Touring the Stanta ghost villages
12:35 17 June 2006
For some, it was a return to a place of work in days gone by. Others glimpsed a flashback to the harsh realities of basic training and for another group of visitors it was a chance for a curious peep behind the wire.
For some, it was a return to a place of work in days gone by. Others glimpsed a flashback to the harsh realities of basic training and for another group of visitors it was a chance for a curious peep behind the wire. The expanse of the military training area known as Stanta - one that swallows huge swathes of the Breckland landscape - took on a natural freshness on a drizzly spring evening.
The leaves on the lime trees glistened, rooftops of abandoned churches shone in the showers and rain dripped from the fatigues of young soldiers training into the evening.
It was a rare opportunity to see what lies within this 30,000-acre expanse of land where in the mid-1940s villagers were ordered out of their homes when the army needed a training area as planning began for the invasion of Europe.
Sadly, they were never to return.
Some once familiar features remain. A number have been adapted by the military for training purposes. But others have simply disappeared, some deliberately demolished, others eroded by the elements and the passage of time.
With only a few tours offered a year, there is a waiting list to get onto Stanta- an abbreviation of Stanford Training Area - though compassionate exceptions are made where possible for families and relatives who once lived in the evacuated villages so that they may return to visit graves or take a last look at the site where their home once stood.
Yet it's not all a mystery inside Stanta. There are scenes that are familiar too.
Take Froghill for example. For those of you who have wondered where those closing scenes of the classic comedy Dad's Army were filmed, with Captain Mainwaring leading his men through a glade of Scotch Pine, well, it was here on the Stanford Training Area. Another pond was the location of Walmington-on-Sea.
Tours of the site are booked well in advance and staff commitments and military training regimes permit only a dozen or so each year during the summer months.
But the trips, led by a guide on a coach through the abandoned villages of West Tofts, Sturston, Langford, Stanford, Buckenham Tofts and Tottington, are fascinating.
These are locations taken over for soldiers training for what would be the D-Day landings of June 1944, and retained by the military ever since.
The tour starts in the lecture hall at West Tofts Camp. The walls are covered in a display of historic photographs, arranged by one of the guides, Anne Webster, which show how the villages, and those who lived in them, looked in the early part of the 20th century.
Anne worked for MoD for 44 years and, for the past three, Landmarc, which offers support functions. She has a personal interest in this unique part of Breckland. Her grandfather was head keeper at Buckenham Tofts from 1924 until the evacuation in 1942 and she is a font of knowledge about the site.
But it was Lt Col Tony Powell who was to act as our guide on this tour. “This is the area known as 'the lost villages', evacuated when the government decided it needed the area to the progress the war in Europe,” he explains.
“In July 1942 people were summoned to meetings and told they would be evacuated and had three weeks to move out. That caused great distress, and still causes distress to some people.”
The majority moved to council accommodation with an agreement that they would never pay more rent than they would if they were actually living in the houses in the village. “It was also believed that there was a promise that once the military had finished with the training area people would be allowed to come back, but that has not happened and some people are still sad about that.”
Stanta is far more than a military training area. It has areas defined as SSSI - Sites of Special Scientific Interest - and there are Roman excavations, wildlife and livestock.
There are also four churches - five if you count the one in the specially-built village for urban combat training called Eastmere after the farm which once occupied the site.
West Tofts Church was restored in the 1850s by Pugin. It boasts what is reputed to be the most impressive Pugin Screen in the UK and is regularly visited by members of the Pugin Society. Also still standing are Stanford church, with its hexagonal tower, and Tottington and Langford churches.
Joining a group from Thetford Round Table on a 90-minute coach tour of the site, we were permitted inside West Tofts church with its ornate tiled floor. Outside, tombstones still stand amid the long grass and dandelion clocks.
Every Christmas, West Tofts church is brought to life with a carol service and the avenue of limes that leads to its door is illuminated for a procession. Close by is where the post office, school and former Three Horseshoes pub once stood, some of the sites being marked by stone plinths.
An occasional army Land Rover passes by, heading towards parties of soldiers building bridges across watercourses as part of evening training activities.
