Watching over our coast

Napoleonic signal station at Roman Camp

Much of Norfolk is bordered by the sea. It 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. Most of those arriving by sea were friendly but some were not!

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, 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 is the site of a Napoleonic coastal signal station. There were earlier signal beacons on or near the site.

Beacons

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 1324 AD money was being paid to maintain an beacon at Roman Camp and there are records of payments for maintenance in the 1650’s and there is 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 beacon(s) 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.
The chain eventually extended from Land's End to Edinburgh, including the Isle of Wight.
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.
Most signal stations used a system of flags, pennants and balls raised on a flag pole to convey messages along the chain of stations to the nearest naval base. By raising various combinations of flags, pennants and balls, different messages could be signalled which were relayed along the line of stations.

The Roman Camp signal station

It 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 Caistor. Caistor 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.

Plan of the Napoleonic War signal station
Plan of the Napoleonic War signal station