Hidden history to be revealed at Dunwich Heath

Coastal gun battery looking over the sea at Dunwich Heath, Suffolk, 1940s
Published : 24 Oct 2019 Last update : 31 Jul 2020

From stories of smugglers and shipping routes to a pivotal role in the success of the D-Day landings, the little-known history of one of Suffolk’s coastal beauty spots is set to be revealed. After extensive research, the history of Dunwich Heath and Beach will be told for the first time thanks to a new National Trust project.

The £20,000 project, called Turbulence to Tranquillity, will see the Trust develop new experiences, events, guides and trails that tell the fascinating story of Dunwich Heath. The project has won the support of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, which has awarded a £10,000 grant to enable it to go ahead. The remainder of the funds will come from the support of National Trust members and donors, whilst a private donor has given £5,000.

Three years of research by volunteer, Richard Symes, has uncovered tales of 18th century illegal brandy and tobacco smuggling, revealed the lives of the coastguard families who lived in the cottages during the 19th century and found how First World War trawlermen cleared mines to keep a vital supply route open. Years later the heath would become a militarised zone and one of the most heavily defended parts of Suffolk during the Second World War. 

It was here at Dunwich Heath that one of the most significant military exercises to prepare for the D-Day landings took place. Named Operation Kruschen, the exercise was designed to test ways that German defences could be breached to allow successful landings by Allied troops into occupied Europe. The operation, which took place in 1943, saw a complete mock German defensive position constructed, including trenches and minefields as well as barbed wire, pillboxes, weapon-pits and anti-tank measures. 

Richard has pulled together these significant parts of Dunwich Heath’s history to help visitors discover these fascinating stories for the first time: “Some years ago whilst having tea in the Coastguard Cottages tea room I wondered who had lived there. I have since spent time researching the last 300 years of Dunwich Heath and have discovered who those people were and what they witnessed.”

Nick Collinson, General Manager for the National Trust in East Suffolk said: 
“Dunwich Heath is rightly well known for its beautiful landscape together with diverse and fascinating wildlife populations. But whilst the history here is no secret, our research has also found that many people are not aware of what has happened in the past and that there is a real appetite to find out more. People have been incredibly proud of hear of the role Dunwich played in preparing for the D-Day landings and so we’re really pleased to be able to develop new and exciting ways to tell these stories and more, thanks to support from National Lottery players.”

Work is now underway to develop the new experiences at Dunwich Heath, with guided walks, new trails and displays all in the plans.

" I have discovered smuggling, artists, shipwrecks, the world’s most advanced electronics, tank battles, love, heartbreak and defiance against the government. The Heath has been dug up, cut down, shot over, built on, tided up and much adored. I have been astounded by the extraordinary events this place has witnessed."
- Richard Symes