'My father was told his home no longer existed' - Memories of a lost Norfolk village
PUBLISHED: 18:13 30 January 2019 | UPDATED: 18:13 30 January 2019
Copyright: Archant 2019
Imagine being given only two weeks to pack up all of your belongings, find a new place to live, and told to leave your childhood home to the army.
For Colin Hunt, now 85, that was the reality in 1942 when the army arrived and took over the village of Tottington.
He was one of hundreds forced to leave their homes as the Stanford Training Area, or Stanta as it is now known, was formed during the Second World War.
Mr Hunt was only nine when the army told his family, which included his grandparents and his mother, they had two weeks to leave, moving to Watering Farm near Merton.
“Tottington was just a quiet little village,” said Mr Hunt, “You knew everybody and of course everybody knew you.
“The army came and told us they were taking over and everything would be looked after and they needed it and everybody thought they were doing their bit for the war.”
The Hunt family, along with many others in the village, had an unbroken history with Tottington going back around 100 years.
Mr Hunt said: “You can imagine being in the community all that while and they thought they were going to go back.
“I was too young, it was an adventure to come out, I didn’t realise what it must have been like for my grandparents.
“That’s just how things are I suppose, you didn’t worry about it, you just got on with your life and if you have health you can’t grumble.”
His father, away fighting in the war with the 5th Norfolk regiment, arrived back in Thetford in 1945 after being a prisoner of war in the Philippines, unaware his former home no longer existed.
Mr Hunt said: “He was back just before the war finished. We didn’t know he was coming home and he got to Thetford and asked about Tottington and they said ‘well, it doesn’t exist’.
“I don’t know [what he thought], after what he went through and then to come home to that, but he didn’t show much. Everything he had was gone.”
Mr Hunt’s great-grandparents are buried in the church graveyard, now separated from the training ground by metal fencing.
He said: “I used to go brushing in there with the shooting parties and we used to meet outside there sometimes.
“I had been to the house where I was born and it was only a heap of rubble laying there.”
“There’s nothing to see, you can just think, that’s all.”
When the battle area was taken over by the army, villagers were promised they would be able to move back after the war and everything would be taken care of.
However, nearly 80 years on, that promise remains broken with former residents unable to visit without special arrangements or tours.
The village, which had a church, a shop, a school and a close-knit community was reduced to rubble by the army, with only the church remaining from before the war.
Thatched roofs on buildings have been replaced with metal sheeting and council houses turned into a soldiers’ training ground. For those wanting to return there is little evidence of the village that existed before.
Mr Hunt said: “It’s hard. All those people I knew are gone. It makes you think what it would be like nowadays.”
Mr Hunt’s parents never went back to their former home.
What was Tottington
Tottington’s history stretched as far back as the Norman era of British history and has an entry in the Domesday Book of 1085.
By the 1940s, the village was a thriving Norfolk village with a church, a school, a small shop and, according to Mr Hunt, a blacksmith and a carpenter.
Many of the families had been in the village for several generations or had links to towns nearby such as Thompson.
Much of the land in the village was owned by the Walsingham family who still own significant patches of land in the Breckland area today.
Mr Hunt added many of the villagers worked on the Merton Estate for the Walsinghams in roles such as gamekeepers and nannies.
Tottington was also home to two Abbots of Bury St. Edmunds including Samson of Tottington and Thomas of Tottington in 1182 and 1311.
According to the ten-yearly census, the village grew from 198 in 1801 to 370 in 1951, and had around 209 inhabitants in 1911.