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‘The trail will highlight structures that a lot of people just drive past and don’t see’ - First World War pillboxes to be commemorated

PUBLISHED: 07:00 09 March 2015

First World War pillbox at Bradfield. Militaria expert Ian Clark. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

First World War pillbox at Bradfield. Militaria expert Ian Clark. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2014

They are a brooding reminder of one of the most perilous periods in our region’s history, when the threat of an enemy invasion loomed large.

Southwold.Southwold.

Now, the collection of often crumbling First World War pillboxes found across large coastal areas in the north of Norfolk look set to form part of a commemorative trail.

The initiative, one of a series of events being planned across the region to mark the conflict’s centenary, has secured the support of North Norfolk District Council, which is keen to highlight the historical importance of the structures, as a way of attracting visitors.

It is hoped a leaflet will be produced, mapping the structures, and providing information about which can be visited – some lie on private property.

While Second World War pillboxes are still a common feature of large parts of the UK, North Walsham militaria enthusiast and pillbox expert Ian Clark, who is behind the scheme, said the First World War examples were unique to our region.

East Anglia is frontline

At the outbreak of war, the East Anglian coast became a frontline in the fight against Germany.

With the enemy lying just across the North Sea, Norfolk’s wide open – and remote – shoreline was considered the area most vulnerable to a German invasion.

The coast was transformed into a militarized zone, with locals barred from many beaches.

As well as pill boxes, miles of trench networks were dug along stretches, with beaches straddled by forests of barbed wire.

Units of yeomanry cavalry, supported by elderly volunteers, coastguards and boy scouts were deployed to monitor the shoreline.

The defences also included an armoured train which trundled from North Walsham to Great Yarmouth.

A series of airbases were also created across the region, while naval vessels were stationed at east coast ports.

While the Germans did attack the region – bringing destruction through air and naval bombardments – the invasion never came to pass.

A century on, the scattering of pill boxes – which ran mainly from Weybourne to Sea Palling – are all that remain of a threat that seemed so real, but never materialised.

“The trail will highlight structures that a lot of people just drive past and don’t see,” he said.

“We must remember and respect these pieces of architecture.”

The realisation that better east coast defences were needed in the war grew after an unexpected raid on Great Yarmouth in November 1914, when the German navy shelled the town, arousing fears of an invasion.

A 16th century saying, “He who would Old England win must at Weybourne Hope begin”, reflected Weybourne’s vulnerability as a landing place because of its deep shore water. So, from 1916, concrete pillboxes were installed in a line, mainly from Weybourne to Sea Palling, largely following the seaward side of the River Ant.

About two dozen of these structures still remain, including at Bradfield, Weybourne, Stiffkey, Bacton, Stalham, North Walsham, Aylmerton, Thorpe Market, Beeston Regis and Great Yarmouth.

First World War pillboxes were usually round. Mr Clark said the issue of whether Stiffkey was an example of a First or Second World War pillbox was still being debated.

Glyn Williams, the council’s cabinet member for leisure and cultural services, said: “The idea is by having a trail, you are giving people a reason to visit and stay in Norfolk to look at these interesting things.

“They are part of our heritage, and they help people understand part of what happened 100 years ago.”

Have you got a story about the First World War? Email ww1@archant.co.uk


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