Photo gallery: Sedgeford’s first world war airfield reveals a hidden past
06:40 23 July 2012
© Archant Norfolk 2012
Norfolk RAF base is home to archaeological team for the summer
History can be something that happened hundreds of years ago, yesterday, or just outside of living memory and archaeologists in Norfolk are unearthing elements from all eras at a major dig in Sedgeford.
Life from Anglo Saxon times and beyond is being revealed at a site which is home to the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (SHARP) which started work in the village in 1996.
The dig has turned into one of the biggest in the country and uses several areas in and around a compound ditch visible in a geophysical survey.
Remnants from a more recent time are also being revealed - a time when the isolated West Norfolk coastal village swelled in size six-fold and became home to the pioneers of flying.
Archaeologists and volunteers arrive each summer to gently peel back the layers of time and record their findings. Many people return year after year to continue the labour of love and there are years ahead to continue the work.
The Old Airfield site, on private land away from the main area, is currently home to a group of people who are concentrating on the first world war - when Sedgeford was home to one of the largest training stations for pilots in the country.
All that remains visible now is an outcrop of odd buildings and marks in the ground which give a clue to the trained eye as to what may have once been there.
But the physical remnants of a huge air base, which was only fully operational for around five years, tell a story which is now just beyond living memory.
In 1915 the airfield was a night-landing site for the Royal Naval Air Service which had a coastal patrol operating from Great Yarmouth. If it was getting too dark, the pilots would head for the nearest night site - often Sedgeford.
Jeremy Revell, a SHARP volunteer from Chelmsford, Essex, has worked the site for seven years, and said in 1916, at the height of the war, the site became the Number 3 training school for the RNAS and the Royal Flying Corps, predecessors to the RAF, and was one of three in the area - another at Narborough and the third at Duxford.
“It became home to a lot of American and Canadian pilots as well as our own. A railway line was put in to bring in supplies and there were around 1,500 people here. It was the biggest training base in the country at the time.
“An old map of 1886 shows the area as a piece of woodland. By 1915 it was already a station and there were plans in 1919 to make it bigger still. The RAF was about to triple in size, but the end of the war came as a bit of a surprise and that was that,” he said.
Much of the accommodation was canvas, and little remains to indicate where the men lived. But a mortuary building remains on the site and sadly it was put to use on a regular basis.
“Because these men were being trained and not on the frontline, when they got killed there had to be an inquest and the bodies had to be kept at minus five centigrade,” said Mr Revell.
The building is made from a ceramic hollow tile-like brick which would have been imported, possibly from Europe, and the bricks were insulated to keep the air inside cool. A building close-by, half-buried, could have been an ice house used for the purpose - although there is a debate as to whether it may have been an air-raid shelter.
The mortuary was certainly in use - from the beginning of 1918 to the Armistice 11 months later, the pilots wrote-off 700 planes resulting in 71 deaths.
“These men were training just a decade after man first flew - it certainly was dangerous and the accident rate was very high,” said Mr Revell.
The archaeologists have also revealed the doping shed - where a potent mixture of acetate dope was used to stretch the canvas - the main component, aside from wood, of the Avro 504s the men were flying.
But the chemical gave off a nasty vapour and the men working there were given extra milk rations in the mistaken belief it was an antidote to the ‘dope.’
Such detail is only preserved because the station was not re-used operationally during the second world war.
It was a decoy station - using lights and sets created by craftsmen from the film industry to convince enemy bombers it was a crucial area.
The base remained mostly unused, aside from converting a building or two into cottages for farm-workers, since and has many more secrets to reveal.
*If you have any information about the old airfield then email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 01553 778682.