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Photo gallery: Uncovering the secrets of coastal walk’s wartime relic

17:56 25 September 2014

Steven Bashforth at the Stiffkey Pill Box excavation. Picture: Ian Burt

Steven Bashforth at the Stiffkey Pill Box excavation. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant © 2014

An excavation has tried to uncover the secrets of a possible First World War site on a popular coastal walk.

Archeologists have been examining a pillbox at Stiffkey with the hope of finding out how it has been used since it was first built.

The structure’s origin is a subject of debate as although most believe it to date from the Great War, some say it was built during the Second World War.

Angus Wainright, National Trust archaeologist for the East of England, said: “There is a bit of mystery surrounding it as some people have said that it is from the Second World War, so we are hoping to find something that will give us the answer.

“It doesn’t look like it was tall enough to stand up in, which is a bit strange as it would not be nice to lie in the wet sand for a day.

Claire Bradshaw with a coin found at the Stiffkey Pill Box excavation. Picture: Ian BurtClaire Bradshaw with a coin found at the Stiffkey Pill Box excavation. Picture: Ian Burt

“It is quite unlike others in that it faces inwards towards the coast.

“The apertures are wider than you would expect, so it is more like an observation point than a defensive point.

“Perhaps it was there to see people who had landed at Wells or the Creakes and were moving inland along the coast.

“Stiffkey has a nice beach to land on, but then you have the salt marsh to traverse.”

On the front line

The outbreak of war in 1914 put the East Anglian coast on the front line of the struggle against Germany.

The area was considered the most vulnerable to invasion, leading to the frantic construction of coastal defences and the stationing of units across the region.

A 16th-century saying: “He who would Old England win must at Weybourne Hope begin,” highlighted the region’s vulnerability as a landing place because of its deep shore water.

Fears were further heightened after the German navy shelled Great Yarmouth in November 1914 – the first of a series of raids from the sea and the air that would target East Anglia during the war.

During the autumn and winter of 1914, thousands of soldiers were despatched to the coast to man defensive lines.

There was even an armoured train which trundled from North Walsham to Great Yarmouth.

Other defences included a network of air bases across the region, a seaplane station at Great Yarmouth and naval base at Lowestoft.

From 1916, concrete pillboxes were installed in a line, mainly from Weybourne to Sea Palling, largely following the seaward side of the River Ant.

In total, around two dozen of these structures still remain in our region, including examples in Weybourne, Bacton, Stalham, North Walsham, Aylmerton, Thorpe Market, Beeston Regis and Great Yarmouth.

While the excavations failed to find anything conclusive about the structure’s origins, a number of items were uncovered.

Among items found during the two excavations were ammunition cartridges, including .303 rifle casings, and old coins.

It is not yet known if the rounds date back to the First World War as soldiers were camped nearby during the Second World War and may well have used the box.

There are a number of pillboxes dotted along the Norfolk and Suffolk coast, an echo from a time when the threat of a sea-borne invasion seemed very real.

Other sites under the spotlight

The Stiffkey fortification, (location map right), is not the only one which is currently under the spotlight.

At Bradfield, North Walsham, locals and military experts are currently working on a project to preserve a pillbox located on a piece of common land in the village.

The structure had become overgrown with ivy, but has now been reclaimed by the team of volunteers. It is thought to have been built for the First World War, and pressed back into action for the second conflict.

Work on the pillbox had sparked interest from residents and passers-by and one person had told the team that it had been home to a homeless man in the inter-war years.

The current project involves replacing coping stones and digging out the middle of the pillbox, which has filled with earth over the years.

In north Suffolk, meanwhile, an alliance of local groups have launched a campaign to get a First World War pillbox at the entrance to Southwold renovated and opened as a tourist attraction. The building, believed to be unique in design, stands neglected and covered by undergrowth on the Reydon side of Mights Bridge. The pillbox is believed to have been built in 1914 and was also used in the Second World War.

Although the restoration plans are still taking shape, a fund-raising drive is in the pipeline and one of the ideas being mooted is for a walkway around the pillbox with display boards.

Mr Wainright said: “I think there are about 35 known First World War pill boxes in Norfolk.

“There was quite a lot of protection put in at Great Yarmouth and along the coast.

“If there was going to be an invasion they thought the Germans would land in Norfolk and Suffolk. There are lots of sandy beaches and so on.”

The project is being carried out in conjunction with a local historical society as well as a Norfolk County Council archaeologist. The team are planning to return to discover when the box was built and repairs will be carried out to the structure.

Do you have any more information about the origins of the Stiffkey pillbox? If so, please email Doug Faulkner at doug.faulkner@archant.co.uk

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