As the flames licked the stone walls and the building began to crack and fall, parishioners feared nothing would remain of their beloved church at St Peter and St Paul’s church at Tunstall, a beacon for ships on the edge of a long-lost estuary which is now lonely marshland that stretches towards Great Yarmouth.
Once, the church faced the sea, now all that remains is a striking shell, the sky taking the place of the roof. Although a fierce fire ravaged the church, its bells were left unscathed – but although they had escaped the blaze, falling on the floor quite safely, they became the white hot centre of a blazing row between the parson and the churchwardens who battled over who should have them.
While the argument raged, the Devil saw his chance to settle the dispute and stepped into the smoking timbers of the ringing chamber and carried the bells away. He was spotted by the parson who began to furiously exorcise him as he stalked away from the church: “stop, in the name of God!” called the parson. In a bid to make a swift getaway, the Devil scrambled his way through the earth and towards his underworld lair, taking his stolen loot with him and creating a boggy pool of water, known locally as ‘Hell Hole’, which still ominously bubbles in the summertime which local folk used to attribute to the continual sinking of the bells on their endless journey through the bottomless pit.
Another version of the same tale has the parish priest deciding to steal the bells, sell them and pocket the spoils at the same time as the churchwardens cooked up the same plan. When the parties met again in church, both tried to take the bells for themselves and as the quarrel grew and harsh words were spoken, a gigantic black form materialised, seized the bells and disappeared with them.
The priest and the churchwardens temporarily forgot their row and joined together to chase the arch fiend but just as they appeared to gain ground, he vanished, diving straight through the earth while clutching the bells, leaving a dark pool in his wake, bubbles rising for years afterwards to mark the spot, less than a mile west of Tunstall.
Above Hell Hole is an adjoining clump of alder trees known as Hell Carr – and sometimes, on quiet nights, across the bogs and marshland can be heard the muffled peal of bells, ringing still for the Satanic Majesty who claimed them for his own.