Midway through his book The rings of Saturn, about a tramp across Suffolk which is really about anything but Suffolk, W.G. Sebald walks from Southwold, across the River Blyth through Walberswick, to Dunwich, a village in Suffolk which I have written about recently. Sebald writes:
The parish churches of St James, St Leonard, St Martin, St Bartholomew, St Michael, St Patrick, St Mary, St John, St Peter, St Nicholas and St Felix, one after the other, toppled down the steadily receding cliff-face and sunk in the depths, along with the earth and stone of which the town had been built. All that survived, strange to say, were the walled well shafts, which for centuries, freed of that which had once enclosed them, rose aloft like the chimney stacks of some subterranean smithy, as various chroniclers report, until in due course these symbols of the vanished town also fell down.
Until about 1890 what was known as Eccles Church Tower still stood on Dunwich beach, and no one had any idea how it had arrived at sea level, from the considerable height at which it must once have stood, without tipping out of the perpendicular. The riddle has not been solved to this day, though a recent experiment using a model suggests that the enigmatic Eccles Tower was probably built on sand and sank down under its own weight, so gradually that the masonry remained virtually intact.
Something in this story of the Eccles Church Tower rang a bell with me, yet it did not at all ring true. Intuitively, it would seem strange that Dunwich might have had a church called Eccles Church, for what has "Eccles" got to do with Dunwich? Besides, myths abound about this odd place, which exalts the emptiness of the endless sea, and makes the individual feel very small, and the story of Eccles Church does not correlate in my mind with Dunwich.
As Norfolk and Suffolk people will know, Sebald is gravely mistaken. Eccles Church never ended up anywhere near Dunwich. Eccles is some 50 or 60 miles north of Dunwich, in the county of Norfolk.
But perhaps - much as it pains me to admit it, as his book is infuriating - Sebald can be forgiven, for the village of Eccles-on-Sea has suffered a similar indignity to Dunwich of being slowly, tortuously, devoured by the sea. In the late 19th century, the North Sea was advancing upon Eccles, just as it threatened the rest of the East Anglian coast. "As the sea advanced," said a 2001 Archaeological Field Unit report, "chewing ever more land away, the sand dunes were pushed back around the church. When Ladbroke engraved the tower for his series of illustrations of the churches of Norfolk in 1823, the tower was still, just, on the landward side of the dunes." By the 1890s, the church had slipped, as per Sebald's theory, over the dunes to the beach, and shortly afterwards it was swept out to sea. Simon Knott's website states that Pevsner could still report traces of flint from the old church in the 1960s, but today no fragments remain.