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How Norfolk's lost 'Atlantis' was rediscovered

PUBLISHED: 08:52 30 July 2019 | UPDATED: 10:24 30 July 2019

Martin Warren, left, and David Pope, who dived to th ruins of Shipden, in Cromer, in 1986. Picture: Cromer Museum

Martin Warren, left, and David Pope, who dived to th ruins of Shipden, in Cromer, in 1986. Picture: Cromer Museum

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A medieval community once thrived where waves now crash on the North Sea shore. Cromer Museum visitor services assistant Rebecca Lusher looks back on 'Norfolk's Atlantis' - the lost village of Shipden.

Imagine you are looking out to sea from the cliff tops of Cromer.

You might think that the view of the North Sea, with its crashing waves stretching to the horizon, has been the same for hundreds of years.

You would, however be mistaken, for Cromer was actually inland for most of its history.

Six hundred years ago you would have been looking at the lost village of Shipden, north Norfolk's own little lost Atlantis. Underneath the waves lie the ruins of a once thriving town.

'Church Rock', the spire of Shipden's church, jutted out about the waves until it was declared a hazard to ships and blown up. Picture: Cromer Museum'Church Rock', the spire of Shipden's church, jutted out about the waves until it was declared a hazard to ships and blown up. Picture: Cromer Museum

Nobody knows exactly when early settlers first made their homes in Shipden, but we do know that Shipden is mentioned in the Domesday Book, nearly 1,000 ago.

Domesday recorded that the town was a flourishing fishing community with 117 villagers, meadows and woodland, as well as a church, St Peter, Shipden juxta Mare, manor house and harbour. Cromer - or Shipden juxta Felbrigg - wasn't mentioned until the 13th Century, when it became a popular area to settle down in because of a stream which flowed roughly northwards - now The Gangway - and provided easy access to the sea.

Over the years the coast has steadily washed away due to coastal erosion. In the 1300s it was recorded that the North Sea level rose quite a few feet, possibly due to thawing ice floes.

MORE: 'She was killed on stage': Treading in the footsteps of Cromer's ghostly past

Fragments of the paddle steamer Victoria on display at Cromer Museum. The vessel ferried passengers between Cromer and Great Yarmouth, but ran aground on Church Rock', the remains of the steeple of Shipden's church. Picture: Cromer MuseumFragments of the paddle steamer Victoria on display at Cromer Museum. The vessel ferried passengers between Cromer and Great Yarmouth, but ran aground on Church Rock', the remains of the steeple of Shipden's church. Picture: Cromer Museum

This rising sea had a dramatic effect on the east coast.

In 1336 part of Shipden's graveyard fell into the sea, with the church following in 1400. By the 14th Century most of Shipden had been lost to the sea's murky clutches, and most of the townsfolk moved further inland to Cromer.

The loss of homes and livelihood was surely a tragedy for the villagers, forced to watch their previous lives vanish into the watery deep. It was however convenient for opportunistic, poor and desperate men; it is said that they would sleep on the shore, waiting until low tide when they could dive down and pillage anything worth taking from old Shipden.

Fast forward to the 1800s and the church spire of Shipden is still visible during low tides.

A peice of cobble from Shipden's former church, now on display at Cromer Museum. Picture: Cromer MuseumA peice of cobble from Shipden's former church, now on display at Cromer Museum. Picture: Cromer Museum

The tower stood 5.5 meters high above the sea bed, making it a prominent feature of the coast, and nicknamed 'Church Rock'.

By this time Cromer had become well known to the Victorians as a great place to escape the big smoke of the city and enjoy the seaside.

A paddle steamer would take the holiday makers from Great Yarmouth to Cromer Pier. It was anchored off shore and rowing boats would ferry the passengers to the beach.

The day did not go to plan for the tourists on August 8, 1888. The steamer 'Victoria' ran aground on the church tower so ropes were attached to the boat to try and pry it into safer waters. The boat, however, was firmly wedged in place.

The steamer was a write-off and from that point on 'Church Rock' was seen as a dangerous nuisance by sailors and fishermen.

The decision was made to blow up the tower with dynamite and so it too was devoured by the deep.

Now nothing is visible of the lost Atlantis of Shipden and there is no sign of any evidence that it ever existed when you look out from the shoreline.

MORE: Weird Norfolk: The lost village of Shipden

Despite this the former curator of Cromer Museum, Martin Warren, and David Pope, took a dive down to the ruins in 1986.

The boat took them out 400 metres north of the Bath House on the Esplanade and north-east from the end of the now submerged RNLI gangway.

The descent was seven metres down into the water, so dark that the walls of the once proud homes were barely visible.

The buildings that villagers used to live in were now the perfect habitat for crabs and lobsters that had taken up residency in the old ruins.

Martin saw the floor was lined with flint and chalk and littered with broken pieces of the old steamer.

He brought a few items back with him to the surface, including a stone tracery bar from a window and a large stone brick from the church. These are currently on display at Cromer Museum.

This is not the end of the story of Shipden or Church Rock, for it has now become the stuff of legend and superstition.

It is said that on dark, stormy nights when the sea looks like black ink and the waves are so high you can feel spray from the cliffs edge, you can still hear the sound of the bells ringing out across the vast sea.

Fishermen believe that the bells' tolls are a warning not to venture into the sea, fearing that they too will meet the same watery fate as the lost village of Shipden.

-To hear more stories about Cromer, you can book onto one of Cromer Museum's Sunday history walks. We have two more Ghosts and Legends-themed walks this year; August 4 (6.45pm-8.30pm) and one near Halloween, which often books up quickly, on October 27 (3.30pm-5.30pm). Booking is essential, call 01263 513543. £4 per person or £3 for museum pass holders

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