Weird Norfolk: The bones that rained down on the beach from the Garden of Sleep

A postcard of the lost tower of St Michael’s and All Angels church, Sidestrand.

St Michael’s and All Angels tower close to the cliff at Sidestrand, now lost to the sea. - Credit: Raphael Tuck & Sons Archive

It was as he lay in a poppy-filled graveyard that Victorian writer Clement Scott coined a name for North Norfolk which sticks to this day: Poppyland. Less well known, however, is the name he gave the place where he lay during those blousy summer days of the late 19th century: the Garden of Sleep. And little did Scott know that within just a few short years of his visit to North Norfolk on behalf of the Daily Telegraph, that the Garden of Sleep where he lay with the dead would disappear forever . 

Even in Scott’s time, the fate of St Michael’s and All Angels tower close to the cliff at Sidestrand was perilous. The majority of St Michael’s had been demolished in 1880 when the sea’s relentless march towards the cliffs became a matter of concern – only the tower was left and as much building material as possible had been salvaged for the new church inland. 

 St Michael’s and All Angels Church at Sidestrand.

The tower seen here is an exact replica of the one which stood on the cliff edge. - Credit: Archant Library

Stone by stone, the church was dismantled and carried 650 yards inland to its new position where it was rebuilt as a copy of its brother on the cliffs. The round tower we see today is an exact copy of that which fell tumbled over the cliff edge in 1916, followed by every trace of the original St Michael’s by 1936. 

Scott’s poem, A Summer Song, written in 1908 included the lines: “In my garden of sleep, where red poppies are spread, I wait for the living, along with the dead! For a tower in ruins stands guard o’er the deep, At whose feet are green graves of dear women asleep…” 

Like dogs, the sleeping dead should be left to lie – but coastal erosion is a relentless beast and chews away great chunks of land with no thought as to what it destroys. At Sidestrand, just as in Dunwich in Suffolk, the crumbling cliffs revealed ghoulish secrets – as the sea claimed more land, it also claimed the souls who had been buried in St Mary’s graveyard. 

It is said that as the cliff fell away, the remains of coffins and bones tumbled down on to the beach, a storm of skeletons raining down on the sand. 

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