Help bring Norfolk’s abandoned second world war villages to life with your photos and letters

The ghosts of long-abandoned villages haunt Norfolk – small settlements left unused but not forgotten by the hundreds of people forced to leave their homes and livelihoods during the second world war.

In July 1942 around 500 men, women and children were evacuated from 118,000 acres of land north of Thetford so troops could train in secret for the eventual invasion of Europe. At the stroke of a War Office pen, Stanford, Tottington, West Tofts and Buckenham Tofts, together with the parish of Sturston, were cleared to make way for an army training area where soldiers could manoeuvre using live ammunition.

The upheaval left many families reeling, armed with only memories – which has now prompted one publishing house to take up the preservation mantle and produce an archive of abandoned settlements.

To mark the launch of the new Times Atlas of Britain, its publisher Collins wants people to send in their memories of such places to create a digital archive dedicated to lost locations.

Senior publishing manager of The Times Atlas of Britain Jethro Lennox asked people to search their attics and speak to relatives to uncover any photographs and documents relating to a series of abandoned villages across the country – including Stanford.

'While compiling the first comprehensive atlas of its type to be published in the UK in over 40 years, we were not only interested in how the UK had changed geographically over time, but the implications of this for residents of our islands,' he said.

'Initially, we found natural factors such as coastal erosion and flooding had made some places uninhabitable while economic, military or industrial-related reasons also contributed towards an abandonment of settlements.

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'Because of this, we are launching an online archive of 20th century abandoned settlements, with the intention of inviting the public to help catalogue communities which had in many cases survived for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.'

Today the villages are still marooned in a vast no-go area marked Danger on the map and on the ground with signs warning 'Army Training Area, No Admittance Without Permit.'

Many of the original homes and buildings have fallen apart as troops used live rounds, mortars, artillery and tanks to train for the war effort. The site quickly became known as the Stanford Training Area (STANTA) and played a role in British military deployment in almost all major conflicts from world war two onwards.

It is now a �14m complex, replicating an Afghan village and frontline camp, and almost every one of the soldiers sent to Afghanistan each year will have completed a stint at the training ground.

While it is full of difficult and tragic memories for those forced to leave their way of life, the beauty of the landscape is still present and the lanes requisitioned back in 1942 have not changed.

Curator of the Ancient House Museum in Thetford, Oliver Bone said: 'It's quite interesting in that now it's a nature reserve but it had a big impact on the people who lived in the villages at the time.

'It's an interesting combination between nature and people and the requirements of the military. I think the atlas would make a very interesting project because it's a very long time ago now. I doubt there are many people around who still remember being uprooted themselves, but there will be those who were children at the time who will remember so that will be interesting.'

One such family were the Parrotts who moved out of Hall Farm in West Tofts around 1922 when the Forestry Commission began to buy land. Head of the household Richard Parrott was, however, able to buy Fengate Farm in Weeting where he began a new life with his wife, two sons and daughter.

His grandson, also Richard Parrott, 69, still lives on the farm and recalls families who were moved out of Stanford in 1942.

'There were several who came and some stayed in my grandfather's houses in the village,' he said. 'They were just told they had to be out and that was that. They were given about six weeks, as I understand it.

'They were always promised they could go back and of course it never happened, though they were allowed back for a short time to harvest the crops for that year.

'A few of them have been allowed to be buried back in the churchyards but it left a lot of bitter feelings. I think everybody realised they had to practise for D-Day but for them not to be allowed back at the end was very naughty, especially as it was a newly-elected Labour government.

'The families had to move around quite a bit because you can't accommodate people just like that. You've got to remember the war had been on for more than two years and farmers were in full production,

'It was a job for people who were farmers, as I understand, to carry on. I think they did in the end but it took a while.'

The requisition of the area, which people can still only enter with special agreement, has enabled the landscape to flourish however.

And then there was Dad's Army. The popular television series featured Buckenham Tofts, at which Warden Hodges challenged the platoon to a cricket match and fielded his secret weapon, played by Freddie Trueman, while at West Tofts Church, the platoon advanced on their token enemy behind portable gravestones.

On Frog Hill, the sequence which closes each episode was shot and to the north of the restricted area was Watton Airfield, where the men tackled a giant, radio-controlled wheel packed with explosives, which chased Jones' van.

Chairman of the Dad's Army Musuem Stuart Wright said: 'The Stanford Training Area was one of the reasons Dad's Army ended up being filmed in the Thetford area.

'Harold Snoad was given the task of finding a suitable location and gained permission from the Ministry of Defence to use the area. It was ideal as it was closed to the public and the large unspoilt landscape was almost as it was in 1940s when the area was requisitioned.

'Thetford also had the right wartime feel with its picturesque streets of flint cottages and hotels to accommodate the cast and crew. The battle area provides many of the iconic locations for Dad's Army including the marvellous end-credit sequence where the platoon move across open ground wearing camouflage.

'This sequence was filmed at Frog Hill, in the centre of the battle area. Numerous external scenes were filmed featuring the area's assault course, the many unmarked roads and the bailey bridge across the river. Langford and West Tofts churches both feature.

'Buckenham Tofts is very identifiable as the stable block of the old hall is used when the platoon are trained to ride horses. The parkland area of Buckenham Tofts Hall doubles as a cricket pitch in the episode The Test featuring Fred Trueman.

'With Thetford so close it was a relatively short journey to get the cast and crew from location back to their base at the Bell Hotel where stories of the days adventures on the Battle Area were relived into the evening.'

People are now invited to submit photographs, documents, letters and anything which can be uploaded to a digital archive to keep the memory of Stanford, and other abandoned villages, alive. They are asked to email their discoveries along with any memories or insights into their story to collinsmaps@harpercollins.co.uk.

A selection of photos and memories will then be included in a future edition of The Times Atlas of Britain at www.atlasofbritain.com.