalled the “desecration of graves” and which was written by WMC McAllister, the curate-in-charge of Eccles. He wrote of the beach becoming “a happy hunting ground for gruesome relics” with motorists driving to this section of coast “to glean a ghoulish harvest”. 

The next day, the EDP wrote an article of its own about the raiding of a tomb that had been uncovered in the former chancel. 

“On Tuesday last, a motorist arrived on the scene, calmly borrowed a shovel from a man working near by and grubbed about in the tomb til he had unearthed an armful of what presumably was once an Ecclesian of substance and importance. 

“For some obscure purpose he carried these pitiable relices away with him in his car. If they had suddenly clothed themselves with flesh and horror and seized his steering wheel awry he would have got his just desserts.” 

He said that dozens of others had visited the beach for the same reason: to ransack graves and bring home grim trophies. A Sea Breach Commission worker explained that in order to remove the bones, people would have needed to prise them from the clay – he recounted how someone had removed a skull but added: “…the story is too ghastly to be continued in this spirit of detail.” 

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

Remains of Eccles church tower revealed by scouring tides in 1986. - Credit: Archant Library/Supplied

In local historian Ronald Pestell’s A Lost Village: Eccles-Juxta-Mare, published in 1965, the author noted: “As Eccles disappears so too do the many tales and legends connected with the village. Little is heard today of the Eccles monster, reputed to rise from seas when the shores are deserted. 

“Old Shuck, the huge black dog that roams the beaches on stormy nights, is almost forgotten and stories of the terrible shipwrecks that so frequently occurred, are only incoherently retold by the aged.” 

Storms still uncover bones and the sea still covers them. The secrets of Eccles-on-Sea lie deep beneath the waves, the dead of the village waiting to be rise again and be seen. 

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