One of the great buildings of the area was Buckenham Tofts Manor. It no longer stands but the stabling area survives. Terrace steps are also visible and it was near here that a cricket square was once laid out and used for exhibition matches featuring the likes of England captain Douglas Jardine of Bodyline fame.
The story goes that he was bowled out first ball by a local farm-hand in front of the gathered crowd but the umpire gave him “not-out”. When the bowler remonstrated with the umpire, he was told: “Young man, these people have come to see Jardine bat, not to see you bowl.”
Jim Cresswell, from Wattisfield near Diss, herded sheep on the Stanta area in the 1970s and 1980s and recalls the cricket pitch being retained then.
He had not been back since but says: “The reason I was interested in coming back was because I knew the area quite well. I can remember the cricket pitch from when I was here. It had a fence round it, but it's all gone now. We weren't allowed to let the sheep near it then and if we did, we used to get a call to round them up.
“I was just interested to see how it was now. It's a funny feeling being back but it has been great just to see it. It's pretty much the same in many ways.”
In some of the villages, all that remains are humps where the clay lump homes once stood. Elsewhere, pre-war council houses have been shored up and are now used as part of the training operations.
The site is vast enough to take a battalion parachute drop from its most frequent customers, the 16th Air Assault Brigade, to host live firing exercises and major mock operations.
“There is a specially-built fighting village built in the1960s when the Cold War was at its peak for troop training with the area meant to be like built-up areas on the East German plain,” explains Lt Col Powell. “It is now used for preparing troops going to Iraq.”
Installations that would be familiar for troops who have seen service in Northern Ireland are visible across the site, though some of the facilities are in the process of being adapted to suit operations in the Middle East.
The area also has glacial depressions, wildlife such as otters, stone curlews and sand martins. Indeed, on a recent weekend 76 different species of bird were spotted. A sandpit is maintained for the sand martins with 46 pairs nesting in it last year, though fewer this.
Considerable care of the animal population is taken. For instance, live firing, which generally takes place every day, is suspended during April and May for the lambing season.
Amid all the wildlife and natural scene are features less befitting of the landscape, though they do help soldiers answer the call of nature. Dotted across the site are portable loos. Modern regulations demand them, we are told.
James Grint, chairman of Thetford Round Table and organiser of the visit, says: “We wanted to come to the site because it sounded a very interesting tour and it's something a lot of us have always wanted to do. We also have others who came here to do basic training and wanted to come back.”
Among former soldiers on the tour was Jim Howells who is now is chairman of the Norfolk group of Round Tables. He did his basic training on Stanta in the early 1980s when he served with the Coldstream Guards.
“I must admit I have mixed memories,” he says. “They were tough times. In the 20 years since I was here there are differences but in a lot of ways not much has changed at all.
“It is also a bit painful. The basic training was hard. It was a tough regime in those days but I am glad I came back. It's fantastic, brilliant to be up here again.”
Stanta is commanded by Lt Col Simon Lloyd of the Royal Artillery, who took over earlier this year after serving as military attaché in Morocco and The Netherlands.
As commander Defence Training Estates (East), he also oversees 19 establishments as far south as Colchester, the bombing ranges along the Lincolnshire coast used by Harriers, Tornados, F15s and F16s and other areas as far west as Northamptonshire.
“Stanta is unspoilt Breckland countryside with fantastic flora and fauna,” he says. “Environmental and conservation issues are part of the site and we want to keep it like that.”
But while the army does endeavour to ensure the site is accessible to those who are interested or have connections, the military are keen to point out that its primary role remains as a training area.
When it was first established, virtually every soldier who crossed over to France on D-Day would have been through Stanta at some point. Since then, those serving in Northern Ireland, the Falklands and the Balkans have followed. And now those deployed to the arid regions of Iraq and Afghanistan are also likely to have honed their skills in the vast expanse of Breckland countryside that is Stanta.
t Anyone wanting to do a tour should contact Lt Col Powell in writing at West Tofts Camp, Thetford, Norfolk, IP26 5EP.