Nobody goes to St Peter and St Paul, Tunstall by accident for it stands in a landscape of narrow, high-hedged lanes and a rolling landscape that dips to meet the rivers, the aspect becoming flatter and bleaker the further east one goes. Apart from the little ferry at Reedham, there is no way of crossing the Yare and so this area remains isolated and the visitor really is on the far side of the back of the beyond. The church is a mile from Halvergate, along a straight, narrow lane where there is couple of houses. That’s it, pretty much, except that further east of Tunstall, and for almost five miles, there is nothing but the marshes where there are no roads, houses, people; that is until the river can be crossed, changing from almost quiet and isolated world to the brash and noisy Great Yarmouth which sits slap bang on the coast.
When this church first built, it served a coastal village which overlooked a great estuary, serving as a beacon for shipping. But the estuary was eventually drained to become grazing land, and the church found itself inland with a tower which has long been a ruin. What remains of it now overlooks an empty and equally shattered nave, open to the elements and a shadow of what it once was in Catholic England before Protestant Reformation asserted itself. What was once a big church soon found out that there would never be enough parishioners to fill it and so it and the parish in which it stood was absorbed into the larger Halvergate and the building here fell into disuse.
We know from a crude plaque above the entrance that the chancel was restored by the Jenkinson family early in the 18th century and that the chapel was extended eastwards and a pretty window added in the 1860s. Since then nothing seems to have been touch and the ruin is, today, maintained by the local community and supported by a charitable trust. Visitors are, of course, welcome but they should expect nothing more than a church interior which is rather dark, gloomy and with little historical interest; the sky taking the place of the roof. But of course, according to Simon Knott:
“that doesn’t matter. You come here for the atmosphere, a sense of the presence of God – out here where the land takes over, the silence, and perhaps, a very rustic feeling of what it might have been like to live in 19th century rural Norfolk.”
Inevitably perhaps, remote churches are particularly prone to fall victim to ghostly tales and myths by superstitious folk who look for meaning in everything around them. Tunstall church and its past small community were no exception. How many stories might there have been about such a place as Tunstall – no one knows. However, at least two versions of one tale survived the passage of time and these have been told and re-told probably countless times; each teller putting his or her slant on the detail; probably that’s why here we have two versions. The first goes something like this:
There was once a fierce fire at the Church of St Peter and St Paul at Tunstall. We know not when – but it did. We are told that as the flames brushed close to the stone walls and the church building began to crack and collapse, its parishioners feared that nothing would remain of the church that they loved; a church that had been a beacon for ships on the edge of a long-lost estuary which was replaced by the lonely marshland that now stretches towards Great Yarmouth.
Although the fire ravaged the church its bells were left unscathed, even after falling on to the floor below; some people saw some meaning behind what was to them a minor miracle – their bell actually escaped the blaze. The topic became the re-hot epicentre of a fierce row that erupted between the local Parson and the St Peter & St Paul’s churchwardens; both parties battling over who should have them.
Now the story goes on to relate that while this argument raged, the Devil took the opportunity settle the matter in his favour. He slipped effortlessly into the still smouldering and red-smoking timbers of the bell chamber and spirited the bells away. But not without the Parson noticing, for he was a godly man. He hastily began to exorcise the Devil as this heathen creature, together with his loot, began to dissolve into the distance: “Stop, in the name of God!” called the Parson, “Curse thee!” cried the Devil as he sank into the earth, towards his underworld. In his wake a boggy pool of water, known nowadays as ‘Hell Hole’, appeared on the surface and remains there to this day. It is still said that in the summertime, ominous bubbles can sometimes be seen rising to the surface; past folk attributed this phenomenon to the stolen bells which they said were still sinking on their endless journey through a bottomless passage to hell.
A second version of the same tale has both the parish priest and the churchwardens planning separately to steal the bells, sell them and pocket the spoils. Turning up at the same time both parties clashed as each tried to take the bells for themselves. Again, as they quarrelled, a gigantic black form materialised, seized the bells and disappeared with them. The priest and the churchwardens immediately forgot their row and joined together to chase whatever this fiend was, but just as they appeared to be gaining on this almost ghostly creature, it vanished into the earth, still clutching the bells. Again, behind it, a dark pool appeared from which bubbles rose for many years thereafter, marking the spot where the bells disappeared and less than a mile west of Tunstall.
Less than a mile west of Tunstall is a long strip of marshy woodland called, in part, ‘Hell Carr’, and near this alder clump was the boggy pool known as ‘Hell Hole’. They do say that sometimes, on quiet nights, the sound of muffled bells can still be heard drifting across the bogs and marshland towards the church from whence they were stolen.
In Roman times the River Bure flowed into a large estuary extending from Acle to present-day Great Yarmouth; Faden’s 1797 map of Norfolk shows the then coastal villages of Tunstall, Halvergate and Wickhampton on a spur of higher ground that was surrounded by Moulton Bog (west), Acle Wet Common (north) and the Halvergate Marshes (east). According to old records the church had fallen into disrepair by 1704; the chancel arch was bricked up in 1705 and a plaque above the doorway into the chancel informs that it was rebuilt by Mrs Elizabeth Jenkinson. More repairs were carried out in 1853. In 1980 the church was declared redundant and a Trust was formed to help repair and maintain what remains of the church: the chancel is still intact and visitors are welcome.
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