This January marks the 125th anniversary of the destruction of the steeple of the church of Eccles St. Mary next the Sea, which was toppled by a tremendous Nor’Westerly storm on 23 January 1895. The steeple, comprising a basal round tower and octagonal belfry, had stood by the foreshore since the church itself was dismantled in 1571 following a series of devastating storms in the previous year. Evidence for this comes from a Deed of Union dated January 1571 contained in Tanner’s Index held by Norfolk Record Office (NRO, DN/REG 31) which states that,
….’ the said Church of Eccles shall be from hensforth aswell by the Authority of us and every of us united annexed and consolidated for evermore to the Church of Hempsted…’
The Deed requires that this unification should ‘do no hurt to the Queen’s majesty’ and undoubtedly this was interpreted to mean that the steeple should remain as a lofty seamark to aid navigation for mariners. The abandoned steeple remained standing by the foreshore for the next three centuries, gathering any number of curious legends as to its presence. It attracted the attention of one of the most eminent scientists of the day, Sir Charles Lyell, who with his wife Mary (also a geologist) visited Eccles in 1839. Lyell recognised that the steeple was an important marker in both space and time for determining the rate and extent of coast erosion. Following his visit to Eccles he wrote on the subject in a later edition of his seminal work ‘The Principles of Geology.’
At this time the steeple was surrounded by sand dunes, but during a series of fierce storms in the following years the dunes were severely eroded by the sea. This process can be traced through a drawing made in 1846 by local artist Cornelius Jansen Walter Winter commissioned by antiquarian Reverend S C E Neville Rolfe for inclusion in his ‘Various antiquities connected with the County of Norfolk Vol 1. 1849.’ This shows the steeple standing precariously on the edge of the dunes. At the same time work was being undertaken by the Sea Breach Commissioners to prevent further coast erosion at Eccles, and they commissioned surveyor Robert Pratt to prepare a series of sections through the dunes along the coastline (NRO, BR/276/1/1138). Section No 66 dated 1844 clearly shows Eccles steeple on the seaward side of the dunes exactly as illustrated by Winter.
By the 1860s further storms had completely cut away the dunes leaving the steeple standing on the beach, at which time it was dubbed ‘The Lonely Sentinel’. As such this curious edifice attracted any number of Victorian sightseers, many of whom left a legacy of watercolour drawings of the old steeple.
One such sightseer was Leonard Bolingbroke, who for many years served as the Diocesan solicitor and is chiefly remembered for his philanthropy by donating Strangers’ Hall Museum to the City of Norwich in 1922. However, as a young man Leonard mounted his new-fangled penny farthing bicycle and set off from Norwich on the afternoon of 4 July 1878, finally arriving at Eccles over some very bumpy roads at 4pm. Having ventured onto the beach he sketched the old steeple, from where he says ‘there was a stormy look to seaward.’ returning back to Norwich by around 7pm. As an intrepid pioneer of cycling he records this and other journeys in his illustrated ‘Bolingbroke’s Bicycle Journal’ (NRO, BOL 1/87, 739X2).
The toppling of the ‘Lonely Sentinel’ was anticipated by the Lord of the Manor, Reverend Henry Evans-Lombe who wrote to his land agent Francis Hornor in November 1893 to have the base of the tower concreted to prevent the whole structure being undermined (NRO, HNR 92/1/1). However, these efforts proved futile and the steeple toppled in January 1895 following a series of devastating storms over Christmas and the New Year. Writing to his client Francis Hornor relates,
‘You will be deeply grieved to hear that Eccles Steeple went down yesterday evening [Wednesday] between 6 and 7 o’clock. The sea broke over the gap and actually flowed up to Clements turnip house doors and had not the wind gone down the situation would have been alarming’ (NRO, HNR 128/1).
Historian William Cooke [1840-1930] of Stalham documented the demise of the steeple over several decades and reported its loss in the Eastern Daily Press on 26 January 1895. More significantly he left a series of original pen and ink illustrations in his manuscript works titled ‘Eccles juxta Mare and the Erosion of the East Coast’ (NRO, COL 8/81/1-4).
In the year following the disaster in the summer of 1896, the steeple ruins, lying in disarray on the beach, were the subject of an oil painting by Aubrey A Blake, a Vice President of the Norfolk & Norwich Art Circle; Leonard Bolingbroke was also an ardent patron of this highly respected society.
But this was not to be the end of the old steeple for in the ensuing years the ruins were occasionally exposed by scouring tides, most recently in 1991 and 1993 when an archaeological watching brief conducted by the Eccles Lost Village Project investigated the site, by then designated the Eccles Deserted Medieval Village. (Norfolk Historic Environment Record, NHER 8347)
During this time new offshore reef sea defences were constructed at Eccles which resulted in the site being blanketed by a deep layer of sand, a situation which prevails today. But who knows, perhaps the ruins of the Lonely Sentinel will again emerge when the raging sea once more removes every vestige of sand from Eccles beach.
Researched and compiled by David Stannard