Thursday, 24 September 2020

The bells! The bells!

MATT SALUSBURY listens out for the sounds of underwater tintinnabulation as he goes in search of Britain's sunken bell legends...

Fragments of Dunwich churches - All Saints, St Peter's and (probably) the Templar Church, mostly hauled up from the North Sea in the Dunwich Dives, throughout the 1970s and 1980s

This article first appeared in Fortean Times, FT 396, September 2020

Is it true about the bells tolling beneath the waves? It's a question frequently asked by visitors to Dunwich Museum. The nocturnal phantom bells at Dunwich, though obvious nonsense, are actually among the more plausible of Britain’s ghost bell traditions. At least churches actually once stood in Dunwich - more than can be said for the locations of many phantom bell legends!

The city of Dunwich on the Suffolk coast, once medieval England's sixth biggest town, was a major port with its own royal shipyard, trading with the Hanseatic League before a millennia's worth of coastal erosion and three really big storms did for the town. It’s now a village of just over a hundred souls. Stonework from several of the sunken city’s dozen churches was hauled up from the bed of the North Sea in dives throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Late 18th century engraving of All Saint's Church, Dunwich, now lost to the sea. Out of copyright

Postcards from the Nicholson Collection in the Dunwich Museum archive, showing All Saints at the turn of the 20th century. The last section of the church fell of the cliff and into the sea in 1919.

Rowland Parker, author of the definitive history Men of Dunwich, said he'd "never heard any local talk of bells tolling out to sea" as of 1979. The oldest documentation for the legend dates from 1859, when Master Mariner John Day claimed to have known his position when sailing to Sizewell Bank to the south by the tolling of a submerged bell heard while passing Dunwich.

Perhaps Master Day heard a bell on a wreck or wreck buoy. Some of the churches could have been suddenly inundated, as in the Great Storm of 1286. The antiquarian John Stow visited Dunwich in 1573, describing "remnants of ramparts, downfallen edifices and tottering noble structures" at the water's edge. But could these church bells have still been intact underwater in their derelict belfries, rung by the action of the tides 300 years later? Unlikely. As Nigel Pennick points out in Lost Lands and Sunken Cities, "every church lost to the sea was destroyed by wave action."

Some Dunwich bells are accounted for. Medieval parish records include a receipt for the sale of the bells of Dunwich's St Nicholas Church to build a pier to protect another town church as the sea advanced. Other Dunwich churches were demolished as no longer viable, faced with an encroaching sea.

The last surviving butress of All Saint's Church now stands in the churchyard of the modern St James's Church, Dunwich

The last surviving tomb of All Saints burial ground, on the Dunwich Cliff Path. Human bones and teeth from the burial ground regularly fall out of the eroding cliff

This slab from a tomb hauled up in the Dunwich Dives is believed to be from the Templar Church.

The still standing 19th century church of St James's, Dunwich, has a single automated bell that only tolls the hour. But a recent anonymous entry to Dunwich Museum visitors' book, though, records a local man hearing twice "a peel of six chimes" at about 2am on the "very stormy" night of 29 December 2017.

Some other well-documented sunken churches off Britain's coasts have phantom bell legends attached. St-Annes-on-the-Sea, Lancashire has the sunken remains of a medieval church off the coast, its bells allegedly heard before storms. Also said to warn of storms are phantom bells at Walton-on-the-Naze, Essex, whose church - taken by the sea in the 1790s - is now three miles offshore. Shipden near Cromer in Norfolk once had a church, on the submerged remains of whose tower the tug Victoria was wrecked in 1888. And yes, its bells sometimes sound at night.

Not all verifiable lost churches succumbed to the waves. Between Southwell and Oxton in Nottinghamshire there once stood the settlement of Raleigh - flattened by the East Midlands Earthquake of 1185, although not "swallowed up" as legends tell. Local tradition has church bells heard on Christmas Day.

But evidence for an actual church behind phantom bell legends is usually scarce. Some more plausible phantom bell stories come from Cornwall, where bells on sunken ships rather than vanished churches are supposed to ring, such as the bell of the long lost ship Neptuneoff St Ives.

Welsh phantom bell legends include one from Llangorse Lake, Powys, in which bells of a cathedral that once stood there before it was flooded now sound on "holy days". Since the lake was formed by the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago, this is a credibility-stretcher. A similar legend is attached to Lake Bala, 86 miles due south in the Brecon Beacons.

Numerous Welsh legends feature the Devil or his disguised imps stealing bells then dumping them at sea. They then toll from their new location, warning fishermen as storms approach – as do the bells heard from Whitesand Bay near St David's, Pembrokeshire. The provenance of the phantom bells of Aberdovey, Gwynedd cannot be traced beyond the Victorian music hall song The Bells of Aberdovey.

Phantom bells said to have been stolen and lost in transit are a common motif. A tale from Bosham on the Sussex coast has a bell stolen by Viking raiders then loaded it on to a longship which sailed away. When locals rang the "all clear" from other churches, the stolen bell vibrated in unison, capsizing the vessel. The story's probably a 19th century explanation of why Bosham's church has no tenor bell.

In Llanwonno, Glamorgan, the bell was said to have be stolen by "big-eared men of Taff", who dragged it away on a sledge only to lose it in a river. The story may be an invention explaining odd local place names like Rhyd-y-gloch, ford of the bell.

Divine retribution swallowing up churches whose parishioners blaspheme or "mock God" is a recurring theme. Or bells are lost in transit when a "workman" leading oxen pulling the bells utters a profane oath. One such phantom church bell sounds on Christmas Eve from Bomere Pool in Shrewsbury, although there's no evidence there was ever a church there. Nor is there evidence of a church ever existing at Bell Hole, in marshes at Tunstall, Norfolk, whose phantom bells send up bubbles as the church sinks towards Hell. Bells transported by ship from Forrabury, Cornwall were allegedly sunk by the hand of God after a captain ridiculed a priest who crossed himself, they are now said to ring beneath the waves.

The mighty North Sea at Dunwich has claimed at least 11 of the town's churches and some satellite chapels as well.

An especially tenuous church-destroyed-by-God's-wrath tale comes from Coningsby, Lincolnshire, whose bells supposedly peal on the anniversary of its destruction. A natural rock formation there slightly resembles the rubble of a church.

Mermaids also appear in phantom bell traditions. Every Easter Sunday a mermaid rings a bell underwater at Rostherne Mere, Cheshire. A near-identical tale has a mermaid ringing a church bell beneath the River Lugg near Marden, Herefordshire.

Bells sound from an allegedly submerged village church at Kenfig Pool near Bridgend, South Wales. While the sea has claimed a nearby castle, there's no proof there was ever a village there. Nor is there any record of a church having stood at Nigg Bay in the Scottish Highlands, from whose waters a bell is said to gently peal.

Recent research into Very Long Period signals detected underwater with a resonance that can sound like "a large bell" suggests these tales may have something to do with underwater earthquakes, (FT391;17) so a rational explanation may yet be forthcoming.

Thanks to Darren Mann of Paranormal Database which has many excellent examples of British phantom bell legends

A similar article appeared in Discover Dunwich, newsletter of Dunwich Museum.


Dunwich, Suffolk, Jean and Stewart Bacon, Segment publications, Marks Tey, 1975, 1988

Lost Lands and Sunken Cities Nigel Pennick, Fortean Tomes, London 1987

The Search for Dunwich: City under the sea, Jan and Stuart Bacon, Segment, 1979, 2008

Shipden Shipden

Welsh Folklore and Legends, L.A. Simmonds, James Pike Ltd, St Ives 1975

Campanology Wales

The bells of Aberdovey

Sunken Bells – Legends of Christiansen Type 7070, ed. D L Ashliman, 2013

Dunwich Museum, Dunwich, Suffolk, was closed due to COVID-19 at the time of writing, but now reopen! Monday-Sunday 11.30-4.30 until the end of October, entry by donation, for opening hours Twitter: @DiscoverDunwich

Matt Salusbury is a regular contributor to Fortean Times and a Trustee and volunteer of Dunwich Museum

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Phantom Dunwich bells in Fortean Times 386, on sale 13 August

My survey of phantom bell traditions and unlikely tales of the sound of tolling bells heard beneath the waves - from Dunwich and elsewhere - will feature in Fortean Times, issue FT386, on sale 13 August or hitting your doormat sooner if you are a subscriber.

A similar article appeared in issue 1 of Discover Dunwich, newsletter of Dunwich Museum.

My photos appear in the History Channel's Ancient Monster Quest special In Search of Woodwoses... I think!

Woodwose on a font in Barking church, near Wickham Market, Suffolk, one of three possibly used by The History Channel(?) - see below

Three of my photos of woodwoses (wildmen) appear - or will appear, probably(?) in a documentary by The History Channel, a special episode of their Ancient Monster Quest series, with the working title In Search of Woodwoses. Or at least I think they will - in any event I eventually got paid for a licence to use these, by a production company called First Row Films, that seems to be connected to this programme.

The whole affair is as mysterious as some of the mystery animals I have been investigating. Despite repeated requests for information on when Ancient Monster Quest - In Search of Woodwoses will be broadcast, I have no idea about when it goes out (or whether it already has), nor any other details of the programme. The whole somewhat puzzling saga is here.

Should you come across any information on In Search of Woodwoses, do let me know.

Monday, 27 July 2020

My virtual talk for Dunwich Museum - the Dunwich Bank Wreck Cannon - Tuesday 11 August 2020

Dunwich Museum presents a virtual Museum talk via Zoom
6pm, Tuesday 11 August, 2020
The Dunwich Bank Wreck Cannon, and its close relatives
By Matt Salusbury - Trustee and volunteer at Dunwich Museum, journalist, feature writer for BBC History and History Today magazines.

You are invited to virtually attend a talk with Q & A, with possible participation by staff from the Royal Armouries and other surprise guests.

The magnificent bronze Dunwich Bank Wreck Cannon, discovered and raised from a Spanish Armada warship by Stuart Bacon in the Dunwich Dives during the 1990s, is now on show in Dunwich Museum.

The talk will look at its origins, how it came to be lost with the failed invasion of England that was the Spanish Armada (1588) and how it found its way to Dunwich Museum – eventually!

We will also look at some very similar cannons – still in existence – made by the same Belgian gunfounder, Remigy de Halyut, for the armies and navies of the Hapsburg Empire. Some of these, like the Dunwich Bank Wreck Cannon, have quite a backstory too!

Email for details of the login, password and meeting ID for this talk, and for news of possible future talks. Please consider making a small - donation to Dunwich Museum if you are attending the virtual talk. (To sign up to the Zoom meetings platform if you haven't already, do so here. It's free)

Museum Updates

Dunwich Museum is now open Wednesday-Sunday 11.30-16.30, social distancing measures apply. The Dunwich Bank Wreck Cannon is on display there, along with some of its cannonballs. Follow @DiscoverDunwich and Dunwichmuseum on Instagram for future updates

Friday, 26 June 2020

Protest for a fair election at Belarus embassy

Belarusians living in the UK protested outside their Embassy in London yesterday (25 June) at the start of the Presidential election campaign. With the three most likely opposition candidates still in jail, and reports of intimidation of supporters of opposition candidates attempting to sign their paperwork to stand in elections, few are expecting anything like a free and fair election. One demonstrator told me that most opposition leaders over the past 25 years have been jailed, gone into exile or disappeared.

Candidates need 100,000 signatures to stand in the presidential elections. Supporters were queuing in the streets to add their signatures to their candidacies. One candidate, Sergei Tikhanovski, was detained on 6 May after participating in protests at Belarus's strong ties with Russia. His candidacy was "banned".

The current president, Aleksander Lukashenko, has been in power for five terms, starting in 1994. He has been the subject of occasional sanctions by the EU and the US over free and fair elections.

A demonstrator told me that while Belarus has always been a "very patient country", the Covid-19 crisis, and the Lukashenko regime's attempt to downplay the impact of the virus, has brought people out on the streets. Doctors who became whistleblowers on the full extent of the Covid crisis have been arrested. There were chants (in English) of "Enough is enough" at the Embassy demo.

There were around 50 demonstrators when I turned up, I heard that after I left numbers went up to 200, with another demo planned for Sunday for those Belarusians living in the UK who couldn't make it into Central London on a workday. There were simultaneous demos at other embassies in Europe.

Some wore traditional white and red Belarus shirts with the traditional embroidered pattern, others had a printed T-shirt version of the same. Others wore "We are the 97 per cent" T-shirts, a reference to two online polls that put support by voting intention of Lukashenko at just 3 per cent.

Lukashenko has naturally been gathering signatures for his presidential candidacy, with civil servants reportedly intimidated into signing these. Opinion polls without permission from the Academy of Sciences are now banned in Belarus.

Some demonstrators had brought with the the white, red and white striped "independence" flag of Belarus, in use in 1918 and after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, until its replacement with the current flag in 1995. The current national flag is basically a modified flag of the old Belarusian Soviet Republic with the red star removed.

A protester told me there were embassy staff among the protesters, it wasn't clear whether they were there keeping an eye on protesters. The Embassy curtains were in any event drawn. A Mongolian diplomat from the Mongolian Embassy next door was watching from the roof.

The presidential election is on Sunday 9 August. Expect a strong opposition turn-out at the polling station at the Embassy in London.

Sunday, 21 June 2020

Discover Dunwich 2

I edit Discover Dunwich, newsletter of Dunwich Museum, of which I am also a trustee and volunteer. Issue 2 is now out, it's a Covid-19 coming out of lockdown special.

The current issue features Stuart Bacon's recollection of discovering the Dunwich Bank Wreck and the remains of Dunwich churches in the Dunwich Dives all those years ago. There's also an archaeology update - a core sample shows that Dunwich was probably already an important port in Saxon times. There's a look at our newly acquired Board of Trade hydrometer and at the Dunwich Bank Wreck cannon's near identical (but better preserved) sibling.

You can download Issue 2 as a pdf here. Issue 1, from 2019, is here.

Dunwich Museum is still closed due to Covid-19. The trustees are developing a Risk Assessment aimed at some sort of social distancing re-opening soon (possibly allowing in only one party at a time). We can't give a date yet. Meanwhile, @DiscoverDunwich on Twitter showcases the treasures of the Museum online. Watch the @DiscoverDunwich account for updates on re-opening.

The Museum normally earns most of its income from donations from visitors, but there have been none this year. It is short of cash, please consider making a donation.

The Body of a Mighty Giant from Deposits magazine

My article - co-authored with Tim Holt Wilson – on "The Body of a Mighty Giant" is in the latest issue of Deposits magazine. It tells the story of the bones of a "giant" dug up in 1651 in Brockford Bridge, Suffolk and offers a possible palaeontological explanation. It surveys others palaeontological finds from the area. It's here. Deposits is produced by UKGE, the UK's largest geology equipment and fossils and minerals supplier in the UK, based in Reydon, Suffolk.

It's behind a paywall, but I will publish the article here when the First British Serial rights expire and the copyright reverts to Tim and I.

Skull of an African forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) in the Grant Zoology Museum, UCL, London