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Titchwell Marsh Before the RSPB

World War 1

From 1914-1918, Thornham Marsh, and part of Titchwell Marsh was used by Royal Flying Corps (later the RAF) as a bombing range flying DH8 and DH9 aircraft out of Sedgeford.
In 1918 a DH4 crashed on Thornham range. The pilot was killed and was buried at nearby Stanhoe.
The small concrete blockhouse on the marsh was part of the range buildings. On Titchwell Marsh there was a military hospital which was probably tented, although some brick foundations still remain now largely sunken into the mud, It was reached by a track which runs by the side of the reserve. During the 1930s and 1940s, high watermark came close to the top of the North bank, but it was not breached.

World War 2

During World War 2 the beach was covered with anti-tank invasion obstacles and was most likely mined and wired (barbed wire)
From 1942 to 1945 the marsh was used by the Royal Tank Regiment as a firing range.  A concrete road, next to the current car park, was built by the military for this purpose.  Its triangular layout enabled the tank transported to off load the tanks and then proceed without having to turn around (they were long!). Pop-up targets on the Fresh Marsh (a part of the reserve) were operated by cables from winches installed in a pumping house, the old foundations of which lie beneath the Island Hide.
Targets on the Parrinder Hide bank, and a bank now in the dunes, were used for medium and long range firing. Two old tank hulls can be seen on the beach, and were possibly used as targets.  Angle iron driven into the ground, with pulley wheels attached, could have carried steel wire ropes for pulling targets along the beach.  One of these can be seen near the tank hulls.
Some records of the Royal Tank Regiment using Titchwell ranges included A Squadron 4th /7th Royal Dragoon Guards using 17 pounder guns on Firefly tanks, which needed large areas for exercises. Other units using the ranges included 13/18th Hussars, 27th Lancers, and 22nd Westminster Dragoons, also using 17 pounders. (Personal communication)


Between 1950 and 1959, the RAF returned to Thornham Marsh using it as a firing range. Aircraft that used the range were DH Meteors, Vampires and American Sabres.
The main control tower was erected at the end of the West Bank Path and stood in the dunes and on the beach.  It survived the 1953 floods but was demolished by the RAF on January 18th 1962 as children (and undoubtedly others) played in it and it became unsafe.  The remains lie opposite the ends of the boardwalk.  In the Sea Buckthorn bushes at Thornham Point to the west of the reserve are the remains of another military tower.

The 1953 flood

At the end of January, a storm surge swept down the North Sea, breaching the northern sea wall and flooding the reclaimed Titchwell Marsh. There was no haste to arrange work to repair the breach, and the marsh was now covered by most tides, slowly reverting back to a salt marsh.  At this time, the dunes and shingle pit began to form.
It has been reasonably suggested that the original northern sea wall was weakened by the large number of shells (solid shot) that had hit it during its time as a firing range, and that helped the sea to break through.  A local account claims that “from Choseley (a hamlet to the south) the north bank looked like a honeycomb”
However, more recent information indicates that the original breach to the northern sea wall may have taken place in storm conditions in 1949, and not 1953.  However, the intensive shelling the wall will have received will have had the same effect.

Military remnants and local observations

In 1960, a local man, Gerald Middleton, was apprehended after being seen digging up and removing electrical cable form Thornham Marsh (adjacent to Titchwell Marsh). This cable had been used by the range military for power supplies and communications.
The land had been returned by the MOD to the Common Rights Owners, and Mr Henry Bett of Thornham Hall, who owned 44 of the 49 common rights, claimed the cabled belonged to the Common Rights owners.  Mr Middleton disagreed and the case was referred to the Norfolk Quarters Sessions, where a jury found Mr Middleton not guilty of theft.  He sold 1 ¼ cwt (hundredweight) of copper scrap for £12.  Odd lengths of cable can still be found today.

The remains of the concrete structures half way along the last section of the West bank path are part of the WWI observation post, which was let as holiday accommodation by a Mr Annis up until 1942. It was furnished, and people would sunbathe on the flat roof.  When the military moved in to use the marsh as the tank firing range, Mr Annis was very reluctant to give up the blockhouse.  Apparently, he was persuaded to do so when the army fired a few High Explosives (HE) shells into it..........!
Two similar observation posts stood in the dunes on the Brancaster side of the main tidal creek and were operated as holiday homes by Mr Stratton, who was more easily persuaded to move out.  The remains of these two buildings still stand.
Another local man, Mr Tipple, wardened the Titchwell marsh and undoubtedly shot over it.  He had a hut neat the old freshwater sluice (adjacent to the Island Hide), and the doors and windows from the old observations posts and elsewhere went to him to help his hut building.  At some time (possibly post war) some of the cattle on the marsh contracted foot and mouth disease.  Mr Tipple did not notify the Ministry, but shot the infected cattle and buried them on the marsh- a local informant claims he saved the herd!

An offshore wreck

Looking to the north east from the end of the boardwalk, a wreck marked with hazard signs can be seen, especially at low tides.
This is the remains of SS Vina built in 1894, and which was moored offshore to the north of Scolt Head Island (now behind the wreck), and used as a target ship by the RAF.  At some time, it dragged its anchorage in stormy conditions and finished up in Brancaster harbour channel.  It has proved a magnet for some people “to walk out to the wreck”, which is a very hazardous thing to do due to the fast flowing tides cutting them off!

The RSPB and Titchwell Marsh


Montagu’s harriers, the UK’s rarest breeding bird of prey, were seen to be breeding in the reed bed. They returned in 1971 and 1972


The RSPB bought the marsh for £53,000. The Montagu’s harriers did not appear again but the Marsh Harriers did.  Work proceeded to embank the lagoons, construct the car park and picnic areas and copse, and the visitor centre (which opened in 1980). Then, it consisted of a small office and a reception area (now the servery), and a large information and interpretative display (now the shop)


Avocets bred for the first time in Brackish Marsh – at the time a very rare bird in the UK. The eggs were taken and more comprehensive plans were drawn up for their protection.


A small extension of the display area was converted and opened as a shop, and quickly proved inadequate.


The Visitor Centre main area, with its displays, was converted into a larger shop, the original shop became a stock room, and the information centre was much reduced


The ea breached the dunes near the Tern Hide ( an old hide on the beach that was dismantled in 1996), and the tank hulls were exposed for the first time.  The dunes began to disappear, whilst the area behind them became tidal


A boardwalk and sea watching platform was built at the North end of the West Bank path. This was to provide easier passage over the dunes and prevent further erosion of the dunes from innumerable numbers of feet that crossed them. After a couple of mini battles with the North Sea, which destroyed the Northern end, it now proves its worth daily


Thirty acres of land East of our original car park was purchased that takes in much of the wartime firing range, and is known to us as the Tank Range. The clearance of this area revealed evidence of the military activities of those years including a huge quantity of barbed wire which did its best to wreck our reed clutter. The reeds of this area are now incorporated into our reed bed management, whilst the meadow is being developed as a wet grazing meadow.  A small part of this area was utilised as a car park extension.


During the winter, the West Bank Hide was dismantled and an enlarged hide built with improved facility for telescope users. It was then named the Island Hide.


In February, spring tides, backed by strong Northerly winds, removed much of the remaining dunes between Tern Hide and the boardwalk, whilst the dunes to the West of the boardwalk began to be eaten away.  The Tern Hide was isolated at high tides and was virtually doomed. It was dismantled and the remains lie behind the small remaining ‘high’ dune.


The Visitor Centre was extended with the provision of a suite of offices, a well-designed workshop, and a redesigned shop and information centre. The servery was opened and immediately became very popular.


Due to the continually changing beach levels, the tank hulls were almost covered over and a nearby channel grew winder and deeper, whilst continuing to expose more tubular steel scaffolding used in anti-tank defences. Spring tides of late 1998 and early 1999 re-exposed the tank hulls, filled in the channel and created another in quite a different direction.


Through the autumn and winter of 1989/1999, much work was carried out at the rear of the Visitor Centre to create a walkway through the willow carr area to a new hide overlooking the freshwater reed bed and the grazing meadow to the East.  The Fen Hide, as it has been named, was opened in February and the pool in front of it reprofiled and enlarged in September. Midway along the path another pool has been created specifically for dragonflies