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14 February 2011
World War ll anti-tank defences and dunes
Image: David Tipling
Minsmere is known as a wonderful place for wildlife, but there is also a fascinating story of how the landscape has evolved and why it looks like it does today. When exploring the reserve, look out for the medieval chapel and Second World War defences.
The reserve contains the remains of a small chapel on the original site of Leiston Abbey on a low hill above the mere. The chapel and surrounding land is an important Scheduled Ancient Monument, protected by law and managed by us as part of our conservation work.
The only visible remains of the original Premonstratensian Abbey are a small chapel that was thought to have been used until the dissolution in 1537. Research has shown that this chapel was built upon the site of the original church and wider precinct of Leiston Abbey which was founded in 1182 by Ranulf de Glanville, Lord Chief Justice to King Henry II.
The Abbey was moved to its current location 2 miles away in 1363, and these ruins can still be seen today. Geophysical survey has shown that buried remains include cloisters, living quarters and many other buildings, now preserved for the long term by reversion from arable cultivation to pasture.
Grant aided by English Heritage and Natural England, the RSPB has stabilised and restored the chapel to preserve it for the future and we hope to install interpretation and allow public access during 2011.
By the 20th century, the mere had been drained for agriculture. Local stories record that the area behind the coastal dunes was re-flooded during World War Two as a way of defending against coastal invasion - a tactic that was used at many such locations in East Anglia.
Research by RSPB staff has found aerial photos of Minsmere taken by the Luftwaffe during the mooted invasion period of summer 1940. These photos indeed show a recently drowned agricultural landscape and the hurried construction of a 'coastal crust' of concrete and barbed wire defences.
A row of anti-tank cubes, can still be seen on the coastal dunes. One of these has the following words carved on top 'Wimpey Defence Line 1940' In a ruse to camouflage defences from aerial observation, a pillbox was constructed within the ruin of the medieval chapel - this is now an important monument in its own right and is also being conserved for the future.
This historical flooding was the first step in restoring biodiversity to the reserve that ultimately led to RSPB starting to manage the site in 1947, the same year in which avocets first bred at Minsmere - the first time for 100 years such an event had occurred in the UK.
Our work today is ensuring that Minsmere remains one of the UK's premier places to watch wildlife, including many rare and threatened species.
Metal detecting and the collection and removal of objects from the reserve is not permitted.