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The history of Dunwich Heath

A soldier standing in front of the coastal gun battery at Dunwich Heath during the Second World war
A soldier standing in front of the coastal gun battery at Dunwich Heath during the Second World War | © IWM H4335

You will be surprised to know that this quiet little corner of Suffolk has had a less than quiet past, involving smugglers, coastguards, the east coast war channel and Operation Kruschen.

Uncovering a turbulent history

Three years of research by volunteer, Richard Symes, 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 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.'

The coastguard cottages before the First World War
The coastguard cottages before the First World War | © National Trust

Finding tranquility

After the war, Dunwich Heath was handed back to its owners, the Dunwich Town Trust, and became an increasingly popular destination for tourists.

By 1968, there were concerns that unregulated camping was damaging the fragile landscape. In addition, the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960, meant that if the Dunwich Town Trust wanted to continue allowing camping at the site, they would need to provide facilities, toilets and water points for visitors. Unwilling to develop Dunwich Heath as a campsite, they decided that the National Trust would be the best organisation to secure the future of this special landscape.

The site became the first property in Suffolk to be purchased through the National Trust Enterprise Neptune Campaign. This important acquisition of around 250 acres and a mile of shingle beach was made possible by a substantial bequest from H.J Heinz Co. Ltd. Their donation was worth £12,000 in 1968, that’s the equivalent of approximately £207,533 today!

On 27 March 1968, a ceremony took place on the heath, formally transferring the site into the care of The National Trust ensuring its preservation for future generations. The Duke of Grafton, Chairman of the East Anglia Regional Committee of The National Trust, unveiled a new National Trust sign with Mr Anthony Beresford, Managing Director of H. J. Heinz Ltd, and Mr Jack Docwra, the first warden of the new nature reserve. The Trust set about restoring areas of traditional heathland and maintaining the characteristic open landscape – ongoing conservation work which continues to the present day.

Dunwich Heath was further extended when 79 acres from Mount Pleasant Farm, north of the main site, was purchased with a donation from Pizza Express in 2002! Their seafood ‘Neptune’ pizza was sold to raise money for the Enterprise Neptune Campaign.

The former arable land is being restored to acid grassland and heather heath, replacing lost habitat and providing new areas for rare breeding birds such as stone curlew and woodlark.

In 2015, a community grant awarded by the WREN Land Acquisition Fund and a further grant from the Enterprise Neptune Campaign enabled The National Trust to purchase a privately owned area of heathland which sat between the main heath and Mount Pleasant Farm.

The continued conservation work by staff and volunteers at Dunwich Heath has been richly rewarded with the success of some key species.

After an absence of nearly 60 years, Dunwich Heath became the first site in East Anglia to record breeding Dartford warblers. Around 35 pairs of these elusive little birds are now resident at Dunwich Heath all year round.

Another major success has been the first successful breeding of stone curlews in 2017. Following failed attempts to breed in previous years, we were delighted to watch their first chick grow and successfully fledge. Dunwich Heath supports many other heathland species; birds such as woodlark and nightjar, and rare insects including antlion, silver-studded blue butterfly and green tiger beetles.

With its gentle slopes of heather reaching to the sea, Dunwich Heath has an enduring charm. In the care of the National Trust, it will continue to provide both an important space for wildlife to thrive and a special place for everybody to enjoy for years to come.

Field of heather, Dunwich Heath, Suffolk
Dunwich Heath is home to three types of heather | © National Trust Images/Justin Minns

Discover our history

In April 2022, a project to bring the heath's past into the spotlight, called Turbulence to Tranquility, culminated in the opening of our two exhibition spaces, interpretation panels, and two trails delving into the history of Dunwich Heath.

When you next visit, pop into Heath Barn to meet the smugglers who made a fortune bringing illicit goods into the country, including John Harvey, head of the Hadleigh gang, and the coastguards who took up station here after the smuggling industry had faltered. Learn about the hard life they led, and the harsh consequences of one coastguard's morals.

The World Wars had a massive impact on the nations history, and Dunwich Heath was no exception. Step into the Seawatch building to discover the vast array of war wrecks lurking off the coast, and the battle both over and under the waves for supremacy in the First World War.

The Second World War had a far greater impact, the early stages seeing the rapid and heavy fortification of the coastline, then in the latter half of the war, the establishment of a huge training area, culminating in Operation Kruschen, a practise run for D-Day and one of the reasons for its stunning success.

Our trails add further to the exhibitions. Adults can follow our history trail to the locations of radar installations, gun batteries, and shooting butts, or children can walk the history discovery trail and see how much they've learned of smugglers, coastguards and world wars. Pick up either trail from the visitor welcome building, or alternatively download the trail and access it on your phone or print it at home:

Wartime trail

Children's discovery trail

Children playing outside coastguard cottages at Dunwich Heath and Beach in Suffolk

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