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History of West Runton and Beeston Regis Heath

A Spring day looking towards the sea through tress at West Runton
Spring-looking towards the sea | © National Trust Images/Olga Ingram

Take a walk through West Runton and Beeston Regis Heath and you'll see several clues that hint at its history. Learn more about what has been discovered in this area, from pits dug out to obtain iron ore to a Napoleonic War-era coastal signal station.

The creation of Cromer Ridge

If you stand near the old signal station (adjacent to the main car park), you are approximately 100 metres above sea level, at one of the highest points of the Cromer Ridge. This is a massive glacial feature that dominates the topography of North Norfolk.

The Anglian glaciation

This once treeless and barren ground was nothing but dirty ice, gaining in height and thickness as it extended beyond the northern horizon. It was cut by numerous crevasses and disgorged torrents of turgid meltwater at its margin. This was the edge of the continental ice sheet towards the end of the Anglian glaciation of around 430,000 years ago.

West Runton and Beeston Regis Heath, Incleborough Hill and Town Hill are all part of the Cromer Ridge, which is an east-west feature that extends from Mundesley on the coast in the east. It then runs just south of Cromer and Sheringham parallel with the coast and continues inland to Holt before fading out near Thursford in the west.

The ridge is steeper on its northern side where it was touched directly by the ice sheet, but its gradient slopes more gently to the south where the landscape was formed of sediments laid down as outwash from glacial streams.

The ice sheet's reach

At its maximum, the Anglian ice sheet reached as far as south as North London but as it waned it retreated northwards, pausing for a long time in North Norfolk and creating the Cromer Ridge. Despite this standstill, a succession of advances from the north and from the west bulldozed glacial debris up into what – in geomorphological terms – is part push moraine and part terminal moraine.

During subsequent glacial-interglacial cycles the ice never again approached the ridgeline, but the accompanying Arctic conditions helped to sculpt the landform into what you see today.

Iron smelting at West Runton

Dotted around the property there are several roughly circular shallow pits. They range in size from 2–8 metres wide and they're up to 1 metre deep.

At one time, these pits were thought to be prehistoric dwellings. However, excavation in 1964 provided evidence that the pits were dug to obtain iron ore. Fragments of Thetford Ware pottery discovered during the dig were dated to the late Saxon period, c. AD 850–1150.

Archaeological investigations found that some pits had traces of charcoal. Lumps of slag were discovered nearby. It is assumed that these were sites where the iron ore was smelted, using the wind blowing over the hilltop to help get the charcoal in the furnaces up to the necessary temperature.

Shrieking pits

These pits were once sometimes called shrieking pits. No one really knows how they got this name. Some think it is because the wind made a noise when blowing over the tops of the pits, a bit like the noise made by blowing across the top of a bottle.

Evidence to look out for

You may come across lumps of slag remaining after the iron ore had been smelted. You can see the iron slag left over from the smelting process in many places, including the cairn to the right of the main path, about 50 yards (46 metres) west of the car park. Some local churches have the iron in their walls.

Spring at West Runton, Norfolk from seat towards the sea
Spring at West Runton, Norfolk from seat towards the sea | © National Trust Images/Justin Minns

Watching over the coast

Much of Norfolk is bordered by the sea, and is relatively isolated from the rest of England. Before the 20th century the road system left much to be desired and, until the advent of the railways, the sea was the main means of communication with the rest of the country and beyond.

All along the coast there are signs of activities aimed at protecting the inhabitants from unwanted visitors. These date from Roman times (or even earlier) through to the Second World War. The highest spots were chosen for keeping watch and Roman Camp is one of the highest points in Norfolk.

The earthworks, a few yards north of the car park, provide evidence that local people did whatever they could to deter unwelcome visitors, or at least to make themselves aware of hostile would-be invaders from the sea. Once any danger was spotted, a message would be sent as quickly as possible to neighbouring places. The earthworks are the site of a Napoleonic War-era coastal signal station. There were also earlier signal beacons on or near the site.


From the Roman times, and probably earlier, beacons have been used to raise the alarm – particularly at times of threatened invasion. Only a relatively small number of messages could be sent and if the visibility was poor the signal might not be seen. They were usually erected on the highest suitable land and within sight of the adjacent beacons in the line of beacons.

As long ago as AD 1324 money was being paid to maintain a beacon at Roman Camp. There are records of payments for maintenance in the 1650s and there is also a record of a beacon being here in 1608. There would almost certainly been a beacon here at the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The exact location of the beacons at Roman Camp is not certain but they were probably near the earthworks.

Napoleonic Wars coastal signal station

During the Napoleonic Wars (1799–1815), the coastal signal station at Roman Camp was built as part of a network of stations designed to keep watch for possible invasion.

It is probable that a main function of the stations was receiving and passing on messages from naval ships. But keeping a watch for possible invaders remained an important function.

The Roman Camp signal station

The signal station at Roman Camp was operational by 1804 and was part of a local chain stretching from Holkham to Caister. Stations were also built at Holkham, Blakeney, Salthouse Hill, Cromer, Trimingham, Happisburgh, Winterton and Caister. Caister linked to Great Yarmouth, which was an important naval port.

If necessary, a message could be sent from Great Yarmouth to the Admiralty in London using the line of telegraph stations between Great Yarmouth and London. Once the Napoleonic War ended the signal station was no longer used.

Family looking at the view from the bench near the trig point at West Runton, Norfolk

